What is classic literature?

While I am still waiting for my copy of Aristophanes’ The Knights to reach me here in the wilds of rural Australia, I have been reading things not usually considered classics, as I normally do between ‘classics’ (and of course, there is always the temptation to read something ‘out of order’ – there is a lot of emphasis on Shakespeare at the moment as it is the 400th anniversary of his death). I just finished Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie which I wouldn’t have put on a classics list, but if it had been The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express, I probably would have listed those, yet they are by the same author and featuring the same detective.

Which raises the question “what is a classic?” Obviously the definition will be different for different people. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice or The Iliad might reasonably be expected to be considered ‘Classics’ by almost everyone, but what about Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, Lord of the Rings or Dune? Does childrens’ literature count? Or fantasy? Or science fiction? Or whodunnits? If so, then is Raymond Chandler as worthy as Agatha Christie? Is Isaac Asimov included but not Stephen Baxter? Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett?

As I have written before, I will include for my reading some books which are not always considered fiction, so The Holy Bible and The Koran, philosophy and natural sciences, biographies and histories, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, will all ‘make the grade’.

For me it comes down to not only what is recognised as quality and contributing to the “great conversation” but also just makes me curious enough to read. So yes, all the named authors and titles above I hope to reach some day.

 

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5 thoughts on “What is classic literature?

  1. This is a fun subject. I had some of the same thoughts when I was putting together my Classics Club list, which includes several “classics” in nonfiction, SF/F, and YA/children’s literature. I figure defining the idea of Classic is a bit like trying to define the idea of Obscenity — in other words, “I know it when I see it,” is probably the most honest way of determining whether the thing fits the term!

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  2. So everybody, expanding the idea a little, what are the title/s you would consider ‘classic’ which are most unlikely to make someone’s else list?

    For me, here’s some starters, in no particular order,

    Flatland by Edwin Abbott (a two dimensional read if ever there was)
    The Loaded Dog and other short stories by Henry Lawson (never leave an explosive unattended!)
    The Selfish Gene (evolution from the gene’s point of view)
    The Compleat Angler
    My First Summer in the Sierra by John Muir, the father of national parks
    My Family and other Animals, by Gerald Durrell

    Just these few make my literary taste buds water, so I better kick along and get these Ancient Greeks finished this year!

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  3. I struggled to define “classic” when I was drawing up my Classics Club list so in the end I decided to just make it be any book published before 1965 that I wanted to read basically! And knowing my own butterfly mind I stuck in some crime and sci-fi to lighten the load. Maybe Georgette Heyer is the one that’s weirdest to think of as a classic, but hey! I love her, and it’s my list! šŸ˜‰ I love reading other people’s lists to see hiw differently everyone interprets what makes a classic – unfortunately I always end up adding to my own list when I do…

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    1. “I love her, and it’s my list!” Absolutely! Maybe not Heyer for me personally and maybe not Richard Adams for you. I think my definition of classic is now what I think is great or what enough other people think was great enough to spark my curiousity. Thanks for joining me.

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