Silver and Gold.

Back cover of The Lindau Gospels.

This is a lovely post to write - I've been reading and blogging lots these past two months, finished my '20 more books of summer', and thus I've now finished my third Classics Club list and am two away from finishing my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. As for the latter, I'm in no rush to finish it but I dare say I'll complete it before or in early autumn, but I am happy to have finished my third Classics Club lists: my problem with it, and the one before it, is I soon reached a point where I didn't enjoy it. 

The reason for that didn't take much thinking - my approach to compiling the second and third list was to go through my books and use them to compile the list, but for this new fourth list I've gone for a different approach - some, most in fact, are books I already own, but there's a good third of this list I don't, books I've come across from other people's reviews, books recommended on Goodreads or Amazon, books listed in the back of other books from that publisher: in short there are many books I hadn't even heard of until recently. That makes it all the more exciting and challenging, and I'm looking forward to begin this admittedly rather long list today with The English Constitution by Walter Bagehot (1867), a book I hadn't even heard of last week.

The Golden Age by Pietro da Cortona (17th Century).
In compiling this list I've naturally been thinking of classics and why we are drawn to certain books. A long time ago I came across a description of the 'levels' of classics: an editor of an anthology of plays I own (which I can't remember) wrote a defence of his rather more obscure choices saying something along the lines of some classics are "gold", and we shouldn't shun those that are "silver". "Silver" was his way of describing those great, wonderful, and numerous classics that we don't read so much of anymore.

I don't think it's that hard to categorise the "gold" classics. It's not a matter of whether we like them or not, it's that we all know them. Everyone knows Tolstoy's War and Peace, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. These books are either taught in high school, they've been on TV, or in Tolstoy's case the sheer length and complexity made it infamous. But then not everyone knows, say, Virginia Woolf's Orlando or James Joyce's Ulysses, but readers of the classics most likely do. I'd still say they're gold. But what, then, of the silver? That's harder. And that makes me wonder about the "bronze" category. Kynge Johan by John Bale, perhaps, Thomas More, even Cicero who isn't necessarily on society's radar at present (I'd be more inclined to put Cicero in the silver section, to be honest). We know the "gold" classics, and we can recognise the "silver" and "bronze" ones when we come across them.

It's interesting to consider why this is. Why do we all know Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens but we don't all know Hesiod's Theogony or Aratus' Phaenomena? It's not all down to teaching in school or television adaptations. Publishing companies have much to do with it: I'll be reading The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton next year and it's because the good people of Penguin Classics will be publishing it in May 2019. But there is more to it than that, there is a kind of social 'decision' (for the want of a better word') to read some books but not others. The sociology of literature is a fascinating thing.

The Silver Age by Pietro da Cortona (17th Century).
I read an article a while ago on Ovid - one of the numerous "millennials are killing" style articles that bemoaned the "thin-skinned" millennials who found Ovid's Metamorphoses "triggering". Generation X and the Baby Boomers had a good laugh at the millennials expense, whilst some of us millennials were slightly unnerved by our counterparts refusal to read certain classics on the grounds that they may be violent, racist, sexist, or generally rather nasty. There are plenty of classics that fall into those categories: no one does violence like those at the turn of the 17th century, the ancients wrote about rape frequently, the medievals and Victorians could be breathtakingly racist, and the whole sorry bunch could be sexist as hell. But what does that mean for Ovid?

This isn't a defence of Ovid, nor defence or attack of millennials, because despite loving the classics as much as I do I feel nothing more than an objective curiosity at this phenomenon. Quite simply, we have been here before. Many times. Books come and go, and often they come right back. D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover was banned for being obscene, then it was a best seller, and now there's not that many people who bother with it. During the Interregnum (1642–1660) Shakespeare was not performed, Charles Dickens went briefly out of fashion in the 20th Century, the Victorians were scandalised by the aforementioned Ovid (not all of them, of course) and certain works of the Restoration, and there are some ancient works that were hardly picked up until the Medieval period. Sometimes it seems like the whole lot of us just go off certain books. They offend our sensibilities, they don't speak to us, they don't seem relevant, or we can't be bothered with them. It's up to future generations to pick them back up or not as the case may be. It interests me, but it doesn't worry me. Culture changes, and thank goodness for that.

