Defining Classics

Image Courtesy Leslie Wong

I belong to a group on Goodreads who selects Classic titles to read each month, in addition to selecting monthly non-Classic books. Every now and then you will see the same books nominated in both groups. This leads people to wonder how the term Classic is defined. Like everything else in the world, people have different opinions about it. And those opinions change from time to time too.

Classic Excuses

One of my goals here at Quirky Girls Read is to infuse our blog with the thrill of the Classics. I know – to some of you a “thrilling Classic” seems a bit of an oxymoron. That is probably due to one of three things:

  1. You tried to read one of the “Great Classics of our time” and found it to be utterly boring, filled with words that no one uses anymore talking about a point in history that is of no interest to you.  You now assume that all books with the Classics label hold the same qualities.
  2. You were assigned several Classics to read in school and the over-analyzing, lengthy papers and endless group discussions made the entire process more work than pleasure.  You now assume that reading a Classic involves secondary research, CliffsNotes and complete focus in order to “get” what it is all about.
  3. You read Classics when you were younger when the length of books did not deter your voracious need for words.  You don’t remember the plots in detail anymore but upon considering a re-read you are shocked at the chunkster size of these beasts.  You now assume that all Classics are overly wordy and you just don’t have the time to devote to them with your busy life.

Classics are old, boring, feel like homework and just take too long.  Those are frequently the types of comments I see all over the blogosphere whenever someone reviews a Classic or introduces a Classic Read-A-Thon.  “Wow!  Good for you!  That book is too long for me to even think about trying.”  “I just don’t get the draw to read about the Napoleonic Wars but whatever floats your boat.”  “I am impressed by your courage to read such a hard book.  Talk about challenging yourself.” When you read comments like that often enough, it is easy to go with the masses and make the same assumptions yourself about what a Classic means.

Writing’s Roots

For me, to read a Classic is to explore the roots of writing. The older the Classic, the more in awe I become. Words truly meant something to folks before TV and pop culture invaded our way of life. Reading and music were pretty much it as far as entertainment went. People sat and talked to each other or wrote well thought out letters. They had lots of time on their hands so they used incredible vocabulary to describe things so well. Readers tend to love language and so should look to the Classics for some excellent examples of how beautifully the same old themes of love, revenge, tragedy and delight are conveyed. For me, the Classics make the same old same old come to life.

More Than Just An Old Book

I used to define a Classic personally as a book that had been written before I was born. But as I grow older and become closer to a Classic than a New Release myself, I realize this definition needs to be adjusted. I place things as Traditional Classics, Modern Classics and Instant Classics now. They all have these criteria in common – they are beautifully written, have timeless themes and strike a chord with a large group of people. This is far different from just saying the book needs to be old to be considered Classic. There are lots of old books that are far from Classic. Sadly, they get automatically lumped into that definition and readers overlook the real quality because of it.

A Fancier Way To Say Historical Fiction

Many of the Classics that I read are truly Historical Fiction as well. Especially if the book is old, I often go in with the assumption that the author wrote a contemporary story that aged well. Not always so. Take War & Peace for example. Tolstoy wrote this Classic in 1869 – some 57 years after his story took place. He probably thought his modern day was not exciting enough to use as the backdrop for his epic tale of greed, backstabbing, star-crossed loves, struggles with faith and what it is that truly makes us happy and human. So he, like many before and after him, turned to war time to kick things up a notch.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960, when the Civil Rights era was swirling in the South. The book addresses tolerance – specifically race and class. But it was set 25 years earlier in 1935. Placing it in an earlier time made it easier for people to accept rather than address the ugliness in their modern world mirroring the tale in the book. But it also served to show just how long this ugliness had been going on and how long the fight against it had been brewing.

The Help was just written in 2009, but it is set in 1962 – when To Kill A Mockingbird was becoming a movie. It also addresses race and class – from the perspective of both the persecuted and a forward thinking female Atticus. It could just as easily have been set in our current times and set its focus on Gay Rights to cover the same themes. But that is a little too close to home for some – much easier to teach the same lessons through an old lense.

