I got a fun email a couple of weeks ago from a friend who is embarking on a journey to read “the classics.” The list she had compiled included titles like Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, The Brothers Karamazov, The Metamorphosis, To the Lighthouse, etc. Her list included some books that I’ve read and many that I haven’t. She sent the email out to friendly book lovers in order to solicit advice about other titles or authors she should add to her list. So I started thinking about it … if I were making a list of “the classics,” what would it include? Don’t get me wrong: the books you’d find under “Classics” in your average bookstore are fine, but I’ve always thought that certain ones were overrated while others were seriously under-appreciated. So I made up my own!
First, in response to titles she already had on her list: hurrah for Frankenstein, Middlemarch, and Gatsby! However, I would instantly ditch both Moby Dick and Ulysses. I know they are supposed to be like the classics of the classics, but I wouldn’t bother (I’ve never read either, but have tried both a couple of times, have had conversations with English profs. about them over the years, and have decided that I will die contented having never read either one). As for John Irving, instead of Garp I would read (if you’re only picking one) A Prayer for Owen Meany — or, second, The Cider House Rules.
Now then, personally I’m drawn to southern American Literature, particularly 20th century. Not everything on my list is American (or Southern), but that’s the majority. That said, of course I have to recommend William Faulkner — everyone says The Sound and the Fury, which *is* amazing, but even more amazing is Absalom, Absalom! Sutpen’s Hundred is some seriously creepy gothic stuff. And then, of course, there’s Eudora Welty — anything. She is known for her short stories, but for something longer she won the Pulitzer for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, which I loved. (If anyone is interested in a biography instead, the best one is by Suzanne Marrs, and it’s beautiful.)
- Toni Morrison – she won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and if I had to choose just one it would be — hands down — Beloved.
- John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Modern (1980), and for anyone who has never read it then skip everything else here and read it immediately. Walker Percy was responsible for getting it published after Toole committed suicide, so next up would be …
- Walker Percy – either The Moviegoer or The Thanatos Syndrome.
Somehow I made it out of high school having never been assigned either of these two, which I read in my 30s and appreciated in ways I never would have if I’d been younger; both amazing:
- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockinbird, which just turned 50.
My list would have to include something by Hemingway — again, if only picking one, I’d say The Sun Also Rises. In addition,
- Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men.
- Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
- James Baldwin — here’s a toss up; my favorite book is Giovanni’s Room, though it’s one of the few (the only?) things he wrote with white protagonists, so you might want something else by him (Go Tell it on the Mountain, If Beale Street Could Talk, Another Country, etc.).
- [From Ireland] George Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan (it’s a play, but it’s stunning).
And lastly, if you can forgive me for being so Oprah-esque, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is — oxymoronic alert — a modern classic; it’s already being taught in schools around the world and, for me personally, it was a literary game changer.
It was interesting to think about what “my” classics are; the books I carry with me and, in some cases, read again and again. What would be on your list??? Leave a comment!
And stay tuned for an upcoming [and uplifting] post all about disease and disaster books! Until then, happy reading!