Looking Back at the Classics: The Best and The Missed

My reading habits have changed a lot in the last few years — in college, I pretty much only read “classics,” even as fun reading outside of being an English major. It was that or adult literary fiction, with periodic non-fiction thrown in. Then when I went to library school, I was a heavy adult non-fiction reader. I did dabble in a bit of young adult fiction both in college and in library school, but certainly not to the extent I do now.

Even though I’m way more reluctant to pick up classics now, I often think about the ones I read and loved and how much they influence how I read today. I also think a lot about the classics I didn’t read that it seems everyone else has read and tell myself someday I will read them (really). I thought it could be fun to talk about the lasting influences, as well as talk about what I haven’t read in hopes of maybe being convinced to give something new a try. 


For me, the reading experience of classics is influenced a lot by time and place, maybe more than any other type of book. I can remember where I was when I read each of these the first time and I can remember what it felt like to experience the novel in a way I can’t always do with other books. I wonder how much it has to do with classics being a sort of collective experience, since books become “classics” through generations of reading.

Moby Dick is a pretty contentious title I’ve learned — it’s either LOVED or it’s HATED, and there’s very little ground between. But you can put me squarely on the side of thinking this is one of the all-time greatest novels. It’s long, it’s long-winded, delving into whaling and life on a whaling vessel and really, it’s a story about life and people. Ahab is obsessed with finding this whale because it’s his life duty to finally win this war once and for all. Except fighting nature, fighting the creatures outside of yourself as some sort of justification for existence, doesn’t quite work that way. The story is brilliant, and Melville makes it even better because the writing itself is poetic. It is almost entirely a metaphor, which I love without shame. There’s certainly a story but oh, it’s so much more in the story that’s not being told than in the one being presented. Moby Dick is an untouchable book for me — nothing will ever quite live up to it in my mind. I’m extremely curious how China Mieville draws on Melville’s book for inspiration in his forthcoming Railsea.

When I was in library school, I had access to one of the best special collections libraries in the world, and one of my classes required that we do an in-depth appraisal on a rare book. Of course, I picked this one, and getting the opportunity to spend a long time with an original of Moby Dick only made it that much more meaningful.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is my favorite Bronte work (which you’ll see is an unfair statement soon). It features a strong, independent woman in a time when they weren’t celebrated in literature — kind of ironic given that Bronte couldn’t publish this under her own name, but under the more “masculine” name Acton Bell. In the book, Gilbert becomes obsessed with the reclusive Helen, who lives in Wildfell Hall with her young son. The townspeople have given her quite a reputation, and despite some reluctance on Gilbert’s part, he’s still fascinated by Helen. Eventually, she lets him in on all of the terrible things that happened in her last marriage, why she left, and why she is who she is now. I’m hit and miss with Victorian lit, but this one is and will always be among my favorites because Helen is a hell of a character and she feels so, so much. Oh, and this is told in dual narrative too, so readers get both Helen’s voice and Gilbert’s.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Malena — it’s the story of a woman who moves to a small Sicily town while her husband serves in World War II. She’s beautiful, and she’s a threat to all of the other people in town because of this, and she endures a sort of humiliation no one deserves because of it. The story’s not told through her eyes, though; it’s told through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who is fascinated with who this woman really is. Although the movie isn’t based on Bronte’s story, every time I watch it I can’t help but think about Helen and Tenant of Wildfell Hall. In both, strong, independent women being pushed to the margins of their communities because of cattiness, gossip, and a lack of interest in getting to know the whole person within (or the kinds of pain she carries).

Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West is arguably the first novel that deals with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Written in 1918, West’s story follows Chris as he reunites with three women who have played a huge role in his life. The problem is, he can’t really remember them or what they really meant to him before the war took a toll on his mental state. Chris is unable to remember his wife or his cousin when he returns home, and he believes the poor, unkempt Mrs. Grey is his wife. It’s a story about love and sacrifice, and it’s one wrought with desperation. Of course Chris’s wife wants him back for herself, and she wants him to be better. The thing is, neither she nor his cousin can figure out the way to cure him or whether they have the right to make him better themselves. This is a short book — one I think I read in a couple hours — but it’s an emotional powerhouse.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey is one I think everyone knows or at least has heard of. When I was in 6th grade, I had my first male teacher, and he was a hulking, scary kind of teacher — over six feet tall, build big, and he had a booming voice. The kind of guy you don’t mess around with. He knew I was a reader, even back then, and I will never forget him telling me that the only book that ever scared him was Kesey’s book, but that I was too young to read and appreciate it for what it was. He told me to read it later — and I did. I don’t know if I would go as far as to say it scared me, but I would say it gave me a lot of chills. It’s not so much the mental ward setting, though that’s certainly something that always does put me in a certain state when reading. It was the social dynamics that made this book one of my favorites — it’s the little guys vs the big guys. It’s a story where those without power try to get it. Oh, and it’s told through the eyes of the character who won’t talk to anyone but it’s in his power of observation that the story really unfolds. This is the kind of book I keep hoping will be visited in some way in a ya retelling/revisioning because it is so ripe for it. I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count but the book does it better.

When I was in high school, I wrote book reviews for the high school newspaper (and music reviews, too, and no, I won’t brag and talk about how I interviewed people like Matt Nathanson before he was who he is today, not at all). One of the books I reviewed was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and since that day, I’ve revisited this novel many, many times. It’s still a favorite. I won’t go as far as to say this is a true crime story, because I’m fairly certain Capote took many liberties in reporting, but this is a novel about the 1959 murders of the Clutter family in small-town Holcomb, Kansas. It follows the actual murders, the investigation into the crime, and the uncovering of the murderers and subsequent sentencing of them. Capote’s book melds everything I love about journalism with traditional storytelling, and it probably left me more terrified and scared than any horror book I’ve read — true events, especially random murder in an average town, is so much scarier than ghosts or vampires or the undead. Although it’s probably not a classic in the sense that Melville’s book is, it is a classic in my mind and it’s got lasting power.

A handful of other favorite classics include Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Twelfth Night, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (which, true story, I wrote a play based off one summer for a play-writing class I took) and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (if “I Sing the Body Electric” doesn’t give you chills when you read it, I’m not sure we’d get along well — it is one of the best pieces of poetry in existence).

Classics Unread

I’m part shamed and maybe part proud I haven’t read some of these. But I’m putting it out there to maybe be convinced that one or all of these are worth the time to visit in the near future.

Confession: I have not read any Jane Austen. Actually, I take that back. I’ve been sitting about 40 pages in Sense and Sensibility for over a year now, and I read one of Austen’s short stories. I took a class in Victorian Lit (see the Anne Bronte book above) and had one of my favorite professors, who told me that if I wanted to start somewhere with Austen, to read her short story “Lady Susan.” “Lady Susan” was the only thing Austen ever wrote that she hated and wished she hadn’t written, so of course I read it. It’s dark! I loved it! But after that, I never found myself compelled to finish a novel of hers. I’ve got copies of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and, yes, The Complete Works of Jane Austen on my book shelf. They’ve been great dust collectors.

Another author I can put on the “haven’t read a single work from” list is Virginia Woolf. Maybe not entirely remarkable, but seeing I was assigned To the Lighthouse on more than one occasion in school and that I have copies of many of her books, it is pretty noteworthy. I’m not sure I wouldn’t like her works, but I’m not entirely sure I would be sucked into the writing. I’ve been told The Years would probably be a good place to start.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte is another one of my “haven’t read” books. I’ve read both of Anne Bronte’s titles, and I’ve read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but I haven’t ventured into Charlotte’s work. I do feel a little lost because I haven’t read this one, especially since it happens to make appearances in so much contemporary fiction.

The Odyssey and The Iliad by Homer are books I never read, either. And I have to be completely honest and say neither has appeal to me as a reader, so I’m almost glad I’ve missed out. I realize the foundation they both play in a lot of literature afterward, but I’ve gotten by this far and figure I’ll be good for a while longer.

William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is sort of a big one to miss, and it’s one I know got read in high school. Except I took a class where instead of reading the books most high schoolers read, we were given more esoteric (read: more awesome) picks, including Les Miserables. I do want to read this one at some point because I know it’s a bit brutal, and that’s always up my alley.

Maybe I’m being a little generous calling Bram Stoker’s Dracula a classic, but there it is. I haven’t read it, and I’ve been told more than once how fantastic a read it is. I have read many modern retellings or revisionings of this one, but I haven’t read the original itself.

