Friday Forum: What Makes a Book a Classic?

Earlier this week, I took on the classics. When I use the word “classic,” I am referring to the novels that have remained a very visible part of the literary landscape but were written before 1900, by authors like Dickens, Dumas, Austen, and Cervantes. That is the definition that was suggested to me by my teachers in high school and my professors in college. I do not remember anyone ever making a formal statement, but that is what was understood. The great novels that were written after 1900 may have been referred to as “modern” classics.   That word, modern, seemed to make all the difference.

The discussion that resulted from that post has led me to reconsider my definition. I looked to other sources, including the essay “What Is a Classic?” by Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve at the beginning of the 20th century. He offers this explanation:

A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.

I rather enjoy his definition, but I find it to be a bit too subjective. Using this logic, a reader could potentially classify ANY book as a classic. Their arguments may not be ones that others would agree with, but there are arguments that could be made.

The word “classic” obviously means different things to different people. What do you think? What makes a book a classic? According to that definition, what is one book that stands out to you as a true classic?

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Cassandra Neace teaches college students how to write essays and blogs about books and book-related goodness at Indie Reader Houston. Follow her on Twitter: @CassandraNeace

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