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Louisa Amsterdam's picture

Two (Separate) Thoughts Stemming from Thursday's Discussion

In our discussion of what constitutes a “classic” (American) novel today, something I found striking was that the idea of a “classic” novel includes some element of that novel’s place in (past) time. Moby Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were both published more than a century ago; they have, to use a cliché, withstood the test of time (Interestingly enough, Moby Dick has not had to endure as long a test, as it was not “discovered” as a classic until the 1920s). The phrase “instant classic” is often now used to describe new novels (or films, or albums), but can there be such a thing? How long must a piece of literature be around before it can be considered for the “classic” category (As to what other factors count for membership to the category, I cannot even guess)? Honestly, I have no good answer for this at the moment, but I think it is something worth thinking over.

On an unrelated note, I could not help but think about the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers during our discussion of Terror Management Theory. The novel’s narrator, Will, has certain parallels to Ahab; to bring the novel to its essence, he hopes to counteract negative events in his life by doing one enormous good deed, and by doing this, he believes that he will receive some sign that the universe is ordered and balanced. The novel is highly focused on mortality: The narrator’s close friend recently died, and the narrator himself is, we learn in the first sentence, dead. The desire for order is intimately tied to the fear of death; the novel never makes explicit how exactly this connection works, but I instinctively draw this connection, too. Perhaps this is what makes certain books that focus on death comforting: In describing mortality, we give it some sort of order (Even if it is not black and white, good and evil, like that desired by Ahab). In the same way that our culture gives us rules and set expectations that shield us somehow from death, a book that talks about death gives it some sort of order, and that order is the buffer.

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