Friday, August 26, 2016

Reading the Classics: a beginner's guide

I am a classics reader--of course, that's not all I read--I believe in supporting contemporary authors and I love to read hot new books to see what the fuss is about, and I like memoirs and travel books, and on and on, but back to the classics.

I think everyone should read at least something by each of the following authors, so here are my top 20 recommendations for enjoyable, accessible, memorable British/American classics.

  1. Shakespeare - Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night's Dream - don't just read the play, get a good movie version and read the text while watching!
  2. Jane Austen - Persuasion or Pride and Prejudice
  3. Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
  4. Charles Dickens - Oliver Twist or Great Expectations
  5. Mark Twain - short stories (The Mysterious Stranger, The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaverous County)
  6. John Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men or Cannery Row
  7. F. Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
  8. Thomas Hardy - The Return of the Native or Tess of the D'urbervilles
  9. Elizabeth Gaskell - North and South
  10. George Eliot - Silas Marner (short) or Middlemarch (long)
  11. Louisa May Alcott - Little Women
  12. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - any of the Sherlock Holmes stories
  13. E.M. Forster - A Room With a View
  14. Washington Irving - The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
  15. Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
  16. Bram Stoker - Dracula
  17. Edith Wharton - Ethan Frome
  18. E.B. White - Charlotte's Web
  19. Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
  20. William Thackeray - Vanity Fair

I think these are the books that will whet one's appetite for more classics.  They all have good stories, are well written and interesting.  Not chock full of arcane language and topical references that are incomprehensible or irrelevant to a modern reader.  They also tend not to have long tangential flights of fancy that bore many readers--Dickens does this in some of his long novels, as does Trollope.

Then, when you've read all these books, go back and reread them!  That's what I do.  Good books are meant to be enjoyed and revisited and savored, not just checked off.


  1. Great list! You've picked some of my favorite classics...although I might choose a different Edith Wharton novel to start with. Ethan Frome, while beautifully written, is just so sad and depressing.

    1. Yes, I almost went with The Age of Innocence, which I prefer over the House of Mirth, but the shortness of Ethan Frome and the beauty of the writing made me choose it for the Wharton selection. I am reading Custom of the Country later this year, so that might edge out everything!

  2. Great post and a great list. There are a few authors on your list that I have not gotten to but I do intend to get to them.

    One thing that I find as I read more and more Classics is how one begins to compare and contrast their styles as well as their ideas and outlooks on life. This is another reason to read these books.

  3. Excellent list! These are many of my favorite classics as well. The only author I haven't read on this list is Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I have been meaning to read for years.

    I love Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton - I hope you enjoy it as well.

    Oliver Twist and Middlemarch are on my classics club list so I hope to get to them soon!

    Many of these books I've read more than once in my life and find new meaning depending at what age I'm at.

    Great discussion!

  4. Love the post idea! (I think this is the first list I've actually read a fair number from - 7.)

    Interesting choice for the top spot, definitely a fun way to start. Which Twain short story would be your personal pick? I agree regarding Dickens, he can be hit or miss but the two you've listed are great and of course most people already know the story of Oliver Twist to help get them started.

  5. Good idea about reading the classics. I should put a few on my list every year.

  6. Hey Jane. I know this is from nearly a year ago, but I just saw it now. Of course, with only 20 you won't please everyone. I'd