Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new after all. ~ Abraham Lincoln
Now and then someone will ask me, "What makes a classic?" It's a good question -- not an easy one to answer. What feels classic to one person may not feel classic to another.
Generally speaking, there are culturally excepted specimens most people seem to agree on. Some books, which may not suit my particular taste or personal standards, have deeply impacted the thrust of civilization. These books deserve close analysis -- whether they cause me to shudder in disgust or swoon with rapturous delight! It is a humbling thing to enter into the Great Conversation which has been going on for centuries before I was born.
I posted the following excerpts last spring. These definitions offer as good an explanation as any I've been able to find! Enjoy. (And feel free to add your thoughts in the comment box!)
by Italo Calvino
Let us begin by putting forth some definitions...
1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: 'I'm re-reading...', never 'I'm reading'.
2. The classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
3. The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual's or the collective unconsciousness.
4. A classic is a book that with each re-reading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.
5. A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of re-reading something we have read before.
6. A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.
7. The classics are those books who come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) though which they have passed.
8. A classic is a work that constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.
9. Classics are books which, the more we think we know them by hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
10. A classic is a book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on par with ancient talismans.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.
13. A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot live without.
14. A classic is a work which persists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.
Do any of these definitions describe what a classic means to you?