As 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:
“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?