It’s not uncommon to equate “classics” with “really old, really boring books.”
I mean, I work at a bookstore and right now it’s summer reading season. So I’ve seen the despair and resignation in the eyes of every kid who asks for a copy of Grapes of Wrath. I feel sorry for them.
Although, it’s hilarious watching the faces of children crumble into wretched misery when I place the book in their hands. Is that horrible?
Fortunately, I was never forced to read the classics because I went to high school in Korea. Sure, it was an international high school and had a few advanced English classes, but classics were not the main focus. So while I had the initial sense of trepidation when thinking about reading these books, it never became a full blown aversion.
Instead, as time went on, I decided I should read some of them on my own. For one, I was pretty sure I wanted to write even all those years ago and thought that these were kind of required reading for English majors. And also, they’re classics for a reason, right? Surely they can’t be that bad…
And they actually aren’t. Trust me.
I mean, I still haven’t read Grapes of Wrath because it just looks so dreadfully dull, nor was I able to read more than a few chapters of Catcher in the Rye.
But others I really enjoyed and some I would call masterpieces that I still read again on occasion. These books are old and sometimes difficult to read because of the outdated language, but the themes and beautiful storytelling make them timeless. If you haven’t read them, I highly recommend doing so.
And without further ado, here is my list of Classic Literature.
1984 by George Orwell
This is the ultimate dystopian novel. It tells the story of Winston whose job is to edit history so that the government is always telling the “truth” and can never be proven wrong. He dreams of revolution and begins to have an affair with an equally rebellious woman to some terrifying consequences.
George Orwell’s bleak vision of the future includes a perpetual state of war, constant surveillance, historical revisionism, control of the middle class through fear and intimidation, and control of the lower class through false hopes and vapid entertainment. All in all, it’s surprisingly accurate and scarily relevant to modern society. This book is one of my all-time favorite books and if you decide to read anything on this list, it should be this one.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
You’ve probably heard one version or another of this book. After all, it’s one of the most iconic pieces of horror and science fiction and it’s influence can be seen everywhere in popular culture.
However, none of the film adaptations or other derivative works can compare to the original. You may think I’m being pretentious and maybe I am, but it’s also true. The synopsis of “A mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, creates a monster that proceeds to wreak havoc,” is somewhat accurate, sure. But once you read this novel, you’ll realize how there’s so much more to it than just that. Frankenstein is not the cackling madman you see in the movies, but a relatable human being with both virtues and flaws, and who also happens to be a genius scientist. He becomes obsessed with progress, with whether he could create life that he never stops to think if he should.
Frankenstein’s monster is also an immensely complex character that becomes lost in shallow modern portrayals of a moaning, zombie-like creature. The monster in the book is actually very intelligent and articulate, and is tortured by the knowledge that he is the only one of his kind, never to be accepted by human society. He commits terrible crimes, but you can’t help but feel a bit of pity along with the horror.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
If you haven’t noticed already, I like the really strange books that leave you feeling unsettled and disturbed. Well, this one is no exception.
The novel takes place in a mental institution and is told through the observations of “Chief” a large half-Native American man who pretends to be deaf and mute. The institution is run by Nurse Ratched who rules over her little kingdom with an iron fist, using medication, humiliation, and the threat of electroshock therapy to keep the patients in line. The newest patient, Randle McMurphy, decides to rebel against her tyrannical methods and inspires others to do the same.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is arguably the most disturbing book on the list simply because it’s all too realistic. Not too long ago, mental institutions were run like prisons where the inmates were seen as disturbances to society who needed to be controlled rather than people in a fragile mental state who needed to be helped. Not to mention Nurse Ratched is genuinely scary. Think Umbridge, except ten times worse and in complete control of a mental hospital.
The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
This classic is a work of historical fiction set in the American Civil War. We follow the thoughts of Henry Fleming, a private in the 304th New York Regiment, as he prepares for his first battle. After fighting briefly, he is overwhelmed by terror and flees from the battlefield. Ashamed by his cowardice and wondering if he would be able to redeem himself, he tries to find his way back to his regiment.
Not only does this book ask intriguing questions about the human psyche, blurring the line between cowardice and bravery, it also depicts fantastic battle sequences that puts you straight into the action. As someone who has never been in a fight, let alone a war, I felt that The Red Badge of Courage did an incredible job in showing the confusion and fear that someone would feel in their first battle. It made the book stand out from many of the other war novels I’ve read since then.
Honorable Mentions: King Lear by William Shakespeare. Because I feel like I should include Shakespeare and I enjoyed that one out of the 3 plays I’ve read.
What I Want to Read Next: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Reflections: Holy crap, I really haven’t read that many classics…none of the Jane Austen books or those by Charles Dickens. I hardly remember Mark Twain’s books although I’m pretty sure I read Huckleberry Finn. I don’t think I’ve even read the Great Gatsby. I’m kind of sad now. And ashamed.
But then again, I think that I’ll enjoy these books now that I’m somewhat more mature and would be able to understand them a bit better than if I had read them in high school. Yeah, that’s what I’m going to tell myself.
Also, I absolutely love Of Mice and Men by John Steinback but I think that qualifies as a short story, which is why I’m saving it for that list. And Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is great, but I think it might be too modern to qualify as a classic. Even though I guess One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was only published in 1962…whatever, it’s my list. Deal with it.
Anyways, stay tuned for my next update. I know y’all aren’t too big into classics so I think you’ll enjoy the next list more. Until then!