While perusing blogs, surfing the internet and checking out profiles on Critique Circle- my online writing group- I’ve noticed (perhaps arbitrarily) that very few writers mention “old classics” as being influences on their writing, or even books they number among their personal favorites. For sake of discussion, lets call a book an “old classic” if it : 1.-was published more than 50 years ago, or, 2.- quickly became so influential as to make withstanding the test of time a moot point. For example, the works of Ernest Hemingway qualify on the basis of number 1. Harper Lee’s “to Kill a Mockingbird’ qualifies on the basis of number 2. And next year it will qualify via number 1., also. Books by Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum, John LeCarre, most written in the 1960s or later, would fall under category two- assuming you think they are good-to-great books or personal favorites that influenced your reading or writing.
That said, I seem to be one of the few writer-types who lists older classics as favorite books and influences. Some of the best books I’ve read and have been influenced by include the aforementioned works of Hemingway (pretty much all of his stuff, but “The Old Man and the Sea” stands out) and Harper Lee’s masterpiece.
I’m a huge fan of the CS Forester novels about Horatio Hornblower. “Treasure Island” by RL Stevenson will stick in my brain forever. I can’t imagine a more exciting, ‘old-fashioned’ adventure story for boys than that gem. “Battle Cry” by Leon Uris opened the door to the vast and wonderful genre of the WWII novel and all the great story-telling that ensued.
Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” must be considered with the all-time greats of American Literature. As do the works of John Steinbeck- especially ‘The Grapes of Wrath”, “East of Eden”, and “Of Mice and Men”. Don’t forget Jack London. “Call of the Wild” was a revelation for me. I never knew that authors could write about the great outdoors, rugged wilderness, vast frontiers and literally put you up in the Yukon, mushing on the dogsled at minus 30 degrees.
George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” are more timely today than ever. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” were instrumental in my realization that many people often have radically different opinions and philosophies about the world and life, and those opinions may be as equally valid as conventional wisdom.
So my question to you: Have you read any American “Classics’? If so, which ones? How have they influenced your writing, reading, thinking, world view, philosophy of life? Why are they great books? Can they still compete with modern classics for literary worth? Or am I out of touch and today’s crop of vampire novels, gothic romances and fantasy offerings such as “Lord of the Rings” or the Harry Potter series are the new standard by which greatness is measured?