It is hard to identify what is most valuable about Simon Mason's Rough Guide to Classic Novels. It is, first and foremost, an astonishingly comprehensive guide to the very best in world literature, as ready to celebrate a quirky modern novel as it is to extol the virtues of a masterpiece of the past. It is also an extremely utilitarian resource: if you want to identify and track down one of the great books (which may be familiar to you only by reputation), the chances are good that it will be within these 370-odd pages (though, at times, the highly personal (even eccentric) choice of novels will surprise -- and give pause to -- some readers). But perhaps the greatest value of this compact yet information-packed guide is the absolutely irresistible impulse it stirs in the reader to grab handfuls of the books mentioned and consume them again (or, for that matter, todevour for the first time a celebrated novel that you have been feeling guilty about not reading).
Mason's literary erudition is jawdropping, and the coverage broad (from Tolstoy to Doris Lessing, and from Jane Austen to Raymond Chandler – the book at times overlaps with the same publisher’s Rough Guide to Crime Fiction). Combine all this with the highly accessible (but always apposite) analyses and breakdowns of the books discussed, and it's hard to imagine the enterprise being surpassed.
Of course, the Rough Guide imprint prides itself on its edgy, unstuffy approach, and the subject of classic literary fiction must have presented quite a challenge to Mason and his editor Joe Staines; in a dumbed-down age, the guide is a consummate demonstration that it is possible to celebrate the finest achievements of the human race in the arts and humanities without couching them in forbidding academic language. The sidebars and diversions shoehorned in here (including ‘Sex, Censorship and the Novel’, ‘Outsiders’ and a section on vampire fiction called ‘Literary Bloodsuckers’) give a particular pleasure, as do the pithy and highly opinionated squibs on film and TV adaptations of many of the great books included here.