What Makes a Book a "Classic"?

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Guest » 12/02/04 11:27 AM

Is it sales?

Is it the number of times a book has been reprinted?

Is it the length of time the book has been in print?

Is it the originality of the material?

Is it the respect knowledgeable critics give it?

Is it the fact that a book provides the best statement of the "state of the art" at the time of publication?

Can a book be a classic from the moment it is first published or is the passage of time a necessary factor? If so, how much time has to pass before a book can be a classic?

This list is not exhaustive, but hopefully it gets us going.

Your thoughts?

This may not be a very original question, but in a quick search on GF, I couldn't find where this question has been addressed. Seems like we all use the word "classic" whether we are selling or just discussing a book, but I'm not sure we all mean the same thing. If this topic has been discussed on this board before, I'd be grateful for any thread leads. Thanks!


Postby Guest » 12/02/04 11:34 AM

Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenace?

I'm paraphrasing here, but you'll get the general idea. I could read you two passages, one bad and one good. You would immediately know which was which but you would not know why.

i.e. A classic is a classic because it is.


Postby Jim Maloney_dup1 » 12/02/04 12:00 PM

I believe I've done this before when the question has come up, but it seems to me that, if we're going to discuss what makes a classic, we should first define what we mean by "classic". To start with, here's the deefinition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary :

Main Entry: 1classic
Pronunciation: 'kla-sik
Function: adjective
Etymology: French or Latin; French classique, from Latin classicus of the highest class of Roman citizens, of the first rank, from classis
1 a : serving as a standard of excellence : of recognized value b : TRADITIONAL, ENDURING c : characterized by simple tailored lines in fashion year after year <a classic suit>
2 : of or relating to the ancient Greeks and Romans or their culture : CLASSICAL
3 a : historically memorable b : noted because of special literary or historical associations <Paris is the classic refuge of expatriates>
4 a : AUTHENTIC, AUTHORITATIVE b : TYPICAL <a classic example of chicanery>
5 capitalized : of or relating to the period of highest development of Mesoamerican and especially Mayan culture about A.D. 300-900

It seems to me that the relevant definitions above are numbers 1, 3 and 4. The words that jump out to me are: excellence, value, traditional, historically memorable, and authoritative.

You asked if a book can be a "classic" when it's initially released, or if it needs to stand the test of time. I think that, while it certainly helps if it has an enduring value, we don't necessarily have to wait that long to classify something as a "classic". Take, for example, the Card College series. While it's only been around for a relatively short period of time, it certainly fits several of the definitions above. "Standard of excellence", "of recognized value", "authoritative". I think that series also argues against the requirement of "original material" which you suggested in your original post. There's very little material original to Roberto Giobbi in those books, but I think most would agree that the series can be considered classic.

I think there's more to be said, but I'll leave off at this point for now. Hopefully this will spur some more discussion.

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Postby Guest » 12/02/04 12:33 PM

Euan: Yes, I've read both of Pirsig's books and loved them (the other one was Lila and carries on with the theme of Zen). But if we get Pirsig and metaphysics into this discussion, we'll be "dancing around the perimeter without going to the core," to paraphrase Pirsig in Lila! :D

Jim: Not at all a bad initial approach of course, but one of my reasons for posting this question was to get people's own definitions of "classic." I tend to think that the word "classic" is overused (much like the word "rare"), but, sharing your hopes, perhaps a few more folks will chime in and add to this discussion. There have been many lists published of the so-called "classics," usually under the theme of the "top ten books" etc. You mentioned that you have discussed this before. If there is a thread on this topic in GF, no sense in rehashing old stuff I couldnt find such a thread and have had some stimulating conversations with local friends, including the venerable John Booth, who himself (it could be argued) has authored one or two classics in his productive lifetime.


Postby Guest » 12/02/04 01:46 PM

Ordinarily I read a book and shelve it.
That is pretty much the case for most books.
There are some I've gone back to a few times.
Things like Orwell's 1984, Borges Labyrinths, Herbert's Dosadi Experiment and Hilliard's Greater Magic. Books I have gone back to after a decade or so get put on my "significant" list. Those I go back to again after another decade go on my "classics" list. That's my criterion. What brings me back to a work... not sure.

Recently Lewis Carol's Alice books and Galloway's books on Ramsay got on my classics list. At this rate I expect Alan Moore's Miracleman and Matt Wagner's Grendel and Mage stories to go from my significant list to my classics list. Someday I expect to wind up with Shakespeare's Sonnets and Neil Gaiman's Sandman in my classics list.

Postby Guest » 12/02/04 06:45 PM

The factor that makes a classic is the public's response to it over a long period of time. If a book, like Dicken's A Christmas Carol or Hugard and Braue's Expert Card Technique, becomes widely beloved, than it eventually earns the title 'Classic'.

Postby Guest » 12/03/04 12:08 AM

Pete Seager, who wrote his share of classic American folk tunes and would seem to know something about the subject of what makes a classic sums it up this way:

"Popular music is popular because a lot of people like it."

Or, in less oblique terms, the things which cause different people to value something are too varied and diverse for there to be a simple answer to the question.

Abstract terms like "excellence". "value" and "authoritative" are really meaningless because while we all know what they mean, none of us know what the mean to others.

