But Is It a Classic?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- January 9th, 2014

laurel wreathOne of our booksellers, Darrilyn, was shelving Seamus Heaney’s version of Beowulf the other day when she held it up and said, “Poetry? Or Classics?” There ensued a brief, lively discussion; staffer Laura and I came down on the side of shelving it with the classics, where it usually lives, although of course an argument could be made for poetry. Neither is wrong; like many bookstore decisions, it’s booksellers’ choice, which mainly boils down to thinking about where customers are most likely to go looking for a title. ”There’s a blog post for you,” Darrilyn said. “Where do we draw the line? What counts as a ‘classic?’ ”

This was a particularly relevant question, since we have been finding some odd things being shelved in our adult Classics section. We’re not sure how they are migrating over from Fiction. Kurt Vonnegut, for example. He’s a noteworthy author by any standard, but he shouldn’t be in Classics yet. P.G. Wodehouse often finds himself in the Classics case, as well, perhaps because he is inarguably delightful and the delicious matte hardcover editions we stock look and feel pleasingly classic. But does Wodehouse belong there? And if not, why not, exactly? Anthony Trollope lives in Classics, as does Twain, as does Aristophanes’ The Frogs, as do Shakespeare’s comedies, and so on, so the distinction is not about comic versus serious tone. Is Wodehouse simply too recently deceased (1975) to enter the canon fully as of yet?

Is one of the distinctions we make sheerly about literary prowess? If so, why do we have Twain and Dickens’ lighter fare and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo in Classics, but keep Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca in Fiction? Is that an unconsciously sexist choice? Are we valuing du Maurier’s subject matter (gothic romance, ghost story) less than Dumas’ (betrayal, revenge, an epic potboiler) because she’s a woman? Some of our internal designations are hard to pin down; for something that we think of as nearly carved in stone, it’s a question that squirms around a little. What exactly IS a classic?

The dictionary defines a classic as a— just kidding! I couldn’t help invoking that stale staple opener of the high school essay. But it is worth noting that there is no hard-and-fast definition or rule about what qualifies a book to be a literary classic. It seems safe to say that, in order to reach “classic” status, a book needs to be widely considered — by thoughtful readers as well as the brightest intellects in the field — to be worthwhile, notable, extraordinary, a valuable addition to literature, resonant and striking to the mind (ideally also to the heart and spirit). A classic does not have to uplift the soul, but it must stretch, or deeply enrich, the human being. And it must endure the scrutiny of the ages. It must transcend its time. I believe all of this to be true for classic children’s books, as well.

The term “classic” is often used in relation to new books, and while those rare gems may certainly turn out to be classics, I don’t believe they have earned that august spot on the bookshelf just yet. To me, a book cannot be considered a classic before it has stood the test of generations of readers. Even Shakespeare’s plays wouldn’t have been “classics” while he was still alive.

Readers, what do you consider the salient determinant(s) of a classic children’s book? What makes a classic a classic, and when? And finally, which books published in our lifetime do you think will endure, to be considered classics in 50, 100, 400 years?

12 thoughts on “But Is It a Classic?

  1. Seth Kupferberg

    Why don’t you just shelve it in both places (assuming you stock more than one copy)?

    I remember noticing that Patelson’s (a since-closed classical music store in New York City) shelved Amy (or, as she used to be called, “Mrs. H.H.A.”) Beach’s music under the “Women Composers” tab of its piano section – not also under the “B” tab for alphabetized composers. That was (in my opinion) obviously wrong and insulting – it belonged in both places!

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle Post author

      We often do this, but books sell from one spot or the other, we don’t always have space in the budget for two copies (since we also have 28,000 other titles to keep track of and shelve), and so we try to have one main section, with a minor subsection, if that makes sense.

  2. Judy Weymouth

    I was taught (by Anita Silvey) that in order for a children’s book to be considered a classic, the book needed to be read and enjoyed by succeeding generations of readers. For example, Charlotte’s Web fits that definition as does The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are. It’s too early to know if the recent readers of Harry Potter will choose to share the books with their children/grandchildren in the future. Will the next generation choose to invest the time required to read these books? Will the films become “classic” and the books not so much? Time will reveal the answer.

    I, too, hate it when new books are advertised as “classics”.

  3. Amanda Mustafic

    There are so many children’s classics. The obvious picture books – Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, Corduroy – and then books for older children, like Ingalls’ Little House series, L’Engle’s Wrinkle In Time series, and Pooh. Definitely The Giver, Charlotte’s Web, Bridge To Terabithia, and Shiloh.

    Future classics – Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The Book Thief. I think The Hobbit already is a classic.

  4. Carol Chittenden

    We harbored the illusion briefly that we could maintain a section called Classics. What a relief it was to let it go! We now have a picturebook section called “Old Favorites,” which has turned out to be handy for one and all.

  5. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    You always come up with such NEAT day-brightening, thought-provoking queries, Elizabeth, thanks! I also like your “in our lifetime” limitation which gives me 78 years to play with…LOL. Okay…the Laura Ingals Wilder “Little House” series. Also Carol Brink’s “Caddie Woodlawn”. Madeleine L’Engle’s “Sidewise in Time”. Apropos the current brouhaha anent “Saving Mr. Banks” at least the first four Mary Poppins books. A.A. Milne’s “Pooh” series en toto and certainly Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, possibly Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy and NATCH! Harry Potter. I’d also be inclined to add a couple of Rober Heinlein’s juveniles (“Podkayne of Mars” comes to mind). Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” quintet. Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”. I also think Thornton W. Burgess’s “Old Mother West Wind” tales have good solid ‘legs’. I’ll go ahead and post this, though I’m sure other books will pop into my mind once I’ve done so.

  6. Valerie Hobbs

    Methinks your definition of what makes an adult classic holds true for children’s books as well, Elizabeth. I would begin my list with Charlotte’s Web and The Bridge to Terabithia.

    And, boy, do I hate it when publishers scream “instant classic”!

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