Sunday, January 21, 2007

"What Is a Classic?"

As long as I am recommending old essays from, I must recommend, to readers and to writers both, the essay "What Is a Classic?" by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beauve.

This essay is Sainte-Beauve's attempt to define classic literature, or at least to provide some sort of guide or definition so that we may find our own classics. He begins by saying:

A DELICATE question, to which somewhat diverse solutions might be given according to times and seasons. An intelligent man suggests it to me, and I intend to try, if not to solve it, at least to examine and discuss it face to face with my readers, were it only to persuade them to answer it for themselves, and, if I can, to make their opinion and mine on the point clear.
He then discusses various definitions and various writers. What makes them classic, or are they really classics at all?

In paragraph 7, Sainte-Beauve gives us what he would like to see as the definition of a classic:

A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.
Then in paragraph 24, he has this to say:
Such are our classics; each individual imagination may finish the sketch and choose the group preferred. For it is necessary to make a choice, and the first condition of taste, after obtaining knowledge of all, lies not in continual travel, but in rest and cessation from wandering. Nothing blunts and destroys taste so much as endless journeyings; the poetic spirit is not the Wandering Jew. However, when I speak of resting and making choice, my meaning is not that we are to imitate those who charm us most among our masters in the past. Let us be content to know them, to penetrate them, to admire them; but let us, the late-comers, endeavour to be ourselves. Let us have the sincerity and naturalness of our own thoughts, of our own feelings; so much is always possible. To that let us add what is more difficult, elevation, an aim, if possible, towards an exalted goal; and while speaking our own language, and submitting to the conditions of the times in which we live, whence we derive our strength and our defects, let us ask from time to time, our brows lifted towards the heights and our eyes fixed on the group of honoured mortals: what would they say of us?
I found this an interesting essay, and there were portions that inspired me in both my reading and my writing. I hope you will find it inspiring and interesting, as well.

Night Reading

I found, at, a delightful little essay on reading late at night. It is an old-fashioned essay written in the early years of the twentieth century. The essay is "Bed-Books and Night-Lights" by H. M. Tomlinson.

Mr. Tomlinson writes about the delights of reading late at night by a single candle. He also writes about which books are not good to read at that time and in that situation and which are.

He begins:

THE RAIN flashed across the midnight window with a myriad feet. There was a groan in outer darkness, the voice of all nameless dreads. The nervous candle-flame shuddered by my bedside. The groaning rose to a shriek, and the little flame jumped in a panic, and nearly left its white column. Out of the corners of the room swarmed the released shadows. Black specters danced in ecstasy over my bed. I love fresh air, but I cannot allow it to slay the shining and delicate body of my little friend the candle-flame, the comrade who ventures with me into the solitudes beyond midnight. I shut the window.
That paragraph makes me want to be cozy inside with a candle and a good book! More about reading by candlelight:

As the bed-book itself should be a sort of night-light, to assist its illumination, coarse lamps are useless. They would douse the book. The light for such a book must accord with it. It must be, like the book, a limited, personal, mellow, and companionable glow; the solitary taper beside the only worshiper in a sanctuary. That is why nothing can compare with the intimacy of candle-light for a bed-book. It is a living heart, bright and warm in central night, burning for us alone, holding the gaunt and towering shadows at bay. There the monstrous specters stand in our mid-night room, the advance guard of the darkness of the world, held off by our valiant little glim, but ready to flood instantly and founder us in original gloom.

The wind moans without; ancient evils are at large and wandering in torment. The rain shrieks across the window. For a moment, for just a moment, the sentinel candle is shaken, and burns blue with terror. The shadows leap out instantly. The little flame recovers, and merely looks at its foe the darkness, and back to its own place goes the old enemy of light and man. The candle for me, tiny, mortal, warm, and brave, a golden lily on a silver stem!

Mr. Tomlinson goes on to discuss various types of books that will or won't do for late night reading, then concludes this way:

But best of all books for midnight are travel books. Once I was lost every night for months with Doughty In the “Arabia Deserta.” He is a craggy author. A long course of the ordinary facile stuff, such as one gets in the Press every day, thinking it is English, sends one thoughtless and headlong among the bitter herbs and stark boulders of Doughty’s burning and spacious expanse; only to get bewildered, and the shins broken, and a great fatigue at first, in a strange land of fierce sun, hunger, glittering spar, ancient plutonic rock, and very Adam himself. But once you are acclimatized, and know the language—it takes time—there is no more London after dark, till, a wanderer returned from a forgotten hand, you emerge from the interior of Arabia on the Red Sea coast again, feeling as though you had lost touch with the world you used to know. And if that doesn’t mean good writing I know of no other test.

Because once there was a father whose habit it was to read with boys nightly some chapters of the Bible—and cordially they hated that habit of his—I have that Book too; though I fear I have it for no reason that he, the rigid old faithful, would be pleased to hear about. He thought of the future when he read the Bible; I read it for the past. The familiar names, the familiar rhythm of its words, its wonderful well-remembered stories of things long past—like that of Esther, one of the best in English—the eloquent anger of the prophets for the people then who looked as though they were alive, but were really dead at heart, all is solace and home to me. And now I think of it, it is our home and solace that we want in a bed-book.

I recommend the entire essay--it's not very long, but it has a certain charm for those who like to read.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Diagramming Sentences and Other Things

I've mentioned diagramming sentences before as a useful tool for writers. If you need a refresher course, go here and brush up. The three links at the top of the screen take you to example pages with explanations.

I find diagramming sentences useful as a writer when I find myself having written a long, rather tangled sentence. I can diagram it and see where I've gone wrong or where I can make it simpler and more readable.

Diagramming is also useful when you are reading. If you don't understand something the author wrote, diagram it and see if it makes sense after you sort out the parts of speech, the antecedents, etc.

An interesting site for definitions of terms is "Literary Terms." There are also several links on the screen to other useful information, such as the one for "Elements of Literature." Understanding what these elements are can help improve writing, too.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

First Post of the New Year

What with the holidays and various minor illnesses that have left me not feeling up to par, I haven't made a brilliant first-of-the-year post yet. Nor will I today.

Be that as it may, I have a new toy. It's called LibraryThing and on it you can catalog all your books. You can list up to 200 books for free, then after that you can pay $10 a year, or $25 for a lifetime membership and list all the books you want. I have 190 up--and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

I have also rigged it to display random books in my sidebar on each of my blogs. You can click on "my library" in the phrase "Random Books from my library" in the sidebar and look at my catalog of books at LibraryThing. Cool, eh?!

Better posts to come in the future.