What makes a book a classic? Why do some best sellers quickly peak and die, while other books, which may or may not have been bestsellers in their time endure? We’ve been talking about this at the Bob on Books Facebook page, and some of what’s here draws on the thoughts of the avid readers on that page.
Of course, a good plot and memorable characters generally are a prerequisite. Need we go further than Ebenezer Scrooge and the appearances of the three ghosts? Another example would be the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin–Tom, Eliza, and Evangeline St. Claire to name a few, and memorable scenes, like Eliza’s flight to freedom across the ice on the Ohio River, pursued by fugitive slave hunters. Plots don’t always have to be fast-moving or tight. Think of the massive works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Often, it seems that the development of a character, and that person’s interior monologue can sprawl across pages and yet engross us, because we can see how someone would really think like that.
That gets to another reason these books endure. They come to be recognized as books in which we both lose and find ourselves. We may become engrossed by a character, who in turn invites us to look at our own lives in fresh ways. It may be that a setting and characters remind people of what they value most in life. I think of the popularity of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a story of a family, of coming of age, and Brooklyn. Thousands of soldiers in World War 2 read the book, with memories of their families, their loves, and their homes. And many continue to see themselves in the adolescent children of the story, Mary Frances Nolan, and her brother “Neely.”
Sometimes, it seems to be a timeless issue. I’m not sure Fahrenheit 451 is distinguished in terms of plot and characters, but in its exploration of book burning and a society of censorship and why this must be resisted. The Jungle, though written in the early 1900’s setting of meat-packing plants still resonates as we think of how workers are often exploited in similar settings around the world (including meat-packing plants that are hot spots of infection in the current pandemic).
Timelessness seems to be one of the critical elements. Classic books are those people connect with generation after generation. Most of us are far from the gentrified setting of 18th century England. Yet generations have found themselves enthralled with the descriptions of elegant drawing rooms and manners, budding romances, and the roles of men and women, the limits on women, and how they contended with these in the works of Jane Austen. The dynamics of relations between men and women will always be with us, no matter how different our circumstances.
Classics are hardly infallible. They may draw us in but we may also define our realities in very different terms. We may come to these books with different sensibilities regarding race, gender, or social class. We may object to the way these are framed by the author, but they help us recognize from where we have come. They also make us question how future generations will evaluate our social structures.
One of the curious things is how classic works stay in print. It would seem to come down to people hearing about the book year after year from others who have loved it until it becomes one of those books you need to read. I do have to admit that I’m curious why some books make it to “classic” status, like Ulysses by James Joyce that maybe five people in the world have any clue to what it means. Maybe it is that people are impressed to see it on one’s shelf, which is one reason some acquire “classics.”
I suspect different classic works connect with people through the generations for different reasons. It suggests to me that there are variety of ways in which a work may be great, not just one. It also encourages me that the ways a work may be great are not exhausted. Some of the books that have deeply touched us may speak to future generations. Unfortunately, most of us will probably never know, any more than those who first read Jane Austen. But we will know that we read a good book.