Thought Fodder
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When Does a Book Become “Literature” or a “Classic”?

Hubby and I stopped at Savers yesterday. We like to pop in now and again, a habit that has carried over from our business, when we were looking for mid-century modern housewares and décor to clean up for resale.

My favorite part of the store, no surprise here, is the book section. I typically wind up finding (relatively) current fiction to purchase. Yesterday’s find was “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, a book that was recommended to me ages ago and was happy to discover on the shelves.

On an end cap, I found a section separate from the other fiction labeled “Literature.” I’ve seen this book section in other thrift stores, as well as bookstores. There is even an area within libraries devoted to “Literature.”

Interestingly, the section of the library where “Literature” is found, including fictional literature, is within the numbered nonfiction area rather than the fiction section.

Books in the "Literature" section at Savers in St. Cloud, MN, January 22, 2022.
Books in the “Literature” section at Savers in St. Cloud, MN, January 22, 2022.

I’m sure smarter minds than mine have had this discussion and come to some sort of conclusion, but when does a book reach the status of “Literature” rather than remaining a regular book?

Some of the titles in the “Literature” section at Savers, as pictured above, include “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, “Hamlet” by Shakespeare, “Sherlock Holmes” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

These books are also often referred to as “Classics.”

What makes them “Classic”?

Their recognizable names? Their age? The amount of people who have read them or heard about them? The number of times they are assigned in high school or college courses?

Is copyright part of this equation? Like, is a book that enters the public domain more likely to become a “Classic” because others can use it to create derivative works?

At what point will more current books become “Literature” or “Classic” and warrant their own special section in a store or library?

Of course, I’m looking at “Literature” or “Classics” from the standpoint of the United States. What books are included in these categories in other countries? How might other countries or cultures define “Literature” or “Classics,” if they have such definitions at all?

Conversely, once a book has been classified as “Literature” or “Classic,” can it lose this status? Because it definitely is a marker of status among books.

Do the books that have been elevated to the level of “Literature” or “Classic” lord it over the other books?

Anyway, those are the thoughts and questions rolling through my head this weekend in relation to books. Surely, if I felt inclined to look, I’d find something written about this online, but sometimes I want to ponder things without looking them up.

What do you think is involved in the classification of books as “Literature” or “Classic”? Please share in the comments.

4 thoughts on “When Does a Book Become “Literature” or a “Classic”?”

  1. I wonder:
    Does the author have to be dead before their work becomes a Classic?
    Were the works of any of the authors in the Savers literature section considered Classics during the author’s lifetime?

    1. Very good questions, Liz! I think that Sir Arthur Conan’s Sherlock Holmes stories were pretty popular when he was alive. I can see at least one Mark Twain book on the shelves in the photo and he was popular when he was alive. I suspect Shakespeare was as well, though don’t know for sure.

      Perhaps death is one requirement. If so, I wouldn’t want a book of mine to become a Classic too quickly!

      I had a couple of comments on Facebook about this post. One person surmised that Classics or Literature have been banned. Another thought maybe they were classified as such because they’d been made into movies.

  2. Longevity? Maybe a passage of time is needed to turn Popular into Classic? 50-70 years, say? That would put the youngest Classic at the 1960s/early 1970s, and certainly there’s books from then which are considered Classics or Modern Classics.
    No-one sees Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games in the Classics section – they’re all popular but written within the last 20 years….but maybe they’ll shift to the Classics shelves in time.

    1. I think longevity might have something to do with it, Liz, though what’s the magic date? In the United States, when a building or structure reaches 50 years old, it becomes eligible for the National Register of Historic Places if it contributes in a significant way to history or architecture. Perhaps there is something similar in the literary field for Classics and Literature, though the powers that be seem to be keeping this a secret. 🙂

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