“Therefore if my book wins general favor, I think it must be good and ought to live; but if it fails to please, I think it must be bad and soon to be forgot.” From The Book of the Courtier, by Baldasar Castiglione (1528).
I came across this quotation in a classic Italian treatise on the Ideal Courtier while doing research for my thesis (that’s where I’ve disappeared to, in case you were wondering!). While I’ve seen enough of these “please like my book” appeals to believe them to be rather common in prefaces of this time, the wording of this one struck me. How true it is!
I’m always so fascinated by the idea of a classic’s longevity. Castiglione hoped his book would win general favor, but I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that I (a woman) am reading it on a device not yet dreamt of, on a then barely-discovered continent, for advanced academic work.
What makes a classic stick around? Obviously, being a good book matters, but that’s not the only, or even the primary, factor. For many works, it is actually a perfect storm of preservation, social and economic occurrences, near-misses, dramatic outcomes. Just because a work was popular in its day doesn’t mean it’s still around (although it’s possible) or, if around, still read. And the farther you go back in time, the more and more we are beneficiaries of happenstance. There were three or four mini-epics that occurred between The Iliad and The Odyssey but they didn’t make it. Neither did at least one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Sometimes, books that we now consider essential classics crashed and burned in their day, usually because the style or content was deemed too “out there” by the book’s contemporary critics. Sometimes works fell out of favor and were “rescued” hundreds of years later (Shakespeare is one of these – thank the Romantics for his continued existence).
In short, isn’t it amazing that we have all of the great classics we do? Isn’t it amazing that I’m reading a treatise written by an Italian courtier in the 1500s, and that I can find a translated version for my Kindle for $0.99?
What about you? What are some of your favorite classic works? What do you think those works authors would have to say about their continued existence and popularity?