Ars Legendi: Recognizing Classics

Alan Duff

By nature, or maybe because of the Internet, I’m a very impatient person. I want my food in five minutes upon order. I have to skip commercials. I’m unfortunately on time to parties. I want to know what contemporary books will become great classical works so I can read them now instead of waiting fifty or so years for academics to identify them.

Surely there must be some formula to identifying classics other than their timeless nature. So with that I began my search for a system to identify classics. Normally, I would have to identify or explain what a classic is, but for the sake of a word limit I will be avoiding any finite definition. Pretend I used words like timeless and amazing if you really want an actual definition.

Since we’re in the United States of America, I’ll start by looking at the option of a democratic system. Since readers vote with their wallets it seems like The New York Times Best-Seller List would offer insight into what would be best according to the populace.

Pulling up old lists of the bestselling books, I came across books like the ironically named So Well Remembered by James Hilton in 1945, East River by Sholem Asch in 1946 and House Divided by Ben Williams in 1947. Unfortunately, these books aren’t considered classics; I’ve never even heard of them before.

Though, it should be noted there are a few exceptions — not all authors can be like Charles Dickens. It seems like simple popularity can’t predict classic books. Just look at “Moby Dick,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Great Gatsby,” unpopular in their own time but ‘rediscovered’ years later as classics.

Maybe the literary and publishing experts know what’s up. Looking at the Pulitzer Prize, and the Nobel Prize as well, it’s clear they have a very hit-or-miss relationship for my purposes of having them be a classic predicting system. The prize was given to “The Caine Mutiny” in 1952 and “The Town in 1951,” while Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” won the award in 1953. Hemmingway also won the Nobel Prize in Literature for that book in 1954.

This could easily be a way to identify a contemporary classic by cross-referencing the awards and seeing who gets both. Unfortunately the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction is limited to the United States and, as was showcased by this year’s lack of a prize, sometimes can be unreliable. Or maybe no classic was created this year. Who knows?

The only conclusion I can draw is that the only way to truly find a classic book is to test it against time. Which leads me to propose we change up the classics department to make it a science for the purposes of predicting human actions and trends when it comes to assigning value. No, I’m not talking about economics; I’m talking about classicoligy. After looking at Greek works for a lifetime, these new breed of academics would be able to identify new classics. Hopefully, given enough time this hypothetical science would develop a formula for predicting any piece of art’s likelihood of gaining the eternal respect of academic professors, and mild contempt or love of the students who are forced to read them.

For now, though, I guess I’ll just have to wait.