Sometimes, I find it remarkable that I managed to get through school enjoying reading as much as I did and do when I consider many of the books I was obliged to read under the guise of ‘classics’ (or award-winners, but that’s a different post). Even the ones that I think belong on that list, and that are well worth reading, like 1984, Hamlet (sort-of), To Kill and Mocking Bird, or Huckleberry Finn were so belabored, overanalyzed, deconstructed, dissected, and interpreted as to be almost beyond recognition, and certainly beyond appreciation. One cannot help but wonder if people would enjoy Shakespeare more if they were not forced to spend weeks pondering three lines of dialogue.

We could, and perhaps should, write a post on how we could better go about teaching classics, and literature in general for that matter, so that people can actually appreciate them; considering how many ‘classics’ I read, I like to think I might be rudimentarily qualified to craft such an argument. Today, though, I want to examine what makes a classic a classic. Mere age? Genre? Writing style or craft? How depressing the book is? Messages? Enduring themes? There will necessarily be changes to the list of classics from time to time, and doubtless many factors must contribute to making a book a ‘classic’, but we should be able to come up with a rigorous definition that will endure. To do that, we need to understand what we’re even trying to accomplish by categorizing something as ‘classic.’

Even defining this much is surprisingly difficult, not least because everyone who makes a list of works they consider classics has their own agenda and their own motivations which influence why they make the choices they do. Maybe it’s a political narrative, or a desire by literary critics to support literary authors, who together exist in a kind of self-reinforcing cycle of writing and reading and recommending literature that no one else is interested in reading, or something less conscious, like certain fundamental and perhaps unrecognized assumptions about human nature, but it is necessarily there, and what books one desires to be on the list will oftentimes drive the definition. My own preconceived notions of what I want on the list will doubtless and inevitably influence the definition I ultimately present, although I’m hopeful that the process of rigorously deriving it with you in this post will help to mitigate those biases. By calling something a classic, we are not merely trying to increase its readership – that’s for what ‘award-winning,’ ‘best seller’, and similar appellations are intended. Rather, calling something a classic is, in the modern context (and I make this distinction to distinguish the concept from being simply associated with the ‘classical era’ of human history), a means of drawing a deeper kind of attention to a given work.

When picking up, say, the latest Cradle novel, most of us won’t approach it with the same mindset with which we engage something like War of the Worlds or A Christmas Carol. Our scholastic experiences, and the way in which our culture deploys the ‘classic’ descriptor, prepares us to engage in a different way with the pieces we call classics from the pieces to which we don’t apply that label. Calling something a classic prepares readers to read, well, more deeply. It’s a way of managing expectations and instructing readers to read into the text for more than just what the words are saying or the story the piece is telling. This is what we are trying to accomplish with the ‘classic’ label: management of readers’ expectations so that they engage with the book in a more critical (in the literary sense) way than they might with the newest vampire romance. It’s a little signpost alerting readers to slow down because this book has Something Important to say.

Calling something a classic is like a trigger for this little English Teacher mode circuit in our brains with which we are all implanted by the indoctrination efforts of grade school English classes, but instead of thinking just about the ‘classic’ label, it might be more useful to consider ‘classics’ as a genre, because it acts in much the same way. We use genres and sub-genres to guide our reading and, again, to manage reader expectations. If you’re one of the sad, dull, unimaginative people* out there about whom I’ve heard who don’t like unrealistic elements in what you read, or, even sadder**, one of those people who only reads nonfiction, you know to avoid certain genres. Confronted with the overwhelmingly immense variety of possible reading material, genres are a shorthand, a categorization technique, that lets us more readily sort through the literary database for the books we will most enjoy, appreciate, or find useful. In this sense, ‘classic’ is just another genre, like fantasy, biography, romance, comedy, or science fiction. Shelving something as a classic is akin to shelving something under fantasy – it tells readers who are looking for something specific out of what they read whether or not they will find it in a given book.

