This list may garner me some enemies, and I am definitely disappointing some of my university professors, but I feel compelled to make it nonetheless. For many people, exposure to classic literature starts and ends in high school literature classes. Yet there are some of us who willingly seek them out personally or disappoint our parents by becoming English majors (that is the stereotype, of course—my mother definitely still loves me). You are no doubt familiar with many of these works, or at least their titles, and this is just a small sampling of the wide reaches of that ambiguous term “classic.” So this is simply one literature scholar’s opinion on what classics are pleasant and interesting, and which ones are more applicably defined as “grueling labor.” Let us begin, in no particular order.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I am very fond of Dickens’ work, though this is the only book by him that I have read. It has a great plot, great characters, and the greatest opening line in the history of English literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” etc. Though it has been many years since I have read it, I remember the feeling of awe one has when reading a truly good book whenever I think of it. Definitely one that I will have to go back and explore now that I’m a bit older and (hopefully) understand a few more things about life, death, and love.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This one is a bit of a doozy. The opening is a shock, and the style that it is written in is something to get used to, but it’s a beautiful story about growing to understand and empower yourself. You may have seen the movie with Whoopi Goldberg, which is also excellent, but the book dives deeper into the psychological aspects of a broken woman rising to independence. I love symbolism, and this book is overflowing with them. It’s also quite timely with issues of race and the rights of women, so maybe I’ll go back and give it a read soon.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I love this book. It is one of my favorites, even though it is a brick of a book. Rife with biblical symbols and parallels, I could spend the rest of my life reading it over and over and still not catch everything. The characters are fantastic, the good and the bad, and the plot takes so many turns that you see coming, but that surprise you nonetheless. It may be long, but I can’t say I was ever bored. A classic that I come back to frequently.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In my opinion, any classic American literature list without this book is incomplete. Some people like it for the mystery, some for the political/court room drama, some for the fun and playful innocence of the young protagonists. I like it for all that, plus the social commentary and (of course) symbolism. This is another highly timely book, though it is a bit sad to see that while some blatant racism and segregation has since been abolished, much of those tensions and attitudes still remain. It is also a good reminder to fight against them. It’s worth a reread, maybe a few times.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I debated this one, which may surprise some people and definitely would disappoint my favorite professor (he’s a Fitzgerald scholar). Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic book that I love and have read multiple times. But so often, it is taught horribly and understood minimally. The Great Gatsby is read in high schools primarily as a tool to explain symbols and talk about how the real world informs a fictional story and vice versa. Everyone knows about the green light as ideology and the American Dream as a hoax, but it is so much deeper than that. And don’t get me started on the people that say they want to be like Jay Gatsby, which immediately tells me they either didn’t read the book or read it entirely wrong (this is one of the few instances in which I do believe you can read a book wrong). Nevertheless, it is an American classic, if not the American classic. If you don’t want to read it for the beautiful writing and social commentary, then you’ll at least want to give it a go so you can understand what everyone else is talking about.
…Not so Worthy…
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I really wanted to like this book going into it, both the first time and the second time. It’s by Mary Shelley, the mother of gothic literature and monster stories, why wouldn’t I? The problem is, I have such a preconceived notion of what Frankenstein should be, that the book was so jarringly different. It was too hard to like it after realizing that it was nothing like what I expected. Even though it’s a short novel, more of a novella really, it felt very long because of the writing style and long (boring) descriptions of the English countryside. I couldn’t like Frankenstein for his flaws and mistakes, his lethal hubris that only hurt everyone else. This is not to say it’s without its redeeming qualities, like eloquent writing and originality. I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I should, and was more than happy when I was able to put it down.
Dracula by Bram Stoker. This falls into a lot of the same pitfalls as Frankenstein. These are both classic monsters that are so prevalent in modern media, so larger than life in their horror and legend, that I can’t help but find their source material lacking. This one also runs into the problem that it is significantly longer and seems to veer off in unnecessary directions. I did enjoy this one more than Frankenstein if only that there was more action and the characters were competent, but neither of them have compelling female characters (let alone leads) that do anything except find themselves in precarious situations that the men have to save them from. Sorry, I’m beyond sighing and saying that was a sign of the times. It’s just annoying now. So unless you’re a huge Frankenstein or Dracula fanatic, just go watch a movie or cheesy TV show and save yourself some frustration.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Perhaps I would like this one a bit more if I read it again, but every time I go to open it up, I’m just hit with a wave of boredom and annoyance thinking about it. It’s a long, overly descriptive psychological drama that’s like a “will-they-won’t-they” but for confessing to murder instead of romance. It’s a Russian novel, so I really should forgive its length, but there’s also the fact that everyone has about five different names and you’re just supposed to know who they’re talking about without much context. Do yourself a favor and make a chart for characters, or look one up online. You’ll need it.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. This book makes me uncomfortable. For many reasons. Some of which I can’t even explain, and not for lack of trying. I don’t know if it’s the fact that everyday the world looks a little more like it does in this dystopian novel, or just the random orgies, but I can’t think of this book with anything but uneasiness. I’ll give it the fact that it’s an interesting social commentary and discussion of technology and its growing effects on our lives, but it was difficult for me to get through.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It’s been called the great American novel by many, but I will…politely disagree. It was highly original for its time, but also put Melville in debt because it most definitely was not appreciated during its time. This brick about whaling and that famous white whale is more fondly remembered from childhood TV shows on PBS, but it’s just too long and random. Unless you’re super interested in whaling or need to be able to say you read it, save yourself some time and leave it on the shelf.
These are just my opinions, of course! Everyone deserves the chance to find a book they truly love on any number of subjects, which is why libraries are such wonderful places. I would love to hear what you think. Am I totally wrong about one of them? Is there a favorite/least favorite of yours that I missed? Let me know in the comments!
~~Lindsey, Library Aide