Classics lost and found: Authors pick the modern classic they would like to revive

As novels of the past return as bestsellers, great old books please keen new readers.

According to the poet Ezra Pound, literature is the news that stays news. This spring and summer have seen that old saw cut deep. First Penguin Classics found that the paperback edition of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada not only flew off the shelves but inspired TV discussions on the moral challenge of resistance to the Nazis. Here was a German novel of 1947 that (in a riveting new translation by Michael Hofmann) proved able to press the hottest buttons.

Then Arrow re-released To Kill a Mockingbird to mark a half-century since its original publication in 1960. For the past month, Harper Lee's 1930s Alabama saga of small-town racism and the righteous man who stands tall against it has occupied high places in the charts. In fact, Lee's only novel has just achieved a level of UK sales success that it never approached the first time around.

Both books may be special cases – and both hint at a widespread hunger for intelligent fiction that asks its readers to imagine the costs, and the risks, of personal courage and ethical responsibility. But their capacity to outperform new novels that arrive quivering with hype tells a wider story about one of the more cheering trends in publishing now.

Classic fiction, especially of the 20th century, has never done brisker business. Penguin, for so long the market leader in the rebranding of fine old books as smart fresh reads, constantly re-invents its august backlists. Most recently, the "Penguin Decades" have repackaged postwar landmark novels – by Kingsley Amis or Margaret Drabble, David Lodge or Susan Hill – with a look that fits each book to the temper of its times. Beyond the Anglosphere, Penguin's Central European Classics list takes its readers on a journey through the region's modern history and culture in the company of its defining voices, such as EM Cioran, Karel Capek and Czeslaw Milosz. Outside the Penguin empire, Vintage Classics has found new ways to re-display the treasures deep in the cellars of assorted Random House backlists.

The Oxford World's Classics stable also benefits from periodic makeovers, last year scoring a coup with its outstanding new translations of Kafka. Perhaps most encouraging, however, has been the mini-boom in independent classics imprints.

Pushkin Press has won admirers with elegantly crafted editions of European writers, recruiting a new British readership for the work of Stefan Zweig. Oneworld Classics, an offshoot of the enterprising Alma Books, has extended its 20th-century range thanks to the acquisition of John Calder's classics list, with its avant-garde giants such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet and Pirandello. Relative newcomer Capuchin Classics has a quirkily intriguing catalogue of modern gems, from Norman Douglas in the 1920s to Michael Bracewell in the 1990s. London Books, a specialist in the capital's radical fiction, has re-issued John Sommerfield's metropolitan panorama of the 1930s, May Day. And Persephone Books still delights a faithful readership with rediscovered work by mid-century women writers, from Winifred Holtby to Irène Némirovsky.

Such outfits know that they can spread the word over fertile ground. Wary of corporate spin, today's book clubs, bloggers and stubbornly independent readers love to come across an unearthed jewel from the past rather than submit meekly to the Next Big Thing. More power to the awkward squad's collective elbow.

To celebrate the second lives of titles from the past, we asked writers to nominate a work from the first six decades of this century (1900-1960) that they would like to see in the bestseller limelight again. Here are their selections: some still on active service, some merely sleeping, a few quite lost from view. So enjoy a summer of the old and gold.

Bernardine Evaristo

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

She was the most prolific African-American novelist from the 1920s to the 1950s. Born in the Deep South, she worked as a maid and took evening classes for ten years in order to get to university. In her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Janie Woods marries twice before finding love with an itinerant labourer, Tea Cake. Beautifully imagistic and drenched in Southern vernacular, it is about an independent woman ahead of her time who, like the author herself, forges her own path.

Susan Hill

The Masters by CP Snow

The Masters holds up so well. I wish it could find a new readership. No one else ever quite got the male worlds of colleges, work, money-making and politics. Snow would have found Mandelson P a wonderful model for some character.

Nicholas Royle

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe

In 2001, Harvill Press launched the London Fiction Series to bring lost masterpieces back into print. Four titles appeared before Harvill was swallowed up by Random House. The next tranche would have included the 1937 novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor. This excellent avant-garde crime novel is narrated by film editor Cameron McCabe, also credited as the book's author. McCabe, whose real name was Ernst Julius Bornemann, left Germany for Britain in the 1930s. He wrote in English, his style varying between stripped-down and lyrical.

John Williams

From The City, From The Plough by Alexander Baron

An autobiographically-based, soldier's-eye view of the Normandy landings, this is an unforgettably powerful and profoundly compassionate account of the horror of the war, and the ordinary heroism of the men who fought it. From The City, From The Plough (Black Spring Press) was a huge popular success in 1949 but was later forgotten, perhaps because its author, an East End Jew and sometime communist, never had much to do with the literary establishment. Baron went on to write a string of fine London novels, but this is the place to start.

Clive Sinclair

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider

You've probably never heard of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956; University of Nevada Press), or its author either. But I suspect you're more familiar with both than you know. Especially if you've seen Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, which is Neider's novel renamed. Among the scriptwriters Brando employed was Sam Peckinpah, who picked Neider's brains, knowing that Hendry Jones was Billy the Kid in mufti. His version of Billy's brief life is hailed as his masterpiece. But Neider's book is better, better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, expect Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Not a far-fetched comparison when you consider that Neider - though American-raised - was Odessa-born.

Paul Bailey

Collected Stories by Isaac Babel

As a young journalist in his native Odessa, Isaac Babel was told by an editor that he "must know everything", and knowing everything might be his credo as an artist. My copy of his Collected Stories came out in 1957, which is when I bought it. I have lived with it ever since. Babel was a Jew who fought in the Cossack army, a fact that should alert anyone to the ironies and contradictions of his short life. He writes simply, but he is not a simple writer. Like his hero Maupassant, he captures life's messiness in a few telling sentences. I love his craftiness, his wiliness, his moments of purest farce and tragedy.

Carol Birch

Now In November by Josephine Johnson

Now in November, the story of a dirt-poor farming family in the Midwest during the Great Depression, is a forgotten classic. Beautifully written, full of subtle characterisations, this remarkably mature novel (Johnson was 24 when she wrote it) deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. Exploring the complex emotional interplay between the three Haldmarne sisters and their parents against a gloriously evoked backdrop of changing seasons and growing poverty, it brilliantly captures adolescent intensity and the uncertainty of "a world all wrong".

Aamer Hussein

Selected Stories by Lu Xun

I was 31 when I discovered, on a public library shelf, Lu Xun's Selected Stories, beautifully translated by Gladys and Xianyi Yang. Clear, beautifully structured, unpretentiously poetic, these stories include intimate portraits of abandoned widows and disillusioned intellectuals, visits to the village opera or a childhood home, and a stark and moving account of lost love. Lu's complete fiction is now a Penguin Classic, The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China.

Amit Chaudhuri

Party Going by Henry Green

What is it about Henry Green? Highly regarded in his lifetime, he was forgotten in the country he lived in and wrote about, England, and outside. Nothing – not John Updike's championing, or James Wood's – has helped. I first read Green's Party Going – an account of a single night spent in a hotel after all trains have been cancelled due to fog – in an omnibus edition with an introduction by Updike. I was struck by Party Going's strange title, idiosyncratic syntax, radical originality, and its rapturous – and subversive – attention to beauty. He is the great English novelist after Lawrence.

Aravind Adiga

Harmonium by Wallace Stevens

Any good novel has a fighting chance of being rescued from obscurity by a film project or a cult revival. Things are more grim for poets, even the great ones. Some of the pieces in Wallace Stevens's 1923 collection, Harmonium, are well known -"The Emperor of Ice Cream," "Peter Quince at the Clavier" - but the book deserves to be read as a whole. Fifteen years ago, I found one of its poems, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," pasted on the wall of a New York train, and it reawoke my interest in poetry.

Stevie Davies

Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim

Von Arnim is generally remembered, if at all, for her sentimental Elizabeth and her German Garden. But Vera (1921) is her masterpiece. A black and caustic comedy, it unforgettably anatomises and subverts the clichés of married love. At its centre stands the possessive, infantile and murderous Everard Wemyss, controlling his young wife Lucy. Laugh-aloud funny, Vera keeps its reader aghast and fearfully enthralled: "You can talk about everything to your Everard... He is you."

Maggie Gee

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

I meant to go for neglected masterworks by women. But did I really want to opt for Jean Rhys's smoke-blue, boozy elegies to victimhood? Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper suddenly seemed arch. Maybe Christina Stead's searing The Man Who Loved Children? Or that brilliant portrait of political corruption, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men? I opted, finally, for the shorter of Nabokov's two great defences of the free individual against the state, Invitation to a Beheading (1935), older sibling of Bend Sinister (1947). Beautiful and weightless as a dream, it speaks up for pity and courage.

DJ Taylor

The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor

My great lost book is FM Mayor's The Rector's Daughter, first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1924, and one of those dazzling unrequited love-stories that exist largely in the subjunctive. In a novel of white-hot passion, the buttoned-up spinster Mary Jocelyn and her married admirer exchange only a single, illicit kiss: everything else is communicated by the fleeting glimpse and the pregnant silence. He goes back to his wife, and she dies of influenza, leaving only a relationship that might have been, set down with extraordinary delicacy and tact.

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin