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.

How to draw in your readers in fiction

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most egregious mistakes a writer can make—according to some, not most—is that a writer should not tell a story by simply narrating it. That was done in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when narrators were seen as the third-person omniscient, frequently in use in novels such as Paradise Lost and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Flannery O’Connor, a prominent Southern writer in the 1960s, spoke very highly on the subject of fiction writing, being a short story writer herself. She said that people who do not understand the art of storytelling tend to compartmentalize a story’s elements, and this is very often done by Western writers simply because of the culture we live in. These writers specifically label their plot, theme, technique, etc., yet O’Connor explains that those who understand the nature of fiction write fiction so naturally that they do not need to rationalize their art; they just do it.

What O’Connor’s solutions are these: Good fiction portrays a person “who shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation.” It involves the “mystery of personality” and focuses on people and concrete situations, not problems and abstract issues.

For example, I may, like in Jane Eyre, portray my circumstances as I would see it as a maid. I might relay the scents and attractions I feel, the smoke burning in the upper room above me, while I stood dizzy from drowsy sleep, having been roused at five in the morning. The air around me would feel hot and dizzy, and as I heard the crackling of fire, the lights in my bedroom were nearly out, save for the soft blue light coming from the summer morning out my window.

These sights, sounds, and feelings would reiterate O’Connor’s general instruction that a writer ought not to simply say, “I was in my bedroom while the fire upstairs burned the room”; the writer would elaborate on all these sensations so as to draw the reader in.

Telling simply informs the reader of the situation, but showing invites them to experience the situation. Above all, according to O’Connor, “Fiction writing is…a matter of showing things.”

How to become an English scholar without really trying

Photo Courtesy of ToemLondres
Photo Courtesy of ToemLondres

So you think you want to be an English scholar? You love fantasy, you smell books when no one looks and you kind of like Shakespeare but don’t really know why. Join the club. We’ve got a bunch of people who’d love to assimilate—I mean, welcome you into our coterie. And if you’re not really sure it’s the right fit for you, it’s no sweat at all. Just follow this pattern, and you’ll be thinking, talking and eating like an English major.

Freshman year: It all starts at the English department barbecue. You mingle with the professors and talk about English-y stuff. Your professor happens to have a collection of Shakespearean quotes made entirely of magnets, and you geek over the Shakespeare mug your mother just bought you from Stratford-on-Avon. Next, you start to think like a poet and compose a mental poem about hot dog mustard dripping down your professor’s sleeves.

Now it’s time for the test. You’ve taken your introductory class and figure out the many ways how to not make sense when analyzing literature. You read Shakespeare’s sonnet about his wife’s bad breath and realize that there’s more than three ways to look at it. But if you have the faintest clue what psychoanalytic critics are saying, you’re onto your next step in becoming an English scholar.

Sophomore year: You’re introduced to more obscure literature. The building blocks of your freshman year are becoming cemented in your brain, and you start to read things like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” or Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” things that don’t seem normal in daily life. But you don’t start becoming an English scholar until you learn Middle English. It’s a combination of Norse and German, spoken with a Scottish accent. It sounds brilliant, especially when your fellow English majors have no clue what you’re saying.

Junior year: You start to notice things. You prefer to watch “Dead Poets Society” over “The Hunger Games.” You quote Jane Austen’s infamous first line from “Pride & Prejudice” in daily conversation. You start to get crazy over Colin Firth as Darcy. And if someone—especially an English major—hasn’t read Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” you seriously judge them.

Senior year: Things start to get a little weird. You start to see things like “homoeroticism in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’” or the “political sexuality of Ichabod Crane.” You obsess over things like iambic pentameters and fuss over trochees or dactyls. But if you’re a true English scholar, you’ll know for certain whether Robert Frost’s poetry is actually blank verse or free verse. But when you start to see “The Psychological Ruthlessness of Peter Rabbit,” then you know you’ve gone too far. There’s no return for you now. You’ve now officially become an English scholar.

But don’t say we didn’t warn you. Sure, it seems glamorous—the books, the fame, the Shakespeare—but all in all, it’s really a bunch of people who think they’re smarter than they really are.