The Sunday Salon.comAs I’ve mentioned in passing, I’m working on a reading project for myself for next year. I want it to focus on a certain sort of book which I have been calling “classics.” The problem I keep running into, though, is how, exactly, to define “classic.”

I used to think of a classic as an old book, though I never set a precise date to separate classic from contemporary. Any book from a long time ago counted. Classics were the sort of book they made you read in school, that you had to struggle through and then dissect, reading far more into the book than you’d ever thought possible. I’ve since realized not all old books are classics, in my opinion; nor are all classics necessarily old. So, I won’t be defining classics by age.

Then I thought perhaps classics are those books of any age which stand the test of time, hold up to rereading, and are universally read. I do think that’s partially correct, but the problem I have with such a vague definition is that it leaves the bestowal of the label “classic” to some hazy cultural opinion. There are books I’m sure I’ll consider classics that others will not, and vice versa. Besides, who decides whether a book deserves to be reread? Really, is there any book that’s universally read?

I spent a lot of time poking around online, collecting definitions of “classic.” By far, the most interesting definitions I found were from Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” I checked a book containing it out from the library so I could read the essay (translated by Martin McLaughlin) in full. In it, Calvino builds a definition of “classic” in pieces. Here are some of my favorite components:

Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino (cover)“The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.” (p. 4)

“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.” (p. 4)

“A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.” and “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” (p. 5)

“A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of reading something we have read before.” (p. 5)

“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.” (p. 6)

“‘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.” (p. 7)

I like that Calvino admits there may be many parts to a definition of classic; no single criterion is really sufficient for him. The more I consider my own definition, the more I think it will need to have several parts.

Calvino also points out what does not determine a classic: “the term ‘classic’…makes no distinction in terms of antiquity, style or authority.” (p. 7) He makes this point after giving the last piece of his definition listed above. I believe I like this take on classics, that age, style, and other people’s opinions shouldn’t define your own personal classics.

But if classics become a personal thing, how does one go about locating potential classics in the first place? It seems you’d have to read a book at least once before determining whether or not you’ll consider it a classic. There must, therefore, be some universal list from which to choose potential classics. And, of course, you could always add your own.

I wonder, too, about the difference between a classic and a book from the Western canon, one with strong cultural importance. Wikipedia says a canon is “A group of literary works that are generally accepted as representing a field.” I do think there are books that have cultural importance, but are they classics? Calvino uses the phrase “fundamental works.” To me, that applies more to the canon than to the classics. I’m beginning to think that classics, for me at least, are more personal, whereas the canon is set by culture. Perhaps the myriad attempts to define what the canon should include would be a good starting point from which to construct a reading list of potential classics?

Calvino has some other interesting things to say about the classics, which I’ll include in a later post. I’ll also be sharing my classics definition as it pertains to my reading project when I explain the project itself; for now, I’m just trying to get all my thoughts in one place!

I know some people don’t like to use the term “classic,” which I completely understand. I’m curious, though, as I’m working on my own classics definition, if you do consider some books to be classics, how do you define such books? What makes them classics? And, if you don’t like the term “classic,” do you have some other way of designating books that stand out from the rest? What’s your take on classics vs. books from a canon?

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  1. I’ve given up defining classics purely by what culture teaches because each person refers to different books and there seems to be no definite list. That said there are some, like Bronte, Austen, Dickens, that I think are generally considered classics across the board. I do believe that a classic ought to be a book that people enjoy and there are classics I read for school that no one likes – how does it make sense to call hated books classics?

    So for now I’m using my own definition which is partly defined by major classics (those everyone would agree on) and the rest ones that I consider modern classics, LOTR, Harry Potter, maybe even Twilight. I guess I favour the words “well read and known” rather than classic.

    1. I like “well read and known.” That’s a great place to start. It’s so hard to capture that thing that makes books potential classics!

      I’m with you on hated books. James Joyce…ugh! He will NOT be a part of my classics project 🙂

  2. Honestly? I define classics purely by age. The vague cut-off line for me is about 50 years ago. That’s what we go by in my classics book club, and it works fairly well. There are books younger than that (like The Handmaid’s Tale, or Love in the Time of Cholera) that will likely be classics one day, but as of now, they aren’t yet. They’re two new. There are some people who classify books from the last 5 years as “classics” and that just seems silly to me. Potential classics, sure, but they simply haven’t been around long enough to withstand the test of time.