Postby Guest » 12/03/04 11:09 AM

Bill Duncan wrote:

... the things which cause different people to value something are too varied and diverse for there to be a simple answer to the question. Abstract terms like "excellence" "value" and "authoritative" are really meaningless because while we all know what they mean, none of us know what the[y] mean to others.
I recognize your point, Bill, but with all due respect, that's the purpose of this thread to ask various folks what the word "classic" means to them in the context of magic books. It is apparent enough from my private conversations with friends that people have differing thoughts on this question, so I was hoping that some of the astute posters on GF would chime in. There may be no easy answer, but that should not prevent a dialog, no?


Postby Guest » 12/03/04 11:15 AM

In an effort to add to this discussion, set forth below is an excerpt from my introduction to The Historians' Guide to Conjuring (Redux) (2004) which briefly addresses the notion of a "classic" magic book.

While the precise identification of the criteria for a classic in the literature of conjuring may be elusive or subject to a nice debate, for purposes of this discussion there are several hallmarks which, in my opinion, merit note: consensus recognition that a book is a unique source of information on an important topic, or thoroughly explains the state of conjuring (or a significant element of conjuring) at a point in time, or is otherwise a harbinger of the future of conjuring.

Postby Guest » 12/03/04 04:51 PM

Nicely put Clay. Not trying to stifle discussion, just hoping to inspire folks to go deeper than simple adjectives...

I don't personally think of things in terms of "classic" because I believe that when we do that we stop thinking about them and simply 'accept' them. And that's never a good thing.

Postby Richard Kaufman » 12/03/04 07:45 PM

A true classic is a book from which you draw inspiration and to which you return many times in your life.
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Postby Max Maven » 12/04/04 12:54 AM

Then there's Mark Twain's definition of a classic: "A book that everyone owns, but nobody's read."
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Postby Guest » 12/04/04 01:30 AM

Jonathan T. and Richard K. seem to be suggesting that a "classic" work has a timeless quality to it. When I think of a classic movie like "It's a Wonderful Life," the word I think of is "timeless," as in I think my kids and their kids will be able to watch that film and find it just as relevant to them as it was to prior generations. But I'm not so sure the notion of "timelessness" fits with magic books. Or does it? Clay

Postby Guest » 12/07/04 02:52 PM

How about this? The notion of timelessness doesn't apply to magic books (owing to magicians, not the texts themselves) but most certainly should.

Postby Guest » 12/07/04 08:58 PM

Well I'm kinda disappointed that so few folks have jumped in on this discussion, but thanks to those who have offered their thoughts - . Maybe it's been hashed over before somewhere else and not so interesting. But this word "classic" is so frequently used by people selling books, people reviewing books, people talking about books, etc. ...

Maybe Bill Duncan was on to something: all we can do is use labels to define the term "classic" but we really can't define it. Hmmm... If that's the case, then what are we doing using the term?

A friend wrote me a private e-mail offering some of his thoughts on this term, so I'd thought I'd reproduce it without giving away who it is. He's on this board so he may read it. And to "you know who," if my quoting you bothers you, my apologies - but I thought what you had to say was interesting. And I think Max Maven's tongue in cheek quote echoes some of your thoughts. So here goes...

I have been hearing "It's a classic..." all my life, and especially in magic. Most of the time, if you ask questions about the "classic" the person lauding it can't answer you. Try this sometime and you'll be surprised at the vague answers you get. I guess my awareness started when I was working for *******.

Guys would come in and want to know "What's new?" Now, most of them didn't know what was old, but they had to have the hot new stuff. I would do a trick, in fact, one trick in particular, and I always got the same response. The trick was the FIRST trick in "The Royal Road to Card Magic". The response was "I'll take it!" Imagine their surprise when I told them they already had it...

If this was an isolated incident that would be one thing, but this happened over and over. Yet any one of my "victims" would be amongst the first to tell you that RR is a "classic". What does that tell you?

Here is another way to come at the concept of "classics". I can name a dozen tricks. I promise you'll tell me, if youre honest, that they are among the most boring things you've ever been subjected to. My point? They are all "classics"! So, what does that mean? (By the way, I've purposely not named the dozen, I think you can do it yourself, but I will start you out: "The Zombie Ball...")

Now, since I know you are interested in books, for your book, let's consider the "classic" books. What makes them classic? If you don't determine that, then the books you include in any list will look like everyone else's list of classics. You can probably do the first fifty titles by rote - I know I can. But are they classic in any good sense? I think we need to define, no RE-DEFINE, "Classic", if a list of the classics is to serve anyone well.

And certainly, we need to explain WHY the classics NEED to be read. Simply saying so isn't enough. I know, because another of my favorite tricks is the FIRST coin trick in "Secrets of Conjuring and Magic". I do it with a candlestick that is period, and an 1843 Five Franc Piece, just as Robert-Houdin would have, and the trick is pure poetry. A simple coin vanish and re-production, turned into a fantasy in magic, and I've fooled the greatest minds of the 20th century with it. Vernon called it the most beautiful coin effect he'd seen in years. Why? Well, read this "Classic" and you'll know. But no one does.

I'm on a bit of a rant here, and I could go on for a long time, but I'll spare you. I do think that there are classics, and I think that a lot of them are on the list of classics already. I also think that a lot of classics aren't, at lest not in a good way. I guess it boils down to value judgments. Do we want to call something a classic because we believe it is good? If that is the case then the term needs to be clearly defined and the lists of classics revised. If we are not going attach a good/bad value judgment to the term, then that is another story. Am I making any sense here? I know what I mean, but I don't know if I'm conveying clearly. Anyway, that's a start. Perhaps I'll be able to clarify if I give this a bit more thought. Hope I've stimulated something....

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