What makes a book a “classic?” Does it have to be published before, say, 1900? Or maybe it has to be recognized as a “classic,” part of the canon of great literature? Perhaps some feel “classics” must be at least 500 pages, hard to summarize, and boring to most people. Not so! Classics are books that endure beyond the time of their creation and, usually, their creators.
People are still reading Anna Karenina because Tolstoy created characters that manifest the complex depths of human experience, not because so many people are fascinated by 19th century Russia. Classics can also be “classic” because they so fully capture a certain time and place. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man surely communicates timeless wisdoms—but one of its most vital functions is to vividly communicate the experience of an African American man in early 20th century America.
The list below should not be taken as a “mandatory reading” list! Hopefully, our selections and comments will help you experience widely-known classics in a new way and even inspire you to find some new ones!
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson’s 1883 story is one of the most gripping tales of pirates, the seas, and, yes, treasure. Many of the tropes and characteristics of pirates that we know came from Treasure Island. This book is a classic because it is just as gripping today as when it was written, and doesn’t suffer from seeing old fashioned.
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin: Baldwin’s identities and personal experiences were at the foundation of some of his most widely read works, but the novel Giovanni’s Room is fiction. Baldwin is such a powerful writer because of his insights, which are evident in the believable, deep characters he created, and in the novel’s universally resonant themes. While this book can definitely transport readers to a specific place and time—Paris’ post-WWII bohemian scene—the experience of reading it provokes timeless questions about how and whom we love, and the challenge of living that truth in a society hostile to people who don’t conform.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë: Like so many other classics, this book is endlessly read, adapted, and discussed. Considering all of the work that follows from Jane Eyre, we must not leave behind the original. Groundbreaking for its focus on a female narrator’s complex internal life, the book is a feast of ideas and relationships. An engaging first person perspective invites readers to interrogate class, gender, and labor in Eyre’s time and ours.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Cervantes’ novel is one of the first works to be considered a classic. Quixote is a picaresque novel, a series of episodes in the life of its titular main character that satirize social norms and class identities. Another big book, it could be read over a long period of time or in the old fashioned way popular when most people could not read: out loud to one another!
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: The novel that blended romanticism, Enlightenment scientism, and gothic style to create a mythic space millions of people love: the horror genre. Most people think the title is the name of the monstrous creation, but it is really the name of the creator, Dr. Frankenstein. Shelley’s biography is as interesting as her most famous work, and if you’re intrigued, check out Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: Whether you picture Humphrey Bogart in your head or not while you read about Sam Spade, you must acknowledge that Chandler creates a thoroughly vivid sense of place in his novel about a private detective who finds mystery after mystery in mid-century Los Angeles. So many tropes and stories (particularly in film and television) really have their start in the works of Chandler (as well as Dashiell Hammett). From the cynical private eye and the femme fatale to a vision of a rotten society and a case that is more than it seems, The Big Sleep delivers. Don’t sleep on The Big Sleep.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature recently, and Remains won the Man Booker Prize when it was published in 1989. Similar to Jane Eyre in its strict first person narrative perspective and class-consciousness, Remains is a short, engrossing novel that begs to be read in one sitting. The background of high level diplomacy in the lead up to World War II is fascinating, but more than balanced by the emotional core of the story, which is about a man whose life was spent in service to others reflecting on the consequences of his work.
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