My 10 favorite literature classics
Let's face it. Some classic novels can be intimidating. However, picking the right ones for you can make reading the often lofty language and ideologies of these masterpieces manageable and accessible! Here are my top 10 favorite literary classics!
We've all been there. You see one of those famous, respected titles bound beautifully in gold embellishments and glimmering title fonts, and the glorious hardcover calls to you, "I need to be on your bookshelf."
So, you buy it, excitedly place it next to your other beloved titles for the world (or yourself when you wake up in the morning) to see, and . . . never touch it again.
Let's face it. Most of us are probably guilty of this. We buy the beautiful book with full intentions of reading it, but for some reason, we just don't. Maybe it's the sheer amount of pages in the book, or perhaps it's the miniscule words printed on the newspaper-thin pages. Or maybe it's the thought of "I'm in the mood for more of a light read today." Whatever the reason may be, that book stays on the shelf collecting dust.
Maybe it's the sheer amount of pages in the book, or perhaps it's the tiny words printed on the newspaper-thin pages. Or maybe it's the thought of "I'm in the mood for more of a light read today."
But it does not have to be this way! Going into the book with the right mindset and determination can turn you into a classical guru! Keep reading for my top 10 classical picks and how they've made me more comfortable in reading those daunting titles!
10. The Odyssey by Homer
That's right -- starting off here with a real classic! Published around 800 B.C., The Odyssey (following its prequel, The Iliad) is an epic poem telling the story of Odysseus, a battle-worn yet inhumanly strong and intelligent man just trying to get home to his wife. He faces numerous challenges, from sirens and lotus-eaters to Calypso the nymph and Polyphemus the cyclops. And, of course, a good old fashioned storm conjured up by Poseidon, because what sea voyage would be complete without an angry sea god?
I'm sure we've all read some version of The Odyssey in school, making this classic familiar to all ages. So, why is this classic so iconic?
I believe it is because Odysseus's story is simply enthralling. It is the perfect intro to classic literature because with the many trials Odysseus must face, every reader is bound to have a favorite segment. This book taught me that classic literature can in fact be fun to read, given the right interest and the right instructor.
9. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Ah, vampires. What is it about them that makes them so dazzling? No, it's not necessarily the sparkle or the undying love. I believe that it's the effect of a dangerous and unnatural drawing in that these creatures are portrayed to have. And here is the monster of monsters, the inspiration of thousands of characters (including one of our favorite Muppets), the OG hailing from Transylvania.
Published in 1897, Dracula set a new tone for horror novels. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein opened many doors for horror and science fiction back in 1818, therefore allowing Dracula to be well received by many nearly 80 years later.
The story of Count Dracula is epistolary, as it is told through letters, newspaper articles, diary entries, and a ship's travel log. This style of writing, I believe, is a large part of what made the story so interesting to me. Of course I wanted to get to know this infamous Count Dracula, but the fresh epistolary style made this classic much more readable.
8. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You got it, old sport! This classic shines on the roaring 1920's, complete with status quo pressures, flapper girls, and a fabulous Rolls Royce. Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby does not shy away from flawed characters or deadly idealistic expectations.
This classic is told through the eyes of a bystander, which makes this storytelling very interesting. Rather than personally being in Jay Gatsby's head, we see his emotions as he reveals them to Nick, the narrator. I believe that this helps us to see Jay Gatsby as how he truly is, a hopeless romantic idealist, rather than seeing everything through rose-colored glasses.
Seeing this type of narrative, while albeit might have made the story a little dry --hence its position on my list--, kept a realistic view on each character of the story. Had it been told been any of the other characters' points of view, the story might have left the reader feeling angry, gloomy, or hopeless. So, appreciating this book for the beauty of the time period, the drama of love triangles, and the complexity of the characters can more easily be done as you focus through Nick.
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
George Orwell has definitely written some iconic books. As the newest title mentioned on this list, Animal Farm was published in 1945 and, my goodness, there is a lot to unpack in this novella! The story follows a group of animals on a farm who wish to overthrow their negligent, drunkard farmer, Mr. Jones. Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, lead a rebellion and establish a new working Animal Farm where all animals are created equal. However, as their rivaling ideologies collide, the books follows the tumultuous subsequent years on the farm.
