When we talk about classic books, we normally think of old ones—but classics are much more than just old. At the same time, we hear a book is an “instant classic” when it may be too early to say. What makes a classic, exactly?
The definition of classic, according to Oxford Languages, is something “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind.”
Though I’ve conducted no survey, I think most people would agree with this definition. But a problem is that this definition doesn’t tell us who determines when something is classic. Couldn’t any book be a classic, then, if someone (or perhaps a group of people) call it one? We can see that this would lead to issues so, thankfully, it’s not the case. Classics must be affirmed by many people from multiple generations.
So what rubric do we use to deem something “classic”? Notice Oxford’s phrase “over a period of time.” There is certainly a time component. Definitively, there can be no “instant classic.” But it cannot be merely any span of time. Age alone doesn’t make a classic. Instead, it must also be “of highest quality” and “outstanding of its kind.”
Using the basic criteria from Oxford’s definition, here are three main qualities that all classics have. These qualities give them the right to bear the name “classic.”
1. Themes and characters that transcend their contemporary culture
Classics are always far from superficial. They don’t consider worthless questions. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, does not thematically focus on whether man can (or should) make intelligent life. Instead, it uses the monster to reflect on the nature of humanity: are people bad because they are treated badly or because they were born bad?
Scientific and other questions of curiosity can gain and lose interest over time, but discussions of human nature are always relevant. If you look closely, every classic partakes in this timeless discussion.
As a result of classics focusing on human nature, their characters are always realistically human, not time-confined stereotypes. Stereotypes are flat and often dehumanized creations of a society. They are often based on some facts, but they won’t be characters who your great-grandchildren can sympathize with, most likely. Why? Because, instead of spawning from the timelessness of human nature, they are time-stamped with our current culture and can’t be connected with beyond it.
2. Settings that include every reader
Classics are often memorable for their location (or setting). This is not necessarily because the setting itself is beautiful, but because the author skillfully uses his or her writing tools to make it especially beautiful. And every reader, by virtue of the author’s compelling language, enters the setting with them. The reader is included in the world of the characters.
The story, too, is crafted to capture someone’s attention. This engagement is partly due to the thematic interest, but even the most of stirring themes in a book can be crippled by poor writing and a dull storyline. Therefore, the author of a classic must master prose and plot so that those who read it are constantly engaged.
3. Merit that Withstands the Test of Time
While age doesn’t make a classic, it does help prove a book is a classic. Classics aren’t classic by virtue of being old, but their oldness and continued relevancy and impact are a testament to their classic nature.
Some people do say a book is an “instant classic.” But even if we love a book that came out this year and we are convinced it bears all the marks of excellent writing, we should wait to call it a classic. Why? Because we don’t necessarily know how our grandchildren will respond to it. Maybe it won’t impact their generation as it impacted us.
For instance, I haven’t heard any of the Harry Potter series called “classics” (except instances of being called an “instant classic”). After all, they’ve only been around a little over two decades. The Lord of the Rings, however, is going on seven decades—well over three generations—and is usually considered a classic.
By our definition, an “instant classic” doesn’t really exist. Books that do bear the writing classics are known for could be perhaps called “potential classics” or “unproven classics.” But until some time goes by, the honored label should be officially withheld.
Of course, there’s nothing magical about a unit of time. It just indicates that more than one group of people connected with it. Two or three generations from now, the Harry Potter books will likely be classics, too.
If you haven’t realized this already, it turns out that the qualities of classics, except time, are simply qualities of excellent storytelling. Classics are not on some supernatural level; instead, they’re just stories written by normal humans who have mastered their craft and shared it with the world. And not only the world at their time, of course, but the world for all time.
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