Who I’d Like to Read or Revisit

A few bonus titles! There are so many classics I’ve meant to read or have read and didn’t appreciate the first time I read it for one reason or another. It’s my hope in revisiting these (or experiencing the first time) will help me find new favorites for my top list.

I read My Antonia and O Pioneers! and I believe a number of short stories by Willa Cather in high school, and I remember hating them quite passionately. The thing is, now that I’ve spent real time in the Midwest and have come to really like it here, I feel like I’d have a different appreciation for Cather’s books.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has been recommended to me numerous times, and given my prior experience enjoying Russian Lit, I think this is one I have to get to eventually. It’s the story of Ivan, who is a labor-camp worker in one of Stalin’s work camps. It’s supposed to be quite graphic and a great portrait of an individual trying to find some sort of dignity when there was none to be had.

I grew up just south of Chicago, and I find it a bit of a shame I haven’t read any Raymond Chandler, seeing he was not only regaled as one of the leaders in mystery/detective fiction, but he was also a Chicagoan by birth (which, to be fair, I haven’t read Sinclair Lewis either, but there’s something much more appealing about reading a mystery than reading about the south side slaughter houses). The Big Sleep is Chandler’s most well-known novel and it seems like a good place to start . . . whenever I get the chance to.

I have been told by everyone who has survived reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that it’s one I don’t have to read but I find that to be a challenge, rather than a warning. I’ve had to memorize a good chunk of this book before (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”) and I’m fascinated to read the entirety of Walden because of that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a book I have not one, but two copies of, in my collection. Yet, I haven’t read it. I carry a certain amount of shame for not having read this one, too.

Last, but not least, I am anxious to some day reread J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. I used to read this book every year in high school and I read it a couple times in college. I tried reading it in library school, but in the process of having it checked out from the library, I lost it, then ended up paying for it and finding it months later. Long story longer, I kind of feel like this is the kind of book that I would find obnoxious now, even though I loved it back in the day. The sort of book you measure your own maturity and growth against, whether that’s fair or not. I’m curious whether Holden stands out at all or it’s the secondary characters who come to the forefront of the story.

So now tell me, what should I be reading? And maybe what I’m more interested in hearing — what classics have you loved or missed? Why? What makes a classic work for you?

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  1. says

    My favorite classics are THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin, HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad, HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton, Ibsen's plays, THE STRANGER by Camus, THE POWER AND THE GLORY by Graham Greene, MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot and of course LAST OF THE MOHICANS :)

    I really can't get into anything Thomas Mann. I probably need to try MOBY DICK one of these days. I've always been put off by it because I remember my mother complaining that his sentences were page-long affairs.

    • says

      I loved The Awakening and the pile of Chopin short stories I've read. I have not read any of your other favorites, though I've read other George Eliot (Daniel Deronda) and other Wharton (Ethan Frome and Summer).

      I've never read Mann, and yeah, Moby Dick DOES have lengthy sentences but it's so worth the trip.

  2. says

    I used to be a big classics reader way back when too. Well, mostly in high school and college. It's kind of affirming to hear someone I trust with book taste to say Moby Dick is AWESOME, I mean you didn't quite say AWESOME but that's what I got from it. ANYWAYS, I've always wanted to read Moby Dick and just finally got the audiobook to aid in that quest.

    My favorite classics are: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – something about big long French epics just gets me every time. East Of Eden by John Steinbeck – I always think back to the scene where the old men scholars are trying to decide the original intent of a Bible verse and, yeah, it's just a lovely bit as far as writing goes. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee – cliche I know, but I love her characterization.

    As for what I could not get into — The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James — YA kind of ruined me for that because I was expecting it to be as creepy as Tighter by Adele Griffin because that's a retelling and then it totally was not and it was a big huge ball of disappointment.

    I guess what really works for me with a classic is if there is a compelling plot and characters. Like, I can get through something that seems to have excessive wording if I like the story well enough i.e. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, that book is SO FREAKIN' LONG, but I liked the plot and Pip and Miss Havisham and his whole thinking that Miss Havisham is his mysterious benefactor.

    • says

      I loved Les Mis, but I haven't read Count of Monte Cristo. Haven't read East of Eden, either, though I've read and loved Steinbeck's other books (I'm probably a rarity in loving Grapes of Wrath but I did).

