Choose good classic books to read

Every July, my book club meets to choose the books for the following year. We make categories – biography, fiction, non-fiction, women’s issues, religion. Two of the toughest categories seem to be Mystery and Classics. In the classics we did most of the best known – “Jane Eyre”, an Edith Wharton, “The Good Earth”. Any other suggestions?

A comforting aspect of reading classics for a book club is that even if everyone thinks the book is a moldy old relic, you can still have a stimulating discussion about why it’s considered a classic.

There is no agreement on what makes a classic. TS Eliot has argued that the closest synonym of classic is “maturity” – of mind, manners and language. Yet proving how difficult it can be to identify current popular books as future classics, one critic snorted in 1895: “Is it imaginable that Charles Dickens, if his work were to live for centuries, could ever be considered like an English classic?

In many ways, trading classics is a feedback loop. Once academia and Penguin Classics Library, Modern Library, or Oxford World’s Classics have labeled a book a classic, what would it take for the book to lose that designation?

Penguin publishes over 1,000 classics and reports the top 100 best-selling titles. It’s fun to play in this list because, for example, number 54, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey, is just one step below “Crime and Punishment.” by Dostoyevsky.

While researching other classics, I found the list of the 100 best novels published in English since 1900 by the Modern Library. It’s actually two lists, one chosen by the publisher’s editorial board and the other by a survey of readers. That makes an interesting comparison—No. 1 on the official list is “Ulysses” by James Joyce; Number 1 on the readers list is Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” and L. Ron Hubbard apparently wrote three of the 10 best novels of the 20th century.

Several years ago, a British newspaper, the Guardian, published a list of the 100 best novels of all time voted on by 100 writers around the world. “Don Quixote” was named the best book; the other books were unclassified. This is a more international list and includes a very wide range of books, from ‘Pippi Longstocking’ to the Book of Job.

A few classics that I have read over the past few years and that I really liked are “New Grub Street” by George Gissing, “Father and Son” by Edmund Gosse, “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford and “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy.

Write to
Cynthia Crossen at Cynthia.Crossen@wsj.com

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About Marcia G. Hussain

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