Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.” And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”
At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”
Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.
The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities possessed exclusively by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books.
What’s been missing from this discussion is data. That’s what I’ve been accumulating since 2006 when I began asking leading British and American authors to send me their lists of the 10 greatest works of fiction of all time – including novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx and Tom Wolfe are among the 150 contributors. Their lists – available at www.toptenbooks.net – represent the most authoritative sampling available on great books.