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What is a Classic?
Plus, a Barnes & Noble Reading List

by Kyle Zook
Like the recent polarizing debate over what constitutes a “planet,” there is another term whose definition remains mercurial at best. The term is the word “classic,” and all that it implies. Many cultures throughout history have attempted to exemplify the apex of what was best in creation, be it art, music, science, philosophy, or literature. As products of the forces that have created this shared society, we hold in common certain intrinsic notions of what constitutes excellence, but as yet it remains ill-defined.

Over the last century, the purpose of classical literature has been challenged by many, largely due to the creation of literary canons, mostly by respected scholars who devoted their lives to organizing the collected works of mankind’s belletristic ambitions. It may even be true that the canons which are cherished by scholars stem from some subconscious predilection toward exalting the forces that shaped the society in which they exist, and as such their canons seem comprised, as their detractors say, of “dead white men.”

Yet for all that, it would seem hard to deny the place of books which have so far been added to these canons, and given the lofty title of “classic.” Over time, certain works have crystallized in value, but usually it is due to some underlying factor, what we call the merit of the book, which places that work above all others. Though regardless of how a particular society perceives the value of a particular book, the decision of what value that book has, remains at heart a personal one.

For a book to be handed down through centuries speaks to the timelessness of its appeal; it is usually works such as these that speak to us through certain universal themes that we accept as classics. Love, life, truth, beauty, these are the themes that make up human existence as we know it, and as such we regard the classics as the highest embodiment of those ideals.

Not all books noted as classics are simply aesthetically written, of course. Some books have historical or scientific value, or are held as paradigms by the works which have followed. Much as the Ancient Greeks tapped into their collective knowledge of mythology to infuse their works, the literary canon as it exists today forms a basis that infuses the great works of contemporary society, and knowledge of them can increase our appreciation of the works that follow by giving them different levels of understanding.
It is the laudable goal of the Barnes & Noble Classics program to bring these classic works to a wide audience. By offering these classic works at affordable prices, they have striven to make these highest expressions of the human drama accessible on a large scale. Each edition includes scholarly introductions from dedicated academics, as well as contextual background information like timelines and even contemporary reviews. Also fascinating is the “Inspired by” section, which demonstrates how the book has affected society and in turn produced other works of art or music.

At this time, we would like to humbly suggest three selections from the Barnes & Noble Classics list to consider adding to your own curriculum:

Cyrano De Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand, tr. by Gertrude Hall. Of course, the original is in French, and was an overnight sensation from the minute it appeared on stage in Paris in 1897. Based in part on the real-life Savinien de Cyrano, it is the tragic, and poetic, tale of the unrequited love of a brilliant swordsman and poet who happens to have a nose as large as his heart. His way with words woos the beauty Roxane, not for himself, but for his comrade-at-arms, the handsome but awkward-with-words Christian. The play is a delight to read, and even more delightful to watch; film versions abound, so as a treat it would be a nice pairing to add the video after reading through the play.

Common Sense, and Other Writings, by Thomas Paine. This healthy tome produced by Barnes & Noble (394 pages!) encompasses what might best be described as “the best of Thomas Paine.” As one of the more controversial figures of the American Revolution, Thomas Paine might be described as almost single-handedly galvanizing the decision to separate from England. Though but a recent immigrant to these shores, his rousing tones of revolution reverberated through the populace of the fledgling American colonies. In addition to Common Sense, there are a number of excerpts from his series of American Crisis Papers (1776-1783) including the inspiring address that George Washington read to his troops, which begins, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Also included are excerpts from The Age of Reason, which contributed to his subsequent unpopularity and disfavor by its attack on organized religions.

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Like his more popular novel, Main Street, Babbitt succeeds in skewering the empty materialism of American culture. As one of the most prominent businessmen in the town of Zenith, George Babbitt appears to have everything, at least on the surface. His success only leads him to realize just how lonely and empty it is to measure happiness by the number of things a person has acquired. When he meets a young widow he thinks is a “bohemian,” his dissatisfaction with his life leads him down a path where he may have to sacrifice all the things in life he has acquired. The question being, is the price too high to bear? The book’s title gave us the term, “babbittry,” a word for narrow-minded people with an unthinking attachment to middle-class materialism; which is why this book challenges us to think about the things we take for granted.

Of course, these are only suggested books, so why not take a look at all the listings in the Barnes & Noble Classics library, available at There is bound to be some treasure you will find in there, something that may spark your interest and perhaps make you look at the world in a brand new way.
—K.Z. ■