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.)