Of Classics and Canons

13:20



To help me read the books I already own, I’ve been getting audio book versions of things from the library and listening to them during my copious amounts of driving time. As it turns out, I’ve started the year with some of the ‘classics’. And it’s got me thinking about what makes a classic and how something maintains appeal throughout generations. 

So far this year I’ve listened to The Wizard of Oz, Treasure Island, The Jungle Book and Peter Pan. None of which I’ve read before (or have any memory have having them read to me). So, as I am in the infancy of my Thirties, I may have had a different reaction to children who are recently out of their actual infancy.

Without turning this post into an in depth critical review of these, I’ll mention my impressions of each one.

The Wizard of Oz: I can see why this still has appeal. I quite enjoyed Dorothy’s adventures and the friends she makes along the way. The way the plot unfolded reminded me a lot of Jack Bickham’s Scene and Sequel. It involves establishing a story question (Dorothy’s quest to get home) and how trouble is constantly met along the way (the episodic setbacks the merry group come up against). There are also critiques that wonder at a girl being thrust into a strange and beautiful land, full of colour that is so very different to the grey, dreary world of home who so instantly and ceaselessly works towards getting back there. But anyway, the world building was good, if a little two dimensional. 

 

Treasure Island: This was fantastic and I totally understood why it’s stood the test of time. It is a great story filled with action, adventure, suspense, and moral ambiguity. On top of that, Jasper Britton did such a brilliant job of reading it that if I ever read it again, I’ll be attributing all the voices in my head to him. 

The Jungle Book: The world of animals comes so colourfully alive this is definitely worth a place on the classics shelf. And, I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t realise that it was more than just the story of Mowgli, and I was equally engrossed with all the other tales. The final one, ‘Her Majesty’s Servants’ did leave a little bit of a “know your station and stick to it” smack in my mouth, but overall the collection is wonderful.

And lastly, Peter Pan.
Oh Peter Pan. 

This is one that I very much disliked and found that I was horrified repeatedly on a number of different levels. 

Even if you could forgive the appalling gender politics, attributing them to the time in which they were written (which is a hard task for anyone who even remotely thinks of females as equals), I struggle to see how Peter is the idolised ever-young hero-boy of common opinion that has placed him among the classics. Yes, is a forever a boy, but not only has he acquired some of the worst attributes of solipsistic childhood, I would go so far as to label him a tyrannical despot. Everything must go his way, if it does not, he either sulks miserably or disregards the opinions of others entirely. One of the most horrifying discoveries of my experience of the original novel was that the Lost Boys were not only at threat from the pirates and general natural forces on Neverland, but Peter himself was prone to bumping a few off when they no-longer fit his position description:


“The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out”


Even Tinker Bell, the fairy, has blood on her hands. So jealous is she of Wendy stealing Peter’s attention that the first thing she does on their arrival to Neverland is plot the girl’s death:


“Tink's reply rang out: ‘Peter wants you to shoot the Wendy.’"


Yes, perhaps I’m reading this “children’s” story with my adult hat on, but that is how I read all children’s literature. Because if it’s not good enough for adults to read, why should children have to suffer through it? And maybe children might gloss over the parts that I take offence to, but when so much of it riled me (I didn’t even bother searching for quotes for this post where the gender assumptions were whack, just open to any page and I’m sure you’ll find something) what does that leave to be absorbed subconsciously? 

 

I was even mentioning my thoughts to a bookseller one day when a customer walked in the door and heard the words ‘Peter Pan’ and he said, “We love Peter Pan! Don’t you dare say a bad word about him.” I couldn’t help but think, have you read it lately? Or read the original at all?

I will admit that I haven’t seen the Disney version since I was young myself, but as far as I can remember it’s one of the few stories they have improved in their quest to make it family friendly and marketable.

All of this has led me to think about “Classics” and Canon building. I’ve always been drawn to the ‘Classics’ section of a bookshop. But why is that? Is it because there is a general assumption that no childhood should be without these stories? I’ve listed four in this one post that were not consciously a part of mine, other than the film adaptions. So how do things make the cut? As far as I can see, sustained popularity is first and foremost. But for how long? And when does that popularity change from a genuine love to a sense of duty. Surely you’ve had someone say to you about a book or a movie “You’ve got to love that! It’s a classic!” 

Do I? Do I have to love something because there’s the expectation that it’s been around long enough, that it deserves our adoration?
And… Who decides this?

A little while back, there was a bit of hoo-ha when The Times released their lists of ‘The 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time’ and ‘The100 Best Children’s Books of All Time.’ There were people like Molly Wetta who looked very closely at these lists and thought about what it meant. 

I don’t want to crack open that particular can-o-worms again, but it is all tied together. Because this is an individual media outlet releasing what they clearly state as ‘The Best’. It adds to the collective consciousness without being clear about who or what is being privileged. 

So, what do I think about all of this? I think I will always be drawn to classics sections. They tend to have beautiful books with high production values and talented illustrators. None of these things are bad. But that doesn’t mean – has never meant – that other sections of the store don’t contain better written or more interesting stories. I think that a personal canon is more interesting than those that try and capture the opinion of a nation because that only silences minorities. So make a list, I say. A mental one, a written one, a blogged one. It doesn’t matter. But think about the titles that you have read that you connected with, would readily recommend to friends and family, would keep on your shelf through space constraints and moving house, plan on sharing with your (or other’s) children when they are old enough for them. These may be titles written over a hundred years ago, or they may have hit the new releases shelves this week. If they are worth remembering, they’re a classic. 

What's your #PersonalCanon ?

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