Wondering what to read to improve your English skills? In the mood for the solitude of an uplifting book? Wishing you could read a new book that you just can’t put down? Well sometimes the best book is a classic.

Any English lit grad (or anyone with a BA) will tell you that they’ve read their fair share of the “classics”. And someone with a love of books will gleefully reel off a list of must read books (classics of course). From Tolkien to the Bronte sisters there are a myriad of internationally recognised prize winning authors that have shaped the face of the English literary genres.

heart fireworks display
Reading the classics will spark your love of reading - unsplash

According to the Oxford Royale Academy there are a number of life changing books that they recommend to read at least once in your life. This list of books includes (but isn’t limited to):

  • 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte
  • 'Middlemarch' by George Elliott
  • 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell
  • 'The Lord of the Rings' by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • 'His Dark Materials' trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte
  • 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
  • 'Far from the Madding Crowd' by Thomas Hardy
  • All of Jane Austen’s novels

The above list of novels to read covers a broad spectrum of fiction books that would be regarded as classics by most scholars. Some of these book recommendations are even included in the British curriculum; however you will be hard pressed to find any of these suggested books on the desk in an FET English classroom in South Africa. And understandably so as we are embracing more contemporary and local authors of books according to the current book list of English set works.

But a lingering question still remains: Who are the people making the decisions about this worldwide classics books list?

What kind of qualifications would deem an individual worthy of making such a momentous decision that will affect every book lover out there? And do these ‘best novels’ book lists ever get a makeover or are we still relying on the opinions of people who have long since departed our literary circles?

We will now investigate if the classics are indeed moving with the times, considering the fact that most of the writers lived in the late 19th to early 20th century, all except Phillip Pullman. This means that of all the recommended books pronounced as staples of English literature, only one novelist had the opportunity to draw any inspiration from the more modern society of today.

There’s merely a small collection of what has been deemed the ‘best fantasy books’ such as Pullman’s trilogy ‘His Dark Materials’. This bestseller takes a fairly modern view on fantastical elements such as mystical and witchy creatures as well as carrying themes of science and philosophy throughout his writings.

Of course another masterful writer who ushered in a new era of writing is none other than the adored Mr J.R.R. Tolkien. He succeeded in sweeping readers into the world of Hobbits and wizards with one of the best fantasy tales of all time ‘Lord of the Rings’, and forever changing the face of fantasy fiction.

Some of the best science fiction and even fantasy thrillers have become a more popular choice in the film and television industry of late.

Could this new wave of popularity be attributed to the accessibility of hi-tech gadgets to the man on the street and the quality of digital programming and special effects that make these stories more gripping and believable? And how does this impact our outlook on classic literature and our idea of what are the best books to read?

How Do We Decide What Literature Is Classic?

Maybe the first mistake is how we interpret the word ‘classic’.

If you were to ask most people for an example of classic literature they would probably suggest a novel written in another century and not any new books.  Perhaps it’s because the very word ‘classic’ carries an antique connotation. But there are a growing number of great books written in this era that seem to be earning the title of ‘classic’.

So, does a classic have to be something that has made many a bookseller successful for centuries or is it simply a matter of thought provoking books that have caused widespread inspiration among readers in their heyday?

pile of old books
For a book to be classic, does it have to be ancient? - unsplash

According to the dictionary , classic means ‘something that has been considered to be excellent for a long time’.

The question is: how long is long enough? As we all know, when it comes to the Arts there’s never really a black and white answer. With that said, another definition states classic also means ‘... to say that something has come to be considered one of the best of its kind’. Does this mean that time isn’t such an important deciding factor about which books qualify as the best fiction?

A couple of years ago The Guardian had the same questions and delved into the topic of literary classics and what it takes to find new books to add to the list. It appeared that classics tend to be old, but this was because they were good books that remained popular over a long period of time, sometimes spanning centuries. However this did not mean that all old bestsellers should be regarded as classics.

