Classic books persist in thought and discussion long after their original publication. But what is it about them that makes them last?
Put simply, a classic novel is a book that has stood the test of time because it’s so good; it has a gripping story which is expertly crafted and brilliantly expressed. But of course, it’s not just about the story. Like any good recipe, there are a number of key ingredients that make a book a classic.
For starters, it will have a certain level of complexity and depth, which enables it to transcend the time in which it was written. A classic brilliantly articulates universal themes – like love, morality, death, adversity – and offers revelatory insight and clarity to readers of any era. It always feels fresh.
A classic novel might be subversive in some way that makes it particularly significant or memorable. It very often portrays a particular time and place in an intensely evocative way. So much so that the books themselves - think of works by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen – come to epitomise a particular era and location.
The book may be the first of its kind, impressively inventive, or the most influential example of a particular genre or literary style. Many archetypal characters come from classic fiction, and are developed and reinterpreted still. Conversely it could be one of a kind, and its stunning originality is what endures. In some cases, the ideas and expressions in a novel are so powerful that they become absorbed into our everyday culture.
This is, of course, not an exhaustive list. And not all classics are recognised as such when they first appear. Some books which have all the elements of a classic went virtually unnoticed when they were published or sank into obscurity, probably because the authors’ voices weren't valued. Happily, more and more books are being rediscovered and celebrated as the classics they are, and deserve to be.
Here are eight novels which portray, in different ways, the characteristics of classic fiction.
The one with a gripping plot and universal themes
The subversive one
The one which defines a time and a place
The best Charles Dickens books (for every type of reader)