Classic book

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{theory, work, human}
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A classic book is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader's own personal opinion. The term itself is closely related to Western Canon and to various college/university Senior Comprehensive Examination Reading Lists. What makes a book "classic" is a concern that has occurred to various authors ranging from Italo Calvino to Mark Twain and the related questions of "Why Read the Classics?" and "What Is a Classic?" have been essayed by authors from different genres and eras (Calvino, T.S. Eliot, Charles Saint-Beuve). The ability of a classic book to be reinterpreted, to seemingly be renewed in the interests of generations of readers succeeding its creation, is a theme that is seen in the writings of literary critics including Michael Dirda, Saint-Beuve and Ezra Pound.


Modern definitions

In the 1980s Italo Calvino said in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say” and comes to the crux of personal choice in this matter when he says (italics in the original translation): “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.”[Note 1][1][2][3][4] Consideration of what makes a literary work a classic is for Calvino ultimately a personal choice, and, constructing a universal definition of what constitutes a Classic Book seems to him to be an impossibility, since, as Calvino says “There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”[5]

What actually makes a work of literature a ‘classic book’ is not just a consideration of extensively published authors. In 1920, Fannie M. Clark, a teacher at the Rozelle School in East Cleveland, Ohio, predates Calvino’s similar conclusions by 60 years when she also essayed the question of what makes a book a ‘classic’ in her article “Teaching Children to Choose” in The English Journal, Volume 9, No. 3, “The Official Organ of the National Council of Teachers of English”[6]

Over the course of her essay Clark considers the question of what makes a piece of literature a classic and why the idea of “the classics” is important to society as a whole. Clark says that “teachers of English have been so long trained in the ‘classics’ that these ‘classics’ have become to them very much like the Bible, for the safety of which the rise of modern science causes such unnecessary fears.”[7] She goes on to say that among the sources she consulted was a group of eighth-graders when she asked them the question: “What do you understand by the classics in literature?” Two of the answers Clark received were “Classics are books your fathers give you and you keep them to give to your children” and “Classics are those great pieces of literature considered worthy to be studied in English classes of high school or college”. Calvino agrees with the Ohio educator when he states “Schools and universities ought to help us understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite.” Clark and Calvino come to a similar conclusion that when a literary work is analyzed for what makes it 'classic', that in just the act of analysis or as Clark says "the anatomical dissection",[7] the reader can end up destroying the unique pleasure that mere enjoyment a work of literature can hold.

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