Why We Don't Have a Classics Section


In doing research for this post, I found out what I had expected, there is no one hard and fast definition for ‘classic.’ I don’t think there can ever be one definition for what constitutes a classic book that will be agreed upon by everyone, nor a list of rules that will work for everyone and every book. Many people have tried though, and I think something can be learned from each attempted definition. 

Elizabeth Blumele writing for Publisher’s Weekly in 2014 posited that “ in order to reach “classic” status, a book needs to be widely considered — by thoughtful readers as well as the brightest intellects in the field — to be worthwhile, notable, extraordinary, a valuable addition to literature, resonant and striking to the mind (ideally also to the heart and spirit). A classic does not have to uplift the soul, but it must stretch, or deeply enrich, the human being. And it must endure the scrutiny of the ages. It must transcend its time.” This is a good list of must-haves, but to me it creates more questions than answers. What differentiates a thoughtful reader from an unthoughtful one? Who decides if a book is “worthwhile, notable, extraordinary, a valuable addition to literature?” A book could “stretch, or deeply enrich” one human being and have no impact whatsoever on another. So while these are good traits to use to define a classic, they themselves require definition.

Christopher Smith writing for HuffPost in 2013 defines classics as “any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication…books that are not the books of the moment.” This definition has the same pitfalls as Elizabeth Blumele’s however. I read The Scarlet Letter once and I don’t feel as if I ever need to read it again. I have read the 7th Harry Potter book upwards of 50 times. 

Going back to 1999, an essay collection titled “Why Read the Classics” by Italo Calvino was postumatley published in which the author offers up a few common definitions of classic only to refute them. “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’ never ‘I’m reading…” This of course doesn’t make room for kids who are discovering a classic for the first time, and ignores the huge amount of books considered classics all over the world, both points which Calvino brings up. He slowly leads the reader to a definition he can stand behind, deciding that “classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the language and customs) through which they have passed,” or more simply, “a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” He continues to list characteristics of classics, but I like that last definition, because I think it gets close to giving guidelines to booksellers and readers alike as to how to classify a classic. “A book which has never exhausted all it has to say.” This is of course still incredibly subjective and is in no way an immovable hard and fast definition, but I still think it can be useful. It does lead to the questions though, what should a classic say?

I think too often people view classics as serious and sad, but as Blumele says in her article, “Anthony Trollope lives in Classics, as does Twain, as does Aristophanes’ The Frogs, as do Shakespeare’s comedies” meaning that classics do not have to have to be serious. Of course, these examples, while unserious, have substance outside of comedy. Shakespeare's comedies, for example, which are the only of these I have read, take on the politics and traditions of the time, and continue to make sense in the modern era. Laura Miller in a 2014 Salon article writes that “Impact and import, historic and artistic, is another quality often demanded of a book before it can be awarded classic status,” citing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example of a “mediocre novel” which “sometimes makes it under the classics wire because it had such a profound effect on the conscience of the American public and is thought to have helped precipitate the Civil War.” But then I think of Tolkein and the incredible “impact and import” he had on the Fantasy genre and society as a whole, yet you will never see him shelved in Classics at Barnes and Noble, nor will he be read in a High School English class to be analyzed and dissected for a semester. Maybe he did not contribute to a political movement, but he still has a lasting effect on western culture. 

There are also many who seem to forever disclude Fantasy and Science Fiction from the classical canon, despite many such titles fitting well within many agreed upon traits of a classic. I have already mentioned Tolkein, but C.S Lewis could also be argued to be a classical author, as could Ursula Le Guin. Author Katherine Bucknell offers her opinion on what she considers to be the oxymoronic term “Science Fiction Classic '' in a 2014 Flatwire article which asked authors and others in the literary world what titles considered classics should lose that designation. She asks “What could possibly go out of date more rapidly than a book imagining what will happen in a future time or place,” which makes a lot of sense. How can SciFi be timeless when real life leaves it behind. What Bucknell usually heard concerning SciFi classics “[focused] on how amazing it is that the author was so close to imagining how things really turned out.” But she considers “real technological, scientific and also cultural change are far more interesting.” I agree with this to a certain extent. H.G Wells missed the mark when he predicted a race of alien bug people would be living on the moon. We have yet to colonize Mars like Ray Bradbury predicted. But I think that misses the point of these books. Italo Calvino has some definitions that are relevant here too: “a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without” and “a classic is a work which persists as background noise even when the present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.” The Narnia books are one long religious allegory, as well as great looks into the psyche of Great Britain during WWII. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and really all of Philip K. Dick’s novels are centered around the question “What does it mean to be human,” a truly timeless question that so many authors writing in all genres have asked. Just because the science turned out to be ridiculous or the message of the novel was given to the reader by a talking animal does not negate the importance and impact of these books.

This is all without even getting into the racism and sexism of what we as a Western society view as classics. Blumele looks at  Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which is often seen on a classics shelf, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is far more often shelved in Fiction. She wonders if “we [are] valuing du Maurier’s subject matter (gothic romance, ghost story) less than Dumas’ (betrayal, revenge, an epic potboiler) because she’s a woman?” Okey Ndibe, in the 2014 Flatwire article, “[urges for] the expansion of the canon” instead of the shrinking of it. She mentions Gilgamesh as well as “Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz,” all non-western authors of color who are passed over when talking about classic authors. Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou are considered by many to have written classics, yet you’re far more likely to see Dickens or Frost on a syllabus, unless the course is specifically focusing on women authors or authors of color. 

I think most can agree that time has something to do with the creation of a classic. Many of the definitions of classics that can be found mention “the test of time” or “timeless messages,” both which require the book to have been around for at least a decade or two. Blumele looks at this in her article as well, reminding us that “the term “classic” is often used in relation to new books, and while those rare gems may certainly turn out to be classics, [she] don’t believe they have earned that august spot on the bookshelf just yet…Even Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have been “classics” while he was still alive.” There are plenty of books you see described as “instant classics,” some of which may well keep that descriptor years into the future, but just as many, if not more are forgotten in a few years.

I think, at the end of this very long post, I’d like to land back on Italo Calvino’s essay collection. In it, he introduces the idea of  “Your” classic, which he defines as “a book in which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.” So while this book may never make it onto a classics shelf or in a classics collection, Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is MY classic. It’s a book that I “cannot remain indifferent” to; if someone mentions this book they had better be prepared to talk about it with me for the rest of the day. This book has traveled with me my entire life, as short as it has been so far, and I cannot see myself abandoning it. It has helped me “define [myself],” has given me examples of who I may want to be, has introduced lifelong interests, and has entertained me through countless readings. The Redwall series are MY classics. They have safely brought me through moral dilemmas, taught me about what may make or break a hero, and have kept me company through many a crafting session (with the best audiobooks I have ever come across). Julius Caesar is MY classic, one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, which solidified my love for the bard, which showed me both sides of the death of a tyrant, which proved to me the power of speech. I own all of these, they are all dear to me, and they have all contributed to who I am today and, I believe, to who I will be in the future. So on my personal bookshelf, they’re classics. Our store is a different story, a different conversation, but their importance to me doesn't hinge on where they are shelved in the store. 

So how do you define a classic? Are there books you think have been overlooked, or overhyped? What are YOUR classics? This is a never ending discussion, one that we would love to continue to have, so please let us know what you think.