What's the Difference Between Classical and Classic Literature?

Table of classic books at Barnes & Noble
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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 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 refer to great works of literature throughout the ages. 

What Is Classical Literature?

Classical Literature refers to the great masterpieces of the Greek, Roman, and other similar 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 as well. The study of these texts was once considered to be an absolute necessity for students of the humanities. Ancient Greek and Roman authors were considered of the highest quality. The study of their work was once considered the mark of an elite education. While these books generally still find their way into high school and college English classes, they are not commonly studied with the same vigor that they once were. The expansion of the field of literature has offered readers and academics much 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. 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. But it's not just age that makes a book a classic, though; the term is generally saved for books that have stood the test of time. Books that have a timeless quality are more likely to be considered in this category. While deciding if a book is well-written or not is a bit of a subjective endeavor, it's 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 as well. 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 would. Even within genres or literary movements books that are considered classic are those that are well written and/or of cultural importance. A book that may not have the best writing but was the first book in a genre to do something would make it a classic. For example, the first romance novel that took place in a historical setting would be culturally significant.