What makes a book a classic? We’ve been revisiting the question recently thanks to a piece by Laura Miller at Salon,which explored what makes a book worthy of inclusion in the canon. Should David Foster Wallace be counted among the greats? Does Slaughterhouse-Five stand alongside Ulysses and the novels of Charles Dickens? Do these questions even really matter?
We asked a handful of critics, writers, and publishing industry people for their take on which books should be considered classics — and also which titles they would drop from the so-called canon. Yesterday we presented our participants’ answers to the latter question; today, we give you their thoughts on which new or underrated books deserve classic status.
The question of what defines a classic is so interesting: lately, when my husband reads aloud to our eight-year-old son, he constantly asks, “Is it a classic? Is it a masterpiece?” He wants to understand what those definitions consist of, and we’re hard pressed sometimes to give him an answer. (Yes, Tom Sawyer is a classic, but Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece.)
The classic that I think should be more widely read is Queen Victoria, by Lytton Strachey. (I’m not sure it gets lumped into a different category so much as overlooked altogether.) This short biography, published in 1921, provides an acutely observed survey of the 19th century, seen through vivid particulars, and has the sting of close-up retrospection. Strachey was one of the archest of Virginia’s Woolf’s very arch circle, and his restrained prose is still as cutting as ever, even if we don’t care much any more about the lives of the people he chronicled. Among aficionados or practitioners of that hellish neologism, the longread, Strachey should be embraced as a master.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her latest book, My Life in Middlemarch, explores her love for another classic.