Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What is a Classic?

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 been putting off compiling my #cclist 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 about the issues that were of their time.

Their time and place, according to the stories, may have been full of interfering gods, despotic leaders and war, yet 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, the children, the slaves and the uneducated from this time are all lost to us forever.

This idea of a classic being a book that once was modern and contemporary applies to all the sub-genre's within 'classic'. Even those stories classified as historical fiction were stories that somehow defined the time they were written in as well as the time in history they were set.

They 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 become a 'classic' as they speak to each new generation.

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!

I wonder if there are any 'classics' that were unknown, ignored or not respected during their time, but which grew to be important later on?

I also wonder which of the books that we're reading and blogging about today will be the classics of the future?

In my list, I have 'modern classic' as a book written more than 25 years ago but after WW2.

I wonder which contemporary books (written since 1987) will turn up on The 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?

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.) :)

  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??


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