What is a “classic” book?

Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, reflects on what it means for a book to qualify as a “classic” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography, which belongs to a series by Princeton University Press called “Lives of Great Religious Books”:

What in the life of a book has to happen to it or what does it achieve through its readers in order to deserve the “classic” label? Catholic theologian David Tracy fussed with that term at considerable length and with subtelty in his Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, Hope, and I wrestled with his wrestling with the term as on occasion we cotaught graduate students. “On historical grounds,” Tracy wrote, “classics are simply those texts that have helped found or form a particular culture.” Also, he added, “on more explicitly hermeneutical grounds, classics are those texts that bear an excess and permanence of meaning, yet always resist definitive interpretation.” Paradoxically, classic texts, born in particularity, “have the possibility of being universal in their effect.”

Marty quotes Tracy, who argues that the classical bid of a book is tested when readers converse with it:

We converse with one another. We can also converse with texts. If we read well, then we are conversing with the text. No human being is simply a passive recipient of texts. We inquire. We question. We converse. Just as there is no purely autonomous text, so too there is no purely passive reader. There is only that interaction named conversation.

Marty continues to quote Tracy’s advice on conversational reading:

Conversation is a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it. These are merely some generic rules for questioning. As good rules, they are worth keeping in mind in case the questioning does begin to break down. In a sense they are merely variations of the transcendental imperative elegantly articulated by Bernard Lonergan: “Be attentive, be intelligent, be responsible, be loving, and, if necessary, change.” 

Conversational reading, Marty says, has “the chance of altering worldviews,” as he writes:

Every time I read Augustine’s Confessions, I come away looking at myself and the world in a different way. My friend Jaroslav Pelikan said that annuallyhe reread The Divine Comedy in the original. He cannot each time have learned many new things about the poem he had read so often. He did it in the spirit of its author, in words that Goethe voiced in Faust: “”What you have as heritage, Take now as task; For thus you will make it your own!” He was each time reckoning with a tradition and, in a way, becoming part of it.

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