Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What Makes a Book a Classic?

Salon discusses it, here.

From the piece...

But there are a few places where deciding whether a book is a classic or not has real consequences. One is, obviously, classrooms, but the other is bookstores, as Elizabeth Bluemle of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont let on recently in the blog Shelf Talker. One of the store’s staff members recently asked her if he should shelve Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” with poetry or classics. After some discussion, they went with classics, but as Bluemle explains, “Neither is wrong; like many bookstore decisions, it’s booksellers’ choice, which mainly boils down to thinking about where customers are most likely to go looking for a title.”

The incident prompted Bluemle to observe that books by some authors seem to be “migrating” (presumably reshelved by junior staffers or customers) from the fiction to the classics section, particularly books by P.G. Wodehouse and Kurt Vonnegut. She’s not sure either one belongs there (“yet,” in the case of Vonnegut), but she also finds herself wondering why “The Count of Monte Cristo” is shelved in classics while Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” remains in fiction. The comparison is subtle but shrewd, as both are well-written novels with potboiler and gothic elements and both were viewed primarily as entertainments when first published.

The cliché people most often cite when defining a classic is “the test of time.” “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1844) is a lot older than “Rebecca” (1938), but my completely unempirical gut feeling is that they’re of about the same literary quality.

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