What is a literary classic?

In my growing years, the only thing that my father occasionally indulged me with,  no non- occasions, was to buy me a book. But I could get one only if I bought a classic – and so I got  books by Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Walter Scott etc, all considered classics,  on various visits to Faquir Chand at Khan Market. The once a year birthday treat was the occasion when I was allowed a non-classic – Enid Blyton and the like!! Under my father’s guidance, I ended up reading a lot of the ‘classics’.

I have always wondered what makes one book a classic and the other not! Who decides and are there criteria? During the ‘millenium’ hype, there were a lot of ‘Books of the 20th century” lists around and every now and then different organizations bring out book lists of “100 best” , “Must read”  “of all time”, “of the 20th century”, etc. Some cut across languages – most of the 100 best will have Marquez, Tolstoy, Hugo etc…Others are more English specific. In any case, due to my early push into the traditional “classics”, I find that I have read quite a few of the books in these lists – the ones I have not are most often the early American writers like Hawthorne or Thoreau. Somehow, my father did not have a leaning in that direction. To the later Americans he was very partial, and so I read a lot of O’hara (some of the best short stories ever!), Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Fitzgerald etc and many post-war writers like Mary McCarthy. Which of these are classics?

So, I thought this list of 14 criteria for a ‘classic’ by Itlao Calvino was interesting.

  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.

Of course it does not say, how many of these criteria have to be fulfilled by any one book to qualify!! But going by many of these, there are very few of the books I have read that would qualify. I don’t remember re-reading any Dickens, or Scott or even a Hemingway and the closest to my ‘classic’ would be Du Murier’s “Rebecca” and Marquez “One hundred years of solitude”.

Although Mukta was also an avid reader, and was probably pursuaded/bullied by me to read the ‘classics’ I am not sure she did, except the occasional one here and there. Udai, all of 9 years and also a great reader, is of the current generation Except the abbreviated versions of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe (maybe one or two others) when he was much younger, I am sure he will never want to read the classic ‘classics’!! And going by many of Calvino’s criteria he would definitely rate all of  Rowling’s Harry Potter books as uncontested “Classics”.

So, the question remains – what is a classic?

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