What is a classic?

When presented with this question, I thought of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the works of Shakespeare, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist. These are stories I know, not because I’ve read them, but because I’ve talked about them. I’ve seen adaptations and have studied them in an endless array of English courses. To me, this is what a classic is: a story archaic in every sense, yet so insightful that its themes and explorations of the human condition are as poignant today as it was in the time it was written.

What makes a classic—what books we as readers collectively decide are classics—is subjective, but when I proposed the question to English professors Chester Scoville, Alexandra Rahr, and Chris Koenig-Woodyard, they agreed on two things. First, its standing has to have endured time, and second, its values have to be important to a modern readership.

It’s for the second reason that what we consider the classic canon seems to be in flux. Some of the titles we consider important texts vary from generation to generation. Rahr put it this way: “The classic canon varies because it’s defined by what we take seriously. We [as a generation] find out of a text what we need from it.”

Koenig-Woodyard also stressed the cultural component of a canon. “One has to read a series of companion texts alongside [the classics] to understand the ways in which books are turned into classics—the way in which social, institutional, political, and ideological forces play roles in shaping the cultural reception and historical status of a book,” he says.

He cited the example of Jane Austen, arguably one of the world’s most recognized authors, pointing out that Austen’s work was not well-read in her day. It was during the 1950s that her writing grew in prominence and was increasingly taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Austen remains relevant, Koenig-Woodyard says, because “if Austen holds a kind of mirror up to her society in late 18th-and early 19th-century England, when we look in her mirror we have to reconcile our image alongside those she presents: she has lessons about love and relationships that still resonate with us.”

If a classic is important because it holds a mirror up to our generational values, then why is it often a less-read book? “We’re answering the question of what makes a story great in new ways,” says Rahr in reference to what she calls the “cracking canon”.

Rahr points out that there’s a sentiment that many students, regardless of their discipline, have identified as “the problem with the literary canon”: the fact that they establish and live in conventions.

By contrast, Kevin Mahiri, a medical student at Western, argued that while he valued literary competence, he felt that students needed to “expose themselves to not just accepting literary conventions, but different perspectives”.

Scoville felt that while it was a problem that students weren’t reading the titles typically considered “classics”, the bigger issue is that the canon actually isn’t changing enough. ”The question of what classics you’re talking about may depend on your point of view. In a multicultural society and university, one can’t rely on only the same list of must-read texts now that our predecessors did a century ago,” he says.

If this seems hard to reconcile with the observation that the student’s conception of the “classics” does change, that’s the problem. While the canon in literary circles is being updated, many people outside the ivory tower accept without question the canon Koenig-Woodyard calls “the canon of dead white people”. The values of our increasingly diverse culture are changing. We tell stories in different ways and consider different things great.

This is Rahr’s concern. For her, the problem isn’t whether we’re reading classics, but whether we’re creating a well-read citizenry. What one gains from reading a classic is how to really read; that is, to dissect and analyze what we’re reading rather than racing through to finish the story. Arguably, a true classic does precisely that. It forces us to slow down.

What we read, and why we read it, is changing. But what shouldn’t change is reading in this intentional way, especially in a quickening and increasingly distracted world. We need classics, old or new, to be a tool in understanding both our language and the state of our society and humanity.