    I agree probably all old books are not classics. Old books that have survived are generally important for one reason or another, though. I wouldn’t consider the Bible or other old religious texts to be classics, but they are certainly important to many, many people. There are books like Don Quixote which have almost no intrensic literary value, but which changed the way books were written completely and are therefore important to the canon. The Monk was an excellent book but purely pulp fiction, but it really is the epidome of gothic literature, which influenced so many genres for hundreds of years and even to the present. So for the most part, going by age works for me, even if it’s a book that changed or influenced literature rather than one with literary significance on its own.

    I hope that makes sense.

    1. 50 years sounds like a reasonable cutoff. It is hard to bestow classic standing on a 5-year-old book, certainly. I’m starting to think my classics project will include both classics in the age sense and books from the Western canon that I’ve missed. It seems I’ll be making up my own definition to suit my project!

      Thanks for your detailed reply — it does, indeed, make sense.

    1. Thanks for directing me to your post! I left my comments over there. Very interesting discussion/list!

  3. I like your usage of “canon”. I don’t use “classics” because I feel it’s a label that only tells me about the culture that values a specific book, masquerading as a universal label. But if I speak of the English canon, then the connotation that these are books that the English-speaking world has long valued is already there. Useful!

    1. I’m having such a hard time nailing down the terminology and guidelines to use for my reading project! I think I’ll end up using a blend of terminology, though I do think most classics would fit into the canon, if not the other way around.

  4. I don’t know how to define classics — I have a sense of what I consider classics and what not, but I couldn’t tell you what defines them for me. I love all the ways Calvino defines a classic, though! I’m excited to hear more about this book. Calvino’s one of those authors I have been meaning to read forever but just haven’t gotten to yet.

    1. I feel like I have that sense too! Silly me, setting out on a project that requires me to state guidelines. It’s so much easier to go with a gut feeling, sometimes.

      I’ve only read the first essay in the Calvino book, the one where he talks about classics in general. The rest of the essays in the book pertain to classics I’ve not read, for the most part, but I do intend to try a few essays and see if I get anything out of them anyway. I was absolutely delighted by his “Why Read the Classics” essay!

  5. I think “classic” has become such a loaded term … we all bring out own thoughts to the table (and, honestly, mine is one of barely disguised dread). I like the different definitions that you shared … they all ring true to me.

    1. Loaded is a great word for it! I’ve always had that barely disguised dread, and one of the purposes of my upcoming project is to combat it!

  6. Interesting: I love the Calvino excerpts! (And now I want to get that book out from the library, lol)

    I pretty much use the word ‘classic’ as shorthand for ‘book written before 1950,’ but I could just start calling those ‘older books’ I suppose. I can understand the need to define classics more precisely for your project, but I’m rather glad I can just read older books and not worry about whether others would consider them classics or not. hehe

    1. If you like delightfully readable nonfiction, check Calvino out!

      I’m starting to wonder if I really want to be defining “classic”! I feel like I have a sort of gut feeling as to what constitutes a classic, but it’s so hard to put that into words. For me, “classic” is associated with school / analysis / as Jenners said, DREAD! So I have to figure out what marks such books so that I can combat the dread and take back the classics! Maybe I should just judge whether or not a book is a classic by how much I dread reading it 🙂

  7. Wonderful post, and I agree that “classic” can be a loaded term. I sometimes use the term “classic” to refer to age, or use “modern classic” to refer to a book that’s really made an impact despite being relatively new. But it’s curious in that some books that might be classics for some mightn’t be for others.

    (And funnily enough, I just saw this pop up on the Random House Twitter account:
    “A classic is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next generation” F Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful & Damned. More food for thought?)

    1. I’m thinking “modern classic” or, like Amanda said, “potential classic” might be the best way for me to approach newer books that are destined to be classics. The more I think about it, the more I can see how Harry Potter, for example, will be a classic — but I’m not sure I’m willing to give it that label until it’s been around a bit longer!

