What's the Difference Between Classical and Classic Literature?

A collection of classic books

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Some scholars and writers use the terms "classical" and "classic" interchangeably when it comes to literature. However, each term actually has a separate meaning. The list of books that are considered classical versus classic books differs greatly. What confuses things further is that classical books are also classic. A work of classical literature refers only to ancient Greek and Roman works, while classics are great works of literature throughout the ages. 

What Is Classical Literature?

Classical literature refers to the great masterpieces of Greek, Roman, and other ancient civilizations. The works of Homer, Ovid, and Sophocles are all examples of classical literature. The term isn't just limited to novels; it can also include epic, lyric, tragedy, comedy, pastoral, and other forms of writing. The study of these texts was once considered to be a necessity for students of the humanities. Ancient Greek and Roman authors were viewed to be of the highest quality. The study of their work was once seen as the mark of an elite education. While these books generally still find their way into high school and college English classes, they are no longer commonly studied. The expansion of literature has offered readers and academics more to choose from.

What Is Classic Literature?

Classic literature is a term most readers are probably familiar with. The term covers a much wider array of works than classical literature. Older books that retain their popularity are almost always considered to be among the classics. This means that the ancient Greek and Roman authors of classical literature fall into this category as well. It's not just age that makes a book a classic, however. Books that have a timeless quality are considered to be in this category. While determining if a book is well-written or not is a subjective endeavor, it is generally agreed that classics have high-quality prose. 

What Makes a Book a Classic?

While most people are referring to literary fiction when they refer to the classics, each genre and category of literature has its own classics. For example, the average reader might not consider Steven King's novel "The Shining," the story of a haunted hotel, to be a classic, but those who study the horror genre may. Even within genres or literary movements, books that are considered classic are those that are well-written and/or have cultural importance. A book that may not have the best writing but was the first book in a genre to do something ground-breaking is a classic. For example, the first romance novel that took place in a historic setting is culturally significant to the romance genre.