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What makes a book a classic?

By Lucinda Epperson
Rowan Public Library
When a student comes to the library reference desk and asks that we suggest a classic for him or her to read, I’m in a panic.
It’s so much easier if the teacher has given them a list to choose from, but this is not always the case. I can look in books and on the Internet and get lots of lists, but just the other day I was trying to understand what made these books classics.
There are numerous definitions of a classic but it seems difficult to find a list of criteria that would give a definitive answer. Wouldn’t you think that there was a committee of really smart English professors who met and discussed and debated about books and came up with any new titles to be added to this authoritative list of classics? Well if there is a group, they meet in secret.
I liked the definition of one English professor who was explaining a course he was teaching: The defining characteristics of classic literature are timelessness, dealing with universal themes and experiences, and communicating across cultures.
A good piece of literature that can be enjoyed from generation to generation is timeless. For example, Shakespeare’s works are enjoyed today as much as they were hundreds of years ago. Why? Because of a theme that usually includes an observation about life. Universal themes add to the timelessness of a piece because they relate to us all, such as: loves conquers all; good versus evil; rags to riches.
Literature is an excellent vehicle for communicating ideas across cultures as we read and learn much about how others view life.
There seem to be many more definitions of “classic literature.” Several other characteristics were mentioned frequently in the research. One is the number of years the book has been in publication; 60 seems to be a magic number. Another big consideration is the number of times that teachers assign these “classics,” resulting in many printings, which result in folks reading them, which lead to teachers assigning them, etc.For your consideration, here is a list of titles that seem to be on most of the lists of “classics.” Whether you’re encountering them for the first time or want to revisit old friends, come to Rowan Public Library to check them out.
– “Jane Eyre,” by Charlotte Bronte, 1847: Jane’s ill-fated love for the brooding Mr. Rochester endures in this story of a strong-willed heroine who refuses to compromise herself.
– “The Red Badge of Courage,” by Stephen Crane, 1895: Through the eyes of Henry Fleming, a young Civil War soldier, we see the fears of battle and the inexplicable courage that comes when soldiers unite in a wartime machine.
– “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain, 1884: Huck’s adventures on the Mississippi River with the runaway slave Jim abound with truths about honor and justice.
– “1984,” by George Orwell, 1949: Big Brother and the Thought Police control all in a darkly imaginative future.
RPL Annual Book Sale: Saturday, May 10, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sunday, May 11, 1-4 p.m.; Monday, May 12, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Friends of RPL Belle Banks Review: Thursday, May 15, Stanback Room, headquarters, 7 p.m. Belle Banks will discuss “Remember Me?” “Antonement,” “The Appeal” and “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terror and Build Nations ó One School at a Time.”
Tuesday movies: May is Doris Day Movie Month. Come to headquarters at 6:30 p.m. (See related story.) Free refreshments will be served.
May computer classes: Headquarters ó Monday, 7 p.m., Microsoft Publisher Part 1; Thursday, 1:30 p.m., Introduction to Windows; Monday, May 12, 7 p.m., Microsoft Publisher Part 2; Thursday, May 15, 1:30 p.m., Audiobooks and NetLibrary; Monday, May 19, 7 p.m., Creating Web Pages; Thursday, May 22, 1:30 p.m., Computer Survival Tips. South ó Monday, 7 p.m., Intermediate Word; Thursday, May 22, 11 a.m., Genealogy ó Saving Stuff.
Displays: South ó student art from South Rowan High School.Children’s programs: Call 704-216-8256 for headquarter programs; 704-216-7839 for East branch; and 704-216-7727 for South Regional programs.
Literacy: Call the Rowan County Literacy Council at 704-216-8266 for more information on teaching or receiving literacy tutoring for English speakers or for those for whom English is a second language.
Web site: For a listing of all library programs at all library locations, www.rowanpubliclibrary .org.

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