Recently my book club read The Great Gatsby. This was, I hazard, the fourth time I’ve read it–I actually listened to it. It was phenomenal. The language–oh my giddy aunt–as well as its immediacy mesmerized me. This book, written almost a hundred years ago, read as if it was describing our time, our loss, and our devastating capacity for hope. I adored it.
It has inspired me to add the classics–broadly defined–back into my reading. I’m now enjoying Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and, when I’m done with that, plan to reread–the last time was in the late 70s– Madame Bovary.
Do you read the classics? What are your favorites? What should I tackle? Anything you loathe?
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Hey–I have some Audible credits to use up. What classics on audio do you guys really recommend?
My Book Club read To Kill a Mockingbird last month, a book I’ve never read. It wasn’t my favorite. My grandmother had an encyclopedia style group of books that were all classics. I was an avid reader, so I tore through most of those when I stayed with her. The Great Gatsby has always been a favorite.
The latest classic book I’ve read was Les Miserables and I loved it! Even the several chapters not directly related to the plot were interesting and offered food for thought, I really liked reading the book, despite the theme and the tone in many parts.
Impressive! I’ve seen the play but never read the book!
In the past I’ve read several articles/opinions on the best translation of Les Mis, and they are not equal. The current consensus is that the best are by Julia Rose (2007) and Christine Donougher (2013). I read this book decades ago and have no idea what translation I read.
I read Les Miserables for a reading group at the library. Every time I’d think that Life’s too short and I don’t have time for a 1200-page book, Hugo would say something marvelous and I could not stop reading. His insights into history and psychology were brilliant, and the digressions – which could have been distractions – added so much to the many layers of the books that I can’t imagine the book without them. I read that the book was popular with both Confederate and Union soldiers but the versions published in the South deleted Hugo’s anti-slavery and anti-capital punishment comments.
I’m sure I read Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE as a teen, but I remember nothing of it so decided to read it this past summer. The beginning is problematic, and I wanted to shake Holden, spoiled rich white teenager that he is. As the book went on, however, he became a more sympathetic character, and he has moments of insight that show his potential to become a much better human being. See, for example, his sense that the young women he knows are all too willing to settle for men who condescend to them and treat them as inferiors, simply because marriage is the only future these young women can see for themselves. Salinger is most definitely not a feminist author, but to have that understanding in a book written in 1950 struck me as exactly the opposite of the way women are portrayed in the “muscular prose” so popular at the time.
I remember reading “Catcher” about ninth grade (back around 1963). My mother was so annoyed at my constant laughter that she snapped, “Lynda! If you have to laugh, go read in your room.”
(My mother had a great sense of humor, so she probably was reading, herself.)
A few years later, I was counting the minutes until I could teach it to my sophomores. They were pretty much luke-warm about it. Humor is the most fragile of all the arts; when you have to explain jokes to people, their usual reaction is, “What’s so funny about that?”
I never taught it again. But I do have a special corner of my heart, still reserved for Holden.
The women in my family have started a “Classics Book Club” where we try to read from a list of 100 top classics, as defined by compositing several top 100 classics lists into one best-of master list. I’ve recently (finally!) read “The Handmaid’s Tale”, but I’ve sadly been lazy about picking up another one. I do regularly re-read Austin’s “Pride & Prejudice” as it is my all time favorite classic and romance.
And sidebar – if anyone is interested in seeing the Top 100 Classics Master list as defined by my family ladies book club members (again, curated from several Top 100 lists), I’m happy to share. It contains a wide variety of authors, not just the dead white guys. :)
I’d love to see it and share it with our readers. I can easily post it here!
Awesome! I have it as a Google Spreadsheet. What’s the best way to share? I can re-save as a PDF or any format.
A Google doc would be great!
Fantastic. And here it is – the Top 101 Books to Read.
Please note that these are listed in alphabetical order by title, not in order of “greatness”. And the extra book (101 instead of only 100) was due to a tie.
Wow! Very interesting list. I’ve read 81 of these. Like so many lists, it’s heavily dominated by men. (I think I counted 27 women authors.) But that number is higher than it would have been had you only listed classics published before 1950.
Thank you so much for sharing. I’m inspired to get my family to make such a list!
81 out of 101! That’s very impressive. You are my reading goals.
My method for compiling the list was to consult several on-line “Best of” lists and record which books appeared on the most lists. It is very interesting that so many “Best of” lists continue to hold white men in such high esteem, but I’m guessing (hoping) that over time, they fall off in favor of more women, POC, LGBTQ+ authors, etc.
I would absolutely love to compile a “100 Must Read Romance Novels” that defines a list of classic romances that any well-read romance reader might complete in order to feel fully exposed to the genre. Does such a list exist?
