Qualities of Classic Literature
Mark Twain defined a classic as, “Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”. What must be true to make a story a classic? Is a book a classic when it has a great number of printings? Or is it the number of languages into which it has been translated? Or perhaps a book is a classic if someone of importance says it is a classic? While these are interesting, even significant, they do not determine that a fiction book is a classic.
A classic, Mark Twain once said, is, “Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read". What characterizes a classic work of fiction? Is it determined by the number of printings the book has undergone? Or is it the number of languages into which it has been translated? Is it called a classic because some distinguished soul said it is a classic? While these are interesting, even significant, they do not determine that a fiction book is a classic.
First a classic is timely. Usually it is an expression of and influence on the times in which it was written. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “the book that started this great war,” or so said Lincoln. Oliver Twist revealed to England the plight of the homeless children. Though not fiction, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl gave a firsthand account of a family hiding from the Nazis during the occupation of Netherlands.
A classic is timely, but it is also timeless. Classics deal with themes that touch all periods of history, all societies, and all cultures. Often the themes deal with love and forgiveness, good versus evil and the consequences of both, success against all odds, values (Beauty and the Beast deals with looking beyond the exterior to what is really important), et. al. Many classics show the value of resisting temptation to compromise in order to reach the goal. In most if not all classics the hero overcomes one or more major obstacles at the climax of the story so that his ultimate goal is reached and success achieved.
Real classics present truth. Any author can develop a story so that evil appears inevitable, lying pays off, hate and revenge are good. However, though these responses to life might seem justified at times, they never pay off in the long run. Judeo-Christian morality is fundamentally good, and those who follow it, even when it costs them, are the genuine heroes in real classics.
A classic will be able to endure the test of time. It may or may not get good reviews at first, but a classic work still be recognized for its literary value long after it is first published. "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered”. This was said by W.H. Auden. Shakespeare’s writing is certainly classic in this sense. Therefore, in this way, a classic cannot be first published recently.
A classic is readable in its style. Mark Twain said, "Great books are weighed and measured by their style and manner and not by the trimmings and shadings of their grammar”. However, real classics are not poorly written. Variety is possible, from the ornate language of The Yearling to the plane language of The Good Earth. The story in a classic almost tells itself though not without surprises. The characters are deep but believable. This is exemplified in Hamlet. The author does not tell you how to feel or what conclusions to draw. Instead, he or she makes you feel or conclude what they want. A classic story will not preach a moral, but will illustrate a lesson by hiding it in the story.
A classic connects authors and times. Classics reveal influences from other writers and other great works of literature. A classic is both a product of its own time and a unique expression of it.
Now consider, what are your favorite novels? In light of these points would you say they are truly classics? Do you think other things besides these mark a book as a classic? Are going to add or remove a book from a list of classics based on this article? If you possess a classic, perhaps even a rare printing of the book, are you doing all you can to preserve this rare gem for others in the future?
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