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On Making A Classic Book List (Or, What Is A Classic?)

A photo of three classic books I will be adding to my list - Vanity Fair, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield

Ever since I learned about The Classics Club, I’ve considered joining. Many of you have joined already and are successfully getting through your lists, and whilst it’s not exactly necessary to create a list or join a club to get through books, I love the idea of honing in on the classics I’d like to read. When I want to read I don’t pick my classics at random, but I could do with a plan of sorts so that I am actually getting through the books most important to my reading-self.

There are many books I have floating around my head for inclusion, and I could probably just note them all down and be done with it, but reading book blogs has broadened my horizons as to what makes a classic and as such this post is in fact more about that. Because the question is, what do I deem relevant, what could I include to make it a classic book list that isn’t so much a global notion as it is about my personally and thoughts? Obviously there are differences in opinion. I think everyone is in agreement that, for example, Jane Austen’s works are classics, but does everyone agree that Harry Potter is a modern classic series? And how far do I go in my definition of time, and do I only choose books based on their eternal favour with readers?

If I define the word “classic” for myself, without bringing anyone else’s thoughts or popular opinion into it, then “classic” is a broad term encompassing famous old books, old books that are no longer famous but were in their day (and are eternally relevant in their subject matter), and books that are modern and famous and likely to be passed down to future generations. However this definition causes a problem because whilst I have no problem including Dickens on my list, or Bacheller, I’m not sure about the two remaining books of the Fifty Shades trilogy.

So I must limit my own definition. Therefore for the purposes of my club list I will be including the following: old famous books and old best sellers. It’s not much of a definition but I’ve the basic idea set. I won’t define “old”, instead I’ll go with the flow. And rather than go and search for books I might like to add to my list, thus possibly ending up with a very long list that will put me off the idea altogether, I’ll include the books that come to mind all by themselves. A piped piper of Hamelin wouldn’t go amiss right now.

Because you have to have 50 books for the Club, I’m still writing it out; I will let you see them later otherwise this post will be far too long.

For now I’m going to ask you this question:

How do you define “classic” for the purposes of your own reading?



October 10, 2012, 2:00 am

I never have any idea how to make my definition of classics work. I think my definition of a classic is like the Potter Stewart definition of pornography — I know it when I see it. Not very good I know!

jenn aka the picky girl

October 10, 2012, 2:29 am

Oooh, those editions are lovely.

As far as defining classics, it’s tricky ground. I think it also changes. Books that schools assign are often deemed classics, but these lists can rotate every 20 years or so, with some remaining and others being added in.

I remember as an undergrad thinking about contemporary literature (at the time I wasn’t reading much) and wondering what would be considered classic in future decades. I think some of the works we consider very literary now will actually be derided or, at the very least, criticized in the future.

So right now I stick to traditional classics. I’ve got a bunch coming down the line, so I’ll look forward to yours.


October 10, 2012, 6:08 am

I think I define a classic as a book I find interesting and want to read and that has been published at least 30 years ago.I added books that are traditionally viewed as classics, but also ones that would never be studied in a university course, books like Peyton Place.
I really like ‘old famous books and old bestsellers’ – that is pretty much my definition, too.


October 10, 2012, 3:14 pm

That is a really good question that I’m not sure how to answer.

I’ve never thought of a definition. In my head a classic is just a classic, lol.

I think of a classic as something that is older and beloved by many people. That’s a very loose definition, but it works for me ;)


October 10, 2012, 5:06 pm

I’m totally tempted by this challenge and how to define classic, too — I like your frame — for me, I’d like to focus on women and people of color — because, frankly, dead white guys just don’t draw me.


October 10, 2012, 10:11 pm

Most of the classics on my own Classics Club list are from the 18th, 19th or early 20th century and I think are probably the type of books most people would recognise as ‘classics’. I find modern classics much harder to define, which is why I haven’t included many of them on my list. I know that doesn’t really answer your question! Anyway, I’ll look forward to seeing which books you’ve chosen.


October 11, 2012, 9:09 am

Jenny: I don’t know, I’d say that’s a sound definition, and likely the truest way to be to oneself.

Jenn: Change – I hadn’t thought of that, it’s a good point. Yes, that’s the issue with contemporary literature, we can assume what will work but we’re placing our current values on this assumption, not knowing what will happen in the future.

Anbolyn: I like that you have such a solid idea! Reading books never studied academically is important.

Jennifer: I suppose in that way you did have a definition, it’s just more of a visual than worded, a picture as it were. That definition works!

Audra: Putting an even more limited focus on it is a really good idea. I don’t mind the dead white guys, though I’m much more interested in the subjects you’ve highlighted. I’m going to have to have several PoC on my list before I’m happy with it. There’s far too much emphasis on white-European literature as being classics, and following only the English canon would be dull anyway!

Helen: You’re right, that time period is classic-classic period, if such can be said. That’s the thing, modern classics are difficult and application of the term is very much up to the individual at this point. It does answer the question to some extent, as well as giving a general definition :)


October 11, 2012, 5:24 pm

Charlie — The limited focus helps, too, narrow the list (a bit!) — since, if I have my druthers, everything and all ends up on the wishlist. While there is something, I suppose, in having a ‘classical’ reading of the Western canon, it just doesn’t quite grab me. I should give it a try someday — I’ve never, ever read Plato, Dickens, or Hugo, among others…

Andrew Blackman

October 12, 2012, 12:09 am

It’s a slippery term, like anything involved in literature. I see it as being more about enduring value than sales or popularity. Enduring value is of course also subject to opinion!


October 12, 2012, 1:30 pm

Judging what book counts as a ‘classic’ is difficult and also so personally. I really tried to think too hard about it when I made my classics club list. Instead just opting for many books that most people would count as classic classics. Nearly all of which date from 18th, 19th, and early 20th century as Helen said. Being a fan of fantasy books as well I tried to pick as many classics that fitted into that category too.


October 12, 2012, 3:23 pm

I’m never really sure what “classics” are. I usually go for “old books that are still read by many people.” Old as in before 1950 or so.

I don’t read a lot of classics at the moment, as I’m reading too much for review as well as my own to-read pile, that contains only a few classics (a Thomas Hardy book, a Dickens).


October 13, 2012, 11:06 am

I’ve been thinking of joining too, but when I start to plan out my reading I always find other things I want to read.

I think I would avoid anything published after 2000, because I do link classic with old but still valued. However, as you say there are many classics prevalent in their time that now we don’t know about. I personally recommend anything written by the writers who gathered in Paris in the 20s (Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald etc…) and those who wrote about The Lost Generation. Aside from that I’m not much help. Maybe you could pick 5 books per 10 years?

The guardian have a list of their top 100 this may help in your classification a little.


October 13, 2012, 11:08 am

A difficult question, Charlie, and one that I pondered only yesterday as well. My decision was made easy by the fact that the Shirley Jackson I read was published as a “Penguin Modern Classic” ;) But what makes Harry Potter a modern classic and Fifty Shades not?

The Literary Omnivore

October 14, 2012, 2:56 am

Books old white dudes think are important, to be brutally honest.

I really do hate the word classic, because it doesn’t inherently mean anything about a text—I feel you really have to spell it out, and the fact that it’s often opinion-based instead of anything objective makes me shy away from it.



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