What makes a book a classic?


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.

I nodded.

“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.”


“English class.”

“Who else do you think wrote classics?’ he asked.

“Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

“House of Seven Gables?”

I nodded.

“Where’d you read it?”

“English class.”

“Ever read Moby Dick?” he wanted to know.

“I have.”

“In English class?”

I nodded again.

“Now you know,” he said.

“Know what?”

“What makes a classic.”

He paused.

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.”

I waited.

“English teachers,” he said.

Caleb Pirtle III is author of Little Lies.

Little Lies Final Cover LL Mar 13

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I’ve always wondered what makes a classic a classic. Now I know. If students had to read the same books every year in school, those books, too, would become classics.

  • A classic is a book still read long after its writer is dead.

    Maybe English teachers force kids to read stuff. I don’t know – I never had an English teacher.

    But some of those kids find out they like the book, and it gets another year of life.

  • Darlene Jones

    The guys who write the curriculum make the classics, and many of those books in English class are forced on kids who’d rather read something more relevant to them and their lives.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      That’s the point, Darlene That’s the point. For kids, Divergent and Harry Potter should be the classics. And every senior should be required to read James Lee Burke just because I wish I had read him then.

  • Don Newbury

    This is a grand read, Caleb, and so true!

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Don. We who don’t write classics blame English teachers. I married one, and it didn’t help.

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