What makes a book a classic?

 “Tolkien, who created this marvellous vehicle, doesn’t go anywhere in it. He just sits where he is. What I mean by that is that he always seems to be looking backwards, to a greater and more golden past; and what’s more he doesn’t allow girls or women any important part in the story at all. Life is bigger and more interesting than The Lord of the Rings thinks it is.”

Philip Pullman

I came across this quote a while ago and remembered it recently, when I went to see the second instalment of Peter Jackson’s shouldn’t-be-a-trilogy Hobbit trilogy. I have always had issue with the lack of female presence in Tolkein’s work, and find it amusing that Hollywood has had to use some creative license to address this imbalance, either by expanding on the role of existing characters or creating completely new ones. The most recent example of this being Tauriel, a she-elf presumably invented to bring a bit of glamour and beauty as much as anything else to the otherwise all male cast. (Also, why she-elf? Why not just elf?)

But Pullman’s words also made me think about the value we place on literature, and why. The Hobbit is considered a classic, and to some, such criticism as voiced by Pullman is tantamount to blasphemy. But what is it about this work that has given it such a high esteemed place in our minds? What makes a book a classic? Is it longevity? Impact on readers? The fact that you were forced to read it at school? These are interesting questions that have been debated by authors and scholars over the years, along with the notion of why classics are so important to society in general. You might think that something children read at school or students at University must have a greater relevance than other books; an ability to impart some wisdom on either history (The Iliad) or religion (Paradise Lost) or equality (Animal Farm) or race (To Kill a Mockingbird) or society (Lord of the Flies) or English Literature itself (Shakespeare). All of these examples would not be considered modern, but all would be considered classics I think. But what about some more recent titles that make it onto school reading lists, with themes such as war (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), or change (Kensuke’s Kingdom) or relationships and family life (Goggle Eyes).  Are these too now classics?

Italo CalvinoOne author who expressed his thoughts on this subject was Italo Calvino, an Italian journalist and writer of novels and short stories, who’s paper Why Read the Classics was published in 1991. In it he addressed the important question of why as well as what, and his definitions have become classic in their own right:

  1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, 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 unconscious.
  4. A classic is a book which with each rereading 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 rereading 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 which 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) through which they have passed.
  8. A classic is a work which 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 through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.
  10. A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a 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 exist without.
  14. A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

A lot of these things, to me, are quite personal, particularly when considering numbers 4, 6, 9, 11. And perhaps it is your personal view of what makes a book a classic is the best view to go by. Something that you will read over and over again, that always provides you with something new, and that perhaps brings back a memory. As for Tolkien and the Hobbit – it is not a book I have read, though I certainly know the story through hearsay, and so perhaps when I do read it, it will provide me with an original, unexpected, and innovative experience. Or perhaps I will agree with Philip Pullman, and think it “a marvellous vehicle that goes nowhere” One thing is for sure – I can’t make a judgement until I have read it.

“Classic’ – a book which people praise and don’t read.” Mark Twain


One Comment Add yours

  1. Anji Dawson says:

    I love Phillip Pullman but i am in the ‘blasphemy’ group i love the Hobbit and the lord of the rings, how dare he!! 🙂 i had never really given the lack of females in it a thought. There is a girl in the Lord of the rings and Eowyns love story with Faramir is on of my favourite parts. I would assume there aren’t more girls in because fantasy of this type appeals ‘generally’ more to men- or used to anyway. i would rather no women than putting a woman in for the sake of it- case in point Liv tylers charater in LOTR and as you mentioned the pointless love triangle in the latest Hobbit.


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