Friday, October 11, 2013

What Makes a Book a Classic?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

This past summer, I had the honor of being a substitute teacher for Donita K. Paul, a fantasy author I greatly admire. She'd planned to teach a class on writing for teens at an Oregon writers conference but couldn't come due to health issues. And I was asked to teach her class. I did my best to stay true to her plans. She even gave me her notes so that I could use them to teach with.

There was much brilliance in those notes, of course, but one thing I've gone back to several times was her discussion on what makes a book a classic. All writers are hoping that their book will stand the test of time. But most books don't. Donita urged the class to think about some beloved classics and see if we could determine what it was about them that continued to resonate with people, decades, and sometimes centuries, later. Then she gave three marks of a classic.

1. A classic reveals the human condition. It shows people as they are. Real people. Flawed people. Stuck in the trenches and doing life as best they can. Think of the cast of Les Miserables, A Christmas Carol, or Sense and Sensibility, all classics that are still popular today. These are books that reveal the human condition at its best and worst.

2. A classic reveals or illuminates a universal truth. You could call this a theme. And Donita pointed out that many of these are presented as adages or proverbs. For example:

-After sunshine comes the storm.
-A man is known by the company he keeps.
-What goes around, comes around.
-Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.
-A penny saved is a penny earned.
-A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
-A friend in need is a friend indeed.
-Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.
-You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
-All that glitters is not gold.
-A woman's work is never done.
-Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
-If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
-There's no time like the present.
-Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
-There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

3. A classic inspires the reader to a higher level of humanity. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean continually does more and more to help everyone he meets. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge wants to make the most of his life. And in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood's brush with death helped her understand much about life and her sister Elinor's behavior as she admits in this scene from the movie.

MARIANNE: [Speaking of Willoughby] If his present regrets are half as painful as mine, he will suffer enough.
ELINOR: Do you compare your conduct with his?
MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.

So let's talk classics. What are some of your favorites and why? Can you point out how the characters rose to a higher level of humanity?

Guess what? Donita K. Paul has a new book coming out from Zondervan in January 2014. And I'm giving away a copy, though you won't get it for a few months, since it's not available yet. I'll pre-order it for you. International entries are welcome. Here's some info on the book.

Cantor D'Ahma has waited his whole life for this day. Born with a gift, the young Realm Walker is finally ready to leave his elderly mentor and accept his role as protector and defender of the realms. But mere hours after he first steps through a portal, Cantor discovers that his job will be more dangerous and difficult than he ever imagined. The realms are not as safe as they once were, and members of the Realm Walkers Guild have become corrupt and can no longer be trusted. To make matters worse, his first assignment---finding a dragon to assist him on his quest---has led him to one who is clearly inept. With the help of his new friends Bixby and Dukmee, Cantor must uncover the secrets of the corrupt Guild before they become too powerful to be stopped. But can his skills progress in time? And will Cantor remember where his true allegiance lies?

77 comments:

  1. One classic I love is Pride and Prejudice, which I'm listening to right now.

    Thanks for the post!

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    1. I love that one too. I watch the BBC Colin Firth movie almost every time my husband goes out of town. I adore that movie!

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  2. My favorite classic has got to be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or the Magician's Nephew.
    An example of a character rising to a higher level of humanity would be Eustace. He was selfish, and then after he met Aslan, he became more mature.

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    1. I like Dawn Treader very much. Eustace is a great character, Samuel.

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    2. The movie was also good, except the part where Edmund and Caspian fight over the gold-lake.
      Though, I have to admit, the way they changed the whole-get-to-Narnia thing I think was cool with the the water filling up in the room.

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  3. Thanks for a thought provoking post, Jill! This reminds me a lot of what Donald Mass says in his books.
    ~Sarah Faulkner

    www.inklinedwriters.blogspot.com

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    1. I love Anne of Green Gables and To Kill A Mockingbird.

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    2. I love both of those. My and my friends used to do girls night and watch the whole Anne movie. All six hours. It was awesomeness. And To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing book. It's one of my favorites.

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    3. I loved Anne of Green Gables so much when I was younger, and still do.
      I also read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class last year. I was so sad when Tom was killed!

