Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)

September 26, 2004 | 5 books mentioned 3 min read

Tiffany writes in with this intriguing question:

What qualifications does a book have to meet in order to be considered as a classic?

This is probably an argument almost as old as the written word. Nearly everyone who reads has an opinion on what should or shouldn’t be a “classic,” and the criteria for this classification shifts with changing times and tastes. Only the very few, special books will be considered classics by generation after generation of readers. It’s safe to say that the halls of academia are where these arguments begin. Academics typically publish their findings in obscure journals, but some go straight to the masses like Harold Bloom, whose book The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages seeks “to define the essential masterworks of world literature.” Bloom’s book, when it came out was, as most of these books tend to be, quite controversial. The press, too, plays a role in these discussions. Book critics with long and distinguished careers encounter enough books to make their own judgments about the classics. Lists like Jonathan Yardley’s “State of the Art” add to the public discourse about what makes a book a classic. Publishers come up with lists of classics to get people talking about books; the Modern Library 100 Best Novels of the Century is a recent example. The discussion has even arrived on our televisions. Last summer the BBC put together the Big Read which searched for Britain’s best loved books. Even Oprah reinvented her book club by shifting the focus to classics last year. Oprah fans have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden in recent months, and they’ll be reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck next. In the end there aren’t any official rules that determine what is a classic and what isn’t, but if we had to adopt some, I would recommend that we borrow the set of rules put forth by Italo Calvino in his book Why Read the Classics?

  1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: “I’m rereading…” and never “I’m reading…”
  2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
  3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves as unforgettable on our imaginations, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.
  4. A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much a sense of discovery as the first reading.
  5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.
  6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
  7. The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left on the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.
  8. A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
  9. The classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
  10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans.
  11. “Your” classic is a book to which you cannot feel indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation even in opposition to it.
  12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.
  13. A classic is a work which relegates the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.
  14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.