A classic, said Mark Twain impishly, is something we all want to have read but nobody wants to read. While many book-lovers can never quite find the time to work their way through War and Peace, Paradise Lost, Crime and Punishment or The Divine Comedy, most of us still harbour the idea that there’s a fairly well recognised western literary canon comprising an array of durable masterpieces. Even if we accept the theoretical point that a book’s traditional reputation doesn’t simply reflect its inherent merits, we like to think that certain books have earned a classic status. Where does this notion come from?
Italo Calvino remarks that each of us through our individual reading trajectories will gradually “invent our own ideal libraries of classics.” No doubt that’s true. But for most readers, in our most impressionable years, publishers’ branding is the main source of the notion that some books deserve special prestige. Things may have changed in recent times as the publishing industry evolves, but when I was a teenager, trying to get a handle on what constituted Great Literature, my perception was largely shaped by several series of books that carried the label “Classic.”
There was, for example, the World’s Classics library of pocket-sized hardbacks from Oxford University Press – what could seem more authoritative than that? Other influential lines from British publishers were Penguin Modern Classics (I still have my battered copy of Joyce’s Dubliners in that format), Dent’s Everyman Library (where I met Pater’s Marius the Epicurean and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) and a bit later Virago Modern Classics devoted to women writers. American publishers offered Signet Classics (I first read Dickens’s Hard Times in that paperback edition), Bantam Literature (including Melville’s Moby Dick – a bantam whale?), Random House’s Modern Library Giants (introducing me to James’s Portrait of a Lady) and books in the Rinehart series such as Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
Many titles recurred across these lists, so with a number of different publishers agreeing that X was worth inclusion among their selected classics, who was I to doubt its status?
And besides, the process of instructing me in what was classic had begun earlier – before I’d opened any of those books. It began with the pictorial adaptations known as Classic Comics (later as Classics Illustrated). These had been appearing since 1941 but they were still flourishing when I was a youngster, and I devoured them.
In those days there was a lot of harrumphing about the reading of comics, with dire forecasts that they would lead to a rapid decline in literacy. Well, I don’t think I was harmed by Walt Disney or Batman comics – and certainly not by Classic Comics, which not only made me aware of wonderful stories from times past, among them such masterpieces as Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White, but also gave me a burning desire to read them eventually in their full big-book form.
There’s something else, too, that I remember happily from those days of comic-book reading. As none of us had much pocket money, the pleasures of reading were inseparable from the rituals of exchange: when we’d read our comics, we swapped them for other comics in a system of bartering with friends. So we didn’t read in isolation, like Robinson Crusoe. We were reading in a context of active sociability. Perhaps it was that experience that first sparked my interest in the complex relationships between swapping and storytelling – which eventually led to my venture into literary theory with the (recently reissued) book Narrative Exchanges. I have a lot to be grateful for when I recall Classic Comics.