I’m sure many of you have seen the infamous orange-black sleeve of a Penguin Classic. If anything, it's synonymous with books of timeless literary merit, deserving of multiple readings to even begin to grasp its brilliance. In the words of Italino Calvino in his Why Read the Classics? 


“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.”


Classics are a universal statement of human nature. They are books that raise whole edifices of thought to the ground and simultaneously beget new and wonderful thinkers that define history itself. In short, they shape the world around us. With such daunting criteria, it seems ever the more confusing to decide what exactly makes a classic? It seems that it is basically impossible to find a universal definition for the Classic, yet we do still seem to have inclinations about what might guide us in classifying books in such a way. I mean Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban will forever stand in my heart as one of my best books I’ve ever read, but that does not mean it deserves the title Classic. The best it seems we can do, is to identify some general principles we can follow in sorting these outstanding works of literature. The rest, I suppose, is left to this unusual intuition we all seem to have in recognizing what is and isn’t a classic.


First of all, I think it's fair to say that our book in question has to be good. Not necessarily good as in funny (or even enjoyable to an extent), but it needs to display some sort of literary merit. For example, I wouldn’t consider Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason exactly a light or immediately rewarding read (it’s more like blindly stumbling through a pitch black room with no end in sight), but it holds literary merit in the sense that it teaches and improves the individual with key insights into what it means to reason. Other texts, such as The Canterbury Tales, do not seem to offer any particular ethical teachings, but are nonetheless regarded as Classics for their priceless value in representing their historical and social context. So we can broadly separate literary merit into three categories: stylistically elegant, morally (or vice versa) didactic, and historically representative. Underlying these broad generalisations are still some fairly perplexing questions. What is, and how would we identify elegant prose? Would we consider literature that influenced a generation with plainly untruel teachings a classic (think Mein Kampf)? It seems the very idea of literary merit itself is pretty ambiguous, and so a lot of judgement comes down to opinion. The Classics then, are essentially the mean total of all our various conflicting opinions summed together, where Homer, Dickens, Joyce and many others surface as the popular choices.


Another often discussed criteria is a book's ability to ‘stand the test of time.’ The Odyssey passes this test with flying colours, yet Harry Potter, unfortunately, seems to fall short. However works such as The Lord Of The Rings (1954) are less easy to classify. At what point does a good book turn into a classic? Is it when the author has died? Is it, say, 100 years after publication? We are reduced to drawing arbitrary lines that have no evidence to support our claims. Thus we return to the original idea, namely its ability to stand the test of time. We may, consistent with our earlier conclusion, reduce it merely to subjective interpretations. The consequence of this, is that each one of us is entrusted to build their own collection of Classics based upon our individual judgement. This conclusion however, is less than helpful. If we accept that there never will be a unifying criteria to the Classic, then how can we ever use it in conversation? It would be like saying ‘I think x is fun’, where Classic is merely a subjective quality. We would, in other words, have to be stating an opinion every time we referred to Classic. Consider the colour blue. No one, as far as I’m aware, has found a sufficient definition for it, such that he could explain the idea ‘blue’ to a blind person. So how do we talk about it all day without preceding ‘in my opinion’? There must be some source of knowledge that allows us to refer to it objectively. This ‘mystical intuition’ may currently lie out of our grasp now, but one thing we can affirm is that it exists. This analogy might seem somewhat superfluous, but in a similar case, I think we can apply this deduction to the idea of a Classic: there exists a definition within our minds, though difficult to find, that permits us to talk so readily about it.


In summary then, what makes a book a Classic is still unfortunately unknown to us. We can hint at broad points as discussed above (much like we can hint at instances of say flowers, bees and discuss the physics behind light receptors when explaining the colour yellow) to narrow our search, but going the last mile is, in the end, up to that mysterious intuition that all of us seem to have.