a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first readingItalio Calvino
Literary critics, historians, authors and avid readers all have different opinions on which works of literature can be considered “classic”. Are they novels which captivate because of their lyrical, figurative language? Are they works that ask profound questions about our society and what it means to be human?
The answer is of course Yes and Yes.
I think of classics as works that are unforgettable as a result. Reading them is an intensely rewarding experience. And the initial joy on first reading never goes away. Each time you read the book you discover a new layer of meaning or a new question to consider.
Coming up with a list of just 10 classics makes Brexit negotiations seem like a piece of cake. There are easily twice that number I could have included. I’ll enjoy seeing your reactions and debating what should or should not have made the list.
A Seventeenth Century Classic
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667).
I can remember sitting on my bed in my university room feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial.
It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes that explained all of Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations since I was not blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible (the price for not paying attention in Sunday School) or Greek and Roman myths.
But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but utterly memorable.
Nineteenth Century Classics
This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. Starting with the first realist texts of the early part of the century, and ending in the realm of stream of consciousness.
So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that I never tire of reading.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice can be read as a romance story which ends happily ever after. But as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways.
At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)
My all-time favourite novel.
I know many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast.
One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him.
Look beyond that however and you’ll find a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted.
This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.
5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)
This was my first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him (see my list here) , this is the one that has a special place in my affection.
It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter – a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.
Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is absolutely unforgettable.
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1898)
A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother. It was castigated at the time of its publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text.
Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness.
The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?
Twentieth Century Classics
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster (1924)
Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.
It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs.
The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
9. Heart of the Matter — Grahame Greene (1948).
Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences.
Greene himself didn’t care much for this book. But I love this story of a British police officer in an African outpost who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.
10. Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton (1948).
I’m staying in Africa for my final choice.
This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid. It features a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.
Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland.
This is a novel of protest in a sense but it is also an appeal for justice.
So there you have my choices. What would be on your list?
Many many months have passed since I last paid attention to my Classics Club project. In fact it seems that I barely read anything from that list last year. I still have 21 books remaining to be read which means I am not going to achieve the goal of 50 read by August this year. But hey, these are classics so they’ve been around for decades or centuries. Which means they can easily wait for another year or so.
The Classics Club spin which has just been announced has given me a much-needed prod to revisit this list however. The idea is to list 20 of the titles from our list of books remaining to read. On Friday, March 10 we’ll be told which number has come up in the spin and then we should read that book by May 1. Easy peasy….
My Spin List
- Candide — Voltaire 1759
- Vicar of Wakefield — Oliver Goldsmith 1766
- Evelina — Frances Burney 1778
- Ormond – Maria Edgeworth 1817
- The Black Sheep — Honore Balzac 1842
- Basil – Wilkie Collins 1852
- Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope 1861
- The Kill/La Curée – Emile Zola 1871-2
- Anna Karenina — Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
- Daniel Deronda — George Eliot 1876
- The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky 1880
- The Diary of a Nobody — George Grossmith 1888
- New Grub Street – George Gissing 1891
- The Secret Agent — Joseph Conrad 1907
- Clayhanger – Arnold Bennett 1910
- The Voyage Out — Virginia Woolf 1915
- Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton 1920
- All Passion Spent – Vita Sackville West 1932
- Frost in May — Antonia White 1933
- Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1985
Ideally I would like the ball to fall on number 8 which will re-unite me with Emile Zola or number 7 so I can read the next in the Chronicles of Barchester series. But if that doesn’t come to pass I shall not be too distressed since all titles on this list are ones I want to read (rather than feel I have to read).
Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.
I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.
Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
- classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
- a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works
- a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
- a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway
Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.
I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.
Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”.
Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).
So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?
There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain. Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was
… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves
Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that
that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short and rather more considered:
First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.
What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
- The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
- Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
- Removed The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.
I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.
I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….
The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions.
- Which classic character reminds you of your best friend? Biddy in Great Expectations. Loyal, generous and honest. What more could you ask for?
- If a sudden announcement was made that 500 more pages had been discovered after the original “THE END” on a classic title you read and loved, which title would you most want to keep reading? Or, would you avoid the augmented manuscript in favor of the original? Why? I would stick to the original – what’s to say that 500 more pages make it any better.
- Favorite children’s classic? I loved Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl Series, maybe because I had a secret desire to break out of my shell.
