In Literature, What Makes a Classic?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
If you're a dedicated browser of secondhand bookstores, you've probably come across the volumes of the Everyman's Library; small, beautifully bound hard covers that each feature this statement on the title page: Everyman, I will go with thee and be thy guide in thy most need to go by thy side.
The Library is a literary treasure that includes more than a thousand titles, from Austen to Dickens to Marcus Aurelius. In 1906, the Everyman Library was practically a philanthropic mission. Its founder, Joseph Malaby Dent, called it a democratic library at the democratic price of one shilling.
A hundred years later, the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf re-launched the Library, though it set prices a bit higher than one shilling. Along the way, though, Knopf acquired the question inherent to the Library: What belongs in a modern Everyman edition? What constitutes a classic? This hour we'll talk with the publisher and head of Knopf about those questions. We'll also talk with authors Joan Didion and Z.Z. Packers about what they think makes a classic.
Later on in the program we'll talk with the authors of the book “Impounded,” which if you'd like to take a look at some of the previously unreleased photos of World War II American interment camps, you can go to our Web page at npr.org.
But first, what is a classic and what isn't? How do you tell a literary lion from a mere cub, and what books get overlooked? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: email@example.com.
Joining us now from the BBC studios in New York is the chairman and publisher of Knopf, Sonny Mehta. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. SONNY MEHTA (Chairman and Publisher, Alfred A. Knopf): It's nice to be here.
CONAN: The original Everyman Library was a rather remarkable achievement that began a hundred years ago. Tell us a little bit about its original mission.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, it was started in February 1906 by Joseph Dent, who was a kind of a master London bookbinder turned publisher and was a classic Victorian autodidact. He was the 10th child of a housepainter in Darlington, who left school at the age of 13 and arrived in London and decided that he wanted to have a library that basically - of beautiful books that encompassed all that was lasting in literature. And his ambition was that for a few shillings the reader may have a whole bookshelf of the immortals. For five pounds, he will procure him 100 volumes and that a man may be intellectually rich for life.
CONAN: And as he went about this - now he's not an academic, he's not somebody familiar with even the book publishing business - how did he decide what was a classic and what wasn't?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, I think he and his son, and they had an extremely gifted editor who was instrumental I think in helping the books be chosen; a man called Ernest Rhys, who essentially edited the complete Library until his death. And they made some choices that might be considered sort of eccentric now but I think the first British author to have a complete works included in the Everyman Library was Jane Austen.
CONAN: And not Shakespeare?
Mr. MEHTA: No, it was Jane Austen, I believe, to have the complete works.
Mr. MEHTA: Shakespeare was probably - was there very early on, but The Complete Jane Austen I think was the first complete set published. He was followed by Dickens with an introduction by C.K. Chesterton. Then came the great sort of Europeans - Dostoyevsky, Rabelais, Rousseau, Flaubert, Stendhal - and then the near contemporaries - Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Conrad, DH Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf - and a host of people in-between who really aren't read as frequently as the authors I've just mentioned.
CONAN: Now when you took over this imprint you had some decisions to make yourself. Now I assume some of these relate to questions like what can I get the rights to, but other than that, if it was an open intellectual question, how do you define a classic?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, there are probably as many definitions about what makes a classic I think as classics. Actually, I think it was Mark Twain who described it as a book, which people praise and don't read.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: But the one I feel closest to is Clifton Fadiman's. And he 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.
CONAN: I guess by Twain's definition, it would be “A Brief History of Time” would qualify as a classic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: Well, yes. I can think of some others, too, as a matter of fact.
CONAN: Are there any that you've looked at and said, you know, maybe later, but not right now.
Mr. MEHTA: Yes, I mean we are considering books all the time. We have a Web site that we encourage people to send in their suggestions. And we've had some very interesting suggestions, some of which actually have had - you know, pertain to books that we actually had in the pipeline, like say Paul Scott's “The Raj Quartet.”
Mr. MEHTA: But there have been some others that we haven't acted on. Like for instance there was a suggestion quite recently that we consider Jeffrey(ph) Felsen 1950 bestseller “Hot Rod.” I don't know whether you've come across that.
CONAN: I seemed to have missed it in my education, yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MEHTA: It's a huge bestseller through the '50s, and we don't think we're quite ready for that yet.
CONAN: We're going to want your suggestions on both classics that might be considered and on the question what constitutes a classic. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
But first, let's welcome Joan Didion to the conversation. Her new-collected book of nonfiction has been released as part of the Knopf Everyman series. It's called “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” and she joins us from her home in New York. And it's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.
Ms. JOAN DIDION: (Author, Essayist): It's nice to be here.
