What Makes A Book A Classic?

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What Makes A Book A Classic 2?

Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby… What do they all have in common? They’re classics. Well, I guess Harry Potter isn’t really a classic yet, is it? The series has still sold nearly half a billion copies, more than the other two. If popularity doesn’t dictate what a classic is then what does? Is it lofty confusing metaphors about big white whales or do they need to be read for at least a century before their reputation is strong enough to earn the title of classic?

Nearly every article discussing this topic references Italo Calvino’s famous essay, “Why Read the Classics?” His opinion, and most known quote, says:

"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."

I’ve asked a lot of people and they always seem to gravitate toward the same answer: a book that was very popular but also written a long time ago. The problem with defining what a classic is, is that most answers are either too broad, like Calvino’s, including books that aren’t classics, or too limited, and exclude classics that deserve the honor. There’s bound to be a better answer out there, but the best I’ve been able to come up with is this.

“Any book can become a classic if it is read by a great many people over many years with many different interpretations.”

What Makes A Book A Classic?

Immediately after making the distinction between best-sellers (any book that sells 5,000 copies in a week) and classics another gap shows up. We can’t really be expected to lump books like “The Quran”(632 CE), “Don Quixote”(1605 CE), and “The Hobbit”(1937)  together; even if they are all classics. After a classic has stood the test of time and been praised for centuries it enters a new, much smaller, club; it’s now part of the canon. The greatest literary works humanity has ever written make up the canon, like “The Epic of Gilgamesh,”(2100 BCE) “Hamlet,”(1603 CE) and “Beowulf.”(1025 CE) You could even go a step further, bringing all religious texts into the most highly regarded, and smallest group of all, The Testament. I know this might be a bit confusing; so here's an easy way to think about it.

Bestsellers ➡ Classics ➡ Canon ➡ Testament

Reading is great; classics are terrific reads, but it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with all of the analogies and metaphors and give up on reading books that make you think. Try finding a book you can't put down first. 

If you liked this article, SALON did a great job of researching the same question HERE.