The Definition of a Classic in Literature

Defining the Term Classic in Books and Literature

The classics of literary tradition
How to spot a literary classic in the making. Getty Images

The definition of a classic piece of literature can be a hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read, or the experience of the person you question on the topic, you may receive a wide range of answers. So, what is a "classic" in the context of books and literature?

Qualities of Classic Literature

  • A classic expresses artistic quality. It is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. A classic piece of literature must be of high quality, at least for the time in which it was written. While different styles will come and go, it 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.
  • A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written, and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic. While "modern classics" may apply to books written after World War I or 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 need a few decades to determine whether it deserves to be called a classic.
  • A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch readers to their very core beings, 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 touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. You can read classics from Jane Austen and Cervantes and relate to the characters and situations despite the intervening centuries and changes in every aspect of life. In fact, it can change your view of history to see how little has changed in our basic human makeup.
  • A classic 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. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature, whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text. Likewise, a classic will inspire other writers who come after and you can trace how it influenced works in its own time and down through the decades and centuries.

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.

Classics often have study guides that can assist learners in understanding how and why they are written, explaining dated terms, and providing study questions.