What makes a book a “classic?”


Charlotte Gumpel, Staff Writer

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott are novels that explore varying aspects of human nature, but they all fit under one overarching theme; they are considered “classics.” Italo Calvino, a famous Italian journalist and author, considers classic books as “has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers” and this classification is true. Classics are reread, reanalyzed and reinterpreted to fit a certain time period. There are still characters to be dissected, symbols to be noticed and themes to be discovered. The timeless yet nostalgic feeling that comes with reading classics is a part of their appeal.


Stories become classics by exploring the human experience in a memorable way that people, throughout the years, can easily connect with or relate to,”  Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School english teacher Mackenzie Conway said. “this, combined with an appreciation for the story that is being told and the characters who are involved creates a desire to preserve these works and pass them on.” Conway touches upon this idea of the ‘human experience.” The classic genre seems to cover just about every aspect of said human experience; love and loss in “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare; friendship in “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck; the intricacies of human nature in “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding, just to name a few. The characters, symbols, themes and quotes within classic literature provide a sense of morality and companionship.


Conway also brings up the sense of preservation and generational impact of classic literature. Phillip Yap, librarian at Terrill Middle School, considers time itself to be one of the most defining characteristics of classic literature. 


“I believe for a book to become a classic that the story must stand the test of time,” Yap said. “Classics are not usually known until quite a few decades have passed where the book is generally agreed to be a great piece of literature. I think the most important aspect of a book to be regarded as a classic is the test of time criteria.”


While content and impact are certainly important, Yap believes that timelessness and relevance surpassing generations are the biggest factors in classic literature. A book’s ability to remain applicable to society decade after decade, even after countless shifts in public opinion, is a testament to a book’s tenacity and quality. Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” written in 1599-1601, is often read in schools and continues to be dissected – the complexity of human nature, religion and revenge – are all taken from the text and applied to current society. 


However, one discussion has been revived again and again throughout the years; is “classic” literature synonymous with “good” literature? Does classic literature hold a candle to the action and adventure packed novels of today? As always, the quality of literature is subjective, but the attitude surrounding classic literature among today’s youth has dwindled into disinterest and apathy. With the entrancing dystopia of “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins or the heartbreaking love story of “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, public opinion of classic literature has been whittled into boring stories with complex language. On top of that, the outdated mentality and ideas within certain classics has been subject to discussion.

“While I understand that in order for a book to be considered a classic many well-read people must think it has significant literary merit, ultimately whether or not a book is ‘good’ is very subjective,” Rachel Guerrero, teen librarian for the Scotch Plains Library said.  “I have definitely read classics that I didn’t like at all. And of course there are many classics that contain or even promote problematic ideas about race, gender, class, etc., which would affect whether I consider them ‘good.’”


As time goes on, the audience for classic literature may or may not change. People like what they like – and the same goes for literature. Public opinion on classic literature might shift, but there will always be a group of people who appreciate the basics. The advantage of literature and the arts, in general, is that there is something for everyone – all walks of life, all opinions and all ideas are able to be shared freely. Classic literature may be outdated and overwhelmingly complex, but it is important to note that these stories laid the groundwork for the modern stories we enjoy fervently today.