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  4. Wow!!! I was just talking about what make a classic with my parents. One of my favorite classics in Wuthering Heights. I love Donita K. Paul!!! She live in the same town as I do but unfortunately I haven't been able to go to any of her book signings. My friends and I read the Dragon Keeper Chronicles series when we were little. When we had to write our own short stories in 6th grade and one of my friends wrote 'fan fiction' for that series. They used to get glass and wooden eggs and pretend they were Dragon eggs. I love the way she tells stories and hope to meet her someday. She was one of the first authors who made me want to write. Question: Is this part of a new series or a continuation of her second series?

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    1. Also, my little fan girl self just about died when she followed my writing board on Pinterest. :)

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    2. This is a whole new series, Lauren. Her other books are with Waterbrook, this series is Zondervan.

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  5. There are a lot of incredible classics throughout literature. I've been wanting to read Les Miserables for a long time. One that recently really impressed me was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Talk about showing the worst and best of humanity from all sides. To Kill a Mockingbird was good too.

    And I adore Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. :)

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    1. I love Uncle Tom's Cabin. We are reading it for literature and I can't put it down!

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    2. I'm supposed to read Uncle Tom's Cabin this year. And I want to read Les Miserables. I downloaded the free ebook, but it's REALLY long and so I don't know if it will happen this year. Someday soon, I hope.

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  6. Excellent points. Oh the classics! One of my favorites has always been Treasure Island. Pirates. The sea. Adventure. Jim Hawkins! Yep. it's a good one. :)

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    1. I've never read it. Seen the movies. I'd love to read it someday too. Too many books, so little time! Wah!

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  7. Definitely the Hobbit is a top classic for me! :) I also enjoyed, recently, reading Paradise Lost and Beowulf

    Love Donita K. Paul's books. Dragons everywhere, my favorite.

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    1. Ooh, The Hobbit is a good one. I don't think I've read the other two. I was going to read Beowulf once, but I don't know what happened...

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    2. From Amo Libros:
      You HAVE to read Beowulf. I recommend the translation by Seamus Heaney. It's pretty easy to read, but keeps some of the original's lyrical value.

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  8. Thanks so much for hosting this giveaway, Jill. This post was very interesting and thought provoking. :)
    A classic novel I've loved is To Kill a Mockingbird. It definitely meets all three points. The title almost does that on its own!

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  9. Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite classics. Such an epic fantasy story.

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  10. I love Brave New World. It is not a happy classic in anyway. I also like Donita K. Paul's books!

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  11. I don't read too many classics, but I loved Pride and Prejudice. :) And the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.
    Thanks for the giveaway!

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  12. My favorite classics are How to Kill a Mocking Bird and Pride and Prejudice. There are so many others, but these are the ones I read over and over.

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  13. My favorite classics are the Narnia books, Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Ivanhoe. Awesome post, Lady Williamson! Thanks for the epic giveaway. I've been a longtime fan of Donita K. Paul, and I love her epic books.

    -Ryebrynn

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    1. You're welcome, Lady Ryebrynn! Thanks for calling my Lady Williamson. :-)

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  14. I am about to go on a classic-reading spree. I've read the Great Gatsby, we're doing Of Mice and Men at school, and I'm going to read To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, A Tale of Two Cities, and the old Greek ones, like the Odyssey and the Iliad. I tried to read Wuthering Heights a few years ago, but I couldn't get into it. Maybe I'll try again.

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      I LOVE the Odyssey! But it's more exciting if you read it after the Iliad (since that's when it takes place - same characters and everything). What translation are you reading?

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  15. My favorite classic is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Not many people know about it, but I re-read it at least once a year.

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    1. I LOVE that book! I hadn't heard of it either my aunt gave it to me :)

      But yes I'd definitely recommend it

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  16. This was really interesting. I've got a few classics I particularly like...A Little Princess and the Twenty-one Balloons come immediately to mind. If the Twenty-one Balloons counts. :)

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      I LOVE Twenty-One Balloons!! AND A Little Princess!!!

