What are ‘classic’ books?

‘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’?


36 thoughts on “What are ‘classic’ books?”

  1. What a terrific post! The question of what makes a book a classic is one that I often think about but can never seem to find a clear definition of. Obviously there isn’t just one, as you’ve come up with eight definitions!
    For me a classic is a book that I remember for years to come, perhaps because of the beautiful use of language or the ideas or plot. Quite often it is a story which has shocked me and left me with new ways of thinking.
    I love finding books which are considered to be classics, especially as I get older, because it usually means I’m in for a good read, safe in the hands of some wonderful writer or other.

    1. Thank you so much πŸ™‚
      I guess there is no ultimate definition. Probably there are even more than 8 πŸ˜‰
      I love your concept of what classics are. Interesting that you mention the books giving you a new perspective, I think that’s a great point. I think the writing style is most important for me, overriding even the plot and the ideas.
      You’re right about classics promising a good read, as the years have provided a kind of quality control, if you see what I mean. Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

  2. I struggle with the literary canon argument because I do feel like it is a way of telling people what is good and what they should enjoy when for me reading and literature is, and should be subjective.

    For me I think the definition I most relate to is the idea of the instant classic, with Harry Potter being a great example. I don’t think a text needs to be old to be a classic.

    Great idea for a post!

    1. I agree a text doesn’t need to be old to be a classic. Instant classics can be problematic when they don’t live up to the hype. And yes the canon is a divisive concept because essentially it is setting the standard, and yet we seem to need it because how else will tutors decide what should be studied? Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

    1. Thank you! πŸ™‚
      Dickens is probably the first author most people will think of (along with Austen) when they think about classics. I have read David Copperfield a couple of times, but Great Expectations is my favourite of his. I wonder if people thought they would become classics at the time they were published…

      1. Great Expectations is my second favorite of Dickens. πŸ™‚
        Your end thought makes me wonder what books now will be considered β€œclassics” 100+ years from now? I wonder if authors today think their books will be classics… that could be an interesting literary discussion.

        1. Wow it’s interesting to think about what might stand the test of time….
          Hmm, if an author thinks their own book will be a classic, that’s a little arrogant, no? πŸ˜€

    1. Thank you kindly πŸ™‚
      I haven’t tried Dickens on audio (in fact I haven’t listened to audiobooks for a long time – for some reason I can’t concentrate on it) and I have to admit I struggle with him sometimes as there can be a lot of description and not much happening, and just too many coincidences. That said, Great Expectations is one of my favourite books πŸ™‚

  3. A very interesting discussion! For me, classics are famous or culturally significant books written before say, 1950.
    I disagree with the ideas of nos. 3 and 7. They take a very simplistic and somewhat narrow-minded view πŸ˜‰

    1. Thanks! It’s a discussion I often think about. Interesting that you say before 1950, as a lot of significant books have come after that. To Kill A Mockingbird? πŸ˜‰
      I don’t agree with no.s 3 and 7 either!

  4. I’m with you on the introduction. Mention classics to me and it immediately takes me back to school and the groaning realisation that choosing English Lit for an ‘O’ Level (yes I’m going way back in time) was a really bad idea. There wasn’t a single book or poetry we studied that I liked, and Shakespeare? Nooo. One thing is for sure, I could never be described as a literary snob πŸ˜‚ an inverted literary snob maybe.

    1. Interesting comment, thank you πŸ™‚
      I don’t know if the word ‘classics’ itself is a problem. Even I dread picking one up, and I have a literature degree! And the same books turn up on the curriculum over and over (Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, anyone?) and are just taught to death. It can also be hard to enjoy a book you have to analyse so much. Maybe you’ll find a classic you enjoy sometime, but it might not be presented as one πŸ™‚

      1. This comment interest me because some of my favourite β€˜classics’ are so because I studied them at school. I don’t think I would have as much appreciation for the likes of To Kill A Mockingbird, Great Gatsby or Shakespeare had I not had to look beneath the surface.

        1. It’s fascinating how some people are put off books while others appreciate them more – maybe it depends how they are taught and how much enthusiasm the teachers had πŸ˜‰
          Certainly I wouldn’t have much appreciation of Shakespeare if I hadn’t studied him – and my favourite of his plays, Hamlet and The Tempest, I studied twice!

  5. Replying to both yourself and Kirsty. For me yes it was the analysing, I would just lose all interest. I can remember always thinking can we not just get on and read the book. We read The Diary of Anne Frank and I know I would have really enjoyed that if I could have just been left to read it on my own without constant interruption and analysing every detail. Our teacher was really good, so couldn’t really blame the teaching. A great blog post for discussion though.

    1. I’m sure that some books are not meant to be studied in so much detail. In the case of Anne Frank I agree it would be better not to analyse so much and to just read it. I still don’t like Lord of the Flies very much, having gone over it in such detail for GCSE English. I knew my post would get some discussion going πŸ˜‰ Thank you for joining in.

