Friday, January 08, 2010

I'm Not Popular: The List Is

I was feeling flattered and special because my blog has gotten almost 200 hits since my last post. Then a couple of the comments on my previous post caused me to check blogs a little more closely than I have done the last few days. Sure enough, Janssen, who actually IS very popular, linked me in a post about resolutions. Though the book list I sent her was just in an email, the wording in her post and the link led people here looking for said book list.

A book list filled with classics no less. Intimidating.

Though the "debate" about what constitutes a classic was not as robust as I had hoped, here are a few conclusions I think we can draw:

1--A classic must be well-written, by a broad set of standards.

2--A classic should stand the test of time. In other words, even if the language of the story is dated, thematically it should wear well.

3--A classic might also be given that designation if it greatly influenced public thinking and sentiment during the time in which it was written. Novels in this category are studied as much for their historical weight as for literary merit.

4--The cannon of literature should include more than just books. One comment touted the importance of poetry (to her list I would add Dickensen, Whitman, Pound, etc.) I think plays and short stories should also get a mention.

So having given a general definition of classic, I am going to give my list here with a few disclaimers: This list isn't meant to be comprehensive. It is simply a list of books (mostly fiction) that I have read and would deem "classic" that I can personally recommend. If you want a "complete" list of classics, just do a Google search and voila! Every college, school district and literary-minded blogger has posted their own list. I didn't include plays, poetry, short story collections or young adult literature for brevity. (Hey, Janssen, maybe you could put together the classic YA list?) When I sent my original e-mail I divided the list by modern American classics, older American classics and world literature. I don't know why. In retrospect it seems a bit pretentious. (Or more than a bit.) This list is just mixed, and slightly different than the one I sent out originally.

Here is the book list you all came looking for, but thanks for stopping by even if just to browse. In the comments section, please add the ones you would put on the list also.

A Separate Peace
. This little novel is remarkably profound. I love school boy stories. This one could possibly be called a young adult novel, but it is thematically rich enough to be read by anyone.

Billy Budd. This novel is great, and a good taste of Melville without braving Moby Dick. Which I did not. And never will.

Crime and Punishment. You will feel so good about yourself if you can plow through it. It is also a really good representation of Russian literature.

Cry, the Beloved Country. Oh wow, this is good. If you ever were interested in South African history, issues or culture, this is THE BOOK to read. It would certainly make a short list (probably top 10 anyway) of the best books I've ever read. It is layered and rich and just so great.

David Copperfield. I actually found this to be the most readable of the Dickens books, though Tale of Two Cities is worthwhile also. I actually met Miss Nemesis three years ago this month at a book group wherein we were all supposed to have read Great Expectations. I was teaching full time and pregnant with two little boys at home . . . I only made it through about half the novel. It is still bookmarked to the same spot.

East of Eden. Difficult in every sense of the word. I'm not sure I would read it without a discussion group to back me up. Steinbeck's use of biblical allegory and allusion in this story astounds me. I also love to look for earthy, science references in his books; Steinbeck was trained as a biologist.

Ender's Game. This is one that could arguably get booted from the list, both because it is a borderline classic and a young adult novel. Whatever you might think about Card's later work though, this first-ish piece makes him immortal. He wrote, or at least thought through, huge sections of the book when he was in his teens and twenties, though it wasn't published until he was in his 30's. (My age actually.) This book and the series it spawned are staples in school libraries and no good student of science fiction can claim to be such without a thorough knowledge of this book. Ender's Game makes reference to something a lot like the Internet, interactive and virtual reality gaming, time travel and global interaction via computer that is almost exactly like blogging. Clever fellow. (Even if you think he is a total nutbar these days.)

Ethan Frome. Perfection in a few short pages.

Fahrenheit 451. The only other science fiction novel to make my cut. Sometime I'll have to tell you about the lesson plan I did to introduce this to a Science Fiction class during my student teaching days.

