The Classics

Is there a factual answer why we consider Classic Literature classic? These books are dry and crusty for the dry and crusty. So, what is so classic about what we consider the classics?

I doubt that if there is a “factual” answer that it will be acceptable enough to be “definitive.”

For one thing, the time period implied can vary by centuries.

For another, the writers involved can include multiple layers of genre.

For another, what constitutes “universal truths” varies by generation and culture.

For my tastes, the abuse of the term “classic” is laughable.

None of these are factual answers, however.

The classics are books that nobody wants to read but everybody wants to have read.

Depends on which ones you mean, and who does the considering. I love the Iliad and the Odyssey.Is Charles Dickens classic? He was considered as popular as Stephen King in his day. James Fenimore Cooper has his characters do things you wouldn’t get away in a thriller nowadays (Daniel Day Lewis’ Last of the Mohicans had to throttle it back). I love Mark Twain, and read Moby Dick and War and Peace for kicks. I’ve lost count of how often I read Gulliver’s Travels.

On the other hand, I can’t stand Henry James. Or Jane Austen. Dry as dust. Except to their admirers.

Classics aren’t just “old books”. There are tons of those – old, forgotten books no longer read and devoid of interest to any but specialists. “Classics” are the ones that survive.
Twain is, I believe, the source of *friedo’s quote (really is, for once). He deplored forced admiration. I wonder how he’d take it to be considered on of those “dead” classics.

Moving to Cafe Society from GQ.

General Questions Moderator

I think this is the definitive answer to the question as asked.

You may not like them, but if you know about them then they are classic for a reason. The stories that resonate with a majority of people and continue to influence modern literature is the stuff that is considered classic, everything else gets forgotten with time. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean there aren’t many many others who do.

That sounds cynical, but in a way I agree.

There are two sorts of things that make a book worth reading: (1) what it does for you while you’re reading it—its entertainment value; and (2) what you take away from it after you’ve finished reading it—how it has taught you something, given you new insights, inspired you, enlarged your sympathies, broadened your experience (vicariously), or given you common ground with other people who have also read that book.

If a book sucks at (1) but has significant value of the (2) kind (which is true of some but not all classics), it would indeed be a book that I wouldn’t want to read but would want to have read.

Have you read any?

It is funny to see how people turn up their nose at stuff…because it is held up as a classic. It’s a classic because, well, it’s a classic. It may not be for you, but it has endured.

When I was growing up, Smoke on the Water was this fresh, head-bangingly cool song we rocked out to - it was part of our lives. Now when kids learn electric guitar, SotW is “part of the canon” - along with Stairway, Sunshine of Your Love, Crazy Train, etc. - that one must learn as part of the fundamentals.

One person’s “classic” is another person’s drunken Saturday night. Same as it ever was.

Well, if you’re going for a Britannica Great Books-type explanation, the classics are books that have stretched people’s minds and asked important questions --discussed the meaning of truth, liberty, justice, or something like that. Writers have bounced ideas off each other throughout the centuries, so that the books become a sort of conversation (the GB folks call this the Great Conversation).

They aren’t necessarily fun to read; frequently they’re quite hard work. Sometimes they’re also fun. But as Cal Meacham said, they’re the books that have survived–the ones people have found valuable for a long time.

There is no official list, and everyone’s going to have different titles on their list.

Classics is to books as Standards is to music.


Not a factual answer, but if you want to see the opinion of one person (one highly-respected, intelligent person who knows how to present his case) take a look at The Western Canon by Harold Bloom.

Having recently re-read The Count of Monte Cristo and Treasure Island, I can guarantee that the title “classic” doesn’t mean dry and dusty and boring.

One thing with a lot of classics, is that many of them start off slow. If you don’t give them enough of a chance, you might toss the book away and assume that the rest of it is that slow, too. Give them a chance, though, and you’ll often find that once it gets going, it gets much better, and you’ll be glad of it.

Many classics were written in a more leisurely style (since people had more time to read). Once you understand the style is different, you begin to see that they are usually great stories.

IIRC, in my Philosophical Foundations of Adult Education (or something like that) book, they go over the concept of what makes a classic a classic. There is no firm criteria that could be found, but, much of the term is used because we do use what is a ‘Great Books’ list, as referenced above. There used to be one from, can’t remember, maybe Britannica, maybe Harvard, something like that, that was used in many Ivy League schools as their must read curriculum(or something.) It has changed, or something, over the years, with many competing lists. etc… But, from there, we got a partial idea what was ‘classic.’ Or something.
Glad to be such a font of information!

Best wishes,

Yes. Or they are books that you think everyone else should read, though you never will.

I’ve had a goal of becoming more well-read over the last few years, and for the most part, I’ve quite enjoyed the classics. I actually found Moby-Dick to be thoroughly entertaining.