A Classic Dilemma

November 08, 2010

Last weekend, my husband, mother-in-law and I had a, shall we say, spirited discussion about what “classic” novels are, and whether or not we should read them. We discussed who decides what a “classic” is, why a book would be considered a classic, what modern literature will someday be considered classic and so on.

The three of us are all avid readers, with very different tastes. My husband argued that we should read modern books that deal with modern social issues and situations, instead of reading traditional classics that perhaps deal with issues of days gone by. I argued that as a writer, I feel I should at least attempt to read books that have been deemed classics in order to educate myself about literature.  (My mother-in-law diplomatically could see both our points of view.)

This discussion got me thinking about classics—I couldn’t easily define what makes a book a classic, so I decided to research and think about it a bit more. From my research, it seems there is considerable difference of opinion and shades of grey on this subject, but there are a few common points. A “classic” should have an element of timelessness—the work has connected with readers over many decades, and the theme—love, death, guilt, loyalty, innocence, etc.—is relevant now as well as when it was written. Classics often greatly influence modern writers. In addition, as Liz Foley, Vintage Classics Editorial Director, wrote, “There usually has to be more to these books than simply a rollicking good story—either in terms of the depth of the issues they discuss, the innovative nature of their stylistic form or the impact they have on contemporary culture.”

With limited reading time, I try to balance reading classics with reading current literature and with "comfort reads." If the classic I choose proves to be unreadable for me for some reason—I dislike the characters, the story doesn’t interest or engage me, or something simply doesn’t click—I put it aside, perhaps to try again later, perhaps not. There are far too many “classics” for me ever to read in my lifetime, and I figure if I don’t like one, I will just as easily find one I do like. For example, I don’t care for Hemingway and Henry James, but I love Jane Austen and would like to read more Dickens, rather to my surprise.

What do you think? What makes a book “classic”? What classics have you enjoyed (or not) and why? What modern books do you think will be classics 100 years from now? If you’re interested in reading classics, there are any number of lists to consult, from Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels, to Great Books of the Western World, the Penguin Classics, Everyman’s Library, the Harvard Classics and many more. (For an excellent discussion of what makes a classic, see Foley’s entire article here.)

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  1. I read Classics at Univeristy for a while - so to be it is Homer etc. Ancient Greek and Roman works. Then there are the books I have to read that are looking at me such as The Tain - the pre-history of Ireland.
    Then there are the Modern Classics, which a love. 18th and 19th Century pieces (and of course Shakespeare) such as Austen and Du Maurier, things in the Penguin Classics. But then again, the modern modern classics which hold some of the best works I have read. Books about the holocaust, Midnight's Children, Catch 22 - God you have me all confused now - hahahahahaha

    I need a lie down :)

  2. It is a hard question--there are books that are not in the "Canon" that I think should be--and who decides, some authors seem to be popular or well respected and taught yet will fall out of favor. I think your description of a classic is also what I think of--a timelessness to the story, one that can be applied to today even though it was written hundreds of years ago or that has done something new and innovative and changed what comes after. As for what books today will be read in a hundred years--that's a tricky question. I tend to read either older books/accepted classics or contemporary books that are probably more popular and not necessarily books that will be around later. I'm not very good with experimental fiction--I really struggle with that sort of book, but I wish I had more patience for it. I do need to vary my reading more--more literary contemporary fiction--but there is so little time to squeeze it all in!

  3. Carrie--in one of the discussion threads I read, one person thought of dividing the classics into "first tier" and "second tier"--with the less universally agreed upon "classics" in the second tier. Of course, then there would be disagreement about which books belonged where!

    Sorry I drove you to a lie down! (Hope you read the book of your choice while you were there...)

  4. Danielle--So many books, so little time! I tend to read older books, too, and wouldn't even begin to try to guess what will be considered "classic" in the future. The good thing is that there are so many books considered classic by someone, that we're bound to find some we like. As for experimental fiction, I can't say I've ever read any--I suspect I wouldn't have any patience with it either. I can suspend my disbelief only so far and then I begin to become irritated!

