‘Classics’. Does the word fill you with dread and remind you of school? Or do you feel love and respect for the row of well-thumbed Penguins on your shelf? Maybe you sometimes think, ‘I really should read a classic, but it sounds like hard work’. Whatever your views on classics, one thing is certain. There’s no precise definition of what constitutes a classic book. It’s an interesting topic to think about. I’ve come up with 8 definitions which are in use today:
1 – Classics are books which are traditionally considered as such, over a long time, by the general public. They already have that reputation. We assume that they still deserve to be classics, because they always have been. These books may have particular qualities, such as a timeless story and memorable characters, which are embedded in the collective consciousness.
2 – Classics are works which are part of the ‘literary canon’ of important and influential literature, as decided by the establishment, i.e. academics, critics and curriculum leaders. The concept of the canon has been criticised for various reasons, such as lack of diversity, a western focus, the suggestion of an exclusive club of authors and the notion of people being told which literature is the best, i.e. told what to read.
3 – Classics are simply ‘old’ books. There’s a trend for publishing ‘rediscovered’ works, which may be described as ‘lost classics’. Some of them may be worth reading, but others may have been ‘lost’ for valid reasons. This suggests that a book is automatically a classic, just because it was published in the 19th century.
4 – Classics are what the publishers consider as such. If a book is presented under imprints such as Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Vintage Classics or Wordsworth Classics, we reasonably assume that it must be a classic. This can be effective in introducing lesser-known books to a wider audience, particularly translated fiction.
5 – Classics are books which are well-loved and famous, regardless of when they were published. If a book is a bestseller and is celebrated enough to filter into mainstream popular culture, it’s a classic. We might include the Harry Potter books here, which although they are not old, have been around for long enough to be considered as classics of children’s literature.
6 – Classics are groundbreaking examples of new genres, new perspectives, or radical ‘firsts’ at the time they were written. They may even have been banned or censored at the time. Such books may not be recognised as classics until years later, when examined in the context of other works and the contemporary political and social climate.
7 – Classics are ‘instant’ if they are lauded by the influential reviewers as good enough to be so. If a book is praised as ‘an instant classic’, this begs the question of how exactly it can be a classic before it’s even been published and before it has had a chance to prove its worth. Conversely, some books have such star quality that we can recognise they will become classics.
8 – Classics are Ancient Latin and Greek texts, with the term referring to classical antiquity. Classics with a capital ‘C’. Of course, Classics are also ‘classics’ with a small ‘c’, if we go by some of the above definitions.
Do you agree with any of these definitions? Do you have a favourite ‘classic’?