- Who recommended your first classic? It was probably bought by my mum on the basis that’s what she loved as a child.
- Whose advice do you always take when it comes to literature. (Recommends the right editions, suggests great titles, etc.) There are too many bloggers to mention here whose guidance I appreciate.
- Favorite memory with a classic? Reading
- Classic author you’ve read the most works by? I haven’t counted but it would probably be Wilkie Collins
- Classic author who has the most works on your club list? I’m surprised by this since it wasn’t my intention but it seems to be Charles Dickens
- Classic author you own the most books by? This would be C.P. Snow, an author who seems to have completely disappeared from our consciousness. I spent hours scouting the second hand shops in Hay on Wye to collect the entire Strangers and Brothers series (eleven novels written between 1940 and 1970) and then never got around to reading them. They’re in the house somewhere.
- Classic title(s) that didn’t make it to your club list that you wish you’d included? I’ve overlooked Emile Zola it seems – only one of his titles made it on my list even though I’ve loved everything I read by him and there are many I have yet to explore.
- If you could explore one author’s literary career from first publication to last — meaning you have never read this author and want to explore him or her by reading what s/he wrote in order of publication — who would you explore? Zola’s Rougon-Macquet series. I know some other readers have said it isn’t necessary to read them in publication order but I’d like to see how the series developed.
- How many rereads are on your club list? Eight out of a list of 60 are titles I’ve read previously. I chose them again because I read them in too much of a hurry to fully appreciate ( they were required reading at university). Having now re-read Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter and The Power and the Glory I can see what I missed the first time around I’m looking forward to starting afresh with George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede.
- Has there been a classic title you simply could not finish? Tale of Two Cities. I have tried the latter about three times now and always come to a halt at the same point. I also gave up on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – very slow and repetitive
- Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Mice and Men was a surprise
- Five things you’re looking forward to next year in classic literature? Reading five books from the list!
- Classic you are DEFINITELY GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s long overdue
- Classic you are NOT GOING TO MAKE HAPPEN next year? Probably The Good Soldier – by Ford Madox Ford. I’m going off the idea of reading it and may well take it off the list
- Favorite thing about being a member of the Classics Club? Being challenged by the monthly questions
- List five fellow clubbers whose blogs you frequent. What makes you love their blogs? Fleur in her World; Heavenali; ;Nishita’s Rants and Raves; Roof Beam Reader; The Book Musings
- Favorite post you’ve read by a fellow clubber? An explanation of Zola’s theory of naturalism that appeared in the Shiny New Books newsletter – read it here
- If you’ve ever participated in a readalong on a classic, tell about the experience? My first – and only experience – was reading Crime and Punishment. It started well but I found I enjoyed the book so much I couldn’t slow down to the pace of the readalong.
- If you could appeal for a readalong with others for any classic title, which title would you name? Why? Canterbury Tales – it might help me finish it
- How long have you been reading classic literature? It started in earnest about 40 years ago one summer when there was a heatwave in the UK and I spent all day in the garden. I took to going to the library and getting as many books as possible by authors with exotic sounding name.
- Share up to five posts you’ve written that tell a bit about your reading story. Reviews, journal entries, posts on novels you loved or didn’t love, lists, etc. My review of Little Dorrit; A Favourite Classic Poem; My Favourite Literary Era; Love and Hate in the Classics; The Influence of Classic Novels
- Question you wish was on this questionnaire? (Ask and answer it!) What book from the twenty-first century will be a classic for the future? And my answer – I have absolutely no idea because I’m still trying to understand what makes some books ‘a classic’ that gets read and re-read for centuries and others (like the C. P Snow titles mentioned earlier, just drop off the cliff).
The Classics Club has posted a survey asking members 50 questions about their experience of reading classic works of literature. Here are my ramblings on the first 25 questions.
- Share a link to your club list. http://bookertalk.com/classics-club-list/
- When did you join The Classics Club? How many titles have you read for the club? I joined in August 2012 which means I have until August 2017 to read 50 titles. So far I’ve read 18 and given up on two.
- What are you currently reading? I have a confession – my current book isn’t from my classics club list. It’s All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu, a novelist from Uganda
- What did you just finish reading and what did you think of it? Confession number 2 – my most recent reading was Fear by Gabriel Chevalier, a novel set in World War 1. . It’s been called a ‘rediscovered classic’ because it was first published in 1930 and then disappeared so I could have claimed it as a classics club read except that I hadn’t put it on my list. It’s uncomfortable reading at times because most of the narrative takes place at the Front and as we all know, soldiers in the trenches endured unimaginable conditions.
