Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Impact of a Classic

Among my favorite gadgets is my Sony S2 Walkman. It's lightweight, and I can wear it on an armband or waistband or in a pocket. It carries radio and weather bands as well as TV channels.

I first purchased the Walkman so that I could listen to NPR while I was gardening. However, now, three years later, I wear it almost all the time when I'm outside of the house and by myself.

I say all this because I listened to NPR's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" Sunday afternoon while I was running errands. Every time I checked out of a store line or stopped to talk to a clerk, I was forced to lower the volume of the radio. I missed whole chunks of the program (and haven't yet gone back and downloaded it on

That said, the subject of Sunday's program was "What Makes a Classic?" The episode opened with Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." They also talked about the infamous novel, Lolita.

Anne Strainchamps interviewed the daughter of Clifton Fadiman, a book reviewer who worked for the New York Times and judged books for The Book of the Month Club. Reviewing Gertrude Stein, he once said that she was "a past master at making nothing happen very slowly." Ouch.

I knew who Fadiman was because, when I turned nine years old, one of my eight aunts gave me a copy of Jane Eyre for my birthday. The foreward was by Clifton Fadiman. About once a year, I would pick that book up and try to read it. Each year, I started by reading that foreward by Clifton Fadiman. I had no idea who he was; I just wanted to read the freaking book. I found the novel deadly until I was about fourteen when I had a complete change of heart. I fell in love with it. I still have that copy of Jane Eyre and still remember Clifton Fadiman.

Fadiman once said: "When you read a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in YOU than there was before.”

That is certainly true of my relationship with Jane Eyre. I've re-read that book half a dozen times over my lifetime. Every time, I find something new that I didn't remember from before--because I wasn't in a place where I could appreciate that particular page before.

Host Jim Fleming also spoke of Waiting for Godot, the absurdist play written in French by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. The Theatre of the Absurd movement was avant garde, French and popular in the '50s. Absurdist plots often seem nonsensical or meaningless; hence, the name "absurdist" (duh!). The scenes are frequently repetitive or ambiguous.

Waiting for Godot is a great example. Both acts are repetitive in structure. Two somewhat ragged men arrive at a place where they wait for Godot. It's unclear who Godot is, or why they are waiting. Two more men join them and then leave. The ragged men wait until a boy arrives to say that Godot will not arrive today, but perhaps tomorrow.

The second act is a virtual recreation of the first except that, when the second two men arrive, one is now blind and the other mute--for no explained reason. The boy once more comes to say that Godot will not arrive today.

When I first read the play and had to write an interpretation for class, I saw it as a religious allegory where Godot stood for God, a naturalistic and uninvolved deity.

My teacher proposed that the play was instead intended to speak of the meaninglessness and monotonous repetition of life. I resisted this interpretation because it was too much of a downer for a sixteen-year-old on the very brink of that life. However, I remembered that interpretation the first time I actually saw the play performed when I was closing in on thirty-five. By then, I was more open to my teacher's interpretation. :)

The radio program proposed that a classic should transcend its setting, scenery or the costumes of the characters. A classic should speak of universal themes that anyone reading, viewing or listening to it can extrapolate to find meaning in their own lives. The themes of Othello resonate no matter what time period or setting a director might ascribe to it.

Does your novel have a theme? More importantly, can you identify it?

1 comment:

Emjay said...

I remember Clifton Fadiman very well indeed.

It was a time where there was only one of things.

And Fadiman was the only one.

Jane Eyre is one of my very favorite books also.