Well, some would argue that is the point of the top 100 list but I do think what you are talking about is different. It is interesting to think about how to make such a list!
The most ancient classic for me is the Book of Esther in the Old Testament that has been novelised a few times including by Norah Lofts. It really has all of the ingredients for a romance and a thriller. Every year I re-read Persuasion, my most important, #1 keeper. And I do also love Tom Jones, the ultimate romp portraying one of fiction’s best Naughty Boys.
Never read Tom Jones. I just always think of Albert Finney and am done!
I like to revisit classics by re-reading in audio format, and there are also many I’ve never read for whatever reasons that I hope to one day get to. Several years ago I made it a longterm (lifelong) goal to listen to different translations of the Iliad. So far my favorite listening experience has been the Stephen Mitchell translation read by Alfred Molina. This year I may tackle the Fitzgerald translation read by Dan Stevens, but that won’t be anytime soon.
Most recently, listened to Maria Dahvana Headley’s translation of Beowulf read by JD Jackson. I had a mixed reaction to the translation, but enjoyed Jackson as an audio narrator.
I’m also interested in tackling one of the classic Chinese novels (in ebook format, not audio), but not sure which one I want to start with. That will probably be later in the year, too.
Northanger abbey It’s the last book I needed to complete my Jane Austen collection, I still have to read Mansfield Park too but Northanger is shorter so I started with that one, it’s also very hilarious!
This led me to go to Project Gutenberg to download some gothic dinosaurs that Catherine read about. I mean those novels were written by women and widely read by other women. They were the romances of that time. I would like to know what they were like.
My history book club this month read The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois. Its basically a series of essays Dubois wrote in the early 1900s giving his thoughts on African American experience and culture at that point in time. The two most interesting chapters were the one criticizing Booker T. Washington and the other one where he discussed the death of his young son.
About 20 years ago, I had made a point of reading more classic literature. I haven’t read much lately. My favorite reads were Bleak House and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens, Sanctuary and Light in August by Faulkner, Kidnapped by Stevenson, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, The Mayor of Casterbridge by Hardy, and a book of short stories by Graham Greene. The one book of classic literature that I just could not finish was Moby Dick by Melville.
I love Faulkner–my favorite is Absalom, Absalom! but I enjoyed Light in August too.
Moby Dick is like Ulysses to me. Never. Gonna. Happen.
Moby Dick has one of the great opening lines… “Call me Ishmael.” But the rest of the book, at least what I read of it, is a mess. I dropped out after Melville devoted a whole chapter in the middle of the book to all the different types of whales. I’ll stick to watching Gregory Peck in the classic movie. I have read and enjoyed Melville’s short story, Bartleby the Scrivener. But Melville is hard to read, a lot of it having to do with the writing style of the mid 1800s.
I haven’t read Absalom, Absalom! yet. I’ll have to try it. The only Faulkner book I wasn’t thrilled with was As I Lay Dying. It was too stream of conscientiousness for me and hard to follow.
I was just talking about “I would prefer not to.” It makes me sad that no one reads Bartleby any more. I think it’s brilliant!
I read it as a part of a short story group I’m in. We have read a lot of the classic short stories, including some by Hawthorne, Poe, and a lot of Russian writers. This week is Henry James. Short stories are a great introduction to some writers.
My kid’s lit teacher had them read Bartleby since Moby Dick was too much. I remember them liking it.
None of my kids had ever heard of it. :(
I was truly fortunate that a homeschool mom in our groups was a lit major and former teacher. The depth and scope of her literature classes were amazing, plus the students loved her style. My four younger kids all took at least World Lit and American Lit from her. One of the main reason I taught high school biology to homeschoolers for 10 years was so I could afford for my kids to take these types of classes for subjects I couldn’t teach effectively.
Bartleby is brilliant, but it is also deeply, deeply weird.
I think it might be the first portrayal in literature of someone demonstrably on (the higher end of) the autism spectrum.
As I Lay Dying was my late MIL’s favorite Faulkner, so I read it and did not like it. I read Sound and Fury in high school and enjoyed it. It wasn’t for school, so I bought the Cliff notes to help me understand what was going on.
In my 20s and early 30s, my reading was almost all classics – Austen, Dickens and especially Anthony Trollope, who is still a big favourite. Back then pickings were quite slim when you’d read all the Major Works by even the big name authors – I used to traipse around the second hand bookshops in Charing Cross Road in search of lesser known titles. Since then, a lot more have been published and I remember really enjoying books by Mrs. Oliphant, Mary Brunton, Charlotte Lennox… there was a line called Pandora that published over a dozen titles by female authors who had been largely forgotten although they were popular in their time.