*just kidding (mostly)

**again, kidding. You know I read almost every genre, so I’m hardly one to speak

If the purpose of the ‘classic’ label is to manage reader expectations in a way akin to genre categorization, we can begin to approach defining ‘classic’ in a more familiar context, because we know how to define other genres. We define genres by certain shared elements, techniques, tropes, styles, and so forth, like how fantasy involves elements of the fantastic (hence the name, I know) like magic, or how science fiction involves extrapolations and speculations from reality. It might not always be easy to define a given book within a genre, like how some people are very upset by people like me who call Star Wars fantasy with science fiction set dressings, and books will sometimes fit under multiple genres, but defining the genre itself is a little more straightforward. The trick is to do better than a certain famous (infamous?) quote from a court case about pornography, and not leave it at “I know it when I see it.”

To build our definition, now that we have taken the derivation to the point of understanding the purpose of the ‘classic’ label or genre, we must define the elements which classics contain, like the magic in fantasy. Classics, for one thing, cannot be instant. I’m not going to put a specific age requirement on the genre, but because of some of the other elements we are about to identify, a certain longevity is appropriate. They should be enduring – that is, they should have a relevance that transcends a given historical context. Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, despite being written in a different language and more than two thousand years ago, manages to remain relevant in its explanations of logic and debate. It doesn’t matter that we’ve long passed 1984‘s titular year – the story has not become less relevant. Whether in the form of enduring human themes, elemental stories, information, or philosophies, classics must not be tied temporally in their relevance.

Endurance alone is not enough to make a classic, though, or any work that happens to last a long time and be sufficiently broad would qualify; therefore, classics must also exhibit a certain quality of writing. So many of Dickens‘ works make lists of classics because they are well written, in addition to the enduring themes upon which they dwell. Shakespeare’s versions of stories repeated throughout human history are not just classics because he successfully retold stories humans had been telling since Gilgamesh, but because of the meter and style in which he wrote them (or Francis Bacon, or whoever).

Classics must also be Human. At least in this sense, a physics paper, even if it is beautifully written and remains relevant for hundreds or thousands of years, is not a classic (sorry, Principia Mathematica). It is not enough that these works should be enduring and well-written; they must raise questions and inquire into human nature, and seek to peer behind the veil of mystery that is the puzzle of human existence. They are classics because they address the unsettled, engage with the ill-defined, examine the mysterious. This is what merits the greater depth of thought and engagement with which classics are approached.

Finally, classics should be challenging. Not in the sense that they use difficult words or complex sentence structures, or even in the sense that they must address difficult topics (like the ones of modern political relevance that seem at times the main driver of what is today listed as ‘classic’), but rather in the sense that, when a reader engages with them, they should guide the reader, encourage them, to think in an unaccustomed way, to imagine something they heretofore did not, to expand their horizons. They should ask questions without easy answers, plumb the complexities of human character, or philosophy, or morality, or the world in which we live. This is how they linger in the mind after we are finished reading them, because they don’t answer the challenges they present, they just raise them, and guide the reader along the thought process for a little while, just enough to get them started (because, as you know by now from reading this site, there are no right answers, just wrong and less wrong answers).

A classic, therefore is a piece of literature in any form that has enduring relevancy, a high quality of writing, an engagement with human questions, and that challenges the reader. It is not enough for it to meet only one or a few of these categories – it must meet all of them. So, while the list of classics might change from time to time under this definition, the definition itself is not tied to any one temporality. It took quite a while to get to this definition, and I think it’s a strong, rigorous one that will stand up to challenges, but what might be even more important than the definition is some of the journey we took to get there, especially the observation that labeling something as a classic is really just like labeling it as any other genre, a way of managing reader expectations. Maybe, after going through this exercise with me, you should sit down and try to come up with a list of what you would consider classics. For me, the best way of doing this that I’ve found is to consider what books people might still be reading in a thousand years. I might assemble my own (necessarily incomplete) list of classics in the future, but for now, I suggest you move onto the most important part, and the reason this exercise was worthwhile: picking up a classic, and reading it.

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