More To Come

I have a lot to say about Classics and will continue to share my thoughts here with you on a regular basis. But before I started blabbering on about them I thought you should at least know my definition of them. And I will work to challenge the 3 Classic Excuses above in future posts. Until then…

I would love to know what your view is. So tell me – how do you define a Classic?

About thebumbles

In addition to online Freelance Writing, Molly blogs about books on Quirky Girls Read and about everything else on The Bumbles Blog. Visit her often and let her know what you think! Unless you are a Yankee fan - then there might be a problem ;0)
This entry was posted in Bookish Thoughts, Classics, Fiction, Posts by Molly. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to Defining Classics

  1. jehara says:

    I like your definition of classic. 🙂

  2. Annie says:

    Last year, I decided it was time to read or (re) read classic books and I’m happy with that. I began by Marcel Proust’ “A la recherche du temps perdu”, I discoverd when I was 18 and recently, I read for the first time Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” : I like it very much as I wrote it in a recent post on my blog.
    I ‘ll go on because I think that when you end a classic book you are really happy having share something deaply human.

    • penny says:

      Oh man, I am not sure what my definition would be. I guess a book that makes you think. That goes deeper than the surface scum of a Koontz novel (not that I don’t love Koontz). A book with a discovery. A book that can outlast time..

      Maybe, I’m over analyzing. One thing I know for sure: I LOVE classics. Can’t get enough.

      • Bumbles says:

        I think being timeless is important to the definition of a Classic – that’s why people keep wanting to read it across the decades and centuries – it is still something they can relate to.

    • Bumbles says:

      I’ll come by and check out your thoughts in your own post Annie – it is exciting to discover a new genre and even better to find that one stopped reading or gave up on before is rewarding when given a second chance.

  3. Kim says:

    Congratulations on your new blogging venture, Molly. Your categories of classics are interesting. I think of books like War & Peace as classics, To Kill a Mockingbird as a modern classic, and The Help as literary fiction. Too soon for me to call it a classic, although I loved it. I don’t really want to be taught too much about history when I’m reading fiction. (If I accidentally learn something, that’s OK.) I couldn’t force myself to finish (listening to) Anna Karenina for that reason. On the other hand, I found the history and politics in The Count of Monte Cristo interesting. I loved the Dickens I was required to read in high school. I think the great dialog and characters that readers can empathize with are what make books classics – if they stand the test of time. [Annie, you read all of Proust? Eek!]

    • Bumbles says:

      Well, Anna Karenina was my introduction a few years ago to Tolstoy. I enjoyed it very much. I honestly remember very little about history other than the fuedal systems and the country being on the cusp of change. I was too caught up in Anna’s selfishness and wondering why the book was named after her instead of Levin. I’m not sure I would have had the same experience had I listened to it rather than read it. That is an interesting topic all itself.

      Now, War & Peace had some history to it. I learned a lot from that tale. It has helped in my reading of The Count of Monte Cristo – something I am working through right now – stay tuned!

      • jehara says:

        The Count of Monte Cristo was the first required book that I really loved in school. It opened my eyes to the classics experience. I have Anna Karenina. I started reading it on my own my junior year of high school. I was really enjoying it and then. . . I just put it down and never picked it back up. It has always been in the back of my mind to re-read and actually finish it one day.

  4. kaye says:

    I enjoy reading the classics very much and for me you hit the nail on the head when you said, “You read Classics when you were younger when the length of books did not deter your voracious need for words.” I did (and still do) have a voracious need for words and my parents had many of the classics on the book shelves. One of my first reads while still in junior high was Jane Eyre, and following that was Wuthering Heights. I even read Moby Dick while I was young. I also read Austen, Alcott, Thoreau, Tolkien and Zane Grey–writers that painted pictures with words. I have never liked Dickens, however. The discovery never ends, I’ve continued reading from the classics and since I didn’t go to college I don’t tend to over analyze or look for too much meaning behind the work. For me I read simply to enjoy the words and the stories and the images they create in my mind and heart. I think you are right that the majority of the classics were written strictly for entertainment purpose. Many of them were released as serial stories in publications. I imagine it to be much like today’s television dramas. People who could read and afford to buy the publications read the weekly installment for entertainment. I believe I read once that many of these stories were not highly respected by the upper class at the time of publication and the work of the novelist was considered to be a little tawdry. I think Shakespeare was considered to be a playwright who appealed to and wrote for the lower class. It appealed to them because the upper class was more often than not made to look the fool in his writings and productions. And now his work is a “classic” and his witticism’s referred to constantly. I’m glad you will be using your post time here to discuss classics. It’s a great love of mine, but I am put off discussing it on blogs where discussions are hosted that tend to over analyze the literature. (I think I’m being very brave to participate with the War and Peace discussions) I think literature should be enjoyed for the pleasure that the words bring to one’s soul.

    I like the way you right, your thoughts so often echo my own. I’m looking forward to your Tuesday posts.

    • Bumbles says:

      Kaye – I know how you feel about being brave to participate in an epic’s discussion. When I jumped in with both feet to a formal discussion on Anna Karenina I was afraid the group was too high brow for me and would discount what I had to say or laugh at my questions. But I really wanted to have the opportunity to talk about my thoughts after reading such a hefty, detailed, multi-dimensional piece of literature. And I didn’t know anyone personally who had read it so I couldn’t exactly discuss it with my cat. I found that I had made some stereotypical assumptions about this Classics group – the same ones I chide people for making about the books within the genre. The people were not stodgy professors who knew everything and assumed I did too. They came from all walks of life and all ranges in age – they read for varying reasons and brought such insight, humor and passion to the experience for me. They gave me courage rather than me feeling cautiously brave. And so I hope to encourage others to have the same experience from the genre.

  5. Margot says:

    Molly, this was a great introduction to the classics. I admit to fitting all three of your definitions. My high school experience turned me off literary classics because I thought I was supposed to be analyzing what I was reading. After college I determined to read only what I really wanted to read and didn’t pay attention to whether it had a classic label or not.

    And then my two oldest children went to St. John’s College which consists of reading nothing but the Great Books. What a wonderful experience that was for all of us. The St. John’s program starts with The Illiad and The Odyssey and goes on from there. Classics came alive for us.

    Now I see a Classic as a very, very good story that speaks to the human condition in a way many people can identify with. For me, it has to appeal to my senses and I have to feel as if I know the people in the story. I like the hum I get while reading a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Help. After reading The Help I sat in my chair for about an hour, doing nothing but thinking. It was so good I felt as if I’d been stunned. And that’s what a great book should do to me, whether it’s labeled a Classic, won an award or is from a debut author. Books like that will last the test of time.

    Molly, I’m really looking forward to taking this Classics journey with you. I know you’re going to introduce me to some fantastic stories that are going to make my spirit hum.

    • Bumbles says:

      Oh wow, I like that Margot – making your spirit hum! That is truly the mark of a good book – regardless of the genre.

      I’m glad the Classics were able to come alive for you eventually. Why DO the grade schools make our introduction to them so BORING?!?!? Giving things a chance to develop under your own terms is a true test of whether they hum or not.

  6. izzybella says:

    I like your definition of classic. For me, it includes a lot of what you’ve already said, plus it stands the test of time. Shakespeare’s words resonate for us now just as much as they did for his original audience. A lot of people think Shakespeare has always been about flowery language and unapproachable, but the truth is that Shakespeare was the “Steven Spielberg” of his time. Chauceriangirl remembers once going to see Shakespeare in Love and hearing someone behind her refer to it as “Shakespeare for the masses.” I get that, I do. But I feel like that person missed the point entirely.

    I don’t think of classics as literature for a certain percentage of the human race. It’s literature for the entire human race.

