We often think of classic books as:

  • the finest examples of the literary art form
  • timeless stories that continue to endure
  • works that should be studied as cultural literacy
  • confessions of the human heart in conflict with itself
  • times capsules for remembering the past

Yet, there is no agreement as to which books are classics. We hear people say “I study classic novels at the university,” or “I read classics for fun,” or “That book is a classic,” – but few of us think about what that means. We also hear, “Classics bore me,” or “Classics are arbitrary,” or “Classics maintain the status quo of the western white male.” The term can be controversial. Most readers assume being old makes a book a classic. Yet, reviewers often claim a new novel is an instant classic.

Can science fiction novels become classics in the same way scholars recognize literary classics? Some novels from the 19th century are science fiction. However, are the novels of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells held in the same literary regard as the best books by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens? Generally, it takes a century of literary survival of the fittest for a book to earn its reputation as a true classic. Is it possible to predict which younger books will be remembered in the future?

We have developed a quantitative method for analyzing book lists to spot the books being remembered over the past five decades. The Classics of Science Fiction produces a list of books that readers, critics, scholars, librarians, editors, writers have collectively remembered. We have no quantitative method for measuring quality. Can we assume a causal link between literary quality and survival?

For our purposes, when we use the word classics, we merely mean those books that are remembered over time. Of all the books published each year, few are remembered in December. The first step on the road to becoming a classic is when books are chosen for the “Best Books of the Year” lists. The next step is when they are nominated for awards in their second year of life. Some books get added to the public’s memory when they are made into a movie or television miniseries. Other books are kept alive by being studied in school, or promoted at a book club. Well loved books are shared with family and friends, or pushed onto children. Some of these books are remembered when fans vote for them in polls for all-time favorite books.

Books remembered 10, 25, or 50 years, deserve a distinctive label. Can we call them classics yet? Our statistical method also tracks books older than a century, and reveals if they are still being remembered. Since this is the fourth version of this system, we have seen how newer books get on the list, and older books fall off. One of the most interesting aspects of this work is discovering that only a handful of books from any given year are remembered.

Many books we now think of as great classics come from the 19th century. Let’s use a list of those books to study the nature of classic books. I will list the most famous literary survivors of the 1800s. In revising my original list I had to painfully remove a number of titles that once had many readers, but no longer do. Are books once considered classics, still classic when they lose their readers?

Year Titles
1811 Sense and Sensibility
1812 Swiss Family Robinson
1813 Pride and Prejudice
1814 Mansfield Park
1815 Emma
1817 Persuasion, Northanger Abbey
1818 Frankenstein
1819 Ivanhoe
1826 The Last of the Mohicans
1830 The Red and the Black
1831 The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
1838 Oliver Twist, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
1839 Nicholas Nickleby, The Charterhouse of Parma
1840 Two Years Before the Mast
1842 Dead Souls
1843 A Christmas Carol
1844 The Three Musketeers
1845 The Count of Monte Cristo
1847 Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre
1848 Vanity Fair
1849 David Copperfield
1850 The Scarlet Letter
1851 Moby Dick, Cranford, The House of Seven Gables
1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin
1853 Bleak House, Bartleby, the Scrivener
1857 Madame Bovary, Little Dorritt, Barchester Towers
1859 A Tale of Two Cities, Adam Bede
1860 The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White
1861 Silas Marner, Great Expectations
1862 Les Misérables, Fathers and Sons
1864 Journey to the Center of the Earth, Notes from Underground
1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Our Mutual Friend, From the Earth to the Moon
1866 Crime and Punishment
1868 Little Women, The Moonstone
1869 War and Peace,The Idiot, Sentimental Education
1870 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
1871 Middlemarch, Through the Looking-Glass
1872 Erewhon
1873 Around the World in 80 Days
1874 Far from the Madding Crowd
1875 The Way We Live Now
1876 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
1877 Anna Karenina, Black Beauty
1880 The Brothers Karamazov
1881 A Portrait of a Lady
1883 Treasure Island
1884 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Flatland
1885 King Solomon’s Mines
1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Bostonians, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Kidnapped
1887 She, A Study in Scarlet
1888 Looking Backward
1889 Three Men in a Boat, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
1890 The Sign of Four
1891 Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Picture of Dorian Gray
1894 The Jungle Books, The Prisoner of Zenda
1895 The Time Machine, Jude the Obscure, The Red Badge of Courage
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau
1897 Captains Courageous, Dracula, The Invisible Man
1898 The War of the Worlds, The Turn of the Screw
1899 The Awakening, Heart of Darkness

Our culture has remembered these books for 116-216 years.  How has that happened? What keeps them alive in current pop culture?

  • Very few books, if any, from any given year become a classic.
  • Classics are taught in schools, colleges and universities.
  • Most novels above have been made into movies.
  • Many have been seen on PBS Masterpiece.
  • They are constantly reprinted: in print, ebook, and audio.
  • Many readers love them, even without being forced to read them.
  • Generations of readers have written about them.
  • They inspire writers.
  • They are often imitated, parodied, and ripped off.
  • Some people feel classics are superior to newer books.

The list looks long, but notice how many years have no book, or how many years only have one novel. As a culture, we remember very little, but for most people who visualize the 19th century, these novels are how they do it.

When you look at the Classics of Science Fiction, ordered by year, notice how the density of books per year is very similar to the density of books per year above. The  progression of time is hard on novels. Any author hoping their novel will become a classic needs to know the odds are long. Books made into movies gain millions of new readers. Many of the books above have had the movie treatment over and over again. For the books on the Classics of Science Fiction list to stand the test of time, will they need a movie version to survive a century?

Only twelve novels above can be considered science fiction. Nine are on the Classics of Science Fiction list. Probably fewer than a dozen novels from the current Classics of Science Fiction list will be remembered among the greatest novels of the 20th century by readers in the 22nd century. One of the goals of this project is to guess which ones they might be.

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin is the most remembered book on our list. Next century, will Le Guin be remembered like H. G. Wells is remembered today? Will any science fiction writer be remembered like Jane Austen, Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens?

Literary novels have once distinctive quality over science fiction novels – they capture a place and time in history. Because science fiction is about make-believe events, or imagined futures, we don’t use them to visualize the past. However, every science fiction novel is a time-capsule of how we speculated about reality way back when. They represent our ancestors hopes and fears about the future. In this way, they are very historical. Given enough time, The Left Hand of Darkness and Dune will be used to remember mid-20th century America in they same way Great Expectations is used to remember mid-19th century London.