Classic books. You know, the titles you were required to read in high school – but instead read the SparkNotes version to get a B on the test. When we talk about classic books, we’re talking about works that have been deemed important. But who decides what books are important? What qualities do literary classics have in common? While this is actually a question much too complex to unpack in a single sitting, let’s take a quick dive into what places a book in the literary canon.
Classics Focus on Identity
If you take a look at the list of works considered classic, you’ll find that many titles – from War and Peace to Moby-Dick to Les Misérables – are concerned with identity. National identity, cultural identity, and where one fits within these frameworks. Not only are these books reflective of their times, but many also had an effect on the culture in which they were written. And that makes sense: If a book is considered important, it likely has something important to say!
Classics Stand the Test of Time
Why do people still read Shakespeare centuries after his work was written? Despite the fact that Shakespeare's poems and plays may sound almost like another language to readers today, Shakespeare’s works resonate because of the profound human emotions within them. We identify with the young, naive star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet. We understand Prince Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s death. We recognize all too well the consequences of Macbeth’s ambition for power. Classics with longevity give us insights into the past, yet remain ever relatable in the present.
Who Decides What’s a Classic?
Just as important as what’s included in the literary canon is what – or who – has been excluded. Historically, academics were those who had the authority to deem a book important. Since 19th century academia was almost exclusively made up of white men, it isn’t coincidental that books deemed important were written by authors from a similar background. But that’s been changing, with skepticism about the canon really picking up in the 1960s. Thanks in part to an increasing awareness of social issues as well as the democratizing voice of the internet, there are now countless lists promoting literary gems written by women, people of color, and LGBTQ authors. A diverse set of classics gives readers a more complete view of history, culture, and literature itself.
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