Thursday, 23 October 2008

My ‘Classic’ Fiction List

I have added a list of my favourite / recommended fiction to the right hand column of this blog. Even as I write this posting I realise the list is not complete - where, for example, is "Birdsong"...

I've just been through my postings on this Blog to see which authors I had left out of my 'classic' fiction list down the right hand column. I discovered quite a number and I shall fill in those ommissions as soon as possible. In the meantime I realised that some authors justify their inclusion on the list by virtue of one book alone whilst others do so through the overall quality of their work and cannot therefore be judged on the basis of one book. In the first category, for example, is Stephen Baxter whose work 'Evolution' is a must-read for everyone. In the second is Conn Iggulden whose combined works mean I should have included him whilst I've only read one Cecilia Ahern so she remains a poassible depending upon whether the next book matches up to "A Place Called Here".

Other authors I must definitely include are Jenny Downham, Sebastian Faulks, Frederick Forsyth, Masha Hamilton, Jane Harris, Robert Harris, and Markus Zusak. Possibles include Mitch Albom, Steve Berry, Carol Birch, Sam Bourne, Gerladine Brooks, Michael Byrnes, Raymong Khoury, Diane Schoemperlen and Terri Windling. No doubt I shall be adding to it at regular intervals. In the meantime, this is the preface to the list –


Also known as The Introduction – but if I had given it that heading no one would have read it. Why does no one ever read an introduction?

Lists of “Fiction you should read before...” and lists of “The Top Classics” are available all over the web. Richard’s first assignment at University was an annotated bibliography about The Sun newspaper in the 1980s and 1990s. So I thought to myself why not add my annotated bibliography of books I think everyone should have tried. I’ve done a few similar lists over the years including ones for Bryony and Helen when they were young and I, foolishly perhaps, felt it would be useful to guide them in their reading. (Rich has never been interested in reading fiction – his fiction is all on screen.) I suspect the list now is not as I wrote it on previous occasions and in some cases that is due to my reading having been guided by the girls. I wonder at what stage the roles began to reverse? Any way, here is the list of Scriptor Senex at the age of 59 and a bit...

Students of literature might have to read the occasional novel for the good of their health but in general the purpose of reading fiction is enjoyment. The author may have intended their book to have a social or political message but it was up to them to put it into readable format. If you are not enjoying a book it is not worth finishing it. There are too many books awaiting our attention to worry about the one that got away.

There is a bias in my list towards historical, crime, fantasy, psychological works and novels about society. Although I had a spell of reading science fiction in my late teens and a very brief spell of reading cowboy novels they never had quite the impact of the other genres. Modern romantic comedy made an impact briefly a couple of years ago.

It has also occurred to me that some books I discarded (either completely read or half-read) in years gone by might now appeal a lot more. For example, I read a few Joseph Conrad books as part of my school syllabus. I had to read "Typhoon" and "Youth" and to get a better idea of his writing i also read "Lord Jim" and, I think, a couple of others. I was not impressed. However, glancing at a couple of e-books of his I think I might now rate him quite highly. I must try him again. Similarly, I never got on with Horace Walpole but it occurs to me to try again. I suspect in those days I was more concerned with plot than style and if one works on that basis it's not surprising I wondered "Why the deuce Hamlet the Dane could not find anything better to do than bother himself about his father's ghost!", to quote Marie Corelli. After my recent experiences with George Eliot, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens everything is worth a second go.

How can a man include Tom Holt and leave out Thomas Hardy? That just goes to show how individual a list of favourite classics always is. J K Rowling and Philip Pullman are both flavour of the month at the moment but don't rate highly enough in my eyes to make the lists.

You will notice that a number of ‘standard’ classics are missing from list. Works like Alcott’s “Little Women”, de Cervantes “Don Quixote”. Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver's Travels”. These are among the many classics I read (or partially read) and which did not enthral me or make me feel they simply should be read for the good of one’s soul. I must have tried about four Graham Greene’s before finally giving up on “Brighton Rock”... Nevertheless, they appear on many top 100 lists. There are number of others that I can never recall having picked up and which therefore should at some stage be considered. I have put some of these on the ‘Books to be read’ list.

I’m not really sure at what stage children’s books and adult books merge – the line is always going to be arbitrary. Some children’s books are equally enjoyable when read as an adult, others remain suited to children. I have, however, included half a dozen books that are undoubtedly children’s books – if you didn’t read them as a child, read them now. They may open your eyes to a whole new world of fiction.

My list has 125 books.. There was no design in the number – it is simply what they added up to. One day I’ll do a matching list of Non-Fiction that should be read.

There then follows the list...


  1. I do read introductions: it may relieve me of the task of reading the rest of whatever is being introduced.

    I found the bias you mentioned in para 7 quite at odds with the bias I would have if I were to do such a list. This is something to which I shall give some thought and no doubt talk about at some time.

    It is only a few years since I read or re-read almost the entire Conrad library. I'd recommend another try but given our respective biases....

  2. Ooh, you've put A Kestrel for a Knave on the list. I definately agree it is one of the best novels ever (school games lessons were still the same in 1990's Yorkshire as they are in the book).

    Your eldest daughter would, however, put it pretty close to the top of her list of novels to avoid like the plague!


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