What Makes A Book A Classic?

October 1, 2012

- See all 164 of my articles

My son is in high school and taking a classics course. He posed the question “what makes a classic a classic?” This is a difficult question to answer. Everyone has there own opinion. There have been many times I was told to read something because it was a classic, yet it seemed to be basically pulp fiction. To me, a classic has certain elements. First, the story must cross the boundaries of time. Although both are considered classics, it is far easier to understand the motives and characters in The Odyssey they those in The Great Gatsby. The reason for this is that The Odyssey was written assuming that the audience did not understand the motives and therefore they are explained in great detail. The Great Gatsby is written only to the audience of the time. What is obvious to the characters and writer are lost on the current audience.

Most people assume that what is popular during their lifetime will be popular for ever. The fact is that only a small portion of the art of a period moves into the future, the far greater proportion drops into obscurity. In music, for the 1700s, many people could identify Mozart, Bach, and Wagner, but few but experts would even know who Buxtehude was (he was Bach’s teacher). In more modern times, who from the 1960’s would have thought that Pink Floyd would still be selling out live performances in the 2010s but find it almost impossible to get a copy of a Guess Who song other than in an compilation.

With the visual arts the same is true. There were literally hundreds of portrait painters in the 1600s, but he Mona Lisa is still the most famous. True, some masterpieces have been lost due to left, natural disaster, war and the temporary nature of the medium. Today, visual classics could be in the work of the commercial advertiser, but we cannot know for sure until a significant about of time has passed.

The same timelessness is the driver for all forms of art, music, visual and literature. Style changes, what is popular changes, but when something can be shared across generations or even centuries, then it becomes a classic. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien could also be considered classics. They are the basic story of good versus evil with a small hero overcoming immense odds. All of this was born in the nightmare that was the trenches of World War I. It has the forms of a classic, not just because it is a favorite among the anachronistic communities, but because the work itself drew upon earlier classics. Tolkien was a professor of classics specializing in Nordic and ancient Anglo-Saxon literature. He wove a tale that included the details required to allow the reader to understand the circumstances of the characters, even after history had moved well beyond the period he was writing in.

The 19th century novelists also went to great lengths to give background information, thus allowing Jane Austin’s works to last as well. Similarly, Shakespeare wrote with the same push for completeness of story. In many of his works, specifically the histories, his audience was rather ignorant of the topic. Schooling was not what it is today, and some of his effort was to educate his audience as well as entertain. Some works are studied in classics courses more for the fame of the author than the durability of the work. Earnest Hemmingway is studied at length, but as time goes on, many of his works fail the test. They are specific to his time and generation. What is famous today may well fall to the wayside. For example, the Harry Potter novels are very popular and even have the classic good versus evil story line, but they will never stand the test of time. The same goes for the Twighlight series and other popular works. These are all good books, as can be seen by their current popularity, sales and movie deals. The bigger test will be if the next generation even hears about them.

So what makes a classic a classic? Only time will tell.

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Chris
    Oct 06, 2012 @ 09:31:43

    I think a classic is something that survives the changes in time and manages to remain popular. I guess this can refer to anything besides books. There are hundreds if not thousands of new books written everyday and if in 10 or twenty years a few are still around and popular then they are classics.


Leave a Reply