June 8, 2012
This is simply a list of the classics I have enjoyed and appreciated the most, the ones I return to, the ones I am glad that I read. I’m defining “classic” rather broadly here as a text published more than twenty-five years ago and read widely. Please note: classic plays (like Hamlet, for example) will show up on the “Drama” list, and epic poems (like the Iliad, the Odyssey, & several sacred texts) will show up under “Poetry.” Working to finish those lists by the end of the summer!
What are your all-time favorite classics? Tell me I’m missing, people!
A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
An incredibly moving tale of true heroism set during the French revolution, this novel is my favorite Dickens. All of those people who love Great Expectations? Ugh. I am not one of them.
As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
It’s hard to pick just one Faulkner–he is strange and confusing and wonderful in pretty much everything he does–but this was my first, so I think it “stuck.”
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
Dystopian fiction is all the rage these days, but Huxley set the bar for how to write a chilling, all-too-imaginable future world in this book.
Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton)
Set in Apartheid-era South Africa, a powerful piece that I am excited to be reading this year with my eighth graders.
Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)
Though everyone knows–or thinks they know–the premise of this story, Shelley does something incredible by making her monster sympathetic, and the moral and ethical questions in this book still feel relevant today.
Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
A book about race, the elusive nature of truth, and crafting one’s identity in spite of a hostile world.
Letters to a Young Poet (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Lovely, loving, and wise. Advice that I return to whenever I feel stuck.
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Yes, it’s long. It’s really long. But the length is not wasted–Eliot takes you into the world of a whole host of characters, all of whom are attempting to make sense of their “modern” age, fighting between free will and duty, faith and science. Definitely a commitment to get “into,” but the strong female protagonist Dorothea makes the reading worth it.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)
My mom introduced me to Hardy, and she and I share a love for his sweeping grandeur; I was pleased to discover a few years ago that the novel held as much power for me as an adult as it did when I first read it as a teenager. Tess is a tragic, complicated figure who makes mistakes, and difficult choices.
The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow)
I read this book because a friend cited it as a text that had been influential in his life–I’m so grateful, because I don’t think that I would have picked up this book otherwise, and I wound up loving it. A classic bildungsroman about a young Jewish man coming of age in Chicago during the Great Depression. What I especially love about this novel is that the ending really holds up, unlike many books with promising first halves.
The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison)
Young Pecola Breedlove is one of those characters you never forget; a young black girl whose white society teaches her that she’s ugly. Some of the turns of Toni Morrison’s very fine language have stuck in my mind since I first read the book, and they are always a pleasure to return to.
The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
We were required to read this our senior year of high school, a kind of literary rite of passage, and I remember thinking–”Oh, so this is what they mean about Russian literature!” The novel follows the stories of the Karamazov family, using their disparate personalities and life paths to dive deep into philosophy, theology, and social critique.
The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Widely considered one of the “Great American Novels,” this one is particularly interesting to re-read in the midst of a recession, as its set in climate of economic excess. Fitzgerald is, too, a master of language, and his descriptions are a joy, even when what he’s describing is not.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
If you didn’t go through an Oscar Wilde phase in high school like I did, there’s no reason you can’t do so now! Dorian Gray is a beautiful, selfish, pleasure-seeking young man who remains young and beautiful, while his painted portrait alters to reflect his moral decrepitude.
The Razor’s Edge (Somerset Maugham)
When it’s good, literature addresses our deepest questions and concerns: who are we? What’s our purpose? What is the proper way to live? This book travels the world as its protagonist seeks to answer these questions for himself.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
A classic examination of man’s nature, good and evil, remorse, and free will.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
I have taught this book for the past three years, having read it first as a middle schooler myself, and I find more to love about it each year. There are few characters in American literature more indelible than Atticus, Scout, and Boo Radley. A true masterpiece.
To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
Said to be Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, the stream-of-consciousness style of narration was revolutionary to me when I first read it.
Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackery)
Subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero,” I learned to love the craft and scope of this book as a graduate student, thanks to one Professor Epstein. Though there might not be any characters to straight-out admire, there are plenty of strands of human behavior in which we can all (for better or worse) see ourselves.
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