By Peri Miller
I couldn’t possibly write a column about books without at some point covering classics, right? It’s easy to refer to a book as a classic and have it be understood what sort of book you’re referring to, but what does it precisely mean for a book to be a ‘classic’?
Turns out, the answer isn’t that simple. There’s no committee that chooses which books will go down in history. Classics just sort of happen. A ‘classic’ might be a book that was received well, or was in someway influential—on literature, philosophy, culture, or the next generation of authors. A ‘classic’ might just be a book which to you is the most incredible thing you’ve ever read.
What I’m trying to say is that any book has the potential to become a classic, regardless of who wrote it, where it was written, and in what time.
That’s not to ignore the fact that there are many objectively classic books. Stuff like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, or Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, for example. They might even be the first books to come to mind at the mention of ‘classics’. You’ve also got stuff like Homer’s Odyssey or Illiad, or the plays of Sophocles and Euripides—classics from the classical era, if you like. Then there’s Shakespeare, of course. There’s also darker stuff like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
There are too many classics to cram into a definitive list. I feel a little guilty for not having read that many of them, but considering the sheer number of them, it’s not surprising. Yeah, that’s right, I said it—I haven’t read many classics. A big reason why (other than being only a couple of decades old—come on, that’s a pretty good excuse) is because I’ve always been so preoccupied reading recent books. And also prescribed texts.
Of course, some of the classics I have read have been incredible experiences. I’m a particular fan of John Steinbeck, for example. His most eminent book is Of Mice and Men, which of course I enjoyed, but my personal favourite is East of Eden. A stunning intermingling of fiction and biography tied together with effortlessly artful writing, intriguing characters, and poignant moral allegory. I even have a cactus named John Spinebeck, in case you were wondering how I could possibly reconcile my love of literature with my talent for terrible puns.
Classics are classics for a reason, and that reason is they’re not merely enjoyed. For the writing or the story, the characters or the message, these books are loved.
What will be interesting is seeing what books come to be considered classics in the future. Some might disagree when I say that Harry Potter probably will—because why wouldn’t it? If a ‘classic’ is a book that has been loved and had an influence on culture and succeeding literature, then J.K.’s boy wizard is a winner, for sure.
Of course, there are still so many books that have yet to come out and collectively knock our metaphorical socks off. The real dilemma as a reader is finding the time to read everything—an unfortunately impossible task, thanks to mortality.