      I haven't read the James book but I've read the Griffin revisioning and honestly, it didn't do it for me as much as I thought it would.

      Great Expectations is one of those books I was assigned to read but didn't (I gave it a try, but in the end, I went the Cliffs Notes route). Dickens doesn't work for me, despite having read a few of his books.

  3. says

    Sorry– Moby Dick hater here…but you should read Jane Eyre. I recently read it and really liked it. Not a fan of Catcher, either. Dracula & My Antonia have been on my list FOREVER. Just can't seem to make time for classics. I also want to read Three Musketeers and Anna Karenina someday… I loved In Cold Blood. Also, I have The Awakening at home on my "soon" pile… Great post! Enjoyed reading about all these books….

    • says

      There's always oneeeeeee 😉 I know I should pick up Jane Eyre, and I'm embarrassed I haven't, given how many books are inspired by it.

      Anna Karenina is another one on my want-to-read list, though I'm hesitant given the Oprah seal of approval. Unfair, but true.

      The Awakening is worth the time, for sure. It's funny how classics seem to have become the books pushed back the most when time becomes a challenge. At least that's my experience!

  4. says

    I will agree that you should read Jane Eyre. I didn't tackle it until college and it's now one of my favorites. Jane's a stronger than expected Victorian heroine too, so now I apparently need to check out The Tenant of Wildfeld Hall. I liked Wuthering Heights, but Jane Eyre has really stuck with me.

    I've never made it through Sense and Sensibility either, but I love Pride and Prejudice, so I don't know why those two were so different for me, but maybe you should try to get through a different Austen book than S&S?

    I'm pretty sure you would enjoy Lord of the Flies. Plus it's relatively short.

    I almost majored in Classical Studies and I still don't like any translations of the Odyssey. Cliff Notes are all you need. The Illiad is easier to enjoy, but still you really only need the outline to feel culturally literate.

    Lolita is another you mentioned not reading that I love. Very unsettling.

    Dracula was my favorite book in 4th-6th grades and I'm amazed I didn't turn out more screwed up because of that. I've read it so many times that I honestly have no idea whether it's a book worth recommending or not. All I know is that I loved it as a kid.

    Other classics I love: Anna Karenina, Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow, Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

    Classics I didn't love: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, Vanity Fair

    Classics I haven't read: I also somehow managed to skip Virginia Woolf. I've always meant to read Catcher in the Rye but I wonder if I'm too old for it now. I tend to like Victorian stuff, so it's ridiculous I haven't read Middlemarch or anything by Edith Wharton. Really, I want to read ALL the books, so I don't think I should go any farther with this list.

    • says

      Getting the nod of approval on Jane Eyre post-college reading gives me some motivation to read it. I don't know why but in my head books like that feel like the kinds of things you fall in love with when you're in school and hold on to. But that's silly.

      Perhaps Persuasion is the Austen book to tackle?

      It makes me feel better a Classics major didn't read the Odyssey — I know at Cornell a ton of the politics kids read it, so it's strange it wasn't a Classics selection.

      I have only read Fahrenheit 451 and Catch 22 from your "loved" list, which makes me feel behind. I've only read one George Eliot, and that was Daniel Deronda (and honestly, not that good). I did, however, LOVE Grapes of Wrath and I liked Vanity Fair (what I read of it anyway – I didn't make it all the way through).

      I take a little too much pride in not reading Woolf, seeing how many classes I had with a certain Woolf scholar.

      And YES! To reading ALL the books. It's just…time, etc.

    • says

      I know, I know. But I take some comfort in knowing I've read a ton of the "lesser" classics. I should probably get around to Austen…and Jane Eyre.

  5. says

    This is one of my most favorite posts ever. I share your affection for Moby, for one thing. But the secret wonder of books is that they have no exipry dates. Ursula leGuin once wrote of a library where books might only be discarded because no one read them any more. I dream of a library where that does not even matter, where books might wait for centuries to find their readers. Once upon a time there was a child who found a book. And that made all the difference.

  6. says

    Yeah, I haven't read P&P too. I need to get on that. And it's not even at my house collecting dust!

    I've always been a bit confused on the term classics. I used to attribute it to "book being written by old white dead guy" but then y'know there's the whole Charlotte Brontë thing. And Ayn Rand. Anyhoo. I like classic kidlit, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Outsiders.