  6. Since this is the year I decided on reading more “classics”, I must say I loved this post.
    In my country, we don’t study the classics people from the western world know. We don’t really study international literature really, that happens when you go to college if you decide on following a Literature major. So my “classics” are all Romanian, from Mihail Sadoveanu to Tudor Arghezi and Ionel Teodoreanu, which I am sure almost no-one outside Romania has ever heard about. Obviously we know about H.G.Wells, Virginia Woolf and Dostoievski, we just never HAD to read them not had we ever had some pressure put on us to read them.
    This makes it even more interesting for me, to actually read those BIG names everyone has been talking about for so long, to discover the texts that made it to this day and age and still be appreciated.
    Obviously, I agree with the definition talking about “status”. Mainly because I love to question it :)) I did not enjoy Hemingway’s The old man and the sea and I struggle to read Kafka’s works although I understand where he’s coming from.
    Either way you put it (from my perspective) classics are an experience πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the post πŸ™‚
      It’s interesting to hear from your perspective, I admit to knowing no Romanian authors at all, let alone the classic ones. It’s possibly a result of particular books not translating effectively to other markets, or the publishers think they will not be popular. That’s why the concept of the canon can be controversial too, as it may not be representative of all countries and cultures. It’s great that you’re discovering the big names in classics for yourself πŸ™‚ I find Kafka difficult too, and I’ve not read any Hemingway. I don’t think anyone should feel compelled to read certain authors just because they’re classics. If you don’t enjoy them or get anything out of them, there’s no use worrying over them. I agree, classics are an experience indeed.

  7. This is a great post and you’ve really made me think about what a classic book is. I think classics can be classic for a variety of reasons, although in my own mind classics are books that have been around for some time. They don’t have to be old, but at the same time I wouldn’t call something too modern a classic. I think classics are definitely books that give you a reading experience like someone else here has said, and there a a lot of books that have some interesting themes running through them that make you think. In my head I think a classic is not just an older book, because some old books really are pretty empty, but a book that has some themes running through it that make you think. I like the definition of ground-breaking at the time and that’s true, books that make you see a new perspective or questioning something that in the past was seen as acceptable, etc.

    It’s difficult to define. I think classics are probably a bunch of these definitions. I would read Greek or Roman stories/poems as classics, I’d think of some old books as classics, some well-loved books too, and books that have some deep or deeper themes running in them (thinking back to books I had to read at school!) but I don’t think books decided by a set group/establishment or influential reviewers as ‘classic’ is enough to define a book as such. I also question a popular book as being a classic too, as some books might have been very popular and sold well at the time but do they all have a substance to be called a clsssic…is 50 Shades of Grey a classic for example? (I haven’t read it by the way so I don’t know about any ‘themes’ it might have!) I hope I made sense there and no offense to anyone who’s read 50 shades πŸ˜€

    1. Thanks for your insights πŸ™‚ I’m glad my post made you think.
      I agree that a classic may have deeper themes running through them that make the reader question their perspectives. Your point about well-loved books is a good one. A book which has stood the test of time because people love the story and it continues to be popular every generation, is definitely a classic! But a book which is a bestseller is, as you rightly suggest, not automatically a classic. I haven’t read 50 Shades either but from what I’ve heard of it, I’m going to presume it doesn’t deserve classic status. Thanks again for your thoughts on this πŸ™‚

  8. Brilliant post! I agree with many of these to an extent. It’s so difficult to categorise a classic but for me the main idea is that it is timeless and discusses varying topics which usually reflect the current social and political climate. I would consider some newer books as classics but maybe that’s just me. This discussion is a tricky one and seems to be continuously debated but I really like your approach of trying to define it in different ways.

    1. Thank you! (and thanks for sharing on Twitter). ‘Timeless’ is an interesting concept, I suppose a lot of classics are of their time but written in a way that they still seem relevant or enjoyable today. I’m glad you liked my post πŸ™‚

  9. A cheeky definition of a classic is also a book everyone has heard of but no one has read. Two western classics I enjoyed are “A passage to India” by EM Forster and “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens.

    1. That’s a great definition, I like it! I would add a book such as ‘Moby-Dick’ or ‘War and Peace’ to that.

  10. I agree with most of these definitions to be honest (although it can get realllly confusing, because I studied both English Lit and Classics (with a capital C πŸ˜‰ ) and I find it can get a bit muddling when I switch from talking about one type of classic to the other type of Classic (we really should come up with two different words there πŸ˜‰ ) It’s even more confusing, cos I also agree with what I’d deem a more colloquial type of classic (#5), cos people will say “it’s a classic” about popular literature- but I would also consider that to be in a different category and not really what I (or many other people) are talking about when we talk about classics, so it can confuse the conversation (if that makes sense). I tend to think of #7 as a bit more hyperbolic and probably has more to do with marketing. Awesome post- really made me think!

    1. That’s interesting you have studied both kinds of classics! I’m glad you found my post engaging, it seems to be quite popular πŸ™‚ Classics can have different meanings depending on the context, so it’s fascinating to consider what people mean when they say ‘classics’.

  11. This is a terrific question. I often think about “what makes a classic film”, but I rarely think about that when it comes to books.

    I also wonder about the phrase “instant classic”. It’s certainly a lot of hype for a book to live up to.

    Much food for thought here. Thanks!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post πŸ™‚
      And of course the question could be applied to anything for which we have ‘classics’ – books, films and more. I’m not keen on the phrase ‘instant classic’ but I admit it does make me more likely to try a book.

Leave a Reply