Growing up, I was encouraged to read "classic works of literature". These, I was told, are the shared culture of humanity, passed down through the ages. But what is a classic?
When my family first came to Canada, I was burdened with a Bond villain of an English teacher named Van den Hooke. She assigned us a reading journal, to keep track of the amount of time and number of pages that each student had read that month. To my friends, it will come as no surprise that I doubled the numbers of the next best student. This achievement seemed to viscerally offend Van den Hooke, possibly because a kid who had newly arrived in this country was already outperforming those that were born there. She took a look at the books I was reading, and told me I was "reading the wrong types of books". What was I reading? Classics, by my mom's definition.
But according to Van den Hooke, this was not serious literature. I should read "Canadian Classics", like Atwood and McCarthy. My family was offended. Are Dostoyevsky and Jack London not good enough for fancy teacher at fancy school? They were good enough for their parents, they were good enough for the Russian school system when they were in grade school, and by Stalin they are good enough now!
Van den Hooke did not take this insult graciously and a protracted war of words ensued. This episode was to reassert itself throughout my schooling, but with no clear resolution. Who is right? If classics are a legacy of humanity, shouldn't the definition be universal? How can different people believe different books to be classics? And who decides?
This is a question I've taken deep into adulthood. But since I'm now a scientistTM, I have the tools to attempt an answer.
You can find part 1 here