Chris Rushby: How do you define a classic? 


One of the perennial questions booksellers love to wrestle with is - how to define ‘classic’ titles and where to display them so customers know what’s going on, says Jarrold book buyer Chris Rushby.  

When does a book, or its author, qualify as a classic? That's something booksellers are capable of debating endlessly, so please be wary of asking the question unless you’re willing to be drawn into the discussion. Oh alright then, since you've asked, let's give it some serious thought...

All those popular Victorian writers are classics, aren't they - Jane Austen, Dickens, the Brontes and the like? Yes, we can probably all agree on those. And you don't have to be British, of course: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes and many other authors from around the world are in the club too. Moving into the twentieth century there are still plenty of pretty uncontroversial inductees: E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford and Henry James all sound plausible candidates, don't they? By the time we get to the middle of the century, though, it's beginning to seem a bit less straightforward. Is Graham Greene a classic? What about Iris Murdoch? Or Kingsley (and Martin) Amis? Salman Rushdie? Ali Smith? Catherine Cookson? Jeffrey Archer? Somewhere along that list of names you probably arrived at one or more where the term 'classic' perhaps seems a little premature, or even just plain inappropriate. It could be you don't think some of these people ought to be classics because they're still alive, or simply because you don't think their writing's good enough.

Then there are modern classics. Publishers are very fond of the ‘modern classic’ terminology. It allows them to repackage books by authors likely to have been writing in the twentieth, or even twenty-first century, probably in some kind of 'series look' they hope readers will want to collect. It's perfectly possible to find authors like Archer or Colin Dexter (of Inspector Morse fame) in modern classics livery. You may think these authors are brilliant, but it's probably stretching the definition of 'classic' towards breaking point to include both Dexter and Tolstoy in the same list.  

Until now the Classics section in the Jarrold book department has grappled with these issues with more or less the same logic as above: we believe Dickens is a classic, we think Graham Greene probably is too, but we’re pretty sure Colin Dexter isn’t. It means, though, that the customer – who might have a different view to the bookseller or publisher – may struggle to find an author on the shelves where they think that author ought to be. Partly with that in mind we’ve recently decided to try a different approach to the way we display classics, one that almost amounts to a redefinition of the term: from now on we’re going to put all the paperbacks that might conceivably be defined as classics into their ‘parent’ stock sections. So if you want Archer or Zola in paperback, you'll now find them in the appropriate places (A and Z, needless to say!) on the Fiction shelves.

What remain on the Classics shelves are the 'gift' editions of classic books: mostly hardback, usually with high production values, perhaps cloth or leather-bound - the kind of beautiful books you'd be more likely to buy as a present for someone else than to read yourself. We find people often look specifically for these lovely versions of classics and appreciate having them in one place to choose from. This approach isn't perfect: if what you want is to compare several different versions of Pride & Prejudice you’ll need to look in two places rather than one. On the other hand, if what you want is to find that special and tasteful gift you’ll probably appreciate it. That’s the basis on which we’ve made the change and we hope you like the approach – but please feel free to tell us whether or not you think this is helpful, or not.

 Finally, here are three books you’ll still find on those Classics shelves, each of them a work of complete genius (I’d assert!) and each available in a fine hardback format that would make the perfect gift for the right person…

Jane Eyre

Charlotte Bronte


We’re proud to stock Folio Society books – one of the very few high street booksellers to do so – and although these beautiful slip-cased editions of classic titles aren’t cheap the production standards are high and they’re hugely desirable books.

Available instore

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa


A bit like the Ancient Mariner, I’m perfectly capable of stopping complete strangers in the street (or at least the Jarrold book department) to tell them why this is one of the greatest novels, definitely one of my top hundred – in fact, let’s make that top ten – novels of all time; a moving, heart-breaking, poetic work of utter genius. Read it and weep. And the clean, sober Everyman edition is a fine thing too.

Available instore     


Les Miserables

Victor Hugo


You’ve (probably) seen the musical, you may have read the book already, but this Penguin edition of the Victor Hugo classic, designed by the award-winning Coralie Bickford-Smith, is part of a lovely series of hardback classics from the most recognisable publishing brand of them all.   

Available instore

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