What makes a novel a classic? Ask this question to any literary-type person, and you’ll probably get a range of answers. However, the most common seems to be that a classic is a novel that has stood the test of time, having been read by generations of people, and remains popular today – so books from the 90s and 00s definitely cannot be included! As a literature student back at university, I’ve read many classics, some perhaps more well-known and popular than other. Many, I read by myself, for pleasure, not for a course or essay assignment. I often struggle with older classics a bit – for example, I’ve yet to complete a Dickens novel – as I find the writing style to be heavy and tedious sometimes, even if the plot is intriguing. There’s also many classics I’ve yet to read, and will hopefully get around to one day. But, out of what I’ve read so far, here are some of my favourites.
1. Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Brontë
This was one of the first classic novels I read, way back near the start of high school. I chose it myself, mostly based on the names (my middle name is Jane), and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Reading about a strong, independent woman like Jane was no doubt an important source of inspiration for me at that age, and continues to be now, and is all the more impressive for the time she lived in. The mysterious Gothic elements definitely appealed to me too, as most of my childhood was spent buried in fantasy novels. I’ve re-read this a few times over the years as well, and as I get older I find other things in it to appreciate, such as the romantic tones, and the real dilemmas Jane faces.
2. The Chronicles of Narnia
by C.S. Lewis
A children’s classic, which has most certainly stood the test of time. Like most children, I encountered The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe first, which I think was read to me in school, but when I was a bit older, I got my hands on the complete series, and was enchanted to find even more stories about this fantastical land. Harry Potter was the reason I fell in love with fantasy novels, but reading the Narnia series (as well as other earlier fantasy authors like George McDonald and J.R.R. Tolkien) showed me how the genre started. I even used Narnia in a university essay, since these books contain both a childlike wonder and joy, mixed with darker themes and complex allegories, so they can certainly be enjoyed by all ages.
3. To Kill A Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
This was one of those books I’d always heard about, but never got around to reading, until I finally did a few years ago (haven’t gotten to Go Set A Watchman yet though). It’s talked about for good reason though, as it’s utterly fascinating. It deals with some big, important themes, namely racial injustice, something still present in our society today. There’s also some other dark themes, like rape and loss of innocence. Yet all of this is told through the eyes of six year old girl named Scout, which gives the novel a childlike warmth and gentleness, but makes what she witnesses all the more jarring. The naivety of children means they so often see what adults miss, so seeing things from her point of view really makes you think about it more.
4. The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger
Ok, this is one of those books that I know some people love, and others hate, but like no. 3, I’d always heard it mentioned before I eventually got around to reading it. I will agree, that Holden can be an absolute pain in the ass, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spend too much time with him. But the story, and in particular the style, are what I enjoy about this one. I find character exploration and psychology fascinating, so I enjoy seeing how much Holden reveals about himself, without meaning to. A lot of what he writes is probably intended to come across in a certain way, but the picture we actually get is quite different, and very revealing of him – and just how irritating he can be! Normally I struggle with books where I don’t much like the protagonist, especially when written in first person, but this one made up for it by being so interesting.
5. Les Misérables
by Victor Hugo
Yes, I really have read this massive tome. I’ve read Ulysses too, but let’s not go into that one – I have serious issues about modernism. Anyway, I read Les Mis (in English, not French!) mostly for the challenge of it, and unlike many people I assume, I read the book before ever seeing the musical (which I’ve only seen the film version of, not live), and the differences between them are crazy! It’s a big, historical tale, full of grandeur and drama, and enough action to keep me going through 1, 000 pages (yes, 1, 000). Naturally, a lot of this is cut in the musical, and some of it rightly so – details are interesting yes, but 20 pages just describing the Parisian sewers? Really? However, in the novel, I found that pretty much none of the characters were particularly likeable, even though many of their musical counterparts are! It’s quite unusual for me to stick with such books, as I normally get so sick of the character that I just give up, but the plot (and the challenge of reading it all) got me through in the end. It’s not one I’ll be reading again in a hurry, but I’m glad I did.
What are your favourite classics? Any recommendations for others I should read? Let me know in the comments!