    So basically…what you said. 🙂

  7. Bumbles says:

    Shakespeare loved to torture his characters emotionally – kind of like Wally Lamb (and by no means would I put Lamb on equal footing with Will – just sayin’). Wrenches our hearts and makes us root for them, care about them and causes them to get stuck in our brains. Now I will confess, half the time I know not of which he speaks, but I did enjoy listening to the album recordings of his famous plays that my parents had when I was little. When I was older, I realized he had a pretty good sense of humor too. And laughter always helps to keep future audiences connected to the past.

  8. I guess I’d define a classic as a book that stands the test of time. So I’d start with Beowulf and proceed through the history of world literature through the present. It’s not a perfect definition; some books that we think will meet those criteria don’t. I love the classics (see my user name as proof), with very few exceptions. My big one is Vanity Fair. Thank heavens I never had to read it in university, because I’ve tried 3 or 4 times to read it and couldn’t wade through it and didn’t want to wade through it. The last time I tried to read it I ended up hurling the book across the room and vowing never to try again. Of course, it’s on my nook just in case I change my mind. I wonder if people who think they don’t like classics have their own Vanity Fair experience, and instead of saying that that book wasn’t to their taste, and moving on, they lump that book in with all the classics, and give up without really trying.

    I’m looking forward to your reviews and your insight on the classics.

    • Bumbles says:

      I think people often do just as you say – lump the whole genre under a leaky umbrella and move on forever. It happens across other genres too. I am guilty of turning my nose up at the modern vampire trend for example. But I know there’s got to be one out there that I would really enjoy. Just like my mom always told me growing up as a picky eater – you have to keep trying the same things from time to time because every now and then your tastes change – if you don’t you’ll have missed out on an eventual favorite.

  9. Staci says:

    Excellent post!! I loved reading the comments left here especially from Kaye and Margot. I have always been “afraid” of the classics because I just don’t read with a critical eye and often times have to search elsewhere as to how to interpret what I just read!! 😀

    • Bumbles says:

      Hi Staci. I love a book that allows me to just get lost in the story. However, I am addicted to the historical or translation notations in those books that contain them. I get sidetracked with the information there and then find myself looking up information on this or that – forgetting to go back to the story at hand! E-readers make it much easier to have instant explanations for strange words or places or historical people. I tend to set aside the interpretations of others until after I have finished and come to my own conclusions. Then I take all of that in and often times it enhances things I might have overlooked. Other times I think its just a bunch of hooey.

  10. Kimberly says:

    Others have defined a Classic as that which can withstand “the test of time.” I think part of the reason why that’s the case is that many of the Classics are incredible commentaries on the social issues of a particular time. Part of the reason why people can still relate to them is because often, these social issues have come up over and over again. Then again, sometimes Classics can be rather underwhelming for this very reason; speaking publicly against/about a controversial subject was a massive deal when the book was written, but is no longer the case.

    I used to love Classics, moreso because I wanted to read the biggies. A lot of things went over my head, however, in the ones I did read. I agree in part that it’s tough to force yourself to read something during a particular period in history about which you know very little. But it goes hand in hand with the fact that a lot of things just might be missed in a Classic since the reader knows very little about that particular period in history. If I’d have had some sort of background for some of the books, I think I would’ve “gotten” the story that much more.

    That being said, I enjoy a good Classic (re)read . . . whether it was something that I didn’t have much interest in before or that I tried to read and failed.

    • Bumbles says:

      Revisiting a Classic can provide a completely different experience because of the different point in your own life, what is going on in the world around you and your changing knowledge base. I think that Classics that touch on historic moments in time can be great supplements to history lessons – I always wondered why history teachers didn’t work with the english teachers to try and coordinate lesson plans. My eyes glaze over reading more text based teachings or Non-Fiction that is too dry about historical information. But if I am exposed to that same period during a fictional tale, it resonates strongly with me and I retain the big picture more clearly. I have a vested interest in the characters rather than just learning about some dude.

      • Kimberly says:

        Actually, I do remember having that kind of integrated syllabi in my IB classes in high school. We were learning about the same period of time across a few subjects, and that definitely helped tie it all together for us. (I mean, as much as we high school students were paying attention!) The coordination was definitely a plus.

