Recently we have seen the rise of a number of books that have been rediscovered and gone on to become bestsellers. Stoner is probably the most well known example, going from respected obscurity into high street charts when Ian McEwan mentioned it in a radio interview.
But what of other books that have shared a similar fate but are now considered to be must reads? Or what of more recent books that are destined to become future classics? Rob takes a look at two well-known classics that you’ll be surprised to hear were originally published to a muted reception, while Kate picks out two books she believes will be talked about for years to come.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Reading Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness for the first time is an unsettling experience as it leads you into the shadowy jungles of Africa. Marlow narrates a journey up the Congo River, into the Congo itself in search for the elusive character Kurtz. Framing this is Marlow, telling his story back aboard a boat amongst the Thames, allowing Conrad to cleverly compare London and Africa, and draw important parallels between the two.
Today Heart of Darkness remains a captivating and unsettling read so it is hard to understood how it was originally looked over back when first serialised and then published in full in 1902. Published in a collection alongside two other stories, ”
Youth” and “The End of the Tether”, Heart of Darkness received little critical praise at the time. It was never a commercial success within Conrad’s lifetime and it is said that even he did not consider it to be amongst his best works.
Perhaps the story’s ambiguous nature left some readers cold, but today it remains a popular read and is a staple of many English literature courses. Despite its length, it can be read a number of ways, guaranteeing argument and debate with its critical look at the effects of colonialism.
It also still stands along side it’s popular film adaptation Apocalypse Now, featuring Marlon Brando as the Kurtz character and Martin Sheen in the adapted role of Marlow.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Another book that has been adapted to film, most recently Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic version of The Great Gatsby has brought the book to the forefront of the public’s awareness. Prior to this, Gatsby has been filmed six times for the big screen.
Yet it’s popularity wasn’t like this at the time of publication. Sales were poor of Fitzgerald’s novel and it received by critics with largely mixed reviews. One described it as “a bewildering and tawdry performance” with The New York Times describing it as “a curious book, a mystical, glamourous story of today.”
Exploring the themes of obsession, extravagance and excess, what seems to be an examination of the Roaring Twenties still remains relevant today decades and generations later. It can be read as Fitzgerald’s criticism of the promises offered up by the American Dream.
I only read The Great Gatsby in the build-up to the most recent film release but was taken aback by how vivid and bright, yet dark and foreboding this 1925 novel seems. Like Nick Caraway our narrator, we are drawn into Gatsby’s world, seeing past his wealth and decadence before seeing that obsession and desire can corrupt us all no matter who we are.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Published to a relatively quiet reception in 2012, The Snow Child grew in popularity when published in paperback, with word of mouth recommendation helping to spread the word. I loved this when I read it; it immediately struck a chord, for a number of reasons. Ivey’s choice of location appealed to my enjoyment of narratives set in the wide open skies of North America, and I loved th combination of real and folk tales, everyday prosaic scenes collide with sights of extraordinary beauty, conjured up with the most exquisite use of language.
Based on a Russian folk tale, most famously told in English by Arthur Ransome, The Snow Child is set in the vast Alaskan wilderness, as homesteaders Jack and Mabel struggle to come to terms with the loss of their baby and the realities of life in the teeth of untamed nature on the frontier, in the 1920s. a moving, perceptive study of grief and parenthood, Ivey creates a world in which grit and sweat rub alongside magic and wild spirits – is the little girl who appears with the snow an orphan or something more special?
Just like a snowflake, love, contentment and a happy family are tantalizing promise just out of reach in this novel, which moved me without being in the least saccharine or sentimental. I cant recommend this book enough, and I feel that its timeless quality will mean that it will continue to be relevant for a long time to come.
Trouble by Non Pratt
It might seem unlikely to choose a young adult book as something that I think will become a classic, but given the reverence shown to Judy Blume, I find it hard to see how Trouble by Non Pratt will fail to be lauded in the same way. Nominated for The Bookseller’s inaugural YA Book Prize, trouble has Been big news in the teen book world but I think news deserves to spread further than that, and I also think this is a book that future generations of teens will turn to.
As someone who has firsthand experience teaching young teens about safe sex and consent in my previous career, I was hugely impressed by the honest and unglamorous portrayal of teenage sexuality and sexual exploration in this book – the confusion, the hormones, the expectations, the awkwardness – as well as enjoying it immensely as a reader. Trouble is, by turns, sweet, kind, sad, embarrassing, horrifying, downright cringe-worthy and laugh-out-loud funny, as we’re taken on an emotional roller coaster ride with sixteen-year-old Hannah, newly and accidently pregnant, and Aaron who choses to support Hannah by saying the baby is his.
In Hannah and Aaron, their friends, siblings and parents, Pratt presents us with a cast of characters with whom it’s a challenge not to sympathise and identify. There is very little here that will date, and so much that will resonate as future teens and their parents – experience similar dilemmas, or at least want to read them.
Rob Chilver and Kate Neilan are Colchester-based bloggers and podcasters at AdventuresWithWords.com. They blog and talk mainly about books, but also love comics, film, TV, theatre and music.
Rob is a bookseller and Social Media assistant for Waterstones, working on a number of mediums from blogging to Twitter and Instagram. He can be found on Twitter and on Instagram: @robchilver
Kate is a former secondary school teacher, who reads like her life depends on it, as long as she’s awake enough. She’ll read almost anything, but loves cold crime, good quality sci-fi and fantasy and young adult fiction. She studied English Lit at Duham, where she wrote her dissertation on the changing portrayal of girls and women in Children’s Fiction. @
They can both be found @wordadventures