Thursday, July 3, 2014

What Makes a Classic a Classic?

July is Classics & Historical Fiction Month here at BBI!   I want to start off the month with talking about the age old question - What makes a classic a classic anyway?

Defining what makes a novel a classic is a subject a bit debatable.  How far back do you need to go in time?  Does it matter how many people have read it?  How do you measure the breadth/scope of a classic?  And how do we move past the old cliche "It stands the test of time"?

Some of the classics in my house.

A classic says something about the human condition
These novels touch something deep and almost basic inside the reader - themes of grief, mortality, prejudice, guilt, shame, love, hope, fear, longing, a need for connection.  They claw raw emotional responses from us and leave us changed for the reading of it.  

Think of the emotional response you immediately get from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or The Diary of Anne Frank.  Sometimes the emotional response sneaks up on you like it does in 1984 by George Orwell or Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier.  However they do it, and with whatever emotions they employ, by the end, you are left hollow from all you've just experienced.

A classic is open to modern interpretations
Whether you sat through Shakespeare's Othello in the early 17th century or you are reading it today in 2014, you are making a real-life connection to it.  It's plot and themes (if not it's language) is as applicable to readers today as it was when it was first written four centuries ago.  

You can share your tattered copy of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger or Persuasion by Jane Austen or Dickens' Oliver Twist with your children or grandchildren or students and find they may love it as much as you did when you read it.  Each subsequent generation can relate to a lost, rebellious soul like Holden Caulfield (even if they don't like him) or to the orphan Oliver who endures the hypocrisy of adults.  What woman can't identify with Anne Elliott, who falls in love with a man deemed "not suitable" because of an arbitrary status?  These situations still occur today and can be understood by new generations of readers.

A classic is universally relatable
It doesn't matter if you are a 90-year-old grandmother from Sicily or a 25-year-old man in finance from Indianapolis, you will be able to get something out of most of the classics that you read.  Chances are you will find common ground in the pages of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  

Classics translate across not only generations, but political lines, geographical lines, racial lines, gender lines, economic lines.  I feel as much affinity for Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart as I do for Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  Maybe you love The Brothers Karamazov as you do for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  If a book can be both universal AND relatable (which denotes specificity), it is destined to become a classic in literature.  

What do you think constitutes a classic novel?
What are some of your favorite classics?
Share in the comments!


  1. I LOVE the looks of your edition of The Three Musketeers!

    1. Thanks! It was actually my dad's from when he was younger!

  2. I do think a classic has to be relatable and enjoyable regardless of when it is read or how old it is. Great post!

  3. Great question and it's one I've thought about quite a bit. I've read quite a few classics and some of them are great, but others not so much :p I personally would label a book a classic if its message is one that transcends time and can have an impact on future generations. I think the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy will some day be considered classics because of this.

    Just found your blog and I'm now a new email subscriber :)


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