A classic is something that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read. - Mark Twain
In this age of content overload, instant information, and the rise of lifestyle over livelihood, we are bound to seek out definition. Man has been organizing and classifying his life since God commanded him to name all the animals; he achieves simplification not by outright exclusion, but by filtering. Thus one day is a farce, the next high drama, and the next a mundane Monday - breathing room for all the other days. To accompany these highs and lows we search for, not just universal truth, but universality itself; not just cultural literacy, but cultural consistency.
We make our own lists, but what we really want is the "essential" list. We want to know that what we are eating, reading, watching, playing, saying, thinking, and doing aren't considered gauche. And authorities have been more than happy in man's past to present the acceptable and respectable categorical answers to our categorical questions. But now I think, we are reaching an age where the assumption of worldliness and self-reference is enough to suffice. We're not beholden to the content, only its reputation. Moby Dick? Underrated. Anna Karenina? Overrated. And let's not fool ourselves, either, about the pricelessness of a classic: we may all pat ourselves on the back for appreciating Robert Johnson's blues guitar, but he exists more in myth than in the real: the quality of the few recordings of him are exceedingly poor, and it's no stretch to say that music technology has allowed even the most inexperienced of players to surpass Johnson's output in a matter of days, or even hours. Umberto Eco was right: the only thing that matters is the last copy standing.
Recently, I came across a list of 1,000 books to read before you die. Instantly challenging my own mortality, the list was divided up by century, and had a fair representation of most genres and eras. There was a clear bias towards works in the English language, and certainly quibbles to be made between whatever might be rated number 1,000 and every book not on the list. But the list as a whole was a solid look at the idea of the novel, and it contained all of those time-treasured books now reissued by Penguin with new cover art every few years. (When your list tallies 1,000, there's plenty of room for the minor classics.) The list was even charitable to authors of the modern bestseller, featuring entries by Stephen King, Amy Tan, and Mark Haddon - good writers in their own right, but on a list next to Dickens, Austen, and Hemingway, thoroughly outclassed.
If you read one of these books a week, it would only take you 20 years to manage your way through it. Life's dedication to one list seems self-limiting, but if one book or the other on the list is not your cup of tea, you could simply drop it back off on the library, and advance on to W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (#513), or perhaps John Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (#808), or whatever book catches your fancy.
But really, the problem with so many of these books is that they are singularly unworthy of your 21st century time. They are worse than archaic; they are obsolete. We've dispatched of all of the technically useless items of our past: musket rifles, water wheels, the camera obscura, the steam engine. Even the tools we still use (the telescope, the clock, the wheel itself) have seen advances so vast that to look upon their original would be to look upon a foreign object. People who use obsolete tools are viewed as "quaint", antiquarian, backwards-thinking.
Yet we hold on to the literature and art from those periods, claiming "the human condition" holds up to time immemorial. Ridiculous. I recall sitting in my first college Shakespeare class and being told that in William's day, the word "nothing" was slang for sex (hence the titular "Much Ado About Nothing".) In fact, reading all of his plays (particularly the sex comedies) with this knowledge is as revealing about our own inabilities to read Shakespeare's plays as it is about Shakespeare's clearly juvenile sensibilities. No doubt hundreds more mysteries of the era go undiscovered for every "nothing" exposted. The truth is, these books are not so much essential as influential, and while there's nothing wrong with influence, it can be easily substituted for with reference and self-reference and reference again. Eventually we must dispose of the relics of our time, and realize that nothing is truly, truly required reading.