This is the first post in a 4-part series from Dr. Leland Ryken, former professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Crossway’s Christian Guides to the Classics series, which explores great works of Western literature.
The Concept of a “Classic”
The concept of a classic extends to virtually all spheres of life and is not limited to works of literature and art. “It’s a classic,” says my wife about a piece of clothing that I am considering purchasing. “Give the gift of a timeless classic,” says an advertisement for a watch. “Instant classic,” the ESPN classic sports channel declares magisterially about a recently completely football or basketball game. On lazy Wednesday evenings in the summer one can saunter to downtown Wheaton, Illinois, and see displays of classic cars. If the concept of a classic extends this broadly, it hardly deserves the stigma of eliteness that “politically correct” liberals like to pin on literary classics.
What qualities does something possess in order to merit the title classic? As I turn to an answer, I will be speaking specifically of works of literature, on the understanding that the qualities that I am about to ascribe to a literary classic apply equally to many other areas of life and to the sister arts (visual art and music).
For starters, a classic is considered by the public at large to be the best in its class, or of the highest quality in a group. A work of literature that does not measure up to high standards of quality is not in the running to be considered a classic. This is not to say that we should read only classics, but only that something less than excellent as judged by those who are most expert in a field cannot be considered a classic (though I will note a partial exception below).
If a classic is as great as I have implied, a related trait that we can ascribe to it is that it impacts us deeply. We value it because of its effects. I am fond of the statement of a literary scholar who speaks of how a classic “modifies our very being and makes us feel we are not the same men and women we were when we began it.”
Because a classic is widely recognized to be great, it has an important place in the history of a nation or culture or subculture (including the Christian subculture). A prominent literary scholar writes in an introduction to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter that “we speak of a book as a classic when it has gained a place for itself in our culture, and has consequently become a part of our educational experience.” Classics have a way of becoming part of the shared experience of a whole culture or group. We first encounter many of the classics that we know in school.
Additionally, classics have ordinarily stood the test of time. Many of them come from the distant past. Part of the thrill that we feel when reading a classic is our awareness that we have joined a very illustrious group of readers in many places and times. Classics possess permanence. Of course they could not achieved such durability if they are not capable of being reinterpreted and reapplied to as the years unfold. Every age sees its own experience in a classic. Classics are, indeed, timeless and always up to date.
C. S. Lewis had an interesting slant on what makes a classic when he said that a classic “is entirely irreplaceable in the sense that no other book whatever comes anywhere near reminding you of it or being even a momentary substitute for it.” Classics are “one of a kind.”
Embracing the Classics
I want to end with some additional thoughts that may make the classics seem a little less intimidating than they sometimes seem. In addition to the culturally acclaimed classics, it is important that we all have our own private list of classics—books that to us measure up to the qualities I have noted above. Also, every category of literature has its classics. There are classic children’s stories, fairy tales, limericks, murder mysteries, short poems, hymns, and many other genres. Finally, the Bible is the greatest classic. This should lead us to respect the concept of a classic. In addition, what we know about the concept of literary classic can enhance how we experience the Bible.
Leland Ryken (PhD, University of Oregon) served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years. He has authored or edited over three dozen books, is a frequent speaker at the Evangelical Theological Society, and served as literary stylist for the English Standard Version. His Christian Guides to the Classics series includes Homer’s The Odyssey, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton.