A “classic” seems easy enough to identify. Often it’s old (and, even more often, it’s really, really old), written by a famous person who is always referred to by his or her surname only, and can be found on a high school required reading list (much to the chagrin of most high school students). And there is something in their titles that demands respect and the classification as a classic, such as Oedipus Rex, Paradise Lost, The Iliad, and Crime and Punishment. Simply put: you know a classic when you see one. (A cop-out, I know.)
But when you actually try to break down the criteria for a classic, you start to become less and less sure of yourself. I used to define a classic by when it was written. After all, the term “classic” has an old or antique feel to it. I thought that anything before the end of World War II could be considered a classic, but that would then discount Catch-22 (1961) and In Cold Blood (1966), two of my favorite books that are clearly classics. And even Tim O’ Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990) is a contemporary classic. So going by when a book was written doesn’t really work.
So what makes a book a classic? Let’s use Merriam Webster Online’s definition of a classic to figure it out. “Classic (noun): a work of enduring excellence.” Using that definition, any book that has “stood the test of time” could be considered a classic. And, in my opinion, this includes contemporary works that transcend popular fiction and are of a more literary nature and have the potential to survive through the ages, books that seem to pay homage to the style of recognized classics.
And, as mentioned in About That’s Classic!, classics are books that have interesting characters and universal themes; use powerful language, clear descriptions, and precise grammar; and demonstrate a genuine love of storytelling. To use another cop-out, you know a classic when you read one. The story hits you in such a way that you think about it long after you’ve put the book down, and you even find yourself discussing it with or mentioning it to people you encounter throughout the day. Classics stick with you in a way that only great literature can.
So, really, what makes a classic “classic”? Stories that you can’t get out of your head. Stories that make you think. Stories that challenge your beliefs and your morals and your prejudices in ways that you never thought possible. Stories that can, and often do, change you. Is it any wonder, then, why so many people steer clear of classics? But these are precisely the same reasons that people should flock to these books, to better their minds. These are precisely the reasons that I encourage you to go to a bookstore or your local library and pick up the classic you never thought you’d read or you never thought you’d give another chance. And as difficult as they can be to identify off-hand, I have faith that you’ll find a great one without looking too hard. (Just remember that classics are in both the fiction and nonfiction sections of any place books are!)