What Makes a Book a Classic?

With another Classics Spin well underway, it’s time to discuss that age-old blog question: What makes a book a classic?

It’s one of the more provocative and unsolvable questions in the literary community. Like an argument over whether or not a book is worthy of five stars, it’s a hopelessly subjective and seemingly pointless affair. But these discussions continue to rage on, and here we are, talking about it again.

Why? Because it’s delicious. Like the proverbial cake that could very well lead to a heart attack, we shout “consequences be damned!” and maniacally devour it.

It’s possible we keep circling back around to it because there are only a few places where a discussion like this one is worth much of anything: a classroom, a bookstore, and a blog with a connection to the Classics Club.

To help me get to the bottom of this conundrum, I searched far and wide for advice from the wisest sages: Italo Calvino, Ezra Pound, Chris Cox, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Mark Twain, and five “normals” from the literary community.

What Makes a Classic: The Experts’ Take

Perhaps the most cliched answer to the question of what makes a book a classic is that a classic stands the test of time. It transcends time and place and caste and race to persevere and deliver its message(s) to generation after generation. Or, as Ezra Pound wrote in ABC of Reading, “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.”

Italo Calvino, in his seminal essay “Why Read the Classics?” said it even more beautifully: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

But are these definitions too subjective? Are they too much in the eye of the beholder? After all, who’s to say whether a book has finished saying what it has to say. Hypothetically, can’t people feel the same “freshness” from a Star Wars novelization as they can from The Count of Monte Cristo? (Hypothetically.)

It was for this reason that Chris Cox, on his blog for The Guardian, decided to argue for a different definition of the classics. Or, two definitions, actually. “…there are actually two kinds of ‘classic novels’: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation … The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”

He seems to me to be echoing Mark Twain’s caustic definition from a century earlier, when Twain said that a classic book is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Classic Twain.

Cox’s definition sounds relaxed enough for two groups of classics: those our society has agreed upon (i.e. the supposed “canon”), and those we ourselves decide upon. But doesn’t this second definition somewhat defeat the purpose?

Cliched or biting definitions aside, my favorite might be from Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who answered the question like this:

The idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures … A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.

If that’s too convoluted, you might want to go with the simplest definition I’ve seen, from Mark Van Doren, a Columbia University professor and poet: “A classic is any book that stays in print.” In our current society of consumption, it’s not the worst strategy in the world.

What Makes a Classic: The People’s Take

No good literary discussion is complete without referencing what strangers are screaming at each other on the Internet. Thus, I give you what’s being said on Goodreads.

Mary: “I think any book that causes me to look at the world in a different way is a ‘classic’. For example, Life of Pi, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, What Is the What, and Disgrace are all classics because I was profoundly moved by them.

Nance: “A book is a classic when it is written with a message. Something that has me thinking about the choices that I have made in my life, whether it is bad or good. A classic is a learning experience, a book that has you truly entranced and mesmerized by its story. That is what I think when I think of a classic!”

Miss GP: “…there is something about the book that makes it stand the test of time. It might be that it perfectly embodies a time period, it’s original, it’s beautifully written, its themes are universal, or any combination of the above … if a book is still being widely read 20 years after its initial publication, I’d say it’s standing the test of time.”

Scout: “Time is the biggest test that a book has to pass in order to be a classic. And if intelligent people are still reading the book 50 years after its publication, then it’s a classic. Personally, I will never consider the Harry Potter books classics. The writing is inferior. Hopefully, adding “scholars” to the definition would preclude them from being considered classics. So, how’s this for a definition? Time is the most important test that a book has to pass in order to be a classic. If, fifty years later, scholars consider the book worth teaching – or citing because of its impact on society or its universal themes – then it’s a classic.”

M.G.:  “…a classic is a book that appeals universally. It doesn’t matter about the gender of the author, the subject matter, the genre, the main character, as long as it appeals across all ages and even across different nations. A classic is a book for all people, for all time.”

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Book a Classic?

  1. The basic definition I’ve been taught in courses states that a classic is a text whose popularity has endured the test of time. While I like this definition, I definitely think it lacks complexity. If a book is still being read a century after it was written simply because decades of professors have assigned students to read it but no one actually enjoys it, should it still be considered a classic? It’s so difficult to create a definition that isn’t subjective!

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    1. This is an important point! So many classics have endured because of the intellectual elite (i.e. professors, high-minded critics). But if these books aren’t being “enjoyed”–Ulysses or In Search of Lost Time come to mind–then how classic are they, really? I would argue that most classics would have largely fallen out of favor if allowed to. It seems like it’s become socially unacceptable to rag on Mrs Dalloway. But if it wasn’t … would people still read it outside of colleges? I’m not sure.

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