The Bronze Age by Pietro da Cortona (17th Century).
The only downside is that it rather limits things. This is the beauty of secondhand bookshops - there's always a silver or bronze classic kicking around in the best ones amongst all the gold. The excitement of finding the silver and bronzes is better than gold in fact - it's best thing about reading, discovering something new.

And that is what motivated my fourth Classics Club list - the quest for something new. I have been drawn in the past to English Victorian literature, and now I'm branching out to the golden works of other countries and centuries, and the silver and bronze works in British Literature. It is a part of why I love reading - sorting the gold from the fool's gold, the silver from the tin, and finding works I'd never heard of that other's love and coming to love it myself, or the obscure titles I know hardly anyone's even heard of, that has no ratings on Goodreads, and finding that it is a masterpiece. I don't think my previous Classics Club list gave me that opportunity, but I do believe this fourth one will. And of course, there are some re-reads in it!

Because it is so long (I put a lot of time into compiling it) I can't say I'll finish it in five years (I think I'll get through perhaps two thirds in that time). But I am excited to start: I think it's a good 'post-first list' and I do believe I'll be a better reader for having read them.

Now, to finish: the end of my third list came at the start of a new era of The Classics Club and the occasion is being marked by a new spin. As I'm not dreading any of my new titles as yet (I'm sure I will be at some point!) my four categories will be Medieval, Early Modern, Modern, and Contemporary:

Medieval
1. Khayyam, Omar - Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
2. Lady Sarashina - As I Crossed the Bridge of Dreams.
3. Froissart, Jean - Chronicles.
4. The Paston Letters.
5. Early Fiction in England: From Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer.
Early Modern
6. Cellini, Benvenuto - Autobiography.
7. Bruyère, Jean de la - Characters.
8. Fayette, Madame de La - The Princesse De Cleves.
9. Swift, Jonathan - The Battle of the Books.
10. Pascal, Blaise - Pensées.
Modern
11. Inchbald, Elizabeth - A Simple Story.
12. Smollett, Tobias - The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.
13. Baudelaire, Charles - The Flowers of Evil.
14. Dacre, Charlotte - Zofloya, or The Moor.
15. Edgeworth, Maria - Belinda.
Contemporary
16. Carpentier, Alejo - Explosion in a Cathedral.
17. Churchill, Winston - The Gathering Storm.
18. Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar.
19. Lessing, Doris - The Golden Notebook.
20. Golding, William - Lord of the Flies.
Wish me luck!

Comments

  1. definitely an alluring and well-organized plan... i think i'm jealous, but too late now, which is a relief in some ways... i look forward to your future posts...

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  2. Wow, you feature some beautiful artwork in your post and your list is great too! Are you hoping for any particular number?

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    1. There's a couple I'm not as excited by as one might wish - slightly nervous of Churchill and The Golden Notebook, the latter of which has been on my TBR for 13 years (I've got such a block with that book for some reason!). Have you read it?

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  3. Wowee! What a list! I'm looking so forward to your posts. Just can get away from Aristotle though. I still haven't managed one of his, which is shameful considering my love of the Ancient Greeks!

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    1. Aristotle is one tough cookie it must be said. I'm looking forward to reading the ones I've listed yet at the same time I know they'll be so hard for me! :)

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  4. What an inspirational post for all lovers of reading...especially classics.
    Envious of you having second-hand bookshops filled with hidden 'gems'
    Being in a foreign country I never browse my shops....there is nothing in English
    there that appeals to me....only 'airport blockbusters of crime fiction or fantasy.'
    I too will follow you CC list and hope to find some good reading suggestions. You spin looks great and I read Fayette in French a few years ago....it is beautiful, so much courtly love!

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    1. Thank you! After reading Romance of the Rose I'm in the mood for more courtly love, so I hope I get Fayette! :D

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  5. Luck!

    And a HUGE congrats on completing 3 #cclists and staring your 4th - make sure you send the classics club the details of your competed list, as we hope to feature all the completed lists at some point soon.

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    1. I will do, though I didn't blog about every title on my first list. And I'll have to dig out the second list - it's on another blog! :)

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