What makes a piece of literature a classic? Is it the interesting plot or transforming characters? Is it the consistent flow or descriptive language? There are plenty of books that rise quickly up the year’s best-seller lists and then are rarely spoken of again. There are books that take the number one spot on these lists and are considered literature of the century. What makes these books special?
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
Derek Attridge in The Singularity of Literature, writes in depth about literature and what constitutes great literature. He coins the entire process as an event. Beginning with the initial idea, through the writing process, all the way to readers enjoying the work, all of this is an ongoing event. Writing does not stop once the pen dots that final period or the push of the last letter on the keyboard. Everyone talks about the writing process, of course, as it is a process transforming ideas into words into meaning. But the process does not stop there. Readers experience a process with each page turn. There is a continual growth and action in the reader’s mind following the story and creating a picture of each scene. It is this achievement within the reader that makes great literature. Literature has the ability to engage the reader to suspend his or her personal disbeliefs and step into an alternate reality than the present one. Although other forms of art can provide an alternate reality, such as movies or paintings, it is up to the reader’s willingness to engage the words placed on the page and provide meaning to them. With this willingness, the reader can interact with the characters and even feel a meaningful connection to events happening in between the pages. The effect that language has on a person is sometimes diminished. Language plays a greater role than it is given credit for. As every person has a connection to language and how it can be used, it is the writer’s job and gift to be able to provide a reality to the words he or she has written.
With the ability of the written word comes a sense of responsibility that is sometimes taken lightly by those not of the craft. But it is these letters, words, and sentences that draw a picture for the reader and guide the reader into a reality that must feel as though it was constructed for just the one person. Great literature connects on a deep personal level with each reader, but still encompasses truth for a larger population. This is the ability of Shakespeare, whose works have lasted hundreds of years and is taught in almost every English class. His use of language while writing characters that many could relate to brought to life some of the greatest works of all-time. Despite the time that has passed since his works were first released, readers are still engaging them. It is an ongoing event between the reader and the words on the page.
There are plenty of works that people relate to. But many of those books do not have the ability as classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Don Quijote. The language used in those books, as well as all of the other classics, creates a reality that engages the reader outside of the pages. The reader can think about Don Quijote’s search for truth as he or she figures out life. The ability of to stand up for what is right, like Atticus Finch, is considered when one has a difficult choice to make.
Therefore, it is the ability of the language to present a realistic, engaging reality for the reader to preside in as each page is turned. The language continues the process that began when the first words were put to paper. The process that becomes an event when the reader is willing to suspend his or her disbelief to occupy a place in this new reality. The event that allows a reader entertainment in this reality, but also provides a sense of truth. It is this ability that makes words on a page into great literature.
“That is part of the beauty of all literature.You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”