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What is a classic book?
By J. Peder Zane
Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”
At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”
Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.
The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities possessed exclusively by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books.
What’s been missing from this discussion is data. That’s what I’ve been accumulating since 2006 when I began asking leading British and American authors to send me their lists of the 10 greatest works of fiction of all time – including novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx and Tom Wolfe are among the 150 contributors. Their lists – available at www.toptenbooks.net – represent the most authoritative sampling available on great books.
To get a bigger picture, I used a simple point system for my analysis – awarding 10 points to a first place pick and one point to a tenth place pick. Results at the summit reflected the common view most readers have of classic books: excellent works that have stood the test of time. Seven of the top ten vote getters are from the golden age of the novel, 1850 to 1899, including the top three: “Anna Karenina,” “Madame Bovary” and “War and Peace.” Only one book published after 1950, “Lolita,” made the top ten; none were published after 1975. These results reinforce the traditional idea that classic/great books are revered works imbued with the ageless wisdom of the aged.
Top 10 Titles by Era
1850 – 1899: 7
16th Century: 1
That piece of conventional wisdom, however, was turned on its head as I delved deeper into the lists. The further I went, the more recent books came to dominate the picks. Of the 600 individuals works named on all the lists, the greatest total number – 171 titles – were published after 1975. More striking is the fact that 462 of them (66%) have been published since 1900. Put another way, only a third of the books selected were published before the 20th century; only 24 of them (0.04%) were published before the 16th century (sorry Caesar).
Top 600 Titles by Era
1975 to present – 171
1950 to 1974 – 141
1925 to 1949– 109
1900 to 1924 – 41
1850 to 1899 – 65
1800 to 1849 – 26
18th Century – 9
17th Century – 14
16th and earlier – 24
These results reveal that factors beyond subjective questions of quality inform the selection process. Aesthetics and timeless moral truth matter. But if those were the most important criteria for judging literary merit, then we’d have to conclude that the dawn of the 20th century – and, more specifically, the period since 1975 – has been an unparalleled golden age for literature, far surpassing that of any other era.
But it is far more likely that practical considerations – even more timeless and powerful than the greatest literary creations – are at work. To explain why I need to tell you about a first principle of physics discovered in 1996 by Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University: the constructal law (Adrian and I wrote a book about his work, “Design in Nature”). It holds that everything that moves – from lightning bolts and rivers to information – generates designs (shape and structure) that facilitate their flow. Lightning bolts are designs that facilitate the flow of electricity from the cloud to the church steeple; river basins facilitate the flow of water from plain to the river’s mouth; books (and magazines, newspapers, websites, etc. ) facilitate the flow of information – think how much harder it would be to share information without those mediums.
These designs evolve with a direction in time – reconfiguring themselves to move more mass per unit of useful energy. For example the flow of information has evolved in one direction – from what an individual could perceive and then share face to face (first through body language, then spoken language) to an evolving string of technologies (clay tablet, codex, printing press, radio, TV, Internet, etc). Today, it doesn’t take much more energy to transmit information to one person than to millions.
The constructal law also predicts that hierarchical designs should emerge (a few large channels and many smaller ones) because they are good for flow. Adrian and his colleagues around the world have tested and confirmed this prediction in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers. (To learn more, visit www.constructal.org).
The constructal law shows that lists of great/classic books are hierarchical designs that arise naturally to organize the swelling flow of literature. This is necessary because of the vast divide between the upper limits of what we can read in a lifetime – say 7,000 books, which is a tad more two books a week, every week, for 65 years – and the millions of works in print.
Just as a river basin has a hierarchical design, with a few large channels (rivers and main tributaries) and many smaller ones (rivulets, brooks, streams), literature has great/classic books as the largest channels in the hierarchy of a system that spreads the work of writers across the landscape.
“Classic book” is the term we apply to a necessarily small list of relatively old books that remain relevant and useful to us. We say they offer “timeless” wisdom and insight because they have, in fact, stood the test of time. They are truly excellent works. But the governing principle in play is not aesthetic or moral, it is physical. Even if 100,000 works of timeless wisdom were written before 1900 we would only canonize a few hundred of them because the point of classic books is not to honor achievement but to winnow down the list a manageable number. It is a question of capacity rather than content.
A vast list of every true classic as defined by Calvino, Pound and Sainte-Beuve would create a literary Tower of Babel, making it difficult to have broad conversations about great books (or anything else). Shakespeare is not just a great artist, he is also a necessary touchstone whose familiarity enhances the flow of communication.
Learned experts – scholars, critics, writers – do a lot of the heavy lifting, sifting and sorting through our vast literature to anoint a small number as classic/great. The number of their selections will always be small because the label is not only a stamp of artistic merit but the result of a naturally arising process of culling and winnowing. More than art, these experts are serving physics.
Bejan’s work also helps us explain another phenomenon: the powerful recency effect I found in the 150 lists analyzed. Recall that the constructal law describes the tendency of designs to emerge and evolve in order to facilitate flow. Books are a delivery device for information that helps us move more easily. We don’t just read for pleasure, or even for eternal truths; we also read to gather the information we need to understand ourselves and the world around us in order to move more easily. This is the power of knowledge.
The prevalence of books published after 1975 suggests that when we sift the list of books, we don’t just select works that display the highest literary qualities. We pick those that seem useful to us; those that help us connect with and make sense of the world around us.
Older books are at a disadvantage because they are so rooted in a vanished time and place that it is harder for them to speak to us today (or, perhaps, we have a harder time hearing them). “Tess of the d'Urbervilles” has plenty to say about today’s hot-button issues of social and gender inequality – why else would Tess stay with Alex? – but it can be difficult to suss out that aching relevance. Modern works, by contrast, evoke the world we see, the forces we encounter, the emotions we feel; they ask the questions that concern us, tackle the issues we care about through language in synch with our sensibilities. The works of Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Philip Roth speak directly to our times in a way that many aged books do not. Our modern masters may not be better writers than their forbears but they are more useful.
Given that our lists were created by writers, it is not surprising that they would identify works by contemporaries who wrestled with the issues they are dealing with and whose stylistic innovations still resonate. Generally speaking, Faulkner, Nabokov and Pynchon are more instructive for contemporary writers than the ancient Greeks and Romans. Yes there are exceptions to every rule, but this is the pattern.
Finally, this insight helps explain why we often scratch head when we see the cavalcade of now forgotten works and little read authors who were honored with Pulitzers and Nobels. Those awards are not predictions of immortality; they are not one generation’s best guess about what will matter to future readers. They are statements from people in a particular era about what they considered the most useful works, however they defined that. The Nobel committee was not wrong to honor Henryk Sienkiewicz in 1905 or Giorgos Seferis in 1963; it’s just that those authors don’t speak as powerfully to us as they did to them.
Classic/great books, then, are not simply a label we apply to works of towering achievement. They are a manifestation of the tendency we see throughout nature to generate designs that organize flows for easier movement, whether they be rivers of water or books. These designs evolve with a direction in time – toward easier flow. This means that the books we cherish today, will not be the same those we cherish tomorrow. One hundred years from now, when that era’s top writers are asked for their lists of great books, no doubt many of the titles published between 1975 and the present that we celebrate today will be MIA.
That’s how it flows.