“When you re-read a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in yourself than there was before.” The editor and critic Clifton Fadiman wrote these words and, when I contemplate them, I am inclined to agree. However, there are so many classics out there that there arises a question of practicality. Who has the time for re-reading? It takes me seven days just to get through the weekend’s newspapers – and I don’t even glance at the sports sections. Perhaps I could streamline the process by limiting consumption of Brexit-related articles and developing a speed-reading technique but, even so, War and Peace would still be years away from a re-read. (In fact, it is so long since the first read, I can barely recall whether it merits a re-read). Moreover, if you apply the principle of re-visiting classics not only to books but also to other creative works – films, paintings, plays, operas and all kinds of music, the pressure on one’s time is compounded.
To a limited extent, you can save time by listening to recordings. Audio books, poems, plays and music may be appreciated while driving or doing the ironing: effective time-management for the consumption of culture. The same does not apply, however, for films and art exhibitions. Arguably, you can watch a film while ironing, though the dangers are apparent: you may miss a crucial shot while perfecting a trouser-crease and/or catch an exquisitely framed sequence while scorching a favourite garment. I have never yet seen anyone ironing in an art gallery, though I did once watch a lady ironing on Trafalgar Square’s “fourth plinth” as part of a public-participation-in-art event.
Moreover, shortage of time compounds even further if you consume music accompanied by video footage. The simultaneous engagement of ears and eyes excludes listening as an accompaniment to practical tasks. In extreme circumstances, you could be fully occupied watching YouTube for the rest of your life. I have developed something of a penchant myself, while finishing the last of the evening’s tipple, for trawling YouTube for classics such as Joni Mitchell performing Both Sides Now, only to find that an hour has slipped away in the pursuit of inferior cover versions subsequently suggested to me by the smart-arse algorithm. Let’s face it: there has to be a limit on the amount of time one spends re-visiting the classics. Apart from time being precious, there is another, important consideration: how do you keep abreast of the classics that are currently being produced if you are forever harking back to golden oldies?
Besides, what actually constitutes a classic? I suppose that the likes of Clifton Fadiman would be qualified to compile a scholarly list but, when it comes down to it, one has to choose for oneself. A lot depends on the impression the work makes in the first instance. Yesterday, I went to see the 1958 film Look Back in Anger. It wasn’t a re-visit – I had never seen it – but I had seen the famous play on which it was based and, more significantly, I had acted one of the parts in an am-dram production. The work qualifies, therefore, as a classic on my list.
I should explain that my acting career was very short – lasting only one term of my fresher year at university – and that I was cast as Cliff, the genial one, not Jimmy, the angry one. At the time, I did not understand why Jimmy was so unreasonably angry – after all, he had the girl, didn’t he? But what I didn’t know back then was that not everyone has had a happy, contented childhood and, consequently, little reason to be angry.