Classic books

What makes a book become a Classic?

Why have some books stood the test of time, becoming Classics, while others haven’t? This is a subject touched on in a recent article in the Sunday Times

Classic books
The works of Shakespeare are still popular today
Just why too do we rate some books, perhaps from centuries ago, more important than that from other writers from the same period? Apparently, just as with Darwin’s survival of the fittest and natural evolution theory, it’s all down to something called cultural evolution…

In a new book, Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel, a biologist at Reading University explains the reason some authors and their books survive to remain relevant today is down to a process of cultural evolution. Over time, we naturally pick out those writers, musicians and artists who are most effective at inspiring key emotional reactions within us.
Writing, art and music each have the ability to trigger emotions such as melancholy, love and rage. “We developed these emotions because they motivate our behaviour,” he explains, “we are an ultra-social species and we live for long periods of time in closely knit tribal societies. We need these emotions to motivate socially important reactions.”
He cites the Classic, The Iliad by Homer that has survived through the ages.
“This wonderful story is the cornerstone of the great western canon of literature and it’s seen off everything for 3000 years,” he says, “but what we don’t know is that at the same time he was writing there may have been lots of Homers around writing really trashy novels.
“We don’t see those today because they have died the death of cultural selection – they didn’t make the grade. They’ve become extinct just as certain biological species go extinct.”

Mr Pagel was commenting on the survival of written works as it was revealed our interest in classic art is as strong today as ever. As the Sunday Times article revealed, tickets to many art exhibitions are becoming incredibly difficult to get hold of – because going to these shows is so popular.

This year has seen a bumper number of exhibitions of classic arts. Most popular was the exhibition of Leonardo at the National Gallery while a show featuring David Hockney’s new work a the Royal Academy continues to attract crowds.

Now tickets that did cost £12 each are being sold for £200 a head for up-coming exhibitions of Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery, Picasso at Tate Britain and a new Turner show in March.

Mr Pagel believes as with writing, the reason why such art shows are so popular also lies in cultural evolution. He says humans are hot-wired to want to see good art and it isn’t a frivolous pastime, but key to our survival as a species.

“The really deep issue is that we recognise we have this thirst for culture but it’s never been explained,” he says, “We all know we’re drawn to the arts, music, religion but no-one has really understood why.”

However, scientists have discovered that emotionally intense music for example can trigger a release of pleasure chemicals in the brain. And Mr Pagel believes good art can recreate these emotions. “If I’m having to confront the possiblity of going into battle tomorrow, one of the things that might compel me to fight is a portrait of my family,” he says.

In the same way books also induce these same strong emotions. Who hasn’t read Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca – a book which is frequently cited in surveys as being one of the nation’s favourite reads – and not been touched by the story, characters and writing in that? And it also explains why so many of us still go to the theatre enjoying the works by Dickens and Shakespeare.

Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel is available this month. Find out more here.

Do you have a favourite classic novel? Let us know what it is and why you believe it’s stood the test of time below…

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Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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