What Makes a Classic Book?

By: Ethan Mathieu

Most people picture a specific list of books when asked to name a classic. It is a definition that has been forged through years of English classes and the rave recommendations of local librarians. There is no official list of classic novels; there is simply a rough collection of novels and novellas that have gained a special reputation for their magnificence. Whether or not a book is considered a classic can be disputed, but there are some books that are unchallengeable.  They can be as old as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) or as modern as Orwell’s 1984 (1949). This select group of books has risen above the rest and has reached mass recognition. These are the books we consider classics due to their ability to remain in the public eye through their universal themes. The public eye is not infallible, however, and the desire to maintain the literary status quo has obscured other works from achieving this coveted position. 

The control of access to written works is as old as writing itself. The papacy had an “Index of Prohibited Books” from 1559 up until 1966 and the Nazis encouraged book burnings during their presence in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. These historical instances demonstrate that what the general population gets the opportunity to read has always been a point of contention. Once education became the role of the state and not that of the Church, greater emphasis was placed on creating a broadly able populus that would be able to meet the demands of an increasingly industrial and global society. Literacy rates increased rapidly and books that were popular during this era of growth eventually reached schools. It was that initial reading sensation in schools that created the largely unchanging collection of books still recognized today. 

The current selection of classic books studied in schools is exclusive.  Instead of expanding the literary repertoire, those designing curriculums retreat to what is familiar to them. They believe that there is a certain list of books that all high schoolers must read in order to succeed in life. The existence of such an untouchable list is almost as absurd as the idea that a classic can only be a book that was published during an arbitrary time frame. It is the same argument that keeps Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997) from being considered a classic novel despite its rich messages, such as of loyalty and perseverance, told through its captivating characters. The only requirement of a classic is that it teaches a nuanced lesson in a timeless manner. However, flawed methodology has lead to the maintenance of a largely antiquated set of novels that reach the hands of students and, subsequently, the general populous. 

Many of these classic books teach the same lesson from the same viewpoint. Catcher in the Rye (1951) and The Outsiders (1967) are both books set in 1950s-60’s America that focuses on the struggles and reality of the adult world from the perspective of someone younger. As a result, the life lessons of these novels often overlap; redundancies like these can be avoided if books that look at America from various perspectives. Rita William’s One Crazy Summer (2010) takes place in the same timeframe and has a similar lexile level, but features an African-American perspective; the story is set in the summer of 1968 at the height of the Black Panther Party and Civil Rights movement. The year would see the passing of the Fair Housing Act, which eliminated race from the list of factors that determined who could rent or own a home. It was also the year when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. Consequently, One Crazy Summer contains themes like the basis of social equality, which is noticeably absent from the current lineup of classics, in addition to more common subject matters like family. The notion of a widely considered classic book should expand to other subject matters. 

The cultural origins of these generally acclaimed classic books is extremely limited. The authors tend to be White American or British authors from the 19th or 20th centuries or ancient writers from periods like Elizabethan England or the height of the Greek Empire. The list rarely, if at all, touches Asia and the Pacific, for example. Classical literature should be a vehicle to expose students to multiple forms and perspectives of storytelling. Yet school boards continue to design the curricula around the same set of classics, quashing any hope of that ever happening.

However, there is a growing movement for change. The publisher Penguin has a book series called Penguin Classics that applies the “classics” label to a more culturally varied set of books. Penguin Classics features novels from every permanently inhabited continent, expanding beyond the narrow scope of North America and Europe. It presents a versatile compilation of amazing stories from Tsangnyön Heruka’s The Life of Milarepa to Banna Kanute’s Sunjata. Schools, and the greater public, should look to learn from different, more underrepresented groups for the betterment of an increasingly diverse society.

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