Each year, in both adult and children’s fiction, tens of thousands of new books come out, and to keep up would tax the powers of even the most voracious reader. So why should we bother with the classics, books that first saw the light of day decades or even centuries ago?
My own answer to that question goes back into my childhood. Our house was full of books, many of them classics beloved of my French parents—books by authors like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, the Countess de Segur and others. We children didn’t think of them as ‘classics’; the ones that we loved (not all of them, of course) we just thought of as great stories. As well, thanks to our great local public library, I discovered many fabulous English-language children’s classics that my parents, having grown up in France, didn’t know: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Railway Children and Black Beauty; The Princess and the Goblin, Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Winnie the Pooh, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, The Wizard of Oz and the Narnia books, The Silver Skates and The Silver Sword, Little Women and What Katy Did at School, Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables. And many, many more!
Later, in high school, thanks to wonderful, dedicated English teachers, I discovered lots of other classic books, novels and poetry: works by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, William Blake, WB Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Charlotte Bronte—if Verne’s Michel Strogoff was my favourite childhood classic, Jane Eyre was my teenage favourite– and the great Russian writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol. As I was growing up in Australia, Australian classics too—I loved the works of Martin Boyd, Kenneth Slessor and Miles Franklin, for example. And also what are known as modern classics, many with a political/social tinge: George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, Harper Lee …as well as, by way of contrast, classic fantasy fiction: Lord of the Rings, Dracula, Frankenstein.
But it wasn’t just classics written by a single author that fed my childhood and adolescent reading: for retold fairytales and legends, Greek and Celtic myth, Norse sagas and medieval Arthurian epics, ran like glowing golden threads from many centuries past into the weave of my own imagination.
So what did reading all those classics do for me?
First, I think that as a young person, reading them not only expanded and enriched my vocabulary and my references but also my understanding of other times, other places, other people. And they were also helping me along the way to becoming a writer by furnishing my imagination with rich settings, characters, ideas and notions of how to construct a great story.
For that vast treasure-house of image and character and style and theme that I’d accumulated over those years of reading has been dipped into time and time again for my own writing as an adult, and many of my books have been inspired by fairy tale, myth, and classic fiction—a never-ending, and always-relevant, source of great riches.
Over to you: Do you think classics are still relevant? What are your favorite classic reads, both from childhood and now? What works have inspired your own fiction?