The question being asked is what makes a modern classic, but perhaps we should be asking who decides what makes one. In this case, it's the bods at Penguin publishing who have deemed Nick Hornby's man-bible on football obsession to be up there with the best of them.
Hornby now nestles alongside James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald and more recently, Javier Marias. It is hard to see a consistency of choice and it is even more striking in Penguin's omissions. If Hornby makes the grade, why doesn't Zadie Smith or Philip Roth or Margaret Atwood? Isn't White Teeth more of a modern classic?
Penguin provides its definition at the back of Hornby's book: a modern classic is a work that has been read over and over, inspired political dissent, caused outrage, broken down barriers, provided escapism or (bafflingly) been made into a "great film". Being "read over and over" seems to be key. We still think of Ulysses and Lolita as classics because, whether in subject or style (or both) they transcend the specificities of time and place. They offer something of truth or beauty that becomes universal and enduringly relevant. Does Fever Pitch have this quality? Will it be read in 100 years by someone with little interest in football? The answer, I think, is no. Though it is funny and moving in parts, it reads like a book rooted to time and place, as a collection of well-written essays thickly coated in nostalgia.