  5. I haven't read very many classics, but I've read a few - some I liked (Jane Austen, Carson McCullers) and some I didn't (James Joyce, William Faulkner). I agree with you comment about timelessness of theme being important for a book to be considered a classic. But just because a book is considered a classic, doesn't mean I'm going to read it. There are way too many books I want to read to waste time on a book I don't like. But since I'm a member of a book club, I have found myself reading a few books I wouldn't otherwise read - sometimes that's good, and sometimes it isn't.

  6. I agree with your comment wholeheartedly--just because it's a classic doesn't mean I'm going to read it. There has to be some element that attracts me to the story and keeps me wanting more.

    Book clubs for me are a mixed blessing for just the reasons you say. I've been introduced to some great books I'd never have picked up otherwise, but I've also read some I didn't like at all.

  7. I'm not much of a classic reader. I don't care for the stilted language in some and I must be one of the few who don't care for Jane Austen. My favorite classics are (and I'm not even sure if they are but I had to read them in high school and they've stuck with me forever and if that doesn't make them a classic, it should) Fahrenheight 451, Lord of The Flies and Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

  8. Hi Kathy,

    I really enjoyed this post. I have wondered about this also, especially a couple of Christmases ago when I wanted to buy my son a set of classic books. I went to Boarders and they had many 2 in 1 volumes so that helped. I bought myself several John Steinbeck, and I love them so much.

    I appreciate the links that you provided. I have read quite a few of the books on the lists, much to my surprise. Some of the real old ones I don't remember, because it was in 1976/77 ... but the others I do.

    I remember others that are not on there that I will never forget, like "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".

    Any way, thank you again.

    The Other Kathy Johnson

  9. I suspect we'll all have different opinions on this one! I do notice the thread of "timelessness" running through the opinions. I agree, that what we call classics are those with an element of (somewhat) universal appeal.

    I find that the stories I enjoy touch on adventure, spiritual searches, and the unraveling of mystery. Human drama plays a part (I like Austen, too!), but I think mainly in the context of an evolving of the characters, and the growth of the individual.

    So you can guess that my classics tend to be those by London, Conrad, and even Dumas, ...and let me say that I'd like to add present-day writers like Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) and Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) to the list.

    There are WAY too many wonderful books out there - I might change my mind tomorrow!

  10. Timaree--It's true that some of the "classics" do contain stilted language...those are the ones I often put aside. But I think the books you've listed qualify for classic status at least by some people's measure. Classic or not, I think we should read what makes us happy, because life is too short to read boring books!

  11. Hi, Kathy--good to hear from you and glad you enjoyed the post. I sometimes wish we could all meet in person and just discuss these things because it would be so fun to hear everyone's opinions. Few people are more passionate than book lovers when they get going! I think you've also hit on another possible definition of classic: a book that stays with you for years.

  12. Elizabeth--Great writers (I love Annie Dillard, too). We are lucky, aren't we, to have so much to choose from?

  13. What makes a classic? I'm inclined to think it's any work that illuminates the depths of the human heart in a unique way, that reveals something to the reader that she may not have considered before in that light, and, yes, that affects a reader in 2010 as surely as the day it was published. I'm not sure, is the timeless quality an outgrowth of its universality?

    I do believe each of us is perennially drawn to certain themes in life (altho these can change with time), and only those artworks which align with our inner compasses will "click" and stick with us. My big frustration with lists of "classics" is often that the choices are so dark and heavy, focusing for the most part on the dark side of human nature. Comedies (in the Greek sense) rarely get the academic nod.

  14. Meredith--thank you for the thoughtful and interesting comment. I especially agree that the so-called "classics" often are dark and heavy, which is often not what I'm looking for in reading material.

  15. ...classics are a must. I love them. I learn from them every time I read them. Long live Jane Austen...or at least her characters! :-)

  16. Kelly--a fellow Austen lover! What's your favorite? I love Pride and Prejudice the best, as cliche as that is.