So, in classic George Orwell style, this novel as a whole allegorically refers to the rise of authoritarianism/communism in Soviet Russia. Orwell does this so masterfully while also providing a bit of comedic relief through the personification of animals.
This book is rather short, the shortest on the list in fact as it is comprised of approximately 115 pages, yet it contains a heck of a lot of symbolism, allegory, and parallelism to actual people and events in history. If you have any interest in government, this is the book for you! For me personally, Animal Farm is so memorable in that the animals are so convincingly personified. Or, perhaps humans behave more like animals than we think?
6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Alright. Just the sheer size of this book is enough to intimidate anyone. With a whopping 1,462 pages, the feel of this book in your hands almost gives you a sense of power. A sense of world domination. A sense of revolution! (Right?)
Published in 1862, Les Misérables tells the stories of several main characters in the form of volumes, which are further divided into books. Each volume is dedicated to a different character, while the main character, Jean Valjean, plays a role in each of the characters' lives in some way, whether directly on indirectly. This novel has now become a mainstream icon and a very memorable musical.
The musical and movie are actually what eventually led me to the book. Having been such a fan, I needed to read what all the fuss was about. That interest and introduction through mainstream made my reading experience much more enjoyable, and the same method is what put The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux on my reading list as well.
The separation of the novel into volumes and books also made tackling this beast more manageable. With these natural breaking points, you can take a break if needed and focus on another favorite book as a palate cleanser. Though it may feel like it sometimes, it is never a race to finish reading a book; take the time you need!
5. Inferno (Part One of Divine Comedy) by Dante
This was one that I read in a world lit class in college, and I must admit: this work had me looking forward to the next page assignments. Published in 1472 (over 150 years after Dante's death), Divine Comedy is an epic poem told through the eyes of Dante himself as he is led first through Hell, then through Purgatory (Purgatorio), before finally reaching God in Heaven (Paradiso).
Purgatorio and Paradiso are definitely on my reading list, but I believe Inferno is so widely popular because Hell is an intriguing, almost taboo topic. Whether one is religious or not, humanity has always been intrigued in some way (fearfully or excitedly) by the idea of Hell. Hell is stereotypically seen as a place of discord and rebellion, which touches a certain spot in human nature that we have all been plagued with since we became cognizant.
I was particularly interested in the allegorical nature of the work as it related to the soul's journey. I had to know what the next circle of Hell was and who was in it. And, of course, it caused a bit of an examination of conscience; would I be in this circle?
However, since that's not everyone's cup of tea, take pride in the fact that you are reading a foundational work of literature! The division of the work into cantos allows for natural reading breaks, and reading and discussing with a friend or book group to make those life-relevant connections might make this work a bit more manageable.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Rebecca was an accidental find on my mother's bookshelf. Since that happy little accident, this has become one of my all-time favorite books. It has been giving off those eerie Jane Eyre vibes since its publication in 1938 as it tells the story of a young and naïve (an unnamed throughout the novel) woman who, upon just starting her career, falls in love with well-known aristocrat Maxim de Winter. However, it isn't long before the "ghost" of Maxim's late first wife begins making her presence known.
Though it may sound like a ghost story, which I originally thought it was when I picked it off the shelf, it's really more of a crime thriller. Daphne du Maurier's descriptions of the narrator's surroundings and emotions are beautifully written, and as the story unravels its dramatic and twisting end, you will close the book, blink, and think, "Oh, I'm still sitting in my living room?"
As this book is fairly newer than others mentioned far other than The Great Gatsby, the language is not quite as lofty and therefore more understandable. What also made this book easier to read was the fact that the main character was relatable. Sure, we might not all marry millionaires who have a dark past, but we have definitely all felt naïve and have, at some point, been dealt cards that we must learn to handle and endure. This book shows that, despite a terrifying past and an often confusing future, we can still find sunshine and relief in the midst of it all!
3. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
No one can argue with the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien is a genius, a true mastermind. I mean, come on, he took fantasy world-building to an entirely new level. He created such a convincing Middle-Earth that it's easy to forget it isn't an actual existing culture's mythology. Heck, he created an entire language, complete with pronunciations, root words, symbols, and dialects!
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are only a fraction of the books he has written in the realm of Middle-Earth, but they are the most well-known and the ones I am personally most familiar with. I am forever grateful to my friends that introduced me to Tolkien; his work has been an inspiration in certain aspects of the my own novels, The Crowned Chronicles.
