Many of us have a few classic books on our TBR lists. Some of us are taking on reading challenges to get really stuck into the classics. The classics are the creme of the crop, the monuments of literature that weather the passing of time, and so they are a goal toward which many a reader aspires. But what really defines a classic? Just what is it that makes a classic a classic? I, too, have goals of getting through a few classics but at the same time I have, what is to me, an equally important goal of only reading what I enjoy reading. Life’s too short to waste on books I don’t find personally satisfying.
I have read a number of books that really impacted me, left me thinking about the world or myself, or opened my eyes to something in life. Some of these are classics and some are not classified as mainstream classics. But does that mean that they can’t be classics to me? I went in search of answers and what I found confirmed my own hunches; there are criteria for what constitutes a classic but there is great debate around this and what constitutes a classic is largely subjective.
The best explanation of defining classics I found with which I agreed was this quote from the Brain Picking’s post What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes on Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography wherein a classic is defined:
“First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.”
However, readers also play an important role in what gets to be called a classic since we are the ones buying books. This interesting article in the Salon What Makes A Book A Classic by Laura Miller points to that fact that what is deemed a classic is extremely subjective and it is in bookshops where we see the conundrum of categorising which books go where. Essentially books are shelved where they believe readers will go looking for them and this must shift the definition of the classic away from the scholarly toward the reader. As the Salon article points out for example; JRR Tolkein’s books are classics to his fans and not to others. Times change, readers change, and how we view books changes.
What makes a classic is then an ever-changing mythical beast. I think what constitutes a classic is a less important question than why read the classics. So why read the classics? For that answer seek Italo Calvino’s book Why Read the Classics. In this book Calvino offers 14 definitions of what he thinks makes a classic, which you can read in this Brain Pickings post, my favourite of the definitions and my answer to why I want to read the classics is no. 11:
“‘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.”
A few years ago a came across an extract on the internet from a letter that Franz Kafka is said to have written to his schoolmate Oskar Pollak in 1904 which I think is also the definition of a classic. Kafka writes that we should only read the kinds of books he describes in this extract but I would not be so limiting…different times call for different kinds of books. That said, it does seem to fall in line with what I would hope a ‘classic’ would evoke in me:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? […] A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”
If it moves you, speaks to you, calls to be reread, then it is a classic to you. What books are classics to you? What are your thoughts on the criteria for what constitutes a classic? Should the books that were classified as classics in the past continue to be classified as such in the future or can we (should we) review this status?