The classics of literature are worthy of their collective moniker. Years and years of their relevance and near-perfection have solidified their place in the literary world. Even for avid lovers of literature, however, it can be difficult to sift through the stacks and stacks of these golden tales and choose the ones which speak to you the most. I have compiled a short list that, at the very least, might give you a sort of jumping off point. Or perhaps you’ll find one here that has slipped your notice in the past, but is very much deserving of your attention. Take a look and plan a trip to your bookstore of choice (please–don’t order books from Amazon unless you want your grandchildren to grow up in a world lacking of old musty bookstores with big comfy armchairs ready to be read in!). Happy reading, dear friends.
Howard’s End, by E. M. Forester: This novel about the Wilcox, Schlegel, and Bast families in the early 1900s is full of social and economic signs of the day, as well as the timeless chemistry of love, social class, and the complexity of the human condition. Ripe with traditionally good characters, tragically flawed characters, and characters warped and greedy to the core, this novel follows a tragic plot line that is ultimately absolved and redeemed, though not without loss and heartbreak. The social comments of this novel remain relevant even today, as Forester expands on the power implications that come along with money, and the human implications that often coexist with sensitivity and forgiveness.
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque: This classic war novel set on the Western Front of WWI follows the trials and daily life of a German soldier. The mastery of this novel lies in its truth and fearless storytelling of what war does to people. Despite the alignments of nations or even the reasons for fighting, all who participate come out irreparably broken. Main character Paul Baumer leads the story with pure honesty and emotion, explaining how war was little more than a march toward certain death. A generation of men lost themselves to this war; all was taken from them, hope ran for the hills, and death came to lie with them each night. The fact that it is a German soldier at the forefront of the tale is even more forceful in the narrative. A soldier from the side viewed as “the enemy” in history, relays all the same emotions, fears, and dejection of anyone from the “winning” side. The true enemy is war itself, and Remarque furthers that claim with each page and chapter of his novel.
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand: Written in the late 1800s, this play is a hidden gem that I feel is often lost in the thralls of classic literature. The endearing character of Cyrano is wonderful in many regards, yet is afflicted by a “hideous nose” that keeps him from pursuing a romance with the desirable Roxane. Channeling his love for her into letters penned by him, but signed by the handsome Christian, Cyrano is able to convey his true feeling through verse. Christian receives all the credit, however, and Roxane is left thinking he is the truest romantic. Selfless Cyrano keeps up the charade, while threats of battle and war distress the characters and complicate matters of life and love. With Rostand’s beautiful writing and the pace of the play, Cyrano is surely a treat for lovers of Shakespeare and old theatre in general.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: A list of classics certainly would not be complete without Jane Austen’s most beloved novel. So widely known it may be thought as commonplace, rereading this work easily reminds us of its mastery and relevance still. Austen’s astute judgement of character and honesty in her writing serve as a time capsule of her society, as well as a roadmap to love even today. The story of the Bennet sisters and their quest for life and love is a journey of excitement, family, humor, deceit, and above all, an education in understanding our neighbors. P&P is a novel that should never, ever be missed.
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Perhaps the first true classic of American literature, I fear that The Scarlet Letter is often thought of as just one of those irrelevant books you had to read in high school. If that is your impression, then get your hands on a copy and read it again. Do not be fooled or deterred by its colonial, religious setting, nor the difference of its societal appearance. The themes of The Scarlet Letter–themes of love, loss, honor, and tolerance, are meaningful and applicable to our lives today. The resolute strength of Hester Prynne and the sweet, guilt-ridden Reverend Dimmesdale are characters your heart will bleed for as the story unfolds. While reading, think about gender roles, stereotypes, and the boxes we often force each other into, without first bothering to employ the soft touch of understanding.
Tender is the Night, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Fitzgerald never lets me down. Maybe he let Zelda down, and maybe he was a rotten drunk, but I’m telling you, he has long been so very close to my heart I swear I can hear him there with each beat. I’ve read mostly everything he ever wrote, but this work often does not receive the attention it deserves while cast in the shadow of Gatsby or Paradise. Tender is the Night is a riveting tale of youth and the affliction we have with it (a very Fitzgerald theme), the toils of marriage, the search for meaning in anything we do, and the power we hold over the ones that love us. Don’t miss the racial tensions that show themselves in Paris, or the disillusionment of basically every character.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte: “Whatever souls are made of, his and mine are the same.” The Bronte sisters surely did know how to turn a wickedly beautiful phrase. Catherine and Heathcliff are titans of literature for very obvious reasons; their love story stays with you like a very bad cold. You won’t shake it for weeks and weeks to come. Depressing and dreary, but lovely all the same, let Emily Bronte lead you to the moors, where (like so many other tragedies of English literature) love seems to hurt more than it could ever possibly heal.
Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy: I could speak of the wonders of Thomas Hardy for hours and hours. I simply love this man. His stories are dense and full of human blunder, stupidities of the heart, and sweetness of life itself. In Far From the Madding Crowd, the life of Bathsheba Everdene (of no relation to Katniss) unfolds through a series of both unfortunate and fortunate events. The steady Farmer Oak is there through each peak and valley, a quiet gold standard of a man that I very much wish existed in 2017 (Gabriel, if you’re reading this it’s not too late!) Bathsheba is strong and acts solely on her own accord. In fact, Hardy proves to be quite an early voice of feminism in regards to the agency and complexity he lends his female characters. Once you have finished reading this masterpiece, be sure to watch the 2015 Focus Features movie version, starring Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba.