Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?

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Miriam Markowitz

The idea that some classics “should be retired” or “are talked about too much” doesn’t sit right with me. I would never advise someone not to read a classic — I’m not in the business of advising people not to read books. A lot of books are dated, but their time may come again. Classics are classics for a reason even if not all of those reasons, or the books themselves, are truly good.

A book may not speak to you; that doesn’t mean it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are entire national traditions I find a little boring, but I wouldn’t dare defame them here, and not just because I’m scared of angry professors and pedants, but because it’s possible that I may not really get those traditions, at least not right now.

Books change for readers over time. There’s this bizarre notion out there that if you consider yourself a Serious Reader you must read everything that matters by the time you’re 25, at which point you must be able to articulate an intelligent, coherent, and defensible opinion about each of the titles you have so dutifully digested. After that, all you need do is spend the rest of your life repeating this process with new books and — presto! — you are a person of letters.

But reading a book when you’re 25 isn’t the same experience as reading it when you’re 45 or 85, and if all you read as an adult are new books, you will forget the cadences of the old. This may sound crazy, but the more you read, the better a reader you will become, but only if you push yourself beyond what’s trendy or fun or your kind of thing. If you return to the books you loved and also to the books you didn’t, you will likely be surprised. Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?

Miriam Markowitz is associate literary editor of The Nation and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her most recent essay, Here Comes Everybody,” is about about old books, women and publishing, VIDA, MFA programs, Miley Cyrus, and Syria. Follow her on Twitter @MiriMarkow.