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  17. The most recent classic I read was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. Through taking an English class which has heightened my learning of the classics, I'm definitely able to see that a classic book deals with the human condition and reveals a truth, like you said. The Death of Ivan Ilych features a man who, like most of us, "knows" he is mortal but doesn't "believe" it. For other commenters, if you haven't read it, you should. . . .

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  18. You know what comes to mind? The Giver. My grade 6 class read it, and I just loved it. I'm not sure if it's as old as some classics, but it still seems like a classic to me. Jonas breaking free of the so-called perfect world - it was certainly an easier world - was a great example of rising to a higher level of humanity.

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    1. oh also Oliver Twist

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  19. I love Gatsby! So sad that he could have been so much more.

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  20. I'll go with David Copperfield today. I love a lot of classics, but that's a recent read, and I really enjoyed it, so I'll say it's my favorite today. My answer will probably be different tomorrow, but this isn't tomorrow.

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  21. I love Les Mis, but I've never made it through the book. XD

    Wuthering Heights was one I hated while I was reading the first time, but I still couldn't put it down. As time goes on it's really grown on me though. I think it's because it really does show that all men (and women) are born evil and must actively make the choice to do what's right, or the evil will consume them.

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  22. I've always wanted to finish Gone with the Wind. I read a few chapters of it, but I had to return it. I loved what I read so far. So far that is my favorite classic!

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  23. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite! It is also my favorite book! sooooo good!!! :)

    Nice post, Jill! I now understand classics! :D

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    2. I nearly forgot Tom Sawyer, Little Women, The Three Musketeers, oh goodness, my list goes on and on. :) I enjoyed the first chapters of Christy--before I had to give it back to the library. >:(

      Apparently, I should go and read Gone with the Wind...

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  24. Gone with the Wind has always been a favorite of mine... As well as Tom Sawyer, Little Woman, and Christy. ♥
    Loved this so much! It really gives food for thought...

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  25. Most of my favorites have already been taken, so I'm not going to list them again. But I don't think I saw Little Women on here, or Cry the Beloved Country. Also this is a more modern classic but The Remains of the Day is just amazing...

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  26. I'm not sure if this is a classic, but I've always loved Little Men by Lousa May Alcott. (Hope I spelled her name right) (Before you think I'm crazy, it had several girls in it, too.) All the characters were flawed in some way. It's one of those books that leaves you dissapointed that it's over when you're done reading it.

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  27. Great post! I love so many classics...To Kill a Mockingbird, Les Miserables, Little Women and The Secret Garden are some of my favorites :)

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  28. Pride and Prejudice followed by The Scarlet Letter :)

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  29. Cool post! :) Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia are classics to me. They've really impacted how I live my life. :)

    Stori Tori's Blog

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  30. I think what makes a classic is an intricately plotted book matched with well thought out characters and beautiful writing.

    I've only gotten around reading children's classics, but I loved Narnia (It was my first book series - never read the last two though).

    I wish there were more authors like C. S. Lewis today, now we're stuck with Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games". ACK!! I only read a page and I gagged at her writing (Sorry fans). So far the only modern author I've found that I liked was C. S. Lakin (Haven't read your stuff yet). I don't read best sellers, I really believe most are overrated and don't deserve to be a best seller (Sorry again Harry Potter, Hunger Games, and Twilight fans) .

    Authors need to learn how to bring readers not only entertainment, but meaning. I'm not saying all authors don't do this, but a lot do. I get so frustrated when I look around in a bookstore and there is not one book that I like. There are many books out there, but only a handful are good.

    I'm sorry about being a little whiny, but when I look in the teen section of the library for like half an hour there should be a good book lurking somewhere.

    Anyways, liked your post!!

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    1. From Amo Libros:
      Oh, I completely understand about the teen section! And while I don't mind reading "fluff" books, I want them to be happy, positive fluff books. "Good messages" fluff books, if that makes sense.
      Have you tried authors like Richard Peck? (Fair Weather, Here Lies the Librarian, A Long Way from Chicago). I wouldn't say they are bursting with meaning, but there is a little more depth to them - he actually SAYS things, even if you only sort of feel it instead of grab it instantly.
      Another series of books we liked was The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart - a middle-grade-ish series, but a good one. Again, it's mostly a "for fun" book, but it also makes you think a little bit.

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    2. I totally agree with you. I also get frustrated that there aren't more decent teen books out there. And I don't like Harry Potter, Twilight series, or all of those silly teen romance books. But I absolutely love the old authors. You should read some of R. M. Ballantyne 's books. They are great!

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    3. Sounds like you might greatly appreciate more literary fiction than mainstream fiction. C. S. Lakin's books are considered literary fantasy, I believe.

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  31. Really interesting post. I think a classic is also something that shocks the people of its time. I think my favourite classic would have to be To Kill a Mockingbird, beautiful book.

    www.alicekouzmenkowriting.blogspot.com

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  32. I read Anne of Green Gables, and I really enjoyed that one. :) I've tried to read The Hobbit a few times now, but for me it's a hard read and hard to keep remembering what exactly is going on. It doesn't stop my love for LOTR though! :)

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  33. From Amo Libros:
    I once heard a classic defined as a book (or movie) that says something new to you each time you read. by that definition, Lord of the Rings would TOTALLY be on the top of my list. I also really enjoy Mark Twain's stuff, and Homer's The Odyssey (as translated by Stanley Lombardo - this is a review I wrote about it a few years ago: http://www.bookshoptalk.com/2012/02/odyssey-by-homer-translated-by-stanley.html ) and I really liked Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (it also explained a lot of Lord of the Rings, as well). And of course there are others, like Rose in Bloom, and A Little Princess and the like. And of course Narnia. No one could forget Narnia!

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  34. I love Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, and anything Shakespeare. Shakespeare is actually my favorite thing to read in my free time, even though he wrote plays, not novels.

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  35. Gone With the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and Anne of Green Gables are my favorites, but I also like Black Beauty. Of course, it's a little bit different.

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  36. I have a lot of favorite classics! Peter Pan, Prince and the Pauper, Pride & Prejudice, Narina series, and so much more!
    There's a great quote by Mark Twain that says " 'Classic' -a book which people praise and don't read"

    -Katy

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  37. Great post! Thanks! My favorite classic is the Narnia series!

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  38. The Great Gatsby, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty. Oh my goodness there are so many good ones, it's hard to pick just one.

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  39. My favorite classic is To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, and Anne of Green Gables.

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  40. Pride and Prejudice and Emma are two of my favorite classics.

    ~Robyn Hoode

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  41. I actually love Little House on the Prairie... especially These Happy Golden Years. :)

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  42. Love Pride and Prejudice, Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, along with his Space Trilogy!
    I adore all of Donita K. Paul's books. And, although I think someone already mentioned this, I LOVE the dragons in her books! And the Dragon Keeper thing? How cool is that!

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    1. The Dragon Keeper thing is VERY cool. Love it too. :-)

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  43. Pride and Prejudice. Lord of the Rings. Narnia. Star wars! Classics are awesome! :D

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  44. Can I pick two? I'll have to go with THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Alexandre Dumas and LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo. I can't pronounce half of the French words in either of them, but they have amazing twisty plots!

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    1. The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my most fav books evah!!!

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  45. I'd probably say The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice

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  46. I love a lot classics and old books. My favorite would probably be A Tale of Two Cities.

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  47. Ohhhh let me see. Pride and Prejudice, Little House on the Prairie, the Old Squires Farm, and I love Jane Eyre! My list could go on and on since I read so many classics. Right now I'm making my way through Mansfield House. I LOVE CLASSICS!!!!

    HP

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  48. I love reading all of your favorites! And I love seeing some of the same ones repeated. Great books.

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  49. I am writing an essay and I needed to know what makes a book a classic and what you said was perfect! its what I needed! thank you so much Jill!!
    And I love Les Mis and To Kill a Mokingbird

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  50. I agree with those things you said about what makes a book a classic. And yes--some of the best books you ever read are the ones that grow with you, that make you see something new every time you read it. One time, my dad told me that some of his favorite books are the ones that were like that, and that make him want to know their characters. (One such was That Hideous Strength.)

    ~ Gracelyn

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