Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Armchair BEA 2013: Classics

You can find links to other blogs taking part here.

When I first saw this as the discussion topic, my heart sank because I had this image of Classic Literature as the very worthy but immensely difficult and dull things that I was forced to read at school. However, in an attempt to find some inspiration, I turned to the indispensible book resource that is Goodreads, where I found this rather more appealing description of what makes a title a ‘classic’:
A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic. A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings--partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses.
There was also an extensive list of books considered to be Popular Classics, so I discovered that I had actually enjoyed reading far more Classic titles than I had originally thought. In order to keep this post to a reasonable length it soon became obvious that I could only list authors and not the various works that they had written. I then thought that I could select my top ten, but looking through the first ten pages of the list showed me that it would be an impossible task to narrow the list down even that far!

The Most Daunting Authors

Some of the oldest authors are the most daunting to approach, and yet their works are the foundation of much of the literature that has followed them. Their stories are so familiar that they have become embedded in our culture and are well known even to those who have never actually read their works. Some of them need to be read in translation because they were written in an ancient language or because the form of English used is so old that we struggle to understand it.

Of the ancient storytellers, I can highly recommend many of the Greek playwrights, such as Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles. Although their plays use many conventions that we find strange, such as a Chorus, their retelling of Greek mythology is fascinating and terrifying as it explores the tragic violence of human nature. Many of the plays may be best appreciated in adaptation, rather than literal translations, so that the story shines through the unfamiliar technicalities. This is also true for the father of all epic fiction, Homer. He and his Roman equivalent, Virgil, were master craftsmen, but their work is so detailed and alien that it can defeat the casual reader. However, the stories they relate are wonderfully familiar and inventive, weaving history and mythology into an intriguing mixture.

Perhaps the most daunting author that many of us have been forced to attempt at school is the one that we could gain the most from reading again and again: William Shakespeare. Possibly the greatest writer of the English language to have ever put pen to paper, he is an integral part of modern culture and should be revisited whenever possible, if only to see where so many of our idioms and sayings come from. It is very unfortunate that so many of us are tortured with his works at school and then become convinced that they incomprehensible rubbish. He is definitely a writer who benefits from adaptation, even it is through the simple act of producing his work on stage. There are many excellent filmed versions of his works as well, such as Kenneth Branagh's Henry V and Ian McKellen's Richard III.

I would also place Charles Dickens into this category, even though he writes in much more modern English. His writing is so incredibly dense that it can be hard work to slog through it at first and he is another author that is done a disservice by the enthusiastic English teachers who try to force our youthful minds to stagger through his epic descriptions. It must be remembered that many of his works were published in serial form, so that the original readers had a week, or even a month, to absorb each installment before attempting the next. As with Shakespeare, his characters and stories are wonderful and he remains the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. As with The Bard, there are some excellent filmed adaptations available, such as David Lean's Oliver Twist.

Rip-Roaring Adventures

There are some writers who write a terrific yarn that will carry you along as the plot unfolds. This does not mean that they do not create memorable characters or comment on the world around them, but that they are less gritty than some other authors and will provide you with pure entertainment.

For joyful, unrelenting adventure and marvelous voyages of discovery I would recommend Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson and if you like a little political intrigue thrown in, then Alexandre Dumas is a great choice. If you prefer something a little more cerebral, then how about the greatest intellect ever to grace the fictional page: Sherlock Holmes? Although he is not the only creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he is most certainly the most famous and possibly one of the most beloved characters ever created. Of course, he has stiff competition in the form of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and she is not the best selling novelist of all time by accident. She is outsold only by Shakespeare and the Bible and is the most translated author, with copies of her works in at least 103 separate languages. If you like to exercise your ‘little grey cells’, then she has a wide range of titles to offer.

Children’s Writers

Many children’s authors remain our favorites throughout our lives simply because their works conjure images of our own childhood, but others create worlds that work equally well for adult readers as well, and these become timeless classics.

Two authors that had a profound effect on me as a child were Anna Sewell and Richard Adams. Anna Sewell’s only work was Black Beauty, the story of a horse as it moves through the hands of a variety of owners: some good, some bad. It highlights the terrible mistreatment that many animals suffered during the Victorian era and is very moving. Richard Adams published several works, but the best known is Watership Down, which remains one of my most favorite books of all time. It follows the journey of a group of young rabbits from their doomed warren to the idyllic destination of Watership Down. They struggle through many setbacks and encounter various other rabbit society structures before arriving at their destination. It is a work of great imagination, which creates a unique mythology for the rabbits, along with their own language and even folklore.

Other children’s authors who stand the test of time are Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne and Kenneth Grahame. Their worlds and characters are world famous and rightly so. We can now add more modern authors to this list, with Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling being ever popular amongst both children and their elders.

