ANSWER: What makes a book a classic

This is a very good question, and a fine example of how tricky it is to define "classic books" or "great books". A search in Sociological Abstracts database, for the phrase "great books" gets 18 hits — with many articles talking about multiculturalism, ethnocentrism, and a number are articles highly critical of Allan Bloom's book, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), which strongly disagreed with multiculturalism.

Any list of "great works" or "major works" or "classic books" will reflect the educational system that is in place at any given time. There will always be much disagreement among teachers, scholars, and critics about any particular book, except for perhaps a very few works that almost everybody thought were great. But this is one of the biggest tests of independent thinking — to read books and other people's opinions or discussions of them, and come up with our own well thought out decisions about them.

There are some shortcuts that we tend to follow, such as finding out what colleges and universities assign a particular book for reading in literature classes. For example, a search in for: "reading list" classic* "color purple" site:edu gets 100+ hits. The "site:edu" means that the web site is probably based at a college or university. There are a number on the first few screens that mention "The Color Purple" as a "classic of Black literature" or in connection with contemporary American classic books, or outstanding contemporary fiction. Some are college class outlines that include the issue of how to determine what a classic is.

Another shortcut is to look in databases on literature or humanities in general. Arts and Humanities Citation Index shows how often a book has been cited by scholars or critics. It gets 249 hits for the search cr:walker and cr:color w purple. Literature Resource Center gets 5 hits for "walker" in author (articles ABOUT the author) and "purple" in title (title of work being discussed). Some of these are quite detailed, and discuss Walker's life including awards and prizes she has won. MLA International Bibliography, a highly scholarly and very large database, gets 191 hits on the search: walker and color purple.

These are highly advanced databases, and index many articles that are aimed at Masters and PhD students. If you are reading this for a high school or beginning college literature class, that Google search "reading list" classic* "color purple" site:edu gets 100+ hits may be helpful, but even more helpful might be a web directory search (see under MORE in , for example):


or specifically,


If you are near a public library, a less scholarly database might be Masterfile Premier (Ebsco).
The search: color purple gets 110 hits, even limiting to full text available online. Since Masterfile Premier is meant for public libraries, limiting to "peer reviewed" (articles read by scholars before being accepted for publication) drops this to only 17 hits.
If you are at a college or university library, a good database to start with might well be Academic Search (also Ebsco). The search: color purple gets 188 hits limiting to full text online, and 24 hits if you limit to scholarly/peer reviewed.

So to summarize, "classic" is not an absolute term, by any means. But if you need to know for a class or reading assignment, chances are very good that a book that makes it onto a number of college reading lists — and is cited often in databases — is a pretty good bet to be considered a "classic" by the people who give the grades.

Thanks for contacting Radical Reference, and please let me know if we can help further.

Jim Miller

University of Maryland

Addendum from Gertrude Stein
"For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. In the history of the refused in the arts and literature the rapidity of the change is always startling. Now the only difficulty with the volte-face concerning the arts is this. When the acceptance comes, by that acceptance the thing created becomes a classic. It is a natural phenomena a rather extraordinary natural phenomena that a thing accepted becomes a classic. And what is the characteristic quality of a classic. The characteristic quality of a classic is that it is beautiful. Now of course it is perfectly true that a more or less first rate work of art is beautiful but the trouble is that when that first rate work of art becomes a classic because it is accepted the only thing that is important from then on to the majority of the acceptors the enormous majority, the most intelligent majority of the acceptors is that it is so wonderfully beautiful. Of course it is wonderfully beautiful, only when it is still a thing irritating annoying stimulating then all quality of beauty is denied to it.

"Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realize that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic."
Seen in Drunken Boat #2: Art, Rebellion, Anarchy, edited by Max Blechman. Published by Autonomedia and Left Bank Books, 1994. p. 213.

added by Jenna, 2/6/05