A rambling post for today.
The phrase "the classics" is a loose term in literature. We expect it to refer to books that last through time, that remain relevant in either their message or their format. They are either beautiful to read or contain important themes, preferably both. But what is considered a classic changes with time and often has little to do with a book's popularity. Perhaps it is because everything has been said already in literature that context does matter. An exploration of identity, for instance, is rewritten a thousand times over because each generation wants to hear it expressed in a new way. That's why you'll notice that some of the more recent "classics" either become or remain popular when they are reinterpreted anew time and again.
Consider something like Alice in Wonderland, which wasn't exactly popular when it came out. It's still widely available in bookstores, but is it really widely read by anyone except literature students? It especially isn't read much by its original audience of children, unless in extremely abridged formats. Yet the story is popular and it is widely referenced in all sorts of art forms.
Two more nineteenth century novels, Frankenstein and Dracula, are similar. They were more popular in their day, but they still are. Here I would also question how many people read the originals who aren't literature students, but everyone knows (or thinks they know) the basics of the stories. Adaptations and references abound.
But that's the thing, isn't it? These three stories that I've brought up remain popular because they are constantly being redefined. And it's that redefining that makes them new and keeps them in society's collective consciousness. We have an idea of what we mean when we talk about the character of Frankenstein or his monster--an idea that is not limited by the details of the original story. It's like we've made archetypes out of certain stories, like the tales of Greek heroes used to be. And so when we refer to those story lines or characters, we're interacting more with that archetype than the original source itself.
Fiction always keeps to the same core concepts. But we keep those concepts alive by reinventing them through either new stories or new interpretations of the same stories. And that's what makes us feel connected to "classics" as they age. If we feel we've lost that connection, then the old classics become dusty relics only read by those who study literature. (Which I don't have an issue with--some of like reading dusty relics, and it's impossible for every piece of value written to continue to be cherished through the ages. Then we would have no need for new writers, eh?) That's why it's the ones we can approach more loosely that remain popular. So maybe it isn't such a bad thing that people sometimes forget that Frankenstein is the scientist not the monster. It's the main imagery, not the details, that take root in our minds.