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There is no reason spending valuable time on something that is not significant. As the Paris bookshop Brentano’s once had printed on a T-Shirt, ‘So many books, so little time’. With this cornucopia – and not in a good way –it’s nearly impossible to navigate through the choice.

Fortunately retailers and publishers make it simple: the classic list. The classic says in a quiet donnish voice (that’s Oxford Don, not Sicilian Don) that a book is worthy in so many ways; it has been enjoyed for decades, hundreds of years even, and each year new readers have drawn a plenitude of joy, lessons and rewards from it.

That last part was a fast forward into blurb language. Shocking. It illustrates a real problem with the classic, and that is, it’s very easy to slip into hyperbole.

That fault is also evident in speech, as for instance in idiomatic Australian where the epithet “classic” is freely given to any action which benefits another, or in some rebukes authority however indirectly, such as, for example, obtaining beer after closing time, or taking a sick day from work to go surfing. The interchangeable sobriquet ‘legend’, more often abbreviated to ‘ledge’ or ‘you ledge’ has similar status, and for the same highly commendable actions in pursuit of active pleasure.

One way or another, being classic is the best there is, it is an indisputable cynosure.

One person’s classic is not another’s. I have reviewed some Dickens lately and my own ambivalence to the work, apart from a couple of books, is still the same. I can’t quite see why Nabokov held him in such esteem, yet he loathed Balzac, who I prefer, and for the same reasons that Nabokov hated. I won’t go into the reasons now over the difference between those two authors.

Apart from being read long after the books were initially published, and the authors’ own lifetimes, classics are a varied diverse body of work. Cold Comfort Farm is a classic but then so is The Idiot.

Occasionally newspapers like to perpetrate a prank on agents by sending them classic books as submissions and then republishing the rejection letters. Sometimes the retitled book is noticed but not in many cases. It’s probably true that most classics were not seen as better when they hit someone’s in tray as manuscripts and then sold poorly at first, but time alters reading and perception. It’s mysterious process of filtering.

There is some discussion about what constitutes a classic. I read a blog where a bookseller said it was all a bit moot. I recall from formal English lessons that a book had to be over fifty years old before it could be called classic. Presumably as copyright laws are extended, that will be moved too.

In the future, we can be sure, that machines will read the manuscripts as the task of reading and assessing will, like basic trading on stock exchanges, be utilized by algorithms interpreting texts using exabytes of data to contextualize dozens of criteria. They will also make forecasts on projected sales amongst defined market demographics and, in all probability, know all the other books on readers’ shelves and readers.

Whether in the future classics will be real or just declared like a singer’s autobiography is a bit hazy. The word will remain, as it has for ages, the best, the ultimate, and most iconic in the marketing lexicon.

Guy Cranswick
21st May 2014