Anyone else feeling overwhelmed by the block-busting, best-selling world of culture? Whether it’s a new edge-of-the-seat Netflix series, the latest must-see movie or a just-released have-to-read hardback, there’s almost too much to keep up with.
Don’t get us wrong; being ahead of the curve is great. And we’re as keen as anyone to devour the latest best-seller, or binge-watch that series that everyone’s about to talk about. But, occasionally, it’s worth sparing a thought for the old favourites. Because classics are classics for a reason; they’ve earned their place in the cultural hall of fame — and sometimes it pays to revisit either a book you once loved, or a novel you’ve always wanted to read.
And by classics, we don’t mean Dostoyevsky or Dickens (though, by all means, do have a stab at Crime and Punishment if you’re feeling bold). We mean books you read as a teenager and couldn’t put down, and have since remembered fondly as your favourite book of all time. We mean that book that your friend has always declared is his favourite book of all time, but you’ve never quite found the time to read. Take a look below for our recommendations…
The Talented Mr Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith
If you haven’t read it, we can guarantee you will have heard of it; if for no other reason than the film adaptation starring Matt Damon and Jude Law. But the book came first, and so it’s time to dust off that copy that’s been sitting on your bookshelf all these years, and finally get started.
The plot can be succinctly summed up as a psychological thriller, but the book offers more than edge-of-the-seat reading (though you will certainly find yourself so far on the edge of your armchair that you’ll be in danger of falling off). Style and decadence abound in this 1950s novel: just as the eponymous Tom Ripley is in danger of falling into serious financial trouble, he’s offered a glamourous (free) trip to Europe, courtesy of the suave, charismatic Dickie Greenleaf. But Tom takes to the luxury lifestyle a little too well…well enough that he’s prepared to kill for it.
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby
From the glamour of 1950s Italy to the reality of 1980s North London: this book is the side-splittingly funny (and heartbreakingly moving) book you never knew you needed. Hornby is famous for being an unremitting master of the written word, and his 1995 novel perfectly captures his sharp wit and nuanced societal observations.
Rob is stuck in a rut: his girlfriend has broken up with him and moved out of their shared flat, and he’s facing a growing awareness that his job running a record shop isn’t really going anywhere. As Rob tries to navigate life’s pitfalls, he starts to ask himself some major questions about love, relationships and life in general: questions that the reader, too, will find himself pressed to answer. A deep dive into love and the importance that music can play in our lives, this book proffers some vital questions whilst also being a laugh a minute.
The Stranger, by Harlan Coben
Some may argue that a book published in 2016 is too recent to be termed a “modern classic”. We’d disagree: this book has been the talk of the town since its first publication day — not least due to last year’s Netflix adaptation — and we strongly suspect it will continue to get tongues wagging for many years to come. It’s another psychological thriller, and it’s so eerie you’ll hesitate to read it on your own at night.
The eponymous Stranger appears as if from nowhere, at every conceivable twist and turn. With no conceivable motive, he makes a beeline for a particular unsuspecting individual, whispers some world-shattering information into their ear, and then disappears without trace: leaving said poor individual to pick up whatever pieces they can of a life that, thanks to the Stranger, has now changed beyond recognition.
Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
We’re guessing you saw this one coming? Well, you won’t be disappointed; there’s no way we’d leave this one off a list of modern classics. The book delves deep into the decadence of a bygone era, and it’s rife with the nostalgia that comes from reading about the faded glory of the English aristocracy in the years leading up to the Second World War.
When Charles Ryder meets the enigmatic Sebastian Flyte at Oxford, he’s utterly entranced. And when he’s invited to stay with Sebastian’s family at their country home, he becomes increasingly infatuated with Sebastian, the Flyte family and their way of life. But Charles can never truly be one of them — as he eventually grows to understand. One of the crowning glories of 20th century literature, this book is a modern classic in every sense of the word.
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
If you’re looking for a modern classic to enjoy as you aim to soak up some of that elusive British spring sunshine, this is surely the perfect choice. A thriller, it is not: in trademark Ishiguro style, this is a book to take slowly, and to revel in. Deeply poignant and incredibly moving — and set in the beautifully atmospheric West Country, no less — this is the ultimate bank holiday choice for anyone looking to unwind over the next few weeks.
