What makes a book a classic?

Lia Zneimer  //  Jul 21, 2014

What makes a book a classic?

Every year, I vow I'm going to read more classics, and every year I find myself recycling that resolution come New Year's Eve. Calling something a "classic" is an honor—an acknowledgement that it's managed to stand the test of time. And yet I have a confession to make: when it comes to classic literature, I often feel a sense of reluctance that I can't quite explain. I consider myself to be an avid reader, but frankly, the thought of tackling War and Peace or Moby Dick is daunting. Yup—I was an English major, I work in publishing, and I've never read either of those books.

I don't think it's an issue of length, nor do I think classics are boring. (Case in point: Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favorite books.) Perhaps my ambivalence stems from the fact that many of the books I think of as "classics" are either a) linguistically dense; or b) require a bit of analysis. (Sometimes I like to read because it helps me relax, and I find that it's easier to cruise through something like Gone Girl than it is Great Expectations.) But what sparks my sense of reluctance, I'm not sure. All I know is that I'm not alone.

A few months ago, OOMer Morgan confessed on Twitter that she'd never read The Giver; one of our Scholastic colleagues responded, admitting that she'd never read The Outsiders. The result? A blog post on books we can't believe we've never read. In a different post, this time about book procrastination, Nadia and Mike both said that they've never read The Catcher in the Rye, while Kristen said the same about The Bell Jar.

There's something refreshing about coming clean about our reading histories and insecurities. According to a 2013 study, more than 60% of people lie about reading classic novels. (Maybe they brushed up on the plot points with these 140-word re-caps!) Sure, it's tempting to claim you've read The Odyssey and The Scarlet Letter, but to what end? Who decides what constitutes a classic, and since when is having read those titles more impressive than having read others?

Are classics defined by a book's ability to stand the test of time, as many Goodreads users suggest? Or is it less about time and more about the sheer number of readers? "To me, a book cannot be considered a classic before it has stood the test of generations of readers," explains Elizabeth Bluemle in Publishers Weekly. "Even Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have been 'classics' while he was still alive."

In a Huffington Post piece, C. Christopher Smith defines a classic as "any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication." To that point, Entertainment Weekly issued a list of "The New Classics"—100 of the "best reads from 1983 to 2008," which suggests that perhaps the concept of a "classic" is fluid. Maybe there are even some books we refer to as classics that we should stop and re-consider. (Flavorwire explores that very issue here.)

Laura Miller ponders the definition of a classic in this Salon piece, noting, "Whatever a classic book may be, it doesn’t ever seem to stand still." She also cites Italo Calvino’s essay, "Why Read the Classics?", in which he defines a classic as (among other things) "a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."

At the end of the day, what's important isn't what makes a book a classic; it's that we're reading, and instilling in future generations a love of literature. As one of my favorite teacher bloggers points out in a piece called "Do You Teach the Classics?", "Students who read score higher on reading tests. It does not matter what they are reading. The more they read, the more they succeed. Period. ...If our goal is to produce better readers, students must practice reading." The same goes for adults—classics or not, let's wave our books of choice proudly and without judgment.

And maybe with an open mind I'll just so happen to overcome my reluctance about those so-called classics.