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What is a classic?

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

I saw a fascinating-looking book the other day which I'd have bought if I'd not been on a book buying ban. It was called 'Why read the classics?' and was by the super-brainy writer Italo Calvino. Just the title made me think… hmmm, what is a classic?

The word itself is overused. Latin and Greek ancients are 'the classics' all Victoria literature seems to be a classic. Then there are modern classics, popular classics, instant classics.

So, what are the attributes or conditions that a book would need to meet in order to be considered a classic? Would it have to be universally acknowledged? Or at least 50 years old? 100 years?

I wonder if anyone has ever tried to produce a definitive list of "the classics"?

Italo Calvino is certainly not short of opinions. In his book The Uses of Literature, he writes: "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Whilst this is true, but I think is a facet of a classic rather than a definition.

Purely by chance I glanced at Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan today. It has an introduction by Anthony Burgess of all people, who writes: "...classics - meaning eloquent, authoritative, definitive statements, begotten by an epoch but speaking to more than one epoch". Well yeah, that's not bad at all, but I could pick holes in a couple of words in that statement too.

In his Literature and History podcasts Doug Metzger argues that there is no such thing as a universal theme. I agree that a close examination will find little or no cultural or social overlap between feudal China, ancient Greece and modern England, for example, I think that it's worth trying to find universal themes at least on a human behavioural level.

Rather than start with rules and criteria, I thought it might be fun to start with some books that may be deemed classics, then see if there is any universal, or even any common ground. I’ll randomly pick five... say, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, EM Forster's Howard's End, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.

What do they all have in common?

1. They are very well written.

2. The characters are real, plausible, dynamic and empathetic.

3. They set out to explore at least one, often binary universal theme, which transcends the time that they were written and the time when the story was set. At the most basic level:

  • North and South explores issues of class, gender, of capital versus labour, industry versus culture, and of rich and poor.

  • Things Falls Apart explores issues of tradition versus change, old beliefs versus Christianity, colonialism versus indigenous culture.

  • Howard's End explores issues of class, social mobility, empathy versus pragmatism, tolerance versus anger, and the big one… seeing life steadily, or seeing it whole.

  • Heart of Darkness explores issues of imperialism, racism, the corruption of power, colonialism, man versus nature, and of 'civilisation' versus 'savagery', on many levels.

  • Sense and Sensibility explores issues of practicality versus emotion, feeling versus thinking, hope versus cynicism.

It's hard to argue that these are not 'universal' themes (insofar as anything is universal), although there has been considerable disagreement about whether Heart of Darkness succeeds in castigating imperialism, or whether in trying to it in fact reinforces stereotypes of Africa and Africans which make it unacceptable to Africans themselves (and therefore not universally acknowledged).

So, shall we agree that the three common themes above are good tests of a classic. How about readability? Mark Twain, witty as usual, says: “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Whilst this is harsh, there is definitely an element of truth in it. A non-reader picking up a classic would most likely struggle and even a reader who is attuned to current, fast-paced, fashionably-dialogued fiction might have to take a deep breath. However, those with patience and who have minds acclimatised to the language, structure, dialogue and attitudes current when the ‘classic’ was written should be in for a very rewarding experience.

So, what do I conclude?

It’s pretty clear that universal agreement on what makes a classic is impossible. Whilst ninety-nine out of a hundred of us can probably agree that Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are classics of English literature from the 1800s - exemplary narrative tales with a cautionary message that are a joy to read – the more books one adds to the list, the more dissention will grow. Also, the closer one gets to the modern day, the more disagreement there will be.

This excellent list from The Guardian website is a perfect illustration as it covers everything from Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa from 1742 to Paul Auster’s bamboozling, metaphysical New York Trilogy. In fact, some of the most infuriating and difficult books ever written are in here: Ulysses, A la Recherché de la Temps Perdu, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller… etc

Possibly, rather than agonising over a definitive list of classics, it would be more fruitful if we all simply compiled lists of 100 books we’ve read that we think everyone else should read, with a brief explanation of why. An aggregation of everyone’s personal lists would be fascinating!

So it seems I have set myself a challenge, to create a list of 100 books I think everyone should read. Watch this space!


Books and authors mentioned / recommended:

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy by Auster is lauded but not an easy read.

Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South is so much grittier and more profound than you would expect. Elizabeth Gaskell was a Victorian great.

Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart is a deeply moving exploration of change affecting a traditional African village.

EM Forster - Howard's End is possibly the most perfectly structured and crafted English novel.

Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness is dark, challenging, unsettling and immense.

Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility is a subtle and beautiful exploration of heart versus mind, passion versus reason.

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