There’s no single answer for what a “classic” book is. For anyone who ventures an answer, many others will disagree and propose their own definitions, such as the 14 various definitions offered in a New York Review article – none of which I agree with. I found most of these “definitions” to be tongue-in-cheek and more for entertainment than classification. For example, the first definition offered was, “The classics are the books of which we usually hear people say: ‘I am rereading…’ and never ‘I am reading….'”. Nonetheless, there are a few common features shared by classic books that most will probably agree with in kind though perhaps not in the same proportions: age, popularity, and impact. I put forth an initially cautious definition for a classic book as one that contains these three features. However, these criteria collapse to a very simple definition with a little thought.
Long in the Tooth
The first thing we might think of when we hear “classic” is “old”. After all, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is certainly an American classic and it’s old. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic and even older. Plato’s Apology is classic and downright ancient. Thus, we certainly have a correlation between classic books and old books. Then, when we try to think of a new classic, we might come up empty, or at least admit we consider recently published works as “classics in the making”. Hence, we can conclude that classic books are old books. (Admittedly, however, the definition of “old” is another debate.)
But is the converse true? Are old books classic books? Let’s see. How many of you have encountered A Man Called Peter by Catherine Marshall? (I picked a random old-ish book off my shelf.) If you have, congratulations on being well-versed in the moderately obscure. Though the book did achieve enough popularity to earn a film adaptation, the majority of you will never have heard of it, even though it is only moderately old, published in 1951. Old books are not classic books. In reality, very few books ever written, even during times as to now make them “old”, are classic books. Classic books are the select few that have not been lost in history. In a sense, there is a Darwinist aspect to classics: the best survive.
The Love of the People
One of the reasons A Man Called Peter by Catherine Marshall is not a classic, beyond the fact that it is only just old enough age-wise, is that it was never exceedingly popular – at least not compared to more widely read works of the time. There are a myriad of books hundreds of years old that never gained enough popularity to be preserved throughout history. The reason is apparent: popular books get reprinted, unpopular books do not get reprinted.
“But”, you might argue, “there were many so-called famous authors who died in poverty because their books were not popular enough to earn them a decent living.” True, many classic books were not famous immediately following their publication. However, works like Machiavelli’s The Prince (really a letter more than a book when written) became popular later on and stayed popular for hundreds of years. The popularity criterion is not bound by time.
Age and popularity for criteria might seem somewhat superficial, for who cares how old and widely read a book is so long as it’s good?. However, age and popularity are criteria only because they increase impact. Hence, my definition for a “classic” book is very simple: a classic book is one that has had significant impact in the world. Now, we are stuck arguing over the qualification of “significant”, but I propose a book achieves “significant” impact when it impresses an idea of philosophy or art on a society as a whole. More subjectivity, but to a lesser degree.
Another aspect that determines whether a book becomes a classic or not is the universality of its themes. Too specific of a message won’t appeal to wide enough people in diverse times for the work to mature into a classic. Truth, justice, virtue, revenge, beauty, despair, etc. are things all people will understand; hence the classics often highlight these universal ideas.
Time Out: Can Modern Books Be Classics?
Yes and no. They aren’t now, but they might become classics in the future. Though many books have become popular, it’s hard to tell which books will continue to be popular while instilling a multi-generational worldview. The modern book has some advantages in light of the ability for a book to be disseminated around the world nearly instantaneously. Hence, the modern book can achieve a much wider readership and rise in the public sphere much faster than ever before. On the other hand, the modern book suffers from the short attention spans of the modern man; as soon as books are read (if at all), they are more quickly forgotten. A movie adaptation of a book will in many cases overshadow the original book as the true “classic”, since we tend to remember movies better than books (along with the much larger marketing budgets for movies over books). We are mostly visual creatures, after all.
There is no “instant classic”, despite the various book reviews that might claim so. Because the making of a classic is truly a vote by all readers afterwards, the making of a classic takes time – often generations. Predicting which modern works will become classics and which will fall into obscurity is difficult, because many works that were private, obscure, or even banned in their own time emerged into the mainstream later.
How Do Books Become Classics?
I admit there is not a hard definition enabling a scientific assessment of what is classic and what is not. Such discernment between classic books and merely good books might be something too democratic to ascertain definitively. The process of reading a book, adopting some idea from it, and talking about the idea through the book is the very process that helps codify a work as a classic, albeit often in retrospect. Each time we read a book and promote it in some way (by conversation or recommendation), we cast a vote for this book. The more this book gets “voted for”, the more likely it will become a classic.
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Image credit to Tom Murphy VII under the GNU Free Documentation License.