As part of our Adult Winter Reading Program theme “Cozy Up with a Classic,” we’ve been asked “What is a classic?”
How do you define classic books? Maybe like this:
“Classics are those great pieces of literature considered worthy to be studied in English classes of high school or college.”
Or perhaps this:
“Classics are books your fathers give you and you keep them to give to your children”
How many of us had to slog through some “classic” in high school and were then immediately turned off? For me, it seemed like every classic novel we had to read in “American Literature” class was a downer – The Scarlet Letter, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Ordinary People. I asked my teacher if there was some classic that had a happy ending. She thought about it and said no.
And then I started to think about my own question. Are there “classic” books with happy endings? Surely we can’t see depressing books as the only ones worthy of preservation. What would that say about humanity?
Which was when I remembered that yes, indeed, there were classics with happy endings: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Odyssey, The Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare’s comedies.
So what defines a “classic”? Some would say timelessness, that you can read the book today and still enjoy it. Others would argue for universality, that the book features ideas or situations that we can appreciate as part of the human condition (family, war, love, etc.). And then some simplify it to a book that “can be read again and again with ever-deepening pleasure.”
I would argue that a classic is one that can be read over and over and each time provide something different but still enjoyable. Time is not a limiting factor for me – there are books written in the past 50 years (or even last year) that I could point to and say, “Yes, that’s a classic.”
For what others have considered as classics, check out the lists below.
Classics for all time
The “Great Books” list to end all lists
The reading list for St. John’s College – the curriculum is focused entirely on the Great Books
The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of all Time
The Telegraph lists their “Perfect Library” of 110 best books
Project Gutenberg – check out their “Top 100″ of most popular classic e-book downloads
NEH list of summertime favorites – classic novels divided by age group
Entertainment Weekly’s “The New Classics” – The 100 best reads from 1983-2008
Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
Classics of Science Fiction – a thoroughly researched list by James Wallace Harris
How do you define a “classic” book? What are your favorite classic books? What classics are you ashamed to admit you haven’t read? Let us know in the comments below.