- What are you reading next? Why? Oh dear, that is one of those questions I find hard to answer because I don’t plan ahead. I choose usually according to my mood at the time. Whenever I plan, I end up changing my mind so I’ve stopped doing it. I know at some point between now and January 5, I will be reading Daisy Miller and Washington Square by Henry James since that was the book which turned up in the latest club spin. But as i’ve already written, I’m not relishing the prospect.
- Best book you’ve read so far with the club, and why? This would be L’Assommoir by Emile Zola, part of his Rougon-Macquet series. This is the third book from the series I’ve read and it was just as gripping as Germinal and La Bete Humaine. It’s a graphic story of a woman’s attempt to find happiness amid the grinding poverty of a working class district in Paris. Powerful writing.
- Book you most anticipate (or, anticipated) on your club list? I wanted to choose some classics that reflected one of my other interests, world literature. I added Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe to my list because it is one of the first novels by an African author to receive global critical acclaim.
- Book on your club list you’ve been avoiding, if any? Why? I’m not avoiding anything as much as maybe deferring the moment when I read the three books by Virginia Woolf.
- First classic you ever read? This is lost in the mists of time – I do remember reading Black Beauty but whether that’s the first I’ve no idea.
- Toughest classic you ever read? War and Peace I found hard going – not only because it was so long but I just couldn’t keep all those Russian names straight in my head. It didn’t help that Russians have three names and Tolstoy kept using them interchangeably so I was always struggling to work out who was being featured.
- Classic that inspired you? or scared you? made you cry? made you angry? Zola’s Germinal made me both angry and tearful. This is a novel about the desperate conditions of a mining community in Northern France and since my ancestors were coal miners, the book had a personal resonance. I kept thinking of my grandfather and great grandfather working in similar conditions.
- Longest classic left on your club list? No idea – Wives and Daughters looks long (and the print size is small) but whether it’s longer than Old Curiosity Shop I don’t know. Dickens can be rather wordy.
- Oldest classic you’ve read? Oldest classic left on your club list? Oldest one I’ve read is a play, Medea by Euripdes which dates from 431BC. A surprisingly good experience. Oldest one left is Canterbury Tales from 1381 – I’ve started it but its the kind of book I can read only in short spurts
- Favorite biography about a classic author you’ve read — The Unequaled Self, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys was riveting. See my review here
- Which classic do you think EVERYONE should read? The one THEY want to read – who am I to impose my ideas on someone else.
- Favorite edition of a classic you own, if any? My very battered copy of Middlemarch from university. It’s an orange cover Penguin full of tiny scribbles in the margins. I remember clearly sitting for hours reading this, desperately trying to get through it in time for a tutorial
- Favorite movie adaption of a classic? There are many TV serialisations I can watch repeatedly (Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth or Martin Chuzzlewit with the brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Mr Pecksniff ) but not many films. Two adaptations of E M Forster novels come to mind as ones I rate highly – Howard’s End with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins and A Passage to India with, I think, Peggy Ashcroft
- Classic which hasn’t been adapted yet (that you know of) which you very much wish would be adapted to film. L’Assommoir would make a good film, it has some wonderful set pieces
- Least favorite classic? One that I didn’t’ finish – Bleak House. It has a superb opening
- Name five authors you haven’t read yet whom you cannot wait to read. None – a lot on my list have been around for decades, or centuries in some cases. I think these authors can wait a few more years before I get around to them
- Which title by one of the five you’ve listed above most excites you and why? If i was that excited I would have read them already wouldn’t I?
- Have you read a classic you disliked on first read that you tried again and respected, appreciated, or even ended up loving? ( I was ready to throw Portrait of a Lady in the waste bin but had to finish it because it was part of a literature course. Second time around (yes I had to do a second read in order to write the essay) I warmed to it more.
- Which classic character can’t you get out of your head? Scobie in Heart of the Matter by Grahame Greene, a man who tries to keep his moral centre but ultimately proves powerless
- Which classic character most reminds you of yourself? I wouldn’t wish that on any character
- Which classic character do you most wish you could be like? None of the people in the books I’ve read seem to have very happy lives so I have no desire to emulate them.