The Greats of Speculative Fiction

Finally, I want to mention a few of the great authors that write my most preferred genre: Speculative Fiction. The earliest of these is Mary Shelley, who almost single-handedly created the genre of Science Fiction with her novel, Frankenstein. However, there are other innovators, such as Bram Stoker, who changed the novel into a much more recognizably modern form. As well as Jules Verne, who I have already mentioned, there is also H.G. Wells, whose work is much darker and less optimistic in tone. Although Wells’ visions are terrifying and disturbing, they also speak to the triumph of the human spirit.

More recent authors have expanded upon these early works and taken us into much darker worlds, like those of George Orwell. They have also sought to understand the human condition within a political context, as we see in Frank Herbert’s Dune series. They have even shown us how totally absurd the universe might be, and how we humans are ‘mostly harmless’, as in Douglas Adams’ gloriously crazy Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Of course, no list of classic novels would be complete without the father of modern fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien. It was no surprise to me that The Lord of the Rings was voted the nation’s best-loved novel in the BBC’s Big Read ten years ago. This is a work that speaks to the perennial wonder that many of us feel about the natural world, and the need to be part of something older and grander than the world we can see around us. It is not an easy book to read, especially if you like your fiction fast-paced and concise, but it is so bursting with imagination and love of the land that it will always be at the top of my list of both favorites and books that I would encourage everyone to attempt. Yes, it is very light on female protagonists, but it comes from a young man’s experiences of total war and the terrible grief and despair of losing almost all his friends in the trenches. He himself would most likely have been killed as well if had not been invalided home due to repeated bouts of trench foot. He was part of a generation that fought desperately to protect their country by enduring the most hellish of conditions and the yearning for peace and natural beauty that we see in Frodo and Sam speaks to me on the deepest of levels.  

Not All Classics Are Equal

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about any book is that we all have different, personal reactions to it. There are some Classics that I simply do not 'get': I can appreciate much of their literary value, but I do not love them as so many other people do. Let me give you three examples, all of which are very highly rated in any list of Popular Classics, including the one on Goodreads.

Firstly, there is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I was thoroughly enjoying this novel, even though Jane is a bit of a wet blanket, right up until Mr Rochester's attempted bigamy was exposed and it was revealed that he had his mad wife locked in the attic. I know that many people find him a tragically romantic figure, but at that point he lost all of my respect and sympathy. I had a similar reaction to the characters of Cathy and Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. They are possibly the most horribly toxic pair ever to grace the written page, in my opinion, and I simply cannot understand how any woman would want the abusive bully Heathcliffe to come anywhere near her. Finally, there is The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which I first read at school. Even then, I was totally unsurprised by the savagery of the boys and their descent into a more primitive state of society. Instead if seeing this as a shocking depiction of what might just happen, it all seemed blindingly obvious to me and I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

I know that I am in a minority in my opinions of these three Classics and I am not trying to argue that they do not belong on the list or that you should never read them: I am simply pointing out that not all Classics are enjoyable to every reader. My husband has tried numerous times to attempt James Joyce's Ulysses, which is acknowledged as a modern masterpiece, and yet he has never been able to get past page 20 without falling asleep. So, pick a classic author and give them a try: if you do not like them, there are plenty of others to chose from!


  1. I agree. At first I thought Classics was going to be a rather boring discussion, but the more I read of what people have to say, the more engaged I become.Usually i think of a classic as something that is really old, perhaps difficult and likely boring. But I like the Goodreads definition you quoted. They are books that have stood the test of time.
    Have a great Armchair BEA.

    1. I was genuinely surprised by some of the books on the Goodreads list, but I guess it goes to show that there is still great literature being produced and that it isn't a lost art! :)

  2. I think the word "Classics" causes many of our problems of perception. The word is turgid, intimidating. While Classic literature is often very much not. Hence another good reason to be active in the book blogging community :0)

    1. I know; it is so great to see people like J.K.Rowling being acknowledged among the past greats: literature doesn't have to give you brain ache to be good! :D

  3. My favorite classics are the Russians--Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Pushkin, etc. At the same time, I just can't get Tolstoy. Ever since I read his short story "Family Happiness," I've thought of him as a chauvinistic prick.

    1. I haven't tried any Russian authors so far, but there are several on my rather extensive TBR list! :D

      I always wonder how much difference the various translators effect our perception of authors who write in other languages. I know that the translations of works like The Odyssey are very diverse and almost seem to be based upon different texts, so it is always something that worries me if I struggle with disliking a book in translation.

    2. Translators do make a difference. When buying a book in translation, I tend to go to a bookstore and compare several and then pick the one I like most. Alternately, with e-books you can get a first chapter Kindle sample.

    3. I always give books that I am not certain about a quick check with the Amazon 'Click inside' or the Kindle samples: they have saved me from truly awful reading experiences!

  4. I really need to read more Shakespeare! There are so much of his work that I have not even touched yet!

    1. It can be daunting, but well worth it, especially if you can get a filmed version to watch at the same time so that you get a better idea of what's going on.


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