The novel is told from the perspective of Stevens, who once worked as an unswervingly loyal butler at an English stately home owned by the now deceased Lord Darlington. Stevens decides to take a six-day road trip to the West Country, visiting both the home to which he gave most of his life, and also the enigmatic Miss Kenton, who worked as the housekeeper and with whom he has unshakeable ties. The story is punctuated by Stevens’ recollections of the house at full splendour, and the result is a heartbreakingly moving tale of nostalgia, friendship and unshakeable duty.
The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Hands up who studied this one at school? If you didn’t, then now is the perfect time to finally get round to reading it; and if you did, then we’d certainly recommend a re-read. This book is the epitome of a timeless classic, and its pages are guaranteed to reveal more and more every time you pick it up.
Teenager Holden Caulfield has been expelled from school after school. He feels a visceral revulsion to ‘phonies’ and superficiality in any sense, and traverses New York trying to find meaning in the people and places he finds there. This is a true story of teenage rebellion and alienation, but it is by no means a book exclusively for teenagers. It’s a novel with bottomless depth to it, and deserves to be plumbed again and again.
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
The undisputed Queen of Crime, Christie deserves a place on any list of modern classics. Her novels have been adapted time and again; Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile is soon to arrive on the big screen. But if we were pushed to select Christie’s most iconic novel, it would have to be this chilling, eerie thriller.
The year is 1939, and the setting is Solider Island, just off the coast of Devon. Ten strangers have been invited to stay at the island’s main house by the mysterious Mr and Mrs U.N. Owen; but before too long, each guest is accused of a horrific crime. Before too long, the guests start dying one by one — at the hands of murder, naturally (it’s Christie, after all) — and it becomes apparent there’s no way off the island. If you don’t read it in one sitting, we’ll eat our hats.
Any Human Heart, by William Boyd
Boyd is fast cementing himself as one of Britain’s most renowned literary figures; and that is largely due to his triumphant 2009 novel. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, but we guarantee you’ll race through it — such is the power of Boyd’s storytelling (and he’s a bit of a dab hand with those lyrical descriptors, too).
Logan Mountstuart is at the centre of this phenomenal book — Logan, and his extraordinary life. It’s a life that merges glamour (meeting Hemingway in Paris, working as an art dealer in New York) with terrible tragedy…and everything in between. Told in epistolary form (in other words, written as a series of diary entries), the reader is privy to every thought and action that Logan chooses to jot down on paper. Logan’s far from perfect — some of his actions are despicable — but then he is, as the title would suggest, just human.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
They say books can change the world: and this is proved true by Orwell’s astonishing dystopian novel that continues to reign supreme as one of the greatest pieces of dystopian fiction ever written. It almost feels unnecessary for us to describe the book any further — such is the book’s fame and reach — but it’s such a tour de force that we’ll have to beg your indulgence where this one’s concerned.
Winston Smith lives in a dystopian, totalitarian world, in which his every action (and those of his fellow citizens) is watched by the all-seeing eye of ‘Big Brother’: head of the Party which now governs all. Big Brother demands total obedience and conformity, and Winston has, thus far, obliged; but not for much longer, as he eventually starts to rebel. It’s an astonishing political commentary and a scintillating read — and if you don’t already own a copy, we’d recommend getting your hands on the first one you can find.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of course, we had to end on a high: and which book could achieve that better than Fitzgerald’s hedonistic, decadent masterpiece? Set in the Jazz Age, this world-renowned novel is overflowing with fireworks, mint juleps and glamorous parties as far as the eye can see — but tragedy and destruction lie at its heart.
The novel’s (unreliable) narrator, Nick Carraway, lives next door to the rich and charismatic Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is renowned for the decadence and scale of his fabulous parties, and Nick is intrigued when he eventually gets one of the sought-after invites. But Gatsby has an obsession — namely, with the wealthy, beautiful Daisy Buchanan who lives over the water — and it’s not long before his obsession renders his life (and the lives of everyone around him) unrecognisable.
Originally published on 10th April, we’re fast approaching the anniversary of this seminal book. So what better time to rifle through your bookshelves and pull out that copy you’ve been keeping for just such a special occasion?
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