  7. says

    I'm an avid reader (or have been in the past, when children and work didn't eat my life) but I am seriously ashamed by how few classics I've read. I put together a big list a couple years ago and made it a goal to read all 50 in one year. I think I read like 20 and gave up on a couple of them (Jude the Obscure. ARGH). I think I'm still about halfway through one of them, if I could remember which one and where I put it.

    This makes me want to get back in the habit though!

    • says

      50 in one year is HUGE! Even 20 in one year is HUGE. I'm happy if I can knock out 3 or 4. I've heard the same groaning about Jude the Obscure and can't say it's earned a high spot on my to-read list because of it.

  8. says

    Sounds like you're a bit dark, and so you may think Austen is too happy and gooey, but she's got an acerbic wit that just can't be beat. Particularly b/c you're not expecting it the first time you read her. It's like your grandmother saying something obscene; it just makes you laugh out loud. Ultimately, I read JA for her characters, and the endings leave me pleased rather than disturbed, which is always a plus.

  9. says

    I think you'd enjoy Lord of the Flies and like Sarah says, it's a quick read. I'd also recommend Dracula to you. I did that one on audio and there were times I wanted to keep driving. I was pulled into the story more than I expected to be!

    I didn't read Jane Eyre until a few years ago and according to Goodreads I enjoyed it more than Dracula. Okay, now I want to make a Classics shelf in Goodreads to quickly find them all…

  10. Melissa says

    If you're looking for a Jane Austen book to start with you should check out Persuasion. I think it's her best book. Of all of Austen's heroines Anne Elliot is the one I can relate to the most. I've also read Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, although I've never been able to finish Pride and Prejudice. I've tried reading it 6 or 7 times and never get more than halfway through.

    My favorite classics are Jane Austen's Persuasion, Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford also by Gaskell, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and No Name also by Collins.

    Classics I want to read include Middlemarch, Edith Wharton's works, and John Steinbeck's novels.

  11. says

    Back in 98', I found the BBC 1983 version of Jane Eyre which I loved..then a few years later I read the actual book and loved it. So just set sometime to read it and i'm sure you will love it too.
    As for Jane Austen.. I spent about two springs ago reading all her. My favorite is actually Persuasion. To me it's the best one.
    As one of my english professors said there is so much great literature to read..it would take two lifetimes to read it all.

  12. says

    I read Jane Eyre in 5th grade and enjoyed it. Have read it about every 5 years since and I get more from it each time.
    Cannot abide Wuthering Heights – too misogynistic. I've tried to read it 4 times and I throw it aside in a rage after 50 or 60 pages.

    Jane Austen is a must – I read each one at least once a year. Her minor characters are so well drawn you think she's been spying on your relatives. Persuasion is my favourite, but the most accessible is Emma. Start with that, and toss Sense and Sensibility into the corner until you get into the rythmn of Austen.

    Deacula and Frankenstein are marvellous – but not what you'd expect them to be if you just go by the Hollywood versions.

    Mrs Gaskill may appeal to your dark side – not so much Cranford perhaps, but Mary Barton, North and South or Wives and Daughters.

    For absolute guilty pleasure I devour John Buchan or Ryder Haggard. Start with The 39 Steps of the former, or any Allan Quartermaine story from the latter.

  13. says

    I agree, I hated Wuthering Heights but I adore Jane Eyre. However, the only other book I've read by Charlotte Bronte is Villette which I thought really dragged. I haven't tried Shirley or The Professor. Of Anne's books I've only read Tenant which I liked. Still haven't tried Agnes Grey but it is on my list for the Classics Club, so hopefully I'll get to it soon.

    I'm sorry Jane Austen has given you trouble — I fell in love with the movies so I was hooked. I think it's best to start with Pride & Prejudice. I love S&S but sometimes Marianne gets on my nerves, and I think Edward is spineless. Persuasion is also wonderful. Don't give up on Jane, maybe try a different novel.

  14. says

    Almost forgot, I still haven't read Moby-Dick, though I have a beautiful Penguin edition I won in a contest last year. Nor Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, or East of Eden. Haven't touched Dostoevsky either, though I've read a good portion of Dickens and I'm really getting into Trollope and Zola.

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