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What Makes a Book a 'Classic'?

Daniel O'hEidhin By Daniel O'hEidhin Published on May 8, 2016

What makes a particular book a 'classic'? What are the criteria for a book to join the pantheon of the greats? Every bookstore has, or at least should have, at least a shelf or two dedicated to those books that are deemed irrefutable 'classics'. Does a book need to be of certain vintage in order to qualify? Or perhaps is a classic only a classic when critics say it is? Maybe it's a book with the ability to be read by the widest, most diverse audience? Maybe it's all of these things, or none of them.

Classics are old books though, right? So let's assume the key trait all classics share is that they have withstood the test of time. Traversing the centuries, continually resonating with resounding vigour, these books are as embraced and beloved as they were in generations past. Jane Eyre is read even more widely now than when it was published in 1847. And Maria Edgeworth's novel Castle Rackrent, published in 1800, (which has been dubbed the first ever historical novel) is also an academic staple. Then there's Twain, Dickens, Wilde, Dumas, Hardy, Tolstoy, among so many others that meet this criteria of withstanding the test of time.

To accept this definition, however, means to ignore all the twentieth century had to offer the literary world, and shows how flimsy that definition truly is. How can one, in good conscience, ignore To Kill a Mocking Bird, published in 1960 and instantly sending shockwaves throughout our collective conscious. How can we ignore Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye and Nineteen Eighty-Four, all so deserving of the moniker 'classic'?

And how about our own contemporaries? The inclusion of Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace among those who have written classics would raise few eyebrows. So a book's vintage clearly isn't an accurate measure of what makes a classic, a classic. Instead a truer criteria might be that a classic is a classic when it has, or it will, stand the test of time.

Lucy Mangan of The Guardian tackles the question of what makes a children's book a classic and ties this point together nicely:

what unites both old, modern and future classics is their ability to deal with larger themes, involving eternal truths.

Perhaps my favourite definitions of a classic, however, come from Italo Calvino in his collection of essays published in 1991 (and often considered a classic, itself), titled: Why Read the Classics? In it he offers 14 definitions of a 'classic':

1. The classics are those books which usually hear people saying: 'I'm rereading...', never 'I'm reading...' 
2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them. 
3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconscious. 
4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading. 
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before. 
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers. 
7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed. 
8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
10. A classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works.
13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.
14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

Throughout my years of working as a bookseller I've been regularly asked how I determine what belongs among the great pantheon of classics and what belongs in general fiction, for example. Despite my best efforts, a really great answer still eludes me. In truth, my answer is always the easy out: 'I put the books where I expect you, the customer, would look for them.' In short, I think you, the reader, decides what a classic is, and where it belongs.

This video by Jeffrey Brenzel, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University, outlines in 2 minutes some excellent ways we can identify a classic:

What do you think makes a classic book a classic? What is the dividing line between 'essential reading' and a classic for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on what books you consider classics, and why. 

Former bookseller, keen writer, travel lover.