      I love that Fitzgerald quote! That’s wonderful! Nice timing, Random House!

  8. Love this: “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” I have that Calvino book staring at me from the shelf. Still haven’t read any of it!

    I tend to define classics by age — pre-1950 or so. Some modern books WILL be classics but, probably aren’t there yet. BELOVED by Toni Morrison is a modern classic, it will still be read in 100 years.

    Interesting discussion. I think to some extent it is all about what it means to you, personally. But I do love that Calvino quote about how it has not yet exhausted all it has to say. I love my classics like that!

    1. The Calvino essay really is wonderful! I wanted so badly to just type it all out.

      The more I think about it, the more I wonder if maybe I do feel there’s an age component to a book becoming a classic. I like the idea of “modern” or “potential” classics to refer to books I can’t quite yet consider classics. It’s so hard to nail down that personal gut feeling for what makes a book a classic!

  9. This is a really interesting question. I use “classic” sort of liberally, but that’s because of the kinds of books I most enjoy. Narrative nonfiction/literary journalism didn’t really start as a form until the 1960s or so – there’s some before, but when you talk “classics” in that genre, you’d be hard-pressed to go earlier. So when I think about classics in narrative nonfiction, it’s often really young books, when compared to classics like, say, The Odyssey, when is very, very old 🙂

    1. I never thought about the nonfiction side of classic! Very interesting! I’m curious to see what would be on a narrative nonfiction / literary journalism classics list!

  10. “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.”

    That’s wonderful, that was exactly my experience reading Oedipus Rex in university! I thought it would be boring, since the plot is so well known and it’s on so many lists of classic plays, but it was a truly excellent read, a great insightful story about the human condition, more about Oedipus’s pride really than his mother relations, I thought!

    I’ve always basically equated classics with the western canon, so it’s interesting to see a different take on that. There are also forgotten older books that are being republished now by Persephone Books and others, Virago, NYRB, that whether or not they’re ‘classics’ or part of the canon or just old, are wonderful reads.

    In Susan Hill’s book Howards End is on the Landing, she says the real test of an author’s work comes after they’ve died and are no longer publishing — will their work continue to sell then without anything new coming out to keep their publicity going? I wish I could be around in the future just to see how current popular authors do!

    1. I’ve had that same experience with many of the classics I’ve read as well! I read Oedipus Rex long ago in high school and hardly remember it. I should get it back into my reading lineup!

      I really like Susan Hill’s thoughts on the matter! I think that’s an excellent way to predict potential classics!

  11. This is a really interesting post. I always wonder how books get the label of a classic. To me, it has to do with how long it has been around, but more importantly, how widely read it still is. So if something has been around for 200 and is still read, that is definitely a classic!

    Thank you SO much for the holiday card and the recommendations, I cannot wait to try those books out!

    1. I’m glad the card arrived! I hope you enjoy whichever recommendations you choose to follow up on 🙂

      How widely a book is still read sounds like a good way to measure a classic. That’s a bit more concrete of a measurement than the gut feeling I tend to base my decisions on!

  12. Great post Erin! I was surprised and excited when I saw and read this post but I’ve taken a long time to reply. Sorry about that. I have been thinking a lot about what the term “classic” means in relation to books. As an English major I read a lot of the old established great writers that many of us are familiar with and for a long time thought the Shakespeare, Brontes, Austen, Hemingway, James, Wharton, Hawthorne, Faulkner, Fitzgerald etc. were the classics. But those books alone don’t constitute the classics. To some degree I think it is personal, at least a bit. And I like much of what Calvino says.

    I’m still thinking this over. But in 2011 much of my reading is going to be returning to the wonderful books I read years ago and have been away from for too long, along with ones I have not read an always ment to, such as Voltaire. And then some others that may not be “classic’ for everyone. I’m still figuring it all out!

    ~ Amy

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! The more comments on this post I read, the more I realize how personal the definition of “classic” is. Everyone defines it differently, yet I can see the logic behind each person’s approach. It’s a topic I find myself pondering often. I’ll keep an eye on what you’re reading and maybe add some of your picks to my own project!

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