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What Makes a Classic?

For many of us, the term classic is often synonymous with required reading. But have you ever wondered what exactly qualifies a book as a classic?

What does or doesn't constitute a classic is a constant source of debate in the literary world, but there are still a few criterion most of us can agree on. Read on for 4 reasons a book might be considered a classic.

1. Age

One of the main criteria to qualify as a classic is that a book must stand the test of time. Modern books published in our lifetimes cannot yet be considered classics because we still don't know if they'll be relevant years from now. Some experts say that to qualify as a classic a book must have a minimum age of 100 years, other say it must carry an impact that lasts for at least a few generations. Either way, the criteria seems to be that if a book endures past those who were alive when it was published, then there must be something great about it that makes it a classic.

2. Cultural significance

Since most classics are quite old, this generally means that they were published at points in history where life was starkly different from how we live now. Even though they were written by people whose lives were far removed from ours in the modern age, all classics survive because they have themes that transcend time. Look at 1984 : the commentaries on surveillance and government control have never been more applicable than they are now. What about Pride & Prejudice or any other Jane Austen novel? They continue to have cultural significance because of the strong female characters who went against society's expectations.

3. Historical contributions

Back in the day most classics were penned by white, straight men. Why? Well, they tended to be the ones with the access, power, and clout to write and publish books. There are, of course exceptions to the rule, such as Austen, Brontë, and Wilde. Despite this very particular, and narrow frame of reference, classics still offer invaluable historical knowledge. Take a look at almost any book written by Charles Dickens. He brought the topics of child poverty and labor to the forefront of his novels, and continues to serve as an educational source even today. And we can't fail to mention Herman Melville's masterpiece, Moby-Dick, which contains fascinating snippets of life aboard a 19th century whaling ship. From Anna Karenina to The Great Gatsby, the classics can be a wealth of interesting historical details we wouldn't know much about otherwise.

4. Literary merit

But wait, judging by the first three criterion, almost every book published more than 100 years ago is a classic, right? Nope! Being old, and having a cultural and historical impact isn't enough to qualify a book as a classic. The most important criteria of all is: It has to be good. Of course, what makes a book good or bad can be intensely subjective (which is why people in the literary world love to argue about what is and isn't a classic) — Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for Literature, but many people find his writing simplistic and repetitive. Remember, a good book isn't necessarily a fun book to read. But if it offers something of value, whether it be knowledge or a lasting cultural impact, that means it's good, and by extension a classic!

What do you think qualifies a book as a classic?

Share your favorite classic in the comments below!


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