Four Marks
of a Classic Book

By Gabriel Blanchard

What do we mean
when we call the great books "great"?

The CLT author bank, our version of a “great books” list, lies at the heart of our mission. We believe that an intelligent answer to both personal questions about life and meaning, and social problems of justice and liberty, lie in the intellectual heritage that has been bequeathed to us. In this we align ourselves with everyone from traditionalists like G. K. Chesterton to progressives like Mary McLeod Bethune—and incidentally, in so doing, frequently discover that progress and tradition are not nearly so opposed as they are often painted.

But how did we settle on these books in particular? And who are we to make the choice? As for the second question, well, we had to: we had tests to run! We drew on previous lists, like the Encyclopædia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World set, but we expanded and modified the list. As for the first question—while no literary “canon” is beyond criticism, ours included—there were four qualities we looked for in each book and author that we selected which, we felt, served our purpose of reconnecting knowledge and virtue.

Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Sir Francis Bacon

So what are these qualities?

1. Beauty. Books should be fun to read! Every author should reward the time we devote to them. As C. S. Lewis put it in An Experiment in Criticism, “Every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t even provide that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities.”

Of course, this mark alone doesn’t make a book a classic—partly because different people have different tastes, and partly because a book may be genuinely important without being immediately fun. Probably no one has been able, on their very first reading, to enjoy the intellectual luminosity of St. Thomas or Kant; only long study can convince them to yield their rarer pleasures. Some tastes have to be acquired.

2. Wisdom. This is another somewhat tricky standard. The person who considers Nietzsche wise may have a low opinion of St. Anselm, and vice versa, while a third person may respect them both in different ways.

Now, we would say, with Chesterton, that “the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” But that does presuppose an initial act of opening—an implicit statement that we can find truth if we look for it. And truth is not partisan. If a writer has something to offer the world, then we feel it is worth listening to, whether we ultimately agree with it or not. This “having something to offer the world” leads us into our next principle.

3. Influence. Here we have a more objective criterion. Certain books and authors have been so widely read, discussed, imitated, and reinvented that it is almost impossible to enter cultured conversation without some knowledge of them, like Plato or Sophocles. This rule does tend to favor older works over newer ones, because they’ve simply had more time to influence people.

Of course, there is some grey area even here. How influential a work is may change over time: an educated monk at the court of Charlemagne would probably know very little about Aristotle, and even less about Jane Austen. And while some works are unarguably important for the whole Western tradition, others are more debatable. We may argue about whether it is more worth our time to read Eugene O’Neill or Lorraine Hansberry, but we are not likely to consider either as influential as Shakespeare, partly because Shakespeare himself was both a singularly successful, prolific playwright, and one who has had more centuries to impact later writers, including O’Neill and Hansberry themselves.

4. Endurance. Some books and writers make an initial splash and then fade; others go unappreciated at first but slowly gather an increasing audience. The flash-in-the-pan authors aren’t necessarily valueless, but their value seems a great deal more limited than works that speak to many people throughout time and across cultures. There are works of literature from thousands of years ago that we still read today, despite fundamental shifts in the nature of civilization: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Bhagavad Gītā, the Bible.

We believe these works have not only endured, but commanded attention and praise from many different ages, societies, peoples, and perspectives, because they speak to the human spirit. Not that these books exhaust that spirit, or that more recent works aren’t worth reading; indeed, there’s every reason to think new classics are being written as we speak. But to suppress or neglect the confirmed “canon” would be to deprive our students of the chance to participate fully in the grand conversation that has been going on since the dawn of our civilization.

___________________________________________________________________________________

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like this author profile of Henrik Ibsen, this “Great Conversation” post on the idea of happiness, or this student essay on the role of music in education. And be sure to check our our weekly podcast, Anchored, where CLT’s founder Jeremy Tate sits down with leading activists and academics to discuss education, policy, and culture.

Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and a staff editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

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