Name a classic book from any genre, any period, any author. I’m willing to bet certain names and stories cropped up in your thoughts immediately. If there was an all-time list, entries would include Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Bronte, and Hardy. I’d be surprised if many, if not all of these authors, were not on your bookshelves somewhere.
If you were looking at genre fiction I would expect someone to mention Philip K Dick (science fiction), Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Then there could be for crime: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and so on. For horror, well the first name to spring to mind is Stephen King. Then there’s Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley.
For fantasy, I would expect to see the names of Terry Pratchett, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. For historical fiction, I would name Jean Plaidy, Sharon Penman, and Bernard Cornwell.
For humorous prose, there is nobody who can equal P.G. Wodehouse (though I would argue for fantasy, Terry Pratchett was the Wodehouse of that genre. It is clear from TP’s wit he must have been inspired by Wodehouse).
There will be plenty of other names in these categories too but the ones I’ve listed I think are those that would spring most readily to mind in these groups.
So what makes a classic book then?
It’s not an issue of being an old book. Otherwise you wouldn’t include writers like Cornwell, Pratchett and Wodehouse. Who defines what being “old” here would mean anyway? And what would the time period be? A book that has to be at least fifty years old? One hundred? Two hundred?
I’ve never understood the term “modern classics” either. Something is either classic or it is not. It doesn’t matter whether that classic is recent or comes from further back in time. It is classic. That’s it. For me, a classic book is one that has or will stand the test of time (and for me that period should be at least 50 years).
Terry Pratchett will do well here because of the way the Discworld canon sends up so many different aspects of our lives on “Roundworld” (as Earth is known in his Science of Discworld series). Therefore at least one of his books will always resonate with someone (and I would say all of them would but then I’m a fan and won’t pretend to be unbiased here. Go on, read them if you haven’t, see what you think. Don’t just take my word for it! Our lovely library always has a good stock of Pratchett novels in and he himself developed his own love of literature from library visits.).
One of my most recent favourites, his penultimate novel as it turned out, Raising Steam, as well as commemorating the invention of the railway also makes many valid points about the horrors of fanaticism. If all fanaticism were to end tomorrow (oh if only!), this book would still be a historical look back at the time when such things were with us. It would still be an illustration of what fanaticism was like on 20th/21st century Earth.
Wodehouse will also do well because he makes no pretence to write about a “real” world and the fantastical/world that you might have wanted to have existed will always have a place in people’s affections and reading list. You can’t beat Wodehouse for pure escapism and there will always be a very strong market for that. Indeed the worse the world gets, the greater the need there is for escapism.
I would also say the format of the book doesn’t matter too much here either. It is the story that is important so if a book gets into your soul via print, audio, comic book format or what have you, then it is still a classic.
What else makes a classic book then? As well as standing the time test, my criteria would be:-
It has to be a book you have to tell others about.
It creates its own world (based on this one or totally fantastical but it is all real to you as you read it). Wodehouse comes into this category as well as Pratchett. Jane Austen as well would be covered by this.
You remember the characters long after you read the book.
You re-read the book periodically (or mean to do so).
It is a book that once read, you never forget. (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a good example of this for me, as is The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. I read both of these at school, loved them, have not re-read them since, can remember them well and they are on my To Re-Read when I Remember list!).
Having read the book, you can’t imagine why others haven’t!
You generally know you’ve read a classic book the moment you do read it.
I’m sure you can think of other criteria – share them in the comments box, please! And now for my Top Ten list here. Please send in yours!
My Classic Fiction
The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The Code of the Woosters – P.G. Wodehouse
Raising Steam – Terry Pratchett
The Harry Potter series – J.R. Rowling (especially The Prisoner of Azkaban. I’ve long had a soft spot for the Prisoner of Zenda type story).
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham
So what would be on your classic fiction list and why? When did you first read your classics? Are there books at school you have not re-read but still ring large in your memory? Have you re-read any of the classics you’ve been meaning to re-read? What do you think of TV/radio/film adaptations of the classics? (For me, The Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson are superb and back up the book wonderfully. Am less impressed with The Hobbit. It is only a short book so why three films out of it?).
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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