What makes it “classic”

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Jamie Ingling, Contributing Writer

The word classic is defined as “a work of art of recognized and established value.” However, when the word classic is put in front of book, the possibilities of definitions are endless. It seems when a book is deemed as a “classic” everyone feels obligated to read it, and everyone does countless pairs of eyes connect with the famed printed pages every day. But how is a classic book defined? How is the ultimate decision of placing the “classic” stamp on a book made? Books like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne have all achieved classic book status; however, all have achieved the classic status because of a variety of reasons. Whatever the book, being called a classic brings about the question, “What makes a classic book a classic?”

All classics seem to have successfully passed an important yet invisible test: the test of time. Moby-Dick, Wuthering Heights, and Great Expectations are still read today, despite being published in 1851, 1847, and 1861, respectively. That is over a 150 year gap to present day. Generations upon generations have placed their eyes on these classics and absorbed the author’s message decades after their death. Withstanding the test of time is an achievement any author would be grateful to receive. Unfortunately, not all books are able to pass the time barrier. There are books that have been left in the dust of old age and our generation will never have the privilege of reading them. Classic books are able to pass the test of time due to another “definition” of a classic book: embodying a common message and telling a universal truth.

Every book has a message within its chapters; it is a fact known by all readers. However, whether or not the message remains relevant years after publication and remains a universal truth is a factor in considering a book a classic. Universal truth, by definition, means to be valid always, as well as everywhere. The Alchemist, written by Paulo Coelho and published in 1988, contains universal truths, which may be a factor in it being an international best seller—it has been translated into more than 50 languages. Coelho uses the concept of the Hero’s Journey and Personal Legend with a sense of fantasy to reveal The Alchemist’s universal truths. Not all classics necessarily need to use fantasy to portray their universal truths, but the universal truth must be evident within the text. The message of a classic book is never finished being told. English teacher Ms. Gingeleskie stated, “If nothing else, I think a classic text must exhibit the quality of never being quite done delivering its message. A reader should be able to garner some insight with each new read, whether a first read or a thirtieth.” Clearly a classic has a never ending message—a message that an individual will obtain pieces of with each read. With age, it seems, the message gives itself to deeper insight.

Classic books may also be defined by having new, radical ideas, as well as having influence during the publication time period. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is not praised for its literary techniques, but rather its ideas in dealing with slavery. Stowe’s novel is considered one of the catalysts for the American Civil War. A book can be considered a classic if it questions the views of society during the time period. Moreover, it must hold some sort of influence during the time of publication; no one remembers books that do not influence the reader in one or more aspect. Classic novels are more than likely to cause controversy among the readers. The controversy and ideas within classic books may lead to the book being banned by schools, like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In simple terms, if a book maintains influence over its readers, it very well may be considered a classic.

It is evident that the definition of a classic book can never be finalized. The definition can be argued among readers for what seems like forever. Nonetheless, a classic is ultimately a classic for its ability to remain relevant in a reader’s mind. In Italo Calvino’s book Why Read Classics? He states, “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’ never ‘I’m reading….’A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” Maybe that’s all a classic really is.