I don’t read or listen to nearly as many as I once did, but I recently listened to Naxos’ edition of Collins’ No Name and Vanity Fair, and I have quite a few of the audio dramas of classics that the BBC has produced over the years, that I revisit from time to time,
I am going to add The Great Gatsby to my list. I haven’t read it in years, and it would be fun to do the audio. I have listened to a number of classics in the past couple of years, and here are a few I would recommend. Interestingly, all are set in England and have love stories in them, some with an HEA and some not.
I should give Middlemarch another try. I got halfway through in my 30s and just couldn’t finish it. Over 700 pages!!
I love Remains of the Day and North and South. The miniseries of the latter is simply the best!
North and south is a miniseries I watch every few years. So well done and it made me a fan of Richard Armitage for life.
Richard Armitage is also a wonderful audiobook narrator. I’ve listened to some of his Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer narrations. His voice is as gorgeous as he is!
I loved MIDDLEMARCH but found DANIEL DERONDA somewhat problematic. His search for identity is interesting, and Gwendolyn Harleth is an amazing character, but Mirah, Daniel’s love interest, is essentially cardboard. The section where Daniel finally meets his mother, however, is worth the price of admission. She is scathing about her search for agency in her life and the roles imposed on her by family and society. Neither Daniel’s mother nor Gwendolyn are totally admirable, but they are fully rounded and poignant and roared to life in a way that Mirah most certainly did not.
Middlemarch is wonderful. I remember trying to read it when I was about 16 and it just didn’t go in; I came back to it a couple of years later and loved it.
Virginia Woolf called MIDDLEMARCH “the wisest novel written in the English language”, and I concur. I read it later in life (in school, we read SILAS MARNER which might be enough to turn anyone off Eliot for life). MIDDLEMARCH was, in fact, the book I was reading during the final days of my first pregnancy. In all of the pictures from the labor & delivery room, plus the first few weeks of my oldest daughter’s life, if you look carefully, you can see the thick green spine of MIDDLEMARCH laying wherever I placed it when I had go do something else—like give birth to a baby, lol.
Mentioning the green spine of my edition of MIDDLEMARCH reminds me of Virago Press, which republished a lot of “forgotten” 19th & early-20th century female writers, always with very distinctive green covers & spines. Dabney, if you’re looking for “off the beaten path” classics, you might find some good choices in Virago Press’s back catalog.
Reading Middlemarch while having a baby?? Impressive!
I love that Virginia Woolf quote. Middlemarch contains a great deal of wisdom, and you really feel for the characters as they try to follow their ideals (and which ideals do you you follow?) and then their ideals clash with lived experience and lead to disillusionment and despair or compromise, and even the abandonment of ideals. This is only one of many topics. It is epic in its ambition, and it requires patience and dedication to get through it, but it’s worth the journey.
I do think it is better read when you have lived a bit. I, too, started it once when I was young, and I couldn’t get into it. When I finally tried again, I was ready for it.
I’ve never read Middlemarch, so maybe I’ll give it a try. Years ago I was put off by overhearing some bookclub people nicknaming it “Middlecrawl.” :-)
There’s a very good BBC adaptation (by the great Andrew Davies) from the mid 90s that I remember as being pretty faithful to the book. If you can track it down, it’s well worth watching.
I liked Middlemarch as well, and Remains of the Day is practically perfection, especially when compared to his other books, which I didn’t find as relevant. Good choices :)
Most of the classics I’ve read, whether older or “modern” (like Faulkner), I read in my teens and 20’s. Some were assigned and some I just picked up or were recommended to me. I’ve read a few more in my 30’s and 40’s, usually as a group read or in a book club. But I have to admit that for the last decade or so, I have rarely been in the mood for books that make me sad, or require a lot of emotional work from me. So the “classics” I’ve picked up have been more Elizabeth Gaskill than F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As an aside, has anyone read any Rumor Godden books? In This House of Brede was a book that had a lot of influence on my adult life.
I read and enjoyed both THE RIVER and BLACK NARCISSUS (although both have “problematic” colonialist views), but I don’t think I read BREDE (although I seem to remember a film adaptation with Diana Rigg). Godden is one of many mid-century female authors who wrote reliably well-written books but seem to have now faded into obscurity.
I still have two of Rumer Godden’s children’s books that I read long ago – The Diddakoi and Miss Happiness and Miss Flower.
I have a degree in English and have read most of what was defined (at least in the 1970s & 80s) as the “major works of the Western canon,” aka, what later became known as books by “a bunch of dead white guys, mostly American or British, plus the Brontes, Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf.” I know it’s really not that simple, but if you’re planning to read “classics”, I think you’re going to encounter that quite a bit. If you’re looking for suggestions beyond that, I’d recommend some of the 19th century French writers, particularly Zola (NANA, THERESE RAQUIN) or any of the multitude of novels by BALZAC (COUSIN BETTE, PERE GORIOT).