What Makes a Book Classic?

“A classic … is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it’s safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It’s acquired a picturesque dignity …”

-Scott Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and Damned

When I think of my favorite classics, I remember how much joy they brought me. Growing up I read The Velveteen Rabbit and Too Much Noise, and growing older I read The Little House in the Big Woods, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Great Gatsby, A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre … I could keep going.

I know a book is classic when it is intelligent, when it soothes or inspires me, and when it has clear transitions between its characters’ development, plot progression, and moral teachings. There is no plot summary that can satisfy the definition of a classic, but when readers from the next generations remember the most famous lines from a book, the book has survived into longevity:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick)
  • “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit)

 

That, my friends, is the definition of a classic. I am proud to be one of the readers to enjoy and pass on these tales of wonder.

My Inspiration, the Goose

One would think a goose to be a terribly insufficient role model for a writer, but this goose is a particular inspiration of mine. She is from the novel Whittington, by Alan Armstrong, who has reconstructed the tale of Dick Whittington and his cat in this modern adaptation with farm animals. The best animal among them is the goose, whose name is Lady and who carries herself with such dignity as to command all others’ respect for her.

Here is the excerpt which I found so diverting:

It was a curious thing, the Lady’s authority. The horses obeyed her, along with everyone else except the rats. What gave her power was how steady she was. She never rushed; she was always sure, she took responsibility. When something came up, she said what to do. Presence of mind counts for a lot in this world. The Lady was as confident of her judgment as she was of her beauty. Nothing so improves the appearance as a good opinion of oneself.

It is commanding enough to be a sermon or Sunday school lesson. Whenever there is an inspirational message or motivational piece, there should always be an example of model character. This goose is by no means real, but she is a genuinely wonderful model character.

The curious thing about the Lady is that she’s particularly ugly; though she has clipped wings, a lopsided gait, and an irregular shading of colored feathers, she does command the respect of those around her, and that is the admirable quality which I find so comforting and inspiring.

I think that even the best of preachers would give an example like this to encourage their audience. Thanks to Alan Armstrong for creating such a good character.