Gilead. This difficult and rich book won the Pulitzer earlier this decade. Probably the most recently published novel to make the cut, but it has all of the elements of an enduring classic.

Gone With the Wind. Yes, really. The movie, of course, is an important American classic as well, but even at its three-hour length, the screenplay only scratches the surface of what is in this novel. I think it helps the reader understand the Southern perspective on the Civil War. (I said understand, not accept, of course. Sorry Ms. Mitchell--slavery is just bad.)

Grapes of Wrath. Essential for any person attempting to make sense of the Depression era. If I ever open my private school (Dare to Dream, right?) then all juniors will take a class called American Humanities that is a mixture of art, history and literature. This book would teach the Depression and the early Socialist movement in America.

Huckleberry Finn. Tom Sawyer is a fun read, but this sequel is the real masterwork and, admittedly, much darker in tone. My favorite Huck Finn anecdote is this: one of my best friends/rivals in high school encouraged me to re-read this prior to the AP test as a book he believed it could be used to answer almost any question thrown at us. I scoffed at him--Huck Finn was juvenile! We'd read it sophomore year! Get out. I re-read Heart of Darkness instead. Our question? It was about HUMOR. I ended up bluffing my way through the essay by writing about a play by French writer Moliere that we'd spent a whopping two days in class on. Craig sat at a table opposite me with a smirk on his face the whole time.

Jane Eyre. Touching beyond belief. Much deeper than Austen, if not quite as entertaining. My favorite of the Bronte novels. I found Wuthering Heights to be so dark I could hardly stomach it.

Les Miserable. I've only ever tackled the abridgment. I'm just not that brave.

My Antonia. I would have enjoyed doing this for a book group. The prose is really lovely, but I felt like my own mind could only scratch the surface of it. I also craved a different outcome, though the way it is written shouldn't really surprise.

Heart of Darkness. Probably my all-time favorite book. Perhaps the most amazing part is that Conrad spoke only Polish until his 20's, yet he wrote this book in English. Remarkable. I studied this book with an AP teacher in high school who was also a very religious person--she had a way of turning every great piece of literature into a morality tale without moralizing. In college I took an elective class on World Literature simply because they were studying this book. That professor used Freudian analysis on the story and then showed us Apocalypse Now. The idea that one novel could spawn such divergent viewpoints and discussions is what makes it great.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Maya Angelou's memoir is perhaps all the more meaningful because of how young she was when she wrote this first volume. Her courage in talking about child sexual abuse helped expose a major problem that had generally been swept under the rug. She also turned autobiography into literature. (As a side note, the title of the book comes from an African American poet named Paul Laurence Dunbar, who is just incredible. Oh, right, I'm not recommending poets . . .)

Peace Like a River. I think in the next couple of decades you will see this novel taught in schools all over the place. If I were teaching high school I would do it tomorrow. The depth and pathos and humor of this story is remarkable. This one hasn't stood the test of time yet, but I'm just trying to get my vote in early.

Pride and Prejudice. No, wait, this is actually my all-time favorite book, and the classic boy clashes with girl story. Austen's novels, portrayed so well by the BBC and others pale in comparison to her wit, which is never quite achieved in the screenplays. Her novels are not merely love stories, they are deliciously satirical social commentaries. Austen was meant to be read to be truly appreciated. (If you like Austen you should also try works by Georgette Hyer. Yes, I've mentioned this before and I will say it again.)

Rebecca. Freaky and fantastic.

Remains of the Day. The most boring book I've ever read with the most issues to work through. Fascinating perspective. Subtle.

Tess of the Dubervilles. A lot of people will say that Return of the Native or Mayor of Casterbridge is the must-read Thomas Hardy, but I disagree. This book is both beautifully written and heart-breaking.

The Call of the Wild. An excellent example of nature literature from a modernist perspective. London's works are a true and stark departure from Thoreau's idyllic scenes.

The Chosen. This will lend remarkable understanding to Jewish culture. An incredible and subtle novel. More modern than some of the others--1967, though it explores a time period just past the Second World War and the Jewish reaction to the Zionist movement.