      • jehara says:

        My world history teacher actually assigned reading. We would spend part of class time reading something that pertained to whatever we were learning. I remember reading Animal Farm, Julius Caesar, and Antigone in her class. I thought that was really cool.

      • izzybella says:

        You know, I also think some books resonate more depending on your age and life experiences. If you are too young to relate to a character or situation, or if you’ve got no understanding of the mores for that fictional world and how it relates to your own world, then it’s hard to get into something.

        Then I also have a difficult time reading characters I find completely obnoxious (Hello, Heathcliff and Catherine. Hi, there, Holden Caulfield). I get the point of the story, but I find it completely unenjoyable as a reading experience. I’m shallow enough that I’d like to actually enjoy what I’m reading. 🙂

      • Bumbles says:

        Oh I totally agree Izzy – John Updike’s Rabbit character pretty much turned me off of that classic experience. And don’t even get me started on Sal from Kerouac’s On The Road – the only book I refused to finish. I can still appreciate the writing, the themes, etc. But a character I despise – whether the author’s intended reaction or not – is a book I ultimately will not enjoy. Classic or no classic.

  11. cardiogirl says:

    I fall into all three of your excuse categories up there regarding the Classics. I am definitely influenced by society today. I have a very low threshold for the build up. I want to cut to the chase and know what happens right away.

    I’m embarrassed to admit this but I think I enjoy James Patterson so much because the “chapters” (um, three pages long anyone?) each have a scene of quick action.

    • Bumbles says:

      Never be embarrassed by what you read, first of all. Second, Classics are filled with short chapters packed with action. As Kaye mentioned above, when the real oldies were originally written, they were released as serials, chapter by chapter installments published either in the paper or as flyers. Kind of like a precursor to the soap opera. So the chapters were brief but kept the plot moving along so that folks would keep coming back to read the next one. That is one thing I like a lot about the Classics. The length overall may be long but they are often broken up into easy to digest sections – perfect for picking up here and there in today’s busy schedule.

  12. kaye says:

    great discussion–I’m glad I came back to read the comments. This is going to be a fun blog to have on the reader.

  13. I ran into this same issue when trying to define “a classic” for a library challenge. I like the phrase that several commenters have used – “stands the test of time”. I think that would include Stephen King’s and Robert Parker’s early works. Mysteries rarely make the formal classics lists, but Agatha Christie’s books are obviously classic. A book doesn’t have to be 100 years old to be classic.

  14. Amy says:

    This is a great post, Molly! You raise many very valid points.
    I think of the classics as books that are intelligently written, that require us to think about the lines we read as we read them, to take our time as we read to be sure we understand what we’re reading, with themes that are universal and reverbrate through the ages and the classics are books that stay with us long after we have finished reading them. They’re not throw-away books that we can read lickety-split and largely forget after some time has gone by. I was raised reading many of the authors considered “classic” and, as an english major I read many classics. I loved & enjoyed many of them.
    I think it sad when people say some of the things such as you wrote above, “Good for you reading War & Peace. I can’t imagine reading a book that long”. I don’t understand things like that & feel that person is cheating themself out of an amzing experience.

    I am looking forward to your future posts, Molly!
    ~ Amy

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  16. Forgetfulone says:

    To me, a classic is a piece of writing that has stood the test of time yet still has appeal and universal themes.

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  20. paulaacton says:

    I would define a classic as something which has stood the passage of time reflecting not only the social and moral landscape of its period but which still has pertinance to the modern reader. Having studied English Lit at University i have had to read many classics in terms of the cannon definitions some of which I would rather go to the dentist and have all my teeth pulled than read again Rosseau falls well and truly into that category for me. I find in terms of 17th and 18th century literature that the few female authors are far more revelant today than their male counterparts. My favourite will always be Austen. I have set my own reading challenge for this year or would love to have joined up with you although I do actually have Frances Burney’s Evelina in my list of books to read

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