What makes a book a classic?

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I came across this great article, which furthers the debate, “What makes a book a classic?”

As I wrote when I started this blog, I believe most books become classics because they represent a movement or new way of thinking, or personify a genre for the era in which they were written.  I also feel a classic is defined by its staying power; while I think Harry Potter is a must-read, whether or not it will go down in history has yet to be seen.

As I’ve progressed though this journey of “100 books to read before I die,” I’ve learned a few more things about a book’s staying power.

I believe a book becomes a classic if it stays with you, for better or worse.  Having just finished A Confederacy of Dunces,  a book I could hardly stomach, I can see its merits as a classic because my worldview was changed by the wonderful character development of Ignatius J. Reilly, even if he was the most repulsive, sniveling man ever created in the literary world.  He got under my skin, and now I can imagine the internal dialog of countless Ignatius’ running through the heads of slovenly looking men I see on the street.  When a book affects you in your daily life, long after you’ve put it down, it has staying power.

I’ve also learned some mediocre books are made classics only because they represent a revolutionary concept or way of thinking for their given time period.  The Catcher in the Rye was just “ok,” but it was the first glimpse we’d been given into the human frailties of an american teenager.  On the Road – sigh – was laborious and banal (don’t hate me), but at the time was celebrated as a closer look at the popular Beatnik era, a day (or year) in the life of a cool and somewhat mysterious subculture.  It was new, it was exciting, and now it’s a classic.

The problem is, this is all subjective.  You can’t run a book through a “scientific method,” to see if it stands up to whatever criteria you use to determine if it’s a classic.  I’m sure 50 Shades of Grey fits the bill for “revolutionary way of thinking” and “staying power” – if you’re talking to the multitudes of white, middle-aged suburbanite women whose “inner goddess fist pumps the air above her chaise lounge” (god help us).  It makes me cringe to imagine this amateur drivel lovingly placed in the Classics section of a beautiful dusty bookstore – though in time, perhaps 50 Shades’  fame will precede it and we’ll forget how or why it was ever popular enough to read.  Perhaps some unlucky reader will pick it up 50 years from now, because it’s on her list of “100 books to read before she dies” – and though she will be disappointed, perhaps she’ll rationalize it as “meaningful for its time,” and it will go right back on the shelf to perplex another generation.

What makes a book a classic to you?  It’s difficult for me not to personalize the question, to say every Anne Rice novel ever written is a classic.  Just because I love a book, doesn’t mean everyone (or anyone) will.  After all, Anne Rice already wrote a gripping original S&M series starting with The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – and while it puts 50 shades to absolute shame – most people have never heard of it.

There is no checklist that can be created.  As readers, we are subject to the whims of everyone within our vast circle, and the relationship they have with their books.  If enough Twi-moms react to shirtless teenage boys or sparkly vampires, the books will sell, and we’ll be staring down a long list of questionable novels wondering if the only criteria is “because I said so.”




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