The Scarlet Letter. Wow. Just amazing. Check out the free audio download on iTunes--it is remarkably good.

The Good Earth. This is fantastic, and by an American though nothing to do with America. It is about imperial China. The author, Pearl Buck, spent her life there as missionary.

The Great Gatsby. A fantastic commentary on wealth and the American dream. The movie version from the 70's is excellent too. Robert Redford, in my mind, will always be Gatsby.

The Jungle. Read it and just try to eat anything from a can for several weeks. I think it stands with The Grapes of Wrath as a novel that can help understand the mentality that led to rise of the American socialist/communist movement. A lot of our modern governmental programs are socialist in nature, and our current generation understands "entitlement" very differently than our great-grandparents would have. Novels like this help us to understand why the government created work programs in the 30's and labeling laws.

The Lord of the Flies. Shocking and amazing all at once.

The Lord of the Rings. Really. There is a lot more going on in these than a good story, particularly when it is considered that Tolkien was writing from the perspective of having lived his life through two world wars. His characters, though rich individually, can also be taken to represent the way people react to war. The last volume of the trilogy goes on for nearly 100 pages after the end of the movies, as the hobbits must return home to reclaim the Shire. Frodo clearly has a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder, though nobody labeled it as such in the 1950's. Tolkien explores the theme that, even for the bravest among us, there are things that our psyche just can't take. There are things we just never quite get over--darknesses we face about ourselves that leave us deeply disturbed. Merry and Pip take the war honors to themselves, Sam goes into politics, and Frodo is talked about in hushed tones for how touched in the head he obviously is. Yet without Frodo, the world as they knew it would have ended. Oh, wait, these are one line summaries. Sorry about that; just trying to make my case.

To Kill a Mockingbird. Arguably the best American novel. Ever. (If you love this book, you should also take a look at Cold Sassy Tree and The Secret Life of Bees. Two books that might eventually make the cut in their own right.)

Uncle Tom's Cabin. The language of this novel is really dated, but it is important to the development of American history and probably should be read as an academic exercise.

Undaunted Courage. Okay, I didn't actually read this one. It is Plantboy's pick. It is a biography of Lewis and Clark which he tore through in about three days over Christmas break when he was in college. He touted it for how accessible it was, besides being a fascinating history.

Again, the list is not intended to be comprehensive. This year I'm going to attempt Stone, Camus and yes, my goal is to still plow through Henry James. Nor did I include all the classics I've read, only the ones I would recommend (two words: Silas Marner).

What would you add?


emandtrev said...

Holy awesome list! And yes, I did check your blog after Janssen's shout-out to see if you'd posted it on your blog.

Funny thing--we chose our books for the year last night at book club (the very one where I believe you were a founding member!) and your name came up. :)

We are reading Jane Eyre in July and I will endeavor to read more classics on my own this year as well. Whoohoo!

Melanie said...

Here's my super-long reaction to your list (I love book lists!):

I read Gone With the Wind and The Chosen over and over again as a teenager . . .usually during my long baths in the winter time (my dad kept the thermostat at 65).

I feel exactly opposite about Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Although I'm usually not a fan of a lot of drama, I love the intensity of Wuthering Heights. For some reason I just can't stomach Jane. To me she seems whiny.

I'll definitely be putting Ender's Game (I usually avoid sci-fi) and Peace Like a River on my list.

Heart of Darkness is really your favorite? I never had to read it in school. I read it a year or so ago but was underwhelmed. Maybe I'll suggest it for my book group; I think reading more thoughtfully and discussing this book would help me appreciate it more.

I can't say enough about my love for East of Eden. I've read it several times and still feel that I haven't really plumbed its depth.

I think your list does a really great job of hitting the main movements/time periods/regions. You can easily switch out/around similar books - such as 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451. I think Cormac McCarthy should be on there somewhere. I'd also add All Quiet on the Western Front.