CONAN: Now you've been included in the pantheon of nonfiction in the Everyman Library. It's - I guess you can go to bed happy.
Ms. DIDION: Well, it's a little daunting, I have to say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: It was an exciting thing.
CONAN: How do you think the decisions ought to be made? I don't know if you...
Ms. DIDION: You know, I don't even know what a classic is. It seems to me that basically what you're talking about at any given time, you're always going to end up with things that are going to seem eccentric to later generations.
Ms. DIDION: But there's a certain body of knowledge at any given time, certain shared narratives and shared information that if you - theoretically, if you had a collection of books, you would - and you read - and everybody read all those, we would all share some knowledge.
Ms. DIDION: And we would share some values maybe, and - but it's - so it's kind of something you feel as you go along.
CONAN: Now you know Sonny Mehta, and I wonder do you call him up every once in awhile after you see a new edition in a bookstore and said you've got to be kidding.
Ms. DIDION: No, I've never done that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: No, I feel - generally, it seems to me the choices have been quite good.
CONAN: And as you say, it must be daunting to have your own work included in such a list.
Ms. DIDION: Well, yes, it is. The other thing about Everyman's Library is basically it seems to me that most of the books in it have crossed two generations, which I hesitate to say is now true of my early work. It has now been read by two generations, and that's basically all we're talking about, I think.
CONAN: And, Sonny Mehta, all of the stuff that we were talking about initially was fiction. Obviously, Joan Didion's nonfiction work is what you've included here.
Mr. MEHTA: In this particular volume, yes. This is just nonfiction. But I think Dent set out not just to publish fiction. He did publish nonfiction, too. I'm thinking about Lord Chesterfield's letters to his grandson, for instance.
Mr. MEHTA: There was a great deal of nonfiction because - and, you know, there will be more in the Everyman that we're currently working on.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener on the line, and this is Brook(ph). Brook joins us from Oklahoma City.
BROOK (Caller): (Unintelligible) How are you guys today?
BROOK: Great. I'm an English teacher, and oftentimes I'm dialoguing with folks on the Advanced Placement Web site, and we often have the conversation about a book's literary merit. And I was wondering if our guests saw the literary merit and classic as interchangeable terms or if they're different terms.
CONAN: What do you think, Joan Didion?
Ms. DIDION: Well, as I say, I have trouble defining classic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: So I don't know. I mean obviously I think...
BROOK: (Unintelligible) great fights about what literary merit is, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: ...something - I mean we do want literary merit, I think, all of us.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. DIDION: There was a book that was in the - sort of in the - it was high school reading at the time I was in high school. And at the time it was nationwide. It was a book that - it was Giants in the Earth, it was called. It was by a Norwegian named Rolvaag.
Ms. DIDION: And it was - and I had a - it was a - basically it was about American immigration, but it all took place in the Midwest. It was equally mystifying to me in Sacramento and to my husband, who was also assigned it in West Hartford, Connecticut. I mean certain books are assigned because they reflect a societal value.
CONAN: So no threat, Sonny Mehta, that Giants in the Earth is going to be the next edition in the Everyman's Library.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, I did in fact buy it about eight months after I came to work in America, which was about 18 years ago. I was traveling and someone had taken me I think it was Seattle, and we were making a progress across that sector, sort of visiting bookstores. And I bought a copy of that because everyone told me it was a classic. I'm still reading it.
Ms. DIDION: That's - it's...
(Soundbite of laughter)
BROOK: For enjoyment or just (unintelligible).
CONAN: Savoring every word, I take it.
Mr. MEHTA: Absolutely.
CONAN: Yes. Brook, thanks very much for the call.
BROOK: Thank you. Great show.
CONAN: Good luck with your class.
BROOK: Thank you.
CONAN: And, Joan Didion, we wanted to thank you very much for being with us today.
Ms. DIDION: Well, thank you.
CONAN: Joan Didion, her collected nonfiction, “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live,” is one of six new releases in Knopf's Everyman's Library. And we'll be back with Sonny Mehta and more of your calls after a short break. If you'd like to joins us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail: email@example.com.
I'm Neal Conan. This is the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
We're talking today about what makes a classic with somebody who should know: Sonny Mehta, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, the publishing company which puts out now the Everyman's Library series. The introductions to all the books in the Everyman series are commissioned especially for those editions. To read A.S. Byatt's introduction to Toni Morrison's “Beloved,” you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk. And of course we want your ideas on what makes a classic and what doesn't. Give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let's turn to Mark(ph). Mark's with us from Paddle Creek or Battle Creek, Michigan. Is that it?
