What is a classic?

The Great Books of the Western World (CC image by rhsmith4)
The Great Books of the Western World (CC image by rdsmith4)

As curators of written works, libraries often want to include classics in their collections. For many centuries, “the classics” referred specifically to Greek and Latin literature, either in their entirety or those by their greatest authors. Sometimes classic implies the best, works deserving the highest praise or possessing extraordinary merit, insight, substance or style. According to Cicero, a classic is like good wine, getting better with age. Alternately, “classic” can used as an antithesis to “romantic,” where classical refers to grounded in reason, whereas romantic is based on emotion, such as the categorization of Classical versus Romantic periods in instrumental music.

To delve into the philosophical, for Kant, a classic is capable of embodying beauty or the the sublime. According to Kant, beauty  is defined as balance, symmetry and quietude, mirroring a great meditative and contemplative soul whose waters runs deep. The sublime embodies infinite formlessness and represents a force that can annihilate, like the storm in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Kant states that there is nothing more sublime “than the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me,” causing wonder.

Longevity and universal applicability is also a criteria for defining classics. For example, the Psalms are often considered classics because they expresses the universal  gamut of human emotions, ideas true for all peoples at all times. Cultures may also often return to former classical styles. As Ecclesiastes says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Rabbinic culture holds that a classic text is something that should be learned from rather than merely about, seeing them not as a dusty artifact of edification, but as vitally relevant to ethical behavior. Classic texts are seen as living fields of force, which transform and inspire; when internalized by the soul, they serve like a GPS to navigate life.

Lastly, it’s necessary to consider that the idea of what constitutes a classic and which texts meet that definition is always an inherently subjective matter and an ever-shifting target, informed by geographic, historical and cultural forces. As librarians, we should be aware not only of the varied characteristics of  a “classic” but also the politico-cultural and socio-economic forces that frame diverging views of what constitutes classic works, to better inform our collection development policies and responses to information requests.

Contributed by: David B. Levy, Librarian, Lander College for Women

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