One of my friends did a study abroad trekking through England while reading British literature. I'd love to do a similar Western trip - read Steinbeck, McCarthy, Stenger, Cather, and others while hiking the Grand Canyon, camping in Yosemite, working at a ranch in Texas, fishing in Montana. I'm rambling; I'll stop now!

Jenny said...

You MUST brave Moby Dick. You MUST!! I wouldn't if not forced by a literature class. LOVEd it.

If you love Cry,The Beloved Country so much, you also MUST read Cutting for Stone. I really think you might enjoy this. Immensely.

The Caine Mutiny.
Never seen the movie, but LOVE the book.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

To Kill a Mockingbird

And SO many more!

Jenny said...

P.S. I met Janssen at Christmas time--she is as delightful in person as she is on her blog.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Melanie--I am SO coming on your trip. As for your American trek (I love nomad-type books)have you read Into the Wild.

Jack London while dogsledding in Alaska . . . Oh! That reminds me. How did I leave Mrs. Mike off the list? Grr. . . I knew it wouldn't be comprehensive.

Janssen said...

Oh good - another person emailed me today asking for this list (it was my sister, so it wasn't a random stranger). Now I can just direct them all in the direction of your post. Yippee!!

I'm pleased that I've read 21 of the books on the list. Way to make me feel cultured! Maybe Grapes of Wrath is next on my list. Or Lord of the Flies, which, somehow I've never read.

mstanger said...

Nice job on the list, which includes several on my "I really need to get to that some day list". As a foreign language major, it appears pretty anglo-centric to me (although you rightly include Les Miserable)

I just can't think of classics in literature without thinking of Goethe (Faust, Werther, Elective Affinities), Schiller (William Tell), Heine (A Winter's Tale), Fontane (Effi Briest--fantastic), Mann (Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus), Hesse (Steppenwolf, Siddartha, The Glass Bead Game), Kafka (The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, The Trial, Amerika), Grass (The Tin Drum), and if you're looking for exceptions to the dead white male rule, Fanny Lewald (Jenny) and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff (The Jews' Beech).

And then, there's a whole lot of Russian stuff that deserves consideration.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Sheesh, Mike. We need YOU to make a list.

Wodin said...

I knew I liked you! Your endorsement of Tess of the D'Urbervilles makes me believe you are a comrade. It might be one of my favorite novels. Ever. I love it for Hardy's portrayal of flawed yet understandable and beautiful. It's lovely and tragic.

Sherry said...

Steinbeck's wife and my Nana were drinking buddies.

I feel like there should be more on this list, but I can't name off the top of my head what they should be. Maybe some Hemingway? I was once sent an email with something like 1,000 books to read. If you'd like, I'll forward it to you.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

This is a great list. I need to put you in my google feedreader. I loved Peace Like a River (just read this summer) and Ender's Game is one of my all-time favorites. Oh -- and David Copperfield. Liked too. Have you read any Elizabeth Gaskell? Wives and Daughters. She was a contemporary of Dickens.

Miranda J said...


Ok -- That last comment was from Whitney Johnson, signed in as my daughter!

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

As a fellow mom, I've got to ask: When do you find time to read inordinate numbers of books AND write inordinately long blog posts?

Science Teacher Mommy said...

KimBlue--My kids are quite a bit older than yours. You will see that your whole world changes a lot when your kids realize just how much fun they have entertaining each other.

Yankee Girl said...

I hated Tess when I first read it (sooo heartbreaking) but it has been like 15 years so maybe it is time to try again.

Can a classic stop being a classic?

Christie said...

I'll have to read Cry the Beloved Country. Most of the others I've read. I too really enjoyed Peace Like a River. (I own it.)

Miri said...

I ADORE Tess, it's been one of my favorite books since I first read it. And I absolutely agree that Ender's Game has a place on the list. I'd never read it until about a year ago--never been interested, since sci-fi isn't really my thing--but, like Tess, I adored it.

The Poisonwood Bible is on my list of classics. I love, love, love it.