What makes a book a classic? Or even, who decided that book was better than another one. When you Google the question “What makes a book a classic?” An answer immediately comes up. “A classic book is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader’s own,” No one said it was a good answer, but we shouldn’t rely on Google for a good answer. We look to them to have the right answer, and as far as I’m concerned, that was the right answer. A classic book is more or less called a classic, until everyone else has caught on and agreed.
One example of a classic work that remains a mystery to me, as to why its a classic, is Moby Dick. To start with, who wants to read about whales? The book was received terribly by the public, no one cared or even wanted to. That isn’t entirely true, but from Melville publishing the book in 1851 to his death in 1891. Only 3,500 copies of the book were sold. That means in the span of forty years, he sold less than a hundred books a year.
By today’s standards that wouldn’t get you nationally recognized or anything, but it would get you that pat on the back from your friends. All of them probably saying the same thing, “Oh yeah! Its a great book, I don’t know why more people don’t read it.” Then as soon as your back is turned they start to wonder how you even got published in the first place, because they wrote a novel they want to get out there, since you did, so can they.
Melville was not a bad writer. His plot is a solid one, he created some of the most noteworthy characters of all time, and his visual imagery is excellent at points. The only problem is the subject. Whales were just something not enough people care about, because realistically who cares about whales? Not in the environmental way, as in when they die the ecosystem goes out of whack. But more along the lines of, people are not frequently affected by whales, so why think about them?
The thing that eventually drove people to pick up this book was the publicity it received from other academics, such as D.H Lawrence or Nathaniel Hawthorne. Back then that was the equivalent to having the sticker that said New York Times best seller on it. This brought in waves of new readers, just because this smart guy said it was good, I’ll believe it’s good too because I’m smart too. One thing that helped is half the people reading didn’t believe in whales. Because the idea of a sea monster was fiction. Of course now the idea seems silly, because we have seen whales on TV or documentaries or wherever. But back then people who didn’t have anything to do with the ocean job-wise stayed away from the ocean.
The main idea is that Moby Dick would not have become a classic on its own merit. So who is to say that it should be a classic at all? The only thing I saw when I was reading it was an outdated “bromance” story. Because honestly, the book was about whether Ishmael liked Queequeg or Ahab more. Whales were just a side thing.