What Makes a Classic?

August 14, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 4 Comments

I’ve been posting what I call Forgotten Classics for the past few weeks (on Mondays).  To my teen, I discovered a few days ago that I’m hardly the only person using this term.  There are blogs discussing forgotten films, forgotten cars, forgotten music, and even forgotten sports tournaments, not to mention books.  Evidently plenty of people have a clear idea of what constitutes a classic, and they care enough about it that they want to tell the world: Don’t miss this one!


But what makes something classic?  We can’t really say universal appeal, because there’s always someone who won’t like it.  For instance, my good friend S hated Pride and Prejudice, and she’s not even a man.  I’m going to say that one element is broad appeal.  (And if it appeals to broads, so much the better!)  A classic should be something that nearly everyone will find was worth the time spent taking it in.


What else?  There are all sorts of things that are broadly appealing that will definitely not stand the test of time.  For instance, a close female relative who prefers anonymity reads mass quantities of Harlequin Romance novels, then hides them in paper sacks in the bottom of her closet.  I asked once why she didn’t save money by buying them used at the paperback store, or yard sales for that matter.  She said, “But those are old.”  To me, they’re a cheap, easily acquired commodity.  To her, they are little microcosms filled with period detail, such as fashion, that just expires at a certain point.  It’s true that Harlequins of the 70s and 80s would probably seem (yet more) laughable now, because times change.  It’s even more true with music, because once you’ve heard a song a certain number of times, you’ll most likely find it irritating, no matter how good it really is.


What does stand the test of time?  The selection gets narrower the further back we go, so it seems that there may be an expiration date on every classic.  I’d like to tell you that the Iliad and the Odyssey and Gilgamesh and Beowulf and the Song of Roland will never die.  They might, though.  On the other hand, I’d like to tell you that the Gossip Girls books are probably ephemeral – but they might actually stand out as something amazing 200 years from now.  Ultimately, when I call something a classic, it’s because I believe it’s so for my milieu.  In a thousand years, probably only one percent of the things on that list will still call to people.


All right, enough waffling.  To be a classic, something has to speak to the human condition in some way.  Gilgamesh is a profoundly moving story about the power of friendship, grief, loss, and courage.  Those are all things that everyone can recognize.  Song of Roland?  Conflicting loyalties.  Good stuff.  Aside from that, the execution needs to be of high quality.  This is part of why Where the Wild Things Are is the perfect book.  And, of course, it needs to stand out from among the mass of other worthy things that appeal to universal human experience.  To my mind, this takes uniqueness – it has to be something that nobody else could have accomplished.  The Brothers Karamazov about blew the lid off my skull, you know?  But if I’m going to read Chick Lit, fun as it is, I might as well just put on a blindfold and grab one.


So, okay, my personal Forgotten Classics are probably better titled Forgotten Minor Classics.  It’s unlikely I’m going to run across something of the caliber of Vanity Fair that nobody has heard of in 150 years.  I do think, though, that just about anybody would enjoy these books, that they aren’t showing up on all the ‘100 Best’ lists, and that it would be a shame to let them fade into utter obscurity.


On to you, readers: Is there a “classic” you hated?  Do you have a favorite, favorite book that other people just don’t get?



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  1. I personally didn’t like Crime and Punishment, but apparently deciding what’s classic and not isn’t up to me. Such a shame. 😉

  2. There are lots of “classics” that I couldn’t stand to read. “The Golden Notebook” by Doris Lessing (newer than what most people deem a classic) was hard to get through, and I couldn’t even get a quarter of the way through “The Brothers Karamazov.” I’ve always wondered who gets to choose the classics.

  3. I’ve had this post of yours starred in my Google reader since you wrote it. I keep thinking that I’ll come up with a brilliant answer to the question “What is a Classic?” I haven’t though. The best I can do is this:

    I think classics last because their themes are universal and therefore can be appreciated by successive generations of readers.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post.

  4. It’s funny, but maybe “universal” really translates as “99% universal” or something.

    Not only did I love “Crime and Punishment” and “The Golden Notebook” AND “The Brothers Karamazov,” but I might go so far as to say they are three of my favorite books.

    The one I couldn’t seem to get through was “The Grapes of Wrath.” I didn’t even make it 8 pages!

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