Literature Definitions: What Makes a Book a Classic?

Quality, Universality, Longevity

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The definition of a classic piece of literature can be a hotly debated topic; you may receive a wide range of answers depending on the experience of the person you question on the topic. However, there are some tenets that the classics, in the context of books and literature, all have in common.

Qualities of Classic Literature

To be generally agreed upon as a classic, works meet some common high standards for quality, appeal, longevity, and influence.

Expresses Artistic Quality

Classic literature is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. It must be of high artistic quality, at least for the time in which it was written. Although different styles will come and go, a classic can be appreciated for its construction and literary art. It may not be a bestseller today due to pacing and dated language, but you can learn from it and be inspired by its prose.

Stands the Test of Time

In classic literature, a work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written—and it merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, it is not a classic; while the term "modern classic" may apply to books written after World War II, they need longevity to achieve the designation of a simple "classic." A book of recent vintage that is of high quality, acclaim, and influence needs a few generations to determine whether it deserves to be called a classic.

Has Universal Appeal

Great works of literature touch readers to their very core, partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith, for example, touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. You can read classics from Jane Austen and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and relate to the characters and situations despite the difference in era. In fact, a classic can alter your view of history to see how little has changed in our basic human makeup.

Makes Connections

You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. Still, classics are always informed by the history of ideas and literature, whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the text.

Likewise, classics will inspire other writers who come afterward, and you can trace how they influenced works in their own time and down through the following decades and even centuries.

Is Relevant to Multiple Generations

By covering themes universal to the human condition and doing so in a way that stands the test of time, classics remain relevant to all. Because of the high quality of the characters, story, and writing, people can read classics in their youth and gather a basic understanding of the author's themes, and then they can read them later in life and see additional layers of truth that they missed previously. The quality enables the work to communicate to multiple age groups throughout time.

Using Classic Literature

These qualities of classic literature make them appropriate for study. While younger students may find them less accessible, older students and adults can be enlightened by reading them as part of a formal study, book club, or ongoing reading. To introduce younger readers to the classics, try using graphic novel versions, editions simplified for younger readers, or movie adaptations.

For older literature students, classics have a wide variety of expert information available about them, giving background information like how and why they were written, analyses of the text, and comments on lasting cultural impact. Classics likely also have study guides that can assist learners in their basic understanding of the text, such as by explaining dated terms and references and providing study questions.