Millennial reading habits have changed the definition of a classic

The final chapter?
The final chapter?
Image: AP Photo/Michel Euler
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The era of the ubiquitous classic is behind us. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Ragtime, and Slaughterhouse-Five have had their time in the sun. What would their modern equivalents be? The reason it’s harder to name such tomes is because there’s quantifiably less options to choose from, despite having more books to read.

Since its first publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 68 million copies, roughly moving a million copies for every year it has lived. In 2007, A Thousand Splendid Suns was published to great acclaim, similar to the reception of J.D. Salinger’s magnum opus. But by comparison, Khaled Hosseini’s novel has only moved nearly 6 million copies, averaging over 500,000 copies per year—half that of Salinger’s.

So what sends J.D. Salinger’s 69-year old novel still flying off the shelves and shrinks a novel that was just as well-received upon publication?

The answer could be millennials.

Millennials may be the death of classic books. In 1982, a year after millennials began being born, the top of bestseller lists were shared by seven or more authors. By 1988, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities could only manage eight weeks. A year later, Salman Rushdie had just nine for The Satanic Verses. By 1994, 10 writers were sharing top spot, each book averaging four weeks. And by 2000, 33 authors were sharing time at the top of the list, ensuring no one stayed longer than a week.

What changed?

It’s not that millennials aren’t reading books—in fact, they actually read more than their older counterparts. But they’re reading in different ways. They’re flipping through e-books. They have radical library habits. And, most curiously, women are asserting their literary power. Women read more, yet men still dominate the literary canon. (As an indication, every book mentioned so far in this article was written by a man.) Why should the heavily under-published gender continue to patronize the offending gender? This is a question that millennials seem to be asking.

This is compounded by the fact that publishing is twice as rapid now as it was in the 1950s. The John Grishams and James Pattersons and Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels all run each other’s classics out of town because of the quickfire production schedule of their work. Buoyed by hungry publisher expectations, the simultaneous explosions of their bestsellers mean none of these authors have been able to wield the kind of death grip Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago had on the top spot between 1958 and 1959 for 27 weeks. With the exception of Fifty Shades of Gray, The Da Vinci Code, and The Bridges of Madison County, no book since the 1980s has stayed longer than 20 weeks at the top of bestseller list. The rapid pace in which books are now pumped out might be why classics have shorter lives today.

As a sign of times to come, George Saunders’ 2017 release of Lincoln in the Bardo, which compares favorably in both public reception and awards to Stieg Larsson’s 2005 release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, spent just one week atop the bestseller list, compared to Larsson’s 10 weeks. It’s categorically a much, much better book: It was recently one of five books shortlisted for the Golden Man Booker, which celebrates the best of the 50 books that have won the distinguished prize. As time is wearing on, we’re forgetting the potential for the next round of classics more and more quickly.

In July, it was announced that The English Patient won the Golden Man Booker. This provides some hope: Written in 1992, squarely in millennial birth territory, perhaps newer books can still break out and become classics. It will take them time, however—the decades it took One Hundred Years of Solitude to become a classic is definitely different than the time it would take White Teeth.

With more and more books being piled upon nightstands and downloaded in Kindles, the path to the top of the bestseller list is more crowded than ever. What will be the books you’ll remember in the decades to come?

This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.