The Hobbit was published as a children's book in 1937 and is significantly easier to read than its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, published in 1954. In a nutshell, The Hobbit introduces Bilbo, a humble homebody hobbit who joins a band of dwarves to recapture the dwarves' ancient mining mountain from the devilish dragon, Smaug. Along the way, Bilbo finds a ring. Yes--the ring plays only a small role in The Hobbit and gets Bilbo out of a few sticky situations. Then, as we begin to venture into The Lord of the Rings, the One Ring found by Bilbo is the driving force for good vs. evil in an epic story that has inspired so many spin-offs, games, movies, memes (hence above with Dante's Inferno) and more.
So, if you haven't yet read these books, you might be thinking, "Well, what have I been waiting for?!" By all means, go find yourself a copy! Keep in mind that it can be easy to get bogged down in Tolkien's writing style. It surely happened to me during Treebeard's scene. However, I had to admire how well he made the very writing exude the character's slow, drawling demeanor. Tolkien is very descriptive and very thorough; he leaves no detail untouched. With that in mind, take your time in reading; there is a lot to absorb, and again, there is no rush to the finish line!
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Frankly, my dear, the competition was very tough when deciding which classic would claim the #1 spot. I put Gone With the Wind at #2 only because I haven't reread it as many times as I've reread my #1 pick.
Gone With the Wind follows the story of spoiled, self-serving Scarlett O'Hara, a southern belle coming of age in the dawn of the Civil War. This female protagonist is bound to make you want to pull your hair out in the most frustrating, endearing way possible. I couldn't help but marvel at her strength, determination, and sense of self-preservation. Scarlett's journey from her flamboyant teen years through tumultuous womanhood is surely an adventure.
However, in my opinion, it's really the supporting characters that make this novel so readable. The suave Rhett Butler and angelically kind Melanie Hamilton are just two examples of the characters that affect the very dynamic Scarlett in life-altering ways.
This twisting love story and coming-of-age voyage during a very strained time in U.S. history is undoubtedly a page-turner. The length can be intimidating, as it sits right over 1,000 pages, but the language is very understandable, and Scarlett's antics are sure to keep you reading!
*This book has received (understandable) backlash. I don't want to get too deep into that right here, as my hope for this blog post is to be fun and light, but I am more than willing to talk about with you should you wish! Just send me an email for further discussion.*
1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Jane Austen. Wow. That woman knows how to make a girl swoon. Of her many books, Pride and Prejudice takes the cake for me. It is the only book I have ever highlighted in. As I am typing this, I am wearing my Pride and Prejudice t-shirt.
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feeling will not be suppressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you." - Mr. Darcy, Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen was ahead of her time. With her first novel Sense and Sensibility published in 1811, followed by Pride and Prejudice in 1813, she was writing in a time period that was not friendly to female authors. Pride and Prejudice addresses very common social issues at the time, such as marriage, upbringing, and social class, and writing a free-thinking character such as Elizabeth Bennet was very rebellious for the time period.
The rampant love stories throughout the work make this novel an at-times gut-wrenching yet heartwarming experience. Besides, while most of us can easily relate to Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy, I believe everyone can enjoy a hopelessly romantic love story between two genuinely good people from time to time. (Looking at you, Jane and Mr. Bingley!)
This novel is not overly long, and though the language can be lofty and romanticized, the tone is light, satirical, and cheeky. The story itself is easy to follow, as well! The chapters are not too lengthy, so there are many friendly stopping points for the reader. Austen also uses comedic scenes to give the reader some relief all while further developing the characters. *slow clap for Jane Austen* Brilliant.
Classics have shaped the literary world into what we see and read today, and each work should receive the acknowledgement it so very much deserves. Classics often require a level of thought that we are not accustomed to giving, but the unfamiliar language and tropes strengthen our minds and undoubtedly aid in our critical and creative thinking skills.
Many of these titles, and countless others, may be intimidating. However, if you find a classic that interests you enough to open that book with the mindset of "I can do this," you will be surprised at the new capabilities and attention you are able to give, not only to that specific work, but to other novels and situations around you!
What are your top 10 favorite classics? How do they match up with mine? Leave thoughts in the comments below!