Thursday 9 April 2020

What is a Classic?

Originally published on the 28th August 2012, this post about classic books has been revised and updated for the latest Classics Club discussion on this topic.

I've been mulling over 'What is a classic?' ever since I spotted The Classics Club blog for the first time a couple of months ago.
I've put off compiling my classics club list because I kept getting befuddled over what books to include and what not to include. 
There are as many ways to define 'Classic' as there are to classify it - Ancient, Classical, English, French, Russian, German, Chinese, American, African-American, Australian, Japanese, Renaissance, Western, Eastern, fairytale, children's, modern, award winning, Victorian, biography, poetry and non-fiction just to name a few! 

Originally, 'classic' probably referred to works of literature from Ancient Greece and Rome. To read a 'classic' you had to know Latin & Linear B! 'Classic' seemed to be a term devised by scholars and other learned folk to talk about something old and venerable and difficult for the average person to access. 
However, once upon a time these classic texts from Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia, Crete and Rome were modern stories. Once upon a time these 'classics' were examples of contemporary literature.

These, once contemporary, now 'classic' books spoke to the people of that time about the issues that affected them and informed their daily lives.

Their daily lives, according to the stories, may have been full of interfering gods, despotic leaders and war, yet personal relationships, the environment and how to live a good life were just as important then as they are now. 
The 'classic' world was also a world of men. It was their intellect, humour and physical prowess that was celebrated and prized. It was the male experience that was valued and worthy of being written down & preserved. 
I find that Ancient Classic texts often feel haunted by the untold number of stories that have been lost ignored or unrecorded. The stories told by the women and children, the slaves and the uneducated from this time are all but lost to us forever. 
Moving further forward to a time when women did write and publish stories, they were often considered unworthy of attention by the men who ruled the publishing and literary world. These authors are now being rediscovered as our way of viewing the world and our history has widened and diversified.
All the books we now consider to be 'classics' were once modern and contemporary. Were these books considered classic at the time? Probably not. They may have been highly regarded, respected and lauded, but would they speak to future generations? Would they pass the test of time? 
Historical fiction is a special case. They are not only stories that seek to bring to light a time gone by, but they do so through the lens of the time the author was writing it. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy is a perfect example of historical fiction revised and reinterpreted through modern eyes. She not only tells us about the world of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, as it was, as it might have been, but we also feel the modernness of the writing style and the ideas about history, documentation and the great unsaid/unknown. Dare I say that these books will be considered classics by future generations?

Classics are great stories, grand stories, epic stories that have lasted through the generations. They have stood the test of time. They have staying power and longevity because they not only speak to the audience of the time, but they also have the ability to speak to people from all times. Their themes are universal AND personal. These stories are reborn as 'classics' with each each new generation they speak to.  
How do some of our more famous authors describe a classic? 
Mark Twain:  "Classic. A book which people praise and don't read." 
Stephen Leacock: "The classics are only primitive literature. They belong to the same class as primitive machinery and primitive music and primitive medicine." 
Jane Austen: "The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." 
Cliff Fadiman: "When you reread a classic, you do not see more than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.  
Edith Wharton: "A classic is classic not because it conforms to structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and impressionable freshness."
Italo Calvino: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
Amy Lowell: "In literature, read the oldest. The classics are always modern.
Lawrence Clark Powell: "What makes a book great, a so-called classic, is its quality of always being modern, of its author, though he be long dead, continuing to speak to each generation."
There you go! 
I knew if I looked long enough, I would find someone who had already said what I was trying to say, only better!   
There are any number of 'classics' that were unknown, ignored or not respected during their time, but which grew to be important later on. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is one of the most obvious choices for this award. 
I also wonder which of the books that we're reading and blogging about today will be the classics of the future? 
In my classics club lists, I have defined 'modern classic' as a book written more than 25 years ago but after WW2.
I wonder which contemporary books (written since 1987 - or now, 1995 as the case may be eight years later) will turn up on Classics Club book lists in 50 years time? 
My thoughts
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth 
Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel 
Lincoln in The Bardo by George Saunders 

What do you think?


  1. Anonymous28/8/12

    I'm sorry to say I haven't read the three books you listed, but I'm thinking The Help by Kathryn Stockett may end up on Classic Club members book lists.

    I just love the quote of Italo Calvino--that's a wonderful definition for a classic! :)

  2. inetresting discussion. I wonder if one test is whether the book attracts ongoing academic discussion - if its discussion confined to popular newspapers or magazines it wouldn't count. so that would rule out The Help...

    1. Perhaps, although the academic discussions often only occur once the book is 'classic'!
      Most of Dickens works was serialised for the daily papers while the academics of the time studied Ovid and Plato.

  3. It's so interesting to contemplate which books are going to end up classics. I think for sure Harry Potter will be one of the treasured classics. (And this is me guessing after I've only just read the first book for the first time.) :)

    1. *They have staying power and longevity because they not only speak to the audience of the time, but they also have the ability to speak to people from all times.* What a great definition. x

    2. Thanks Jillian.
      One of the lovely things about revisiting an old post like this one, was seeing the blogger friends who have been around for a long time too.
      Some no longer blog and some keep popping up when I least expect it.
      Hope all is well and safe where you are right now xo

  4. Some commonalities I've noticed amongst books that are considered classics (especially vintage classics which is what I'm focusing on for TCC):

    1. the book reveals something about the lifestyle of the time period when it was written (for example, what it was like to be a woman in the 1930s)
    2. the book is an example of how a genre was written at that time and allows the reader to see how that genre has evolved (for example, mysteries from The Golden Age)
    3. the book makes obvious that some things are timeless (for example, particular personality types or challenges in life)

    "What Is A Classic" could really be an eternal discussion, and it will certainly be interesting to see which modern novels began to receive that designation in the future.

    1. I like your three points. They seem to cover all of what I would personally define a classic as. :)

  5. This is a nice article. Though each definition quoted does not seem to capture the whole, together they complete it, I think.

  6. I think Calvino and Powell offer great definitions of a classic. It seems to me that a book that is as powerful to new readers 100 years (or more) after it was written as it was to its original audience is a classic. Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway, To Kill a Mockingbird all come to my mind. I think it is really subjective though, because each reader is limited in what will be powerful to them by their own abilities and experiences. There may be amazing books in Spanish, for example, but I can't read them so they won't be on my list which makes my list of classics flawed from the get-go. I think Gilead by Marilyn Robinson may be a modern book destined to be a classic.

  7. What is the Russian book you have pictured? I know it says "my first book" at the top, and L. N. Tolstoy is the author. I assume it's the Tolstoy we all know, since those are his initials, but I can't find that he wrote a book called "Birdie" which is how google translate translates the title of the book (I wasn't familiar with that word, so I had to look it up). Birdie could be an incorrect translation but none of the Russian titles from his bibliography match the Russian word птичка anyway. Just curious!

    1. I confess that the book images above were found during a google search for "old classics". I simply liked the cover of the Tolstoy book (I assumed the same thing about the author as you did). Perhaps it is Boyhood or Youth judging by the pic??

  8. Mark Twain...he's so hysterical.

    I have a feeling this question will be one that evolves from generation to generation, as well as the books on one's classic list. I hope future readers will always have a desire to read the distant past.

    1. 'Mark Twain...he's so hysterical.' Especially now his books are also considered classics!

      There are often things happening contemporaneous to the author writing that means their books are not appreciated at the time. Melville upset the Christian groups with his attacks on missionaries and they widely panned his books and questioned his sanity. It took until the 1920's for a new generation, not influenced by these factors to appreciate his work.

      Women in general, had the same problem until recent times thanks to the male dominance of the literary and educational world. Books from people who had been enslaved, colonised or marginalised are only just becoming accepted as classics of their experience in our times.

      I'm sure future generations will redefine what is a classic. Maybe graphic novels and books about the Covid-19 pandemic will become classics too.

  9. Nice post! Well worth bringing back.

    I'd have to agree with the Vikram Seth & the Hilary Mantel. I really need to read Lincoln In The Bardo.

    I saw the discussion at the Classics Club blog, too. I should think about this & write a post.

    1. I think you should too Reese! Your extensive reading in the classics area would make for some interesting reflections on this topic.

  10. I love the essay Italo Calvino wrote to try and define a classic. His test of re-readability is the one that resonates most with me. Hence why I love Middlemarch so much, I always find something new in it.
    Which contemporary novels will become classics in the future? A tough question. Mantel's Cromwell novels will I think will because they took historical fiction into a new dimension. I'm hoping the English Patient by Michael Ondaatjee will become a classic too

    1. I can see that I will now have to hunt down Calvino's Why Read the Classics to see for myself!

      I've reread Jane Austen and Jane Eyre enough times to, at different times in my life to have a LOT to say about the joys and the necessity of rereading great books more than once. Having just finished Moby-Dick, I can see that it would also be one of those books the gives more with each reread.

      I'm planning on rereading the first 2 Mantel's before beginning on the third, so that will be my little test to see if they might become classics by passing the rereading rule. I seem to recall enjoying the movie version of An English Patient more than the book. But I was a lot younger then and susceptible to the romantic elements highlighted in the movie :-)

  11. Thought-provoking post. Perhaps some of Atwood's tales would be considered classics (like The Handmaid's Tale, although that's from 1985). I should read Vikram Seth .... I've read the two others: Mantel & Saunders ...

    1. Yes, I can see The Handmaid's Tale in particular becoming a classic - good call.


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.