What Is a Classic?

Through the years I have joined several reading groups which concentrate on the classics. They go by many names but they all promise a valuable experience reading the classics. What I have also found is they all tend to have little regard for what makes a book a classic. Inevitably I complain that a novel written four years ago is hardly a classic no matter what the publisher says, and the idea of an “instant classic” is abhorrent hype. I usually don’t last too long in these reading groups where the owner or moderator is more concerned with pleasing the members than with sticking to the reason the group was created in the first place.

I usually suggest that a classic should be in the public domain. This automatically places the work before the mid-1920s and does a good job of differentiating classic literature from contemporary literature. I really don’t believe that there is a firm line, but in these reading groups, it’s better to be precise (even then it is common to see the restrictions trampled on:  in a 19th century group a book was selected that was written and published in the early 1950s). A good historical break occurs at the end of World War II. This was an important historical dividing line, but also a significant demarkation in the literature world. But even here there are many readers that can’t relate that far back. When pressured for a firm date, I offer 3 February 1959 as the true break from classical to contemporary literature.

I have often used this guideline from the internet site About.com. I will reprint it below and you can explore further at ThoughtCo: What Makes a Book a Classic.

What Is a Classic?

The definition of a “classic” can be a hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read, or the experience of the person you question on the topic, you may receive a wide range of answers. So, what is a “classic”—in the context of books and literature?

  • A classic usually expresses some artistic quality—an expression of life, truth, and beauty.
  • A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic.
  • A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings—partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses.
  • A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature—whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text.

Now for the pop quiz:  is Harry Potter a classic?