It was found that when it comes to books for children it is equally about quality as well as popularity, which is important because by nature children’s literature tends to be read over and over again.

What kind of fiction book would you consider to be a classic? Would it be a set work novel from your high school days, your favourite children’s book or one of those best selling books you recently read and you’re going to recommend this book to everyone because it’s “Such a good book!”?

Ultimately, it’s a bit of a sketchy subject riddled with potentially subjective opinion. What really counts is what you believe is the next book to add to your favourite books list.

Quick Guide of More Classics

The Great Gatsby

The Oxford Royale Academy made some excellent choices but The Great Gatsby warrants a place on the list of classic books, a timeless tale full of vibrant scenes and complex characters and is one of the important great American novels to read.

Written in 1925 by the late F. Scott Fitzgerald, The great Gatsby remains an insightful read even today. The novel addresses aspects of society in the twenties however it captures the hearts of today’s readers because of the universal nature of its themes.

The tragic irony is that Fitzgerald died believing he had failed as a writer; The Great Gatsby (which wasn’t his first novel) only gained its fame after his death.

This classic tale has warranted not one but two movie productions. The most recent adaptation by acclaimed film maker Baz Luhrmann illustrates the characters, plot and theme of this evocative story encapsulating the spirit of the roaring twenties that fascinates us to this day. In some ways it could be regarded as an historical novel.

The Plays of Shakespeare

Most literature aficionados will agree that of all his plays, the heartbreaking fates of two “star crossed lovers” in the tragedy of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is Shakespeare’s tried and tested classic. Capturing the heart of the reader with its ardent love scenes and explosive duels, this play has remained iconic from age to age.

Drawing of Shakespeare
Shakespeare stands the test of time - usplash

Following closely is ‘Macbeth’ bursting with austere characters and weighty themes focused on the throne, conspiracies and the results that come with deceit. Its polar opposite ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ tends to drop towards the bottom of the list of favourites despite its whimsical appeal, but remains a treat for those who love reading.

The rest being: ‘King Lear’, ‘Hamlet’, ‘The Tempest’, ‘Richard III’, ‘Othello’, ‘Henry VIII’ and ‘Twelfth Night’. These plays are classified as either classic tragedies or comedies often dealing with the basic themes of good and evil and as such, do the curriculums of both schools and universities the world over.

The prospect of reading all ten plays may seem a little overwhelming if you aren’t an absolute bookworm, but it’s worth at least attempting one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Heralded as one of the greats, Shakespeare’s fascinating characterisation and themes that appear so apt no matter the era are an inspiration and a fulfilling reading challenge.

The Works of Jane Austen

Having published six novels, Jane Austen’s works rose to popularity in the 1800’s and have never disappeared from the bookstores since. Her tongue-in-cheek narratives were quite forward thinking for her time. As a female writer in a male dominant space her success made her a rather phenomenal heroine and her writing resonates with audiences even today.

‘Northanger Abbey’ is different to the rest of Austen’s novels because it has a gothic theme but she kept the vital elements that make her writing so uniquely brilliant: strong characters with clear opinions. If you want to read a good book, this one won’t disappoint.

Jane Austen novel
Pride and Prejudice lives up to its reputation as a good read - unsplash

‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’ remain her most acclaimed novels, both having numerous on screen adaptations that succeeded in appealing to viewers young and old. Her plots filled with romance and social rivalry will always make for entertaining reading.

So if you’re wondering what books you should read, add these to your summer reading list for the next holiday!

What Books Can We Foresee as Future Classics?

The big question now is, are there any books being written in our time that merit a spot on the list of classics?

Some of the contemporary works that have made their mark of unsurpassed popularity in this century have been the young adult 'Twilight’ vampire romance books for teens by Stephanie Meyer, the fantastical Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, who has won many a book award, and the racy ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ adult books by E.L. James all of which hit the big screens.

But are they classics or just very popular choices for now? Does it matter if a book wins a Pulitzer Prize or is it up to the masses? Only time will tell ...

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Kyla