I studied literature – in college and in graduate school. I thought I wanted to be a literature professor because, well, I loved literature. It turns out that I wanted to be a writer and a writing professor, but that’s not such a far throw from literature. In fact, it might just be the other side of the same skipping stone.
But one of the things that I learned in my senior year of college, when Dr. Nisly got me to read and LOVE Crime and Punishment was that I hadn’t really read well the first three years of school. Of course, this should have been evidenced by the way Master Plots zoomed around the back row in most of my literature classes, but to me, I still felt all literary.
The truth was, I loved contemporary fiction (I read every single word in Dr. Smith’s Postmodern Fictions class), but I was slanted against the classics. But between Dr. Nisly’s persistence and the need to understand the nuances of great works for my MA thesis, I found myself developing a deep appreciation for these books, even though it took some time.
So here, in no particular order, are the 10 “classics” I thought I’d hate but actually came to love.
10. Middlemarch by George Eliot – It took me about 100 pages of this tome to get into it, but once I did, I was hooked. I needed to know what happened to Dorothea. I needed to see her in the library. Hands down best Victorian novel I’ve ever read. . . and I know some of you will scorn me for this, but Eliot puts Jane Austen to shame. . . and I love Austen, too.
9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky – I am deeply in love with Raskonikov still. His brokenness. His desperation. His vision that saw all the beauty in everything. This book made me want to study Russian literature in grad school.
8. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne – This book is funny. And quirky. And all things biopic. Perhaps if Wes Anderson wrote in the 18th century, this would be the novel he’d create.
7. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Dr. Nisly assigned this one at least twice when I was an undergrad, and I’m not sure I ever finished it then. (So sorry, Professor. Truly.) But in graduate school. Dr. Stonum had me read it and write on it using Girard’s triangular theory of desire. I don’t remember much of what I wrote in that paper, but having to analyze that deeply helped me truly appreciate the book for more than the narrative structure, which is, of course, spectacular in and of itself.
6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – I used to think of this book in the same category as Gone With the Wind (which I still haven’t read.) But then, the library had it on cassette, and I only had a cassette in my car. So I read it. It was brilliant, of course. I loved the ambiguity built into the narrative – a ghost, illness, imagination. Wonderful.
5. Bleak House by Charles Dickens – Someone spontaneous combusts in this novel. That should be enough to make you want to read it. But I must also say that this book is what comes to mind every time I walk into a quaint, slightly cluttered antique shop. I love it for that, too.
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – I didn’t read this book for a long time because, well, it is about a man who falls in love with a young girl. But the language, the wit, the sentences. The best opening lines of any book are in this one.
3. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – I held back from reading this book until just a couple of years. The Beats – more specifically the way people appropriate The Beats makes me weary. But this book, smart, lyrical. insightful. Just good.
2. Howard’s End by E. M. Forster – There’s a beautiful smallness to Forester’s worlds. I love how close the narrative voice is to the characters. If you like Downton Abbey, you may like this, too.
1. William Wordsworth – The Major Works – So many people discount Wordsworth as sentimental and precious, but when I read him in class, “The Prelude,” oh it sung to me. I am, with no doubt, a romantic – in both the lovey dovey and the literary senses.
I loved a lot of classics The Scarlet Letter, Northanger Abbey, Things Fall Apart, but most of those I came to read and willing. These ten, they seduced me. . . and to their authors and the professors who made me read them, I am forever grateful.
Also, for the record, I still don’t enjoy much of James Joyce’s work except “The Dead.” Yet, I appreciate him and find myself inclined to try Ulysses yet again.
What “classics” do you love?
*For the record, I use the term “classics” in quotation marks simply because I am skeptical of the traditional Western literary canon because it is so white and so male, as my list reflects. I hope, in time, we will come to add more works by people of color from around the world to our sense of what is fundamental to an understanding of great literature.