Frequently Asked Reference Questions

The "Classics" of Literature

Example Questions that can be answered by this FAQ:

  • What books are considered to be "classics"?

Many people have written to us asking about the "classics" in literature. A Handbook to Literature (Holmon and Harman 87) defines a classic as "a piece of literature that by common consent has achieved a recognized superior status in literary history; also an author of similar standing." (from Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992.)

The phrase "by common consent" is the tricky part here; not everyone agrees on what the classics are. But lots of people have created lists of what they believe to be the most important books. Here are some examples:

Great Books Lists
Librarian Robert Teeter has amassed an excellent collection of lists published by well-known authors, reviewers, critics, and literary experts of great books in literature
NEH’s Summertime Favorites Classics
Another online resource is from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This independent grant-making organization offers a "Summertime Favorites" list of classic literature.

The Modern Library: 100 Best Novels
There are three "best novels" lists and one "best nonfiction" works here, organized by the Modern Library. All of the novels and works were published after 1900 and in English. The “100 Best” novels list comes from the Modern Library’s poll of more than 400,000 readers. The “100 Best” nonfiction works comes from the Modern Library’s poll of almost 200,000 readers. The two other “100 Best” novels list were compiled by the board of the Modern Library and the Radcliffe Publishing Course, both published in 1998.

Other FAQs that may be of interest

If you are searching for literary criticisms, please take a look at the Internet Public Library’s “Literary Criticism FAQ” online at:

To find other book lists for pleasure reading (in print and online), try the Internet Public Library’s “Books FAQ” at: