The Classics: A Keen and Lasting Pleasure

Why does the great and universal fame of classical authors continue? The answer is that the fame of classical authors is entirely independent of the majority. Do you suppose that if the fame of Shakespeare depended on the man in the street it would survive a fortnight? The fame of classical authors is originally made, and it is maintained, by a passionate few. Even when a first-class author has enjoyed immense success during his lifetime, the majority have never appreciated him so sincerely as they have appreciated second-rate men. He has always been reinforced by the ardour of the passionate few. And in the case of an author who has emerged into glory after his death the happy sequel has been due solely to the obstinate perseverance of the few. They could not leave him alone; they would not. They kept on savouring him, and talking about him, and buying him, and they generally behaved with such eager zeal, and they were so authoritative and sure of themselves, that at last the majority grew accustomed to the sound of his name and placidly agreed to the proposition that he was a genius; the majority really did not care very much either way. And it is by the passionate few that the renown of genius is kept alive from one generation to another….

The passionate few only have their way by reason of the fact that they are genuinely interested in literature, that literature matters to them. They conquer by their obstinacy alone, by their eternal repetition of the same statements. Do you suppose they could prove to the man in the street that Shakespeare was a great artist? The said man would not even understand the terms they employed. But when he is told ten thousand times, and generation after generation, that Shakespeare was a great artist, the said man believes—not by reason, but by faith. And he too repeats that Shakespeare was a great artist, and he buys the complete works of Shakespeare and puts them on his shelves, and he goes to see the marvellous stage-effects which accompany King Lear or Hamlet, and comes back religiously convinced that Shakespeare was a great artist. All because the passionate few could not keep their admiration of Shakespeare to themselves. This is not cynicism; but truth. And it is important that those who wish to form their literary taste should grasp it. What causes the passionate few to make such a fuss about literature? There can be only one reply. They find a keen and lasting pleasure in literature.

—Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It

via Surviving Transition


4 comments on “The Classics: A Keen and Lasting Pleasure

  1. hopeinbrazil says:

    I love this book by Bennett and have often mined it for quotes.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Hi Hope! I confess I haven't read the whole thing, just this chapter. It's on my long list of things to read… 😉

  3. Matt says:

    First time I've heard of this book. It seems to a literary classic in its own right. Thank you, for posting this excerpt, Sylvia, and for posting the link to the entire book. I was pleasantly surprised that the book is now in public domain and free! 🙂 I will add this to my list of must-read books…

  4. Sylvia says:

    You're welcome, Matt. Yes, it's wonderful to have so many books online these days.

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