MARK (Caller): Battle Creek (unintelligible).
CONAN: Home of Kellogg's. Go ahead.
MARK: That's right. Well, to me a classic is a book that deals with a classic meta-theme very well, and I think of James Agee's A Death in the Family. You know, to me that was a quintessential story about a young man who, you know, had a emerging relationship with his father and how it was cut short and, you know, the tragedy about that, only to be mirrored in real life by James Agee's own tragedy as he died before the book was finished. So I wonder how you feel about that, the idea of a classic being defined by how it treats a classic theme.
Mr. MEHTA: Well, it is an absolutely wonderful book. I still remember it from when I read it as a much younger person. I think a classic always has - is built around themes that remain sort of quintessentially sort of memorable, and frequently more than one theme. And that was a remarkable book and it is built around one quintessential theme. That is absolutely right.
CONAN: Well, maybe you've given James Agee (unintelligible).
Mr. MEHTA: And actually, you know, I think James Agee probably does deserve a place in any classic collection.
CONAN: Mark, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
MARK: Sure, yeah.
CONAN: Let's go to - this'll be David, David with us from St. Joseph, Missouri.
DAVID (Caller): Yes, I had a question regarding science fiction. Is there any science fiction novels that are part of the classic collection that we speak of, or is it vacant of those?
Mr. MEHTA: Not yet, but I can think of some science fiction writers who definitely should be inside (unintelligible).
DAVID: Yeah, that was kind of my comment was that it seems oftentimes science fiction is snubbed when it comes to regarding as a classic, but I think that Frank Herbert's “Dune” and obviously Asimov's “Foundation,” there are probably a few of (unintelligible).
CONAN: Well, some of those are still in print. It might be pricey.
Mr. MEHTA: I agree with you, absolutely. Then of course there have been classics of futuristic writing from the past that are very much a part of any sort of ongoing classics collection. I'm thinking about H.G. Wells. I'm thinking Jules Verne.
CONAN: Who may not have been great writers themselves, though pretty good and sold a lot of books.
Mr. MEHTA: Right.
CONAN: But nevertheless important creatively.
CONAN: But there are other genres, not just science fiction. I mean would Dashiell Hammett be part of the Everyman series?
Mr. MEHTA: Actually, yes, Dashiell Hammett is. And we're issuing a second volume. Well, we have one volume in print. We're issuing a second volume, which is being introduced by James Ellroy. And we already have Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain.
CONAN: The three biggies of the hardboiled school.
DAVID: Some of the best science fiction, while perhaps not as literary, the themes and the stories behind them, they involve a great deal of, you know, social awareness and a good understanding of the way a culture functions and operates and those sort of things. And, again, I think of Frank Herbert and “Dune” and Asimov and his Foundation series. They (unintelligible)
Mr. MEHTA: I think you're absolutely right.
Mr. MEHTA: And if you have any ideas, please send them in. We can use all the help we can get.
DAVID: Oh, very good. Thank you all very much. Take care.
CONAN: David, thanks very much. And if listeners like David wanted to send their ideas directly to you, how would they do that?
Mr. MEHTA: E-mail is probably the best way of getting hold of me. It's email@example.com.
CONAN: And that's M-E-T - M-E-H-T-A?
Mr. MEHTA: That's right.
CONAN: OK. And all right, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is - if I find the right button - Robert, Robert with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi, thanks for my call.
ROBERT: My comment - my suggested book would be “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I know that it's - after having won the Nobel many may consider it - that it's already a classic, but I fear that future generations may no longer consider it a classic or essential reading as social attitudes change, or at least people's perceptions of common social attitudes will change. I think that a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” is essential reading because it reminds us of some of the injustices that can be taken against the disenfranchised.
Mr. MEHTA: I agree with you. If we could get hold of the rights, I assure we'd have it in the Everyman's Library. But it's - the book has been continuously in print, and it's read all over the world. It's read in India, where I come from. It's read in England, where I worked, and it's read in Australia. It's read where anyone reads the English language.
CONAN: Robert, thanks very much.
ROBERT: You're welcome.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer is a writer and author of the short story collection “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.” She's working on a forthcoming novel about Buffalo Soldiers, and she joins us now from the studios of our member station in San Francisco, KQED. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. Z.Z. PACKER (Author, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”): Nice to be here. Hi, Neal.
Ms. PACKER: Hi, Mr. Mehta.
Mr. MEHTA: Hi.
Ms. PACKER: What do you think makes a classic, ZZ Packer?
Ms. PACKER: I think that there's a reason why writers kind of shy away from the question, because we kind of feel that we're always constantly, you know, trying to maybe write a classic but of course we don't want to admit to having the ego of saying that we actually do.
It's very difficult. I think that the terminology has changed just over the centuries. I mean it used to be that in a university that literature itself, just as a, you know, a realm of study, was considered kind of a bastard sort of stepchild to the actual classics, meaning like the Greeks and the Latin...
CONAN: Right, yeah.
Ms. PACKER: ...and that kind of thing. And now the very things that would have been considered just (unintelligible) sort of entertainments back then, like, you know, the things I had to read that I fell asleep reading - like Clarissa and Shamela and Pamela and all those things - are I guess by some people still considered classics.
But the way I usually think of it is, you know, just something that - a piece of literature that speaks across generations and often times deals with truths in ways that are sometimes hard or difficult to deal with or wrestle with.
Ms. PACKER: So the one caller talked about, you know, a classic meta-theme, and I would almost sort of shy away from that because that sort of suggests that it's merely theme or merely if you come up with a certain subject matter, then that's, you know, that's grounds for declaring something a classic. And I think it's much more about the style and the substance than just theme.
CONAN: Yeah, otherwise it'd be a template, and then we'd all know what a classic was.
Ms. PACKER: Exactly.
CONAN: Yeah. Is there anything in the canon that - I don't know if you're looking at the actual list of Everyman's Library...
Ms. PACKER: I'm not.
CONAN: ...you know, everything in the canon you think, you know, it's easy in fact to add stuff. You know, oh, gee willikers, how could they possibly skip this? A little harder to take some stuff off sometimes.
Ms. PACKER: Yeah, but then the generations to come, the younger generations are always sort of loathe to say, well, I'm going to take away something like, you know, The Heart of Midlothian or something...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PACKER: ...you know, something like that because, you know, who are you to judge? That's sort of the feeling. But I do think that, you know, there has been a stronger push for people to want to include those books that always seem to be breaking new ground. And many classics I mean start off being somewhat unpopular in their day and then later they're importance becomes known. And I think - but I think that the sort of time span in which that occurs has been narrowing over the years to the point that it almost seems like it takes, you know, a little less than 10 years, whereas maybe before it would almost take, you know, almost a century or something.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Holly. Holly's with us from Fanora(ph) in California.
HOLLY (Caller): Yes, hi.
HOLLY: We use classical approach in my schooling. I home school my kids, and we use classical education approach, whatever that means. So we've had this discussion often about what constitutes a classic. And I would have to say that my feelings of what it is has somewhat evolved, and I love what your new guest is saying. A lot of what I've thought of the classic has come to be what your guest has been saying just now.
HOLLY: And that is that classics seem to be those to me that over the years appeal to the masses, that maybe were popular when they first came out or maybe not, maybe more controversial, but that there's an appeal to the masses and tackles themes that may be uncomfortable, maybe challenges society, challenges political views or religious beliefs.
So, some of my thoughts are there and one reason that my thought would come this way is I recently attended a lecture series and included on the reading list of classics that we were to have read was a Louis L'Amour book. And I really struggled with calling that a classic and why it would be included on that list.
CONAN: Hmm. Well, let me ask Sonny Mehta first of all. Would you think of Louis L'Amour - the great western writer - as eligible for Everyman's?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, he wrote an awful lot of books and they were sequences of novels that - if I remember them rightly from my teenage years - that followed sections of families over a period of time. The Sackett's, I think, was one of them.
I'm not sure that I would, but on the other hand, Owen Wister's “The Virginian” - I don't know whether you've ever come across that.
Mr. MEHTA: That, I think, probably might qualify, but there are other great novels about the west.
CONAN: Some of Cooper's stuff - Fenimore Cooper's would qualify.
Mr. MEHTA: Fenimore Cooper, yes.
CONAN: If you think of the Catskills as the West. It was at one time.
Mr. MEHTA: And, you know, basically in their time these were writers as popular in a mass sense as Louis L'Amour became later on.
CONAN: Hmm. I wonder, do you go through - did you go through the list at one point and say, you know, there's some - well, this would be my characterization and not yours - but there's some real caster oil books here that we might want to think about skipping over this time around? I mean, does anybody read “Pilgrim's Progress” anymore?
HOLLY: Our family does.
CONAN: Your family does. All right, I'm shot down by Holly there in Sonora, California.
Ms. PACKER: She brought up an interesting point about Louis L'Amour just being genre fiction. I mean typically - and the other caller talked about science fiction and, you know, what was its place. And I think typically genre fiction or a genre writer doesn't sort of get ranked as being, you know, one of the classics until they sort of break out of that particular genre in some way.
