Sunday 11 November 2007

Books that stand the test of time

One of the things I commented on in a recent post on writing was that not all forms of writing have the same longevity. I suggested, "Web-based communication is less permanent (links quickly disappear, websites close down, Blogs 'mutate' into new untrackable forms etc)." Implicit in this comment was my view that some texts will endure due to their quality and significance. It seems that even in the not so weighty area of romance novels that people do tend to favour novels that have been read and loved for generations. Judgments are being made about the quality of language, plot, structure and significance.

A recent survey commissioned by UKTV Drama that reached 2,000 people found that the top 20 choices for a favourite romance novel were all major works of English literature. The top 10 were:

1 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte, 1847
2 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen, 1813
3 Romeo and Juliet - William Shakespeare, 1597
4 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte, 1847
5 Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell, 1936
6 The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje, 1992
7 Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, 1938
8 Doctor Zhivago - Boris Pasternak, 1957
9 Lady Chatterley's Lover - D.H. Lawrence, 1928
10 Far from The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy, 1874

Nevertheless, 175 million Mills and Boon romantic novels are sold each year and more than 800 new titles are released each month. However, while these books might meet a short term market, the key question is, will they have the same longevity as many of the novels that made the top 10 in the UK survey.

When it comes to books that have stood the test of time, it's hard to match the Bible. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy suggests that it is "the most widely known book in the English-speaking world . . . No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible". It has long been accepted that the Bible is the most printed and distributed book in the world. Its dominance is extraordinary. Wikipedia suggests that an estimated 5-6 billion Bibles have been sold. Wikipedia lists Quotations from the Chinese leader Chairman Mao in a distant second at 900 million copies.

In age of increasingly diversified modes of communication, and with demands on our time that make it increasingly difficult to read something even as long as this Blog post, it is to be hoped that significant cultural texts are still read. As a Christian I would argue that the Bible is in a category of its own. God's word is eternal (Psalm 119:89), as the Prophet Isaiah (40:6-8) made clear to the Israelites almost 700 years before Christ. While nations and people might perish, God's word endures:

All men are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers
of the field.

The grass withers
and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD
blows on them.

Surely the people are grass.

The grass withers
and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God
stands forever.


Anonymous said...

Nice work man!
But what makes a novel stand the test of time?
Th bible, Robinson Crusoe/adventure novels always pique curiosity; and (quite obviously) the romantic novel that are and have been such a followed and participated in fad for centuries.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment. The Bible has deep religious significance which ultimately is why it has endured. But it is also a book that represents wonderful language and literature. It has all the qualities of a great book which makes it worth reading even if you don't accept its religious significance. It has wonderful and exciting narratives that engage the reader, richness of language, characterisation and genre and it tells of things that have deep life-changing and eternal significance, that get to the very heart of the human condition. Trevor