What makes a book a classic?
April 16, 2015
HE WAS AN OLD MAN sitting in a library, and that’s what attracted my attention.
I like talking to old men.
Libraries captivate me.
My fondest memory during those growing up years in East Texas is firmly embedded in Kilgore’s library.
It was made of limestone.
It looked regal.
But more importantly, it captured the aroma of books.
God, I love the smell of books, new books and old books, the paper pristine white or yellowed with age.
It was the one time when not even the dust could make me sneeze.
I sat down beside the old man and immediately glanced over to check out which book he was reading.
It was The Old Man and the Sea.
I wasn’t surprised.
He looked like a Hemingway reader.
He removed his glasses, straightened his dark blue tie, looked my way, and smiled as he held the book up for me to see.
“Won the Pulitzer Prize,” he said.
“Hemingway said he thought it was the best thing he had ever written.”
“He may be right,” I said.
“It was, I’m told, the last significant work of fiction Hemingway wrote before he committed suicide,” the old man said.
I hadn’t known that.
“The book’s a classic,” he said.
So it was.
I let him read a page or two, then asked, “You’ve probably read most of the classics,” I said.
“I’ve read a few.”
“Then you could probably answer a question that’s been bothering me for a long time.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What makes a book a classic?”
He closed The Old Man and the Sea, closed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair, deep in thought.
Finally, he said, “Give me your idea of a classic.”
“Anything written by Shakespeare.”
“Tell me,” he said. “When did you read Shakespeare.”
“In high school.”
“Who else do you think wrote classics?’ he asked.
“House of Seven Gables?”
“Where’d you read it?”
“Ever read Moby Dick?” he wanted to know.
“In English class?”
I nodded again.
“Now you know,” he said.
“What makes a classic.”
He let me think it over.
And here’s what he told me.
It’s not the author, he said.
It’s not the book.
It’s not the story.
It’s not the writing.
It’s not the language.
It’s not the style.
It’s not even the era.
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you who makes classics.”
“English teachers,” he said.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Little Lies.