Mr. MEHTA: You mean transcended it in some way.
Ms. PACKER: Exactly. Because it seems as though if you're writing in a genre to begin with you're automatically agreeing to a set of conventions that, you know, generally affirms a particular societal position. So, for westerns generally, you know, there's the idea that - there's a promotion of, you know, this idea of manifest destiny and the settlers on some level were right.
And, you know, with science fiction there is always the ambiguity with, you know, with the way the world works, but, you know, you have your machines and this and that. And only when you begin to break out and sort of go towards the idea of there being a central human condition that we're wrestling with do the sort of genre writers - like Owen Wister and, you know, some of the other science fiction writers - do they manage to usually just be considered a classic.
CONAN: Holly thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
HOLLY: Thank you.
CONAN: And have a good time with John Bunyan.
HOLLY: Thank you. We will.
We're talking about what constitutes a classic. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Joe on the line. Joe's calling us from La Crosse in Wisconsin.
JOE (Caller): I am and thank you so much for taking my call because I get to talk to people about books, which I don't frequently get to do. First let me -a couple of comments. One is, as far as science fiction goes, I think you've just start to look at an author like Robert Heinlein who wrote “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which is probably the - if you look at a book that you could base the free-love generation on from the ‘60s, you'd probably have to go with that as much as anything else.
And the other thing is the Louis L'Amour book that I suspect they were talking about is a book called “The Walking Drum,” which in the introduction to it L'Amour said is the only book he wrote for him. And so, of course, he made no money on it. And it's the story of a 13th century young man named Kerbouchard and his adventure to find himself.
And one of your guests mentioned, you know, a meta-theme that overarches that she was opposed to. But I think if you look at it not as an encompassing theme but as an opening theme. Space not as something that holds. Space as merely a container. Then you can say that the overarching theme must be like Albee said of theater, it must change you.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer was objecting to that as the sole definition and not merely to that as an idea, but she can defend herself. But go ahead. Anyway, I'm sorry.
JOE: And because I think that's it. It doesn't matter whether it's a personal narrative that changes you. I mean, my connection to Everyman, which is like many years ago - I first read Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, “On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History” in Everyman editions that a very wonderful friend of mine loaned to me one day.
And so - but it must change you because that's what great literature does. That's what great art does. That's what great art does. That's what great anything does, ultimately, when you get right down to it. So, it's wonderful to see this discussion today.
And it really - I don't think it's a bad thing to consider Louis L'Amour - who wrote many popular books about the West - but it was his one book about the West that I suspect they wanted to include on there. And science fiction -somebody like Orson Scott Card or Robert Heinlein.
CONAN: Oh, let me throw in Alfred Bester. So go ahead, anyway.
JOE: Oh, Bester. “Stars My Destination” may be the greatest sociological observation in what would be termed a science fiction book ever written. Man is a social animal first and an individual second. That stuff's great, but that's what changes people. That's what makes you aware, and it's that change in your awareness that I think is what qualifies for anything to be termed great.
And that's why we can't decide what that is, but we can certainly come up with some things that affect a lot of people in a lot of ways and say, hey here's the canon, here's what we found is effective in being affective. And I think that's a great start.
And I think the Everyman Library deserves accolades over and over again for being part of that. And keep “Pilgrim's Progress” and keep (unintelligible) and keep everything else, because, you know, someday somebody will pick up a copy in an attic and read it and that will be the beginning of their life.
CONAN: Joe thanks very much for the call. That's a great call. Appreciate it.
JOE: Thank you.
And Sonny Mehta just a few seconds before we let you go, but when you make decisions about what's in the Everyman's Library series, do you sit in a big meeting? Are there a lot of important people there or do you sit in your office by yourself and just thumb through the books?
Mr. MEHTA: No. Well, it's a group of us who work on this. Chiefly, Luanne Waltrim(ph). She's got a group of people. We meet periodically. We send e-mails to each other. We say what about this, what about that? We have an advisory board that we run ideas by and they sometimes make recommendations to us. And, you know, we argue.
CONAN: That sounds like as good a basis for a series of books as any. Sonny Mehta thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.
Mr. MEHTA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Sonny Mehta is publisher and editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf, and he joined us from the BBC Studios in New York. Z.Z. Packer thanks very much for coming in.
Ms. PACKER: Thank you for having me.
CONAN: Z.Z. Packer is author of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and a forthcoming novel about Buffalo Soldiers, with us today from the studios of our member station in San Francisco, KQED.
When we come back from a short break, a book of newly released photographs that document the internment of Japanese Americans. The editors of Impounded join us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.