I am somewhat ashamed to say as a book blogger, avid reader and Library studies student/library staff member that I have not read that many Classics in my 25 years. This is partly because my last few years of high school were pretty traumatic and unconventional (I caught Glandular fever in year nine which made me very ill leading many absences and transferring to an alternative school) so I “missed out” on all the enforced Classical Literature; partly because I have always found something new to read and so have neglected the Classics; and partly because I didn’t enjoy the Classics I was made to read (such as Pride and Prejudice) so was hesitant to seek out other books in the genre.
However, even with my limited experience with Classical Literature I have read a few wonderful books that I think of as classics. The Classics genre is a tricky one to define as it is changing all the time. Books that are widely regarded as Classics today, 100 years ago were comparatively modern and new, and books we now consider Modern Classics will one day be a new generation of Classical Literature. Dictionary.com defines a Classic as “an author or a literary work of the first rank, especially one of demonstrably enduring quality.” This is a pretty fitting definition in my mind, but for the purposes of this list (and the reason why it is Top 10 “Classics”) the Classics will be defined by my own criteria:
- They have to be reasonably old – not necessarily works from the 1800s or early 1900s but at least novels that are older than I am!;
- They have to be works that made an impact on me; and
- They have to be works that have stood the test of time and will be influential for generations to come.
I hope you enjoy my list and feel free to list your own Classic favourites in the comments 🙂
1. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
This is the first book that came to mind when I was compiling this list, because when I read it (at around age 18) It shook me to my core. The Australian version of Big Brother had already been running for a few years and I was curious to see where the idea originally came from so borrowed a battered old copy from a friend of my mum’s. Firstly I was amazed at George Orwell’s vision of the future, writing in 1948 and prophesying what 1984 (a far off future at the time) would be like if the politics and totalitarianism he saw around him was to continue and worsen. The fact that 1984 was two years before I was born but was a futuristic far-off year to Orwell was amazing to my young self and drew me right into the bleak and frightening story. Orwell’s writing is very readable and the plot and character structure is timeless enough to intrigue generations of readers, and especially in this time of reality television, and free-speech being a luxury that Western cultures take for granted it is a Classic that is gaining potency with every passing year.
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I saw the movie adaptation (the 1990 version) well before I read the book because we watched it in my Government and Law class in year 9 and I picked up a second-hand copy of the novel when I was about 19, so I was somewhat prepared for a troubling read, but it was still sickening, distressing and very memorable. I know that this has been required reading in schools for a while and I am in two minds about that. On one hand It is a pretty intense and frightening book for children to read and could be a bit traumatizing (hell, I was traumatized at 19!) but on the other hand it is a cautionary tale for children (especially boys) that illuminated humankind’s primal instincts and how quickly we can revert back to them. Golding’s tale was first published in 1954 and has been a cult favourite ever since, and I think it will continue to have an impact for many years to come.
3. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I found All Quiet on the Western Front at the same school fête as Lord of the Flies and read it the same year, but I had been meaning to read it ever since my mum told me it was a must read (it was required reading when she was in high school). At school we had studied the first and second World War in some form every year since about year 4 or 5 and in year 9 English we read excerpts of different novels that explored war, but I had never read a wartime novel with the unique point of view that All Quiet on the Western Front has. It broke my heart to read the day-to-day trials of the young soldiers – boys who were my age or younger living through a time that could cripple the bodies and minds of men many years their senior. I think it is a novel that should be read by teens of this generation and ones to come because as we move further away from the time of WWI, it’s tragedies and horrors could be forgotten by people too young to even fathom that far in the past and knowing what boys just like them once went through would cast a light of perspective on the privilege they now have.
4. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
This one wouldn’t be a surprise at all to regular readers as I have flown my Alice fan-flag high many a time 🙂 From the first time I read Alice in Wonderland (around 7 years old I think) I have been enraptured by the crazy, bizarre and awesome world of Wonderland and all the unique and quirky characters that dwell there. Lewis Carroll wrote his masterpiece of absurdist Children’s Literature way back in 1865, followed by Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871, and after almost 150 years the story he created is still being recreated and beloved the world over. I know I will always be an Alice fan and I always like to see how it is being reimagined and how it has affected modern literature and cinema. Long live Alice! 😀
5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
As I’ve stated before The Wind in the Willows is the first chapter book I remember being read as a child and I still have fond memories of snuggling up while mum read me the antics of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad of Toadhall. Kenneth Grahame wrote the classic children’s story in 1908, and the characters were so beloved that they were revisited by William Horwood when he wrote a series of sequels from 1993 to 1998 (The Willows in Winter; Toad Triumphant; The Willows and Beyond; and The Willows at Christmas) as well as a spin-off Willows in Winter series. Even ‘tho the book is set in the early 20th Century, complete with well-dressed gentlemen (albeit gentlemen that are actually woodland creatures) steamboats and early motor cars, its appeal is timeless and I hope that children will continue to treasure it for centuries.
6. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
I was lucky enough to be given a huge volume of Children’s Classics when I was very young, contained Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Oliver Twist, otherwise I may never have read this great, if quite bleak little tale by Charles Dickens. The first time I remember reading it all the way through, I was 10 and at a Christmas family gathering down south. I had been a fan of the musical Oliver! a couple of years already and was quite eager to read the original story (even if it was devoid of songs and dance numbers!). While the story was a bit heavier and more depressing than the musical (surprise, surprise) I loved how it showed the dark underbelly of London in the early 19th Century which I knew little about at that age. Oliver Twist was originally published under the title Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress in 1838 and was Dickens second novel (following The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club aka The Pickwick Papers).
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
In hindsight I was probably too young to read this book when I did (around age 12 I think), and I was also probably too young to watch the movie adaptation which led me to the book in the first place, but in my Nana’s defence (as she borrowed the video from the library or video store while I was visiting) the film looked like a harmless children’s cartoon and not a retelling of Orwell’s tale of fascism in a farmyard. Even ‘tho seeing the movie and reading the book at a tender age may have been a tad inappropriate at the time, I don’t regret it because it led me to a great Classic. Written a few years before Nineteen Eighty-Four (in 1945) Animal Farm explores a similar theme – totalitarianism – but was specifically a satire on the dangers of Stalinism with common farm animals overthrowing the farmer and creating their own societal structure. While I wouldn’t recommend the book or movie to kids, as images of happy little pigs revolting against people and then lording over the other animals may be a bit upsetting, but once they reach an appropriate age I think it is a great way to explain other forms of government that make democracy seem like a walk in the park!
8. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
This is one of the few books (or play really in this case) on this list which actually was required reading when I was in high school. We had to read in for English Literature in year 12 and I was actually pretty pleased because we also got to watch the musical based on the play, My Fair Lady which I have loved since I was a child. It was great to read the story as it originally was meant to be enjoyed when George Bernard Shaw wrote it in 1913 (as a humorous drama) and I would urge any fans of My Fair Lady to find a copy, and if you’re dramatically inclined read it aloud with some friends 🙂
9. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
I have discussed this fantastic book before in Top 10 lists, and at first I wasn’t certain whether to include it or not as I wasn’t sure if it was a true Classic. Written in 1966 this is the newest book on the list, but even if it hasn’t been beloved for 100 plus years It fits my criteria in that it is older than I am; made a big impact on me; and is timeless. While Flowers for Algernon is not as widely read as most of the other books on this list, it should be as it is a touching and unique story with an evocative writing style. This is the other book which was required reading while I was at school, but unlike Pygmalion it was read to us (us being all senior students, from year 8 or 9 to year 12). This detracted from the impact of the book a little as we couldn’t see how the writing style, spelling and grammar evolved throughout, but I was able to appreciate this technique when I read it a second time a few years ago.
10. Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling
Many years ago my Poppy lent me a beautiful leather-bound first pocket edition of this collection of stories published in 1910, along with an old book of Victorian poetry because I had shown interest in the two little books out of his collection of fat novels. I had never read Kipling before and instantly fell in love with his funny little fantasy tales and witty narrative voice. I loved it so much that Poppy let me keep it, saying that he was going to leave most of his old books to me anyway. While some of Kipling’s works are much more famous (The Jungle Book; Kim; Just So Stories) this was my first pass into the world of Kipling and so will always have a place in my heart 🙂