I’ve touched on the question of what makes a book “classic” before, and it inspired me to take a more indepth look. Now, I still can’t really tell you what qualifies a book as a classic, but it is pretty interesting to look at some trends.
Finding lists of classic books is easy. They are all over the Internet, and although there’s a lot of variety, there is even more similarity. The lists I looked at in preparing this blog were mainly chosen randomly, from Google search results. Like this one, which makes the list into a quiz. Yes, I know what you are going to ask me. The answer is 19. Does that seem low to you? I refer you to this post as a defense. I’ll also point out that I excluded several titles I have read parts of, and several that I read so long ago that I do not feel they count anymore, as I wouldn’t be able to discuss them.
So, notice anything about that list? The thing I noticed was that one part of the definition of classic they used was “old”. I think you will find that is not an anomaly. This list isn’t too different, and has the same issues, if you will. In fact, let me break that down by year for you.
1813 1847 (x2) 1850 1851 1852 1859 1861 1884 1886 1889 1891 1895
1902 1903 1911 1915 1918 1919 1925 1929 (x2)
1931 1932 1936 (x2) 1937 (x2) 1939 1940 1945 1946 1948 1949
1951 1952 (x2) 1954 1959 1960 1961 1987
The most recent book is almost 30 years old, and everything else is more than 50 years old. Does that mean that no classic books have been written in the last few decades? Of course not. So what is going on here? Well, I think a lot of things are. For one, some of these lists are intended to be of older books. Another thing is that it is natural for us as readers to consider the books we were told are classics to be the true list of classics. Human nature and all.
That being said, I do think you see change happening. Perusing high school reading lists is a good indicator of this. I suspect you’ll find that more high school and college kids these days have read The Kite Runner than have read The Scarlet Letter. Take a look at these lists from Scholastic. In the high school parts you see a great mix of older standard classics and newer books. Teachers are great innovators, and one thing they have to do is find books that students want to read, as opposed to being required to read. A big part of doing that is finding books that they can relate to.
Which leads me to the real point of this post. Which is talking about the classics that are really still classics. Books that continue to be good reads, books that hold up in modern times and that readers continue to relate to. Books that define what a classic should be.
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
A book intended to be a discourse on the perils of television, it unintentionally became a masterpiece on the perils of censorship. Those lessons alone help it endure, but it is also helped by some astute predictions of modern technology, and by having a real feel of being something that isn’t that far fetched to believe could happen. It also has a couple of the traits that you will see as a recurring theme here: not so old that the language usage is an issue, and not so big that some readers will pass on it due to length.
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
I mean duh, right? Here is a hope of mine, that in 50 years people still read it because it is a good book, and not because they relate to the racial issues that are central to it.
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
I got to read this twice in school, in 8th and 12th grades, and the 12th grade teacher was incensed that we had read it as middle schoolers. Trivia time: many people believe that there is no indication in the book where the island is located, but in fact the ocean it is in is mentioned. I got the whole class bonus points in the test for pointing that out.
This is a book that works on a different level depending on your age. Teens can read it and relate directly to the characters and the action, while adults read it and comprehend the real horror of what is transpiring. Because of the remote, technology free setting, it does not suffer much from being older. An updated, modern version I bet would have the kids all have smartphones, which of course would have no signal and would soon have dead batteries, leaving them largely in the same situation as the original. Not that I am endorsing a remake, mind you.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
I read this one again a couple years back, and was surprised at how well it holds up. The actual details of the setting are kept in the background, and Holden’s anti-establishment leanings are still relatable. I don’t think they are as shocking as they used to be, but they are still there. And all kids can relate to rebelling.
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
The ethical and moral questions this book raises are timeless, and are completely non dependent upon the setting. Anyone who doesn’t respond to the emotion in this book maybe should go here.
1984, by George Orwell
Granted, most everyone reads this in high school because they have to. The overreaching, overbearing government portrayed here is a scary vision of what might be. I myself do not think that is at all likely to happen, but maybe, just maybe, that is because people watch out for it thanks to this book. It is a book that makes you compare it to the real world, and makes you question things, and while the setting may not be fresh, the ideas remain so.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
No, I haven’t seen the newest movie version. Yet. What is more eternal than love, and the trope of girl meets boy and then things get complicated and weird never changes. It is a testament to Austen’s writing that even though approximately a gajillion authors have written similar things, it is her books that people keep going back to.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
Okay, let us put aside any discussion of the allegorical nature of the series, or the issue of reading order. What we have here is a textbook example of a fantasy series. One might even call it a…classic example. Technically aimed at grade school readers, they are still enjoyable by adults. Multiple generations have read them, so they are often passed down to young ones. The protagonists are mostly from the real world, but the action almost all happens in Narnia, allowing any and all readers to immerse themselves in the stories.
Ultimately what keeps these books going is the way they capture the essence of childhood, the innocence and wonder and the delight in discovery. I would bet that an awful lot of kids over the years have peered into the back of a wardrobe (or closet, or such) with bated breath.
Obviously, your mileage may vary with these, and I’m sure there are plenty of other classics, whether they be new books or old, that will be read for years to come. Classics come in all shapes and sizes and definitions, but I feel like these ones are maybe more universal than others.
Oh, and I guess here at the very end I will point out one more thing that makes them classics: they are darn good books. Enjoy!