As an avid reader and English literature major, I always felt that we were reading and discussing literary ‘classics’ without addressing the real elephant in the room, namely “What is a classic ?”. Especially as they elicit different reactions from everybody, ranging from “This is just chick lit” or “This is far to difficult to appeal to everybody”. These discussions always end with the conclusion that it is impossible for this work of literature to be considered a classic. Most notoriously the discussion about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Personally I feel that classics reflect the ideals, dreams or opinions of a certain age, movement or writer. I believe classics reflect the basic elements of human life as love, life, death, pain, joy, jealousy, basically every emotion in the human spectrum. This use of human emotions, combined with universal themes, make these classics memorable, resulting in being read over and over again, either by the same person or by different generations, eliciting different reactions.
The ability (if you can term it as such) to evoke such strong reactions from readers and critics alike means that the story struck a nerve, either in a positive or negative way but struck it nonetheless. To me, this is why some books are gathered together under the epithet ‘classics’ or ‘great literature’ not only because these works evoke such strong reactions that people feel they have to defend of condemn the work, but also to have them gathered together and give them some kind of status.
To conclude, I believe that you should read a book because you want to read the book and experience the story not because you want to read a classic, although it might be known as a classic it didn’t start out as one.
“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading.” William Styron