What Makes a Book a Classic?


What makes a book a classic?

I assume many people have asked this question. But I want to explore the question for myself.
The question has been on my mind for a while since I’ve read a lot of classics. I’ve also thought about what it would be like to write the next great classic. So here I will contemplate what the standards are for a classic piece of work and what belongs in the literary canon.

Popularity: Many would agree that popularity is a definite no. Otherwise some bad books would be in the canon. Not to mention many great books don’t really sell that well at first.

But has the book had a great impact on society? This might be where popularity with the general audience is important. For example, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, isn’t a well-written book but it’s often cited as one of the causes of the civil war. This alone gives it historical significance so I think it’s fair to consider it a classic.

Innovation/Game-changers: Has the writer done something no one else has done? Has he or she innovated some new form of storytelling?  I agree this should be one of the ways a book can become a classic. Game-changers are always important. So if they’ve changed the way people write for the better, than they need recognition.

Capturing the Universal Human Experience: This is a big one and I agree it’s a good standard to have. A writer that can correctly capture then eternal struggles of humans is a true talent, in my opinion. Books that can do this definitely belong to the canon.

These would be the major standards when arguing what becomes a classic. My list for a book to become classic status would be:

-Has it had a major influence on society?
-Sparks changes in a culture or in literature.
-Successfully writes about the human experience

So what do I think of our current classics and literary canon? To be honest, I think it’s fine and it’s fun to think about what recent writers will stand the test of time and have their work called a classic.

Many people criticize the literary canon for excluding women and non-white authors. I agree to some extent, there are a lot of great authors who were forgotten then rediscovered. I’m grateful for that.

I know a lot of people would be happy to no longer have to read books such as The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter and other dreaded assigned readings. (I personally think The Scarlet Letter is amazing and The Great Gatsby is a good read). And I agree teachers/professors need to stop assigning the same stuff over and over again. I hate reading books I already had to read for another class, give me some variety!

But otherwise, I’d say most of the books in the literary canon deserve to be there. A person doesn’t have to enjoy reading classics, but I think they should try to understand why they’re important. But hey, if they don’t think a certain book deserves classic status that’s fine. Seeing a good argument for why is always interesting.

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