I used to work in a bookstore. Nice place: lots of books, lots of customers, lots of aggravation. Customers would come to the information desk, seeking guidance, seeking approval, seeking directions to the restroom, or seeking a good book.
I’m not sure why they trusted me with their literary needs. Presumably, the fact that the bookstore had hired me suggested I had some literary inside knowledge, like a teller who knows the inside workings of a bank. Certainly it wasn’t my looks that suggested I knew much.
For a time I had specific responsibilities ordering and shelving books for the adult fiction section, and was the employee the others would quickly point to when customers wanted adult fiction recommendations. Note that the word “adult” here does not mean the same thing it does in your local red light district, although many of the books did have rather naughty words in them, many of them verbs.
Customers seeking my guidance in the fiction section were generally split into four types: those who wanted something new, because they had read everything old, or thought they had; those who wanted some specific item but could only remember one bit of information, like its color, leading to a spirited round of “Stump the Bookseller!”; those who wanted me simply to suggest something flavorful; and shoplifters.
Of all the categories, my favorite were young people taking their first tentative strides into the fearsome stacks of Serious Literature, or their aunts – who often came in on their behalves.
Surely you mean uncles as well as aunts? Well, no, not really. Women read more than men do, shop more than men do, and shepherd youngsters into adulthood more than men do. I say this as a man who buys books for his nephews and nieces – but still, guys like me are rare exceptions. I’m not saying I’m better than other men, it’s just that our society has long promoted gender roles in which – alright, fine, I’m saying I’m better than other men.
The aunts had taken on a complex responsibility. They had charged themselves – and me, by extension – with the awesome task of Not Messing Up.
They wanted the young ones to start right, so that they would not be scared away. This was preparation for a lifetime of literature and the pressure not to mess it up was, well, very pressury. They wanted me to find them books that would stimulate the thinking of the young person. They wanted books that would make the young person fully aware that they had left the world of juvenile literature behind, that these were works of a grave maturity. And yet they wanted something light enough not to intimidate the young ones. In fact, bonus points were awarded for something funny. They didn’t want anything too ancient, because they thought that their young relatives would not have the patience to wade their way through plodding old books in which none of the characters even has a cell phone. They didn’t want anything too new, because it hadn’t been vetted. No, they wanted something that I had read and could not only recommend, but could reliably describe as something many others had read and enjoyed.
In others words, they wanted modern classics.
The phrase is a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? “Modern classics” - it’s a bit like “ancient baby,” isn’t it? Haven’t you ever seen babies sporting wise yet cantankerous looks that made them seem like smooth-skinned octogenarians?
Modern classics in literature are like that – smooth skinned, young, yet with a sense of longevity. But what is a modern classic?
Let’s define the term a bit more closely. Esther Lombardi, About.com’s resident classic literature guide, offers this handy definition of classic:
“A classic usually expresses some artistic quality--an expression of life, truth, and beauty.
A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic. A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings--partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature.”
That’s as good a definition of a classic as you’ll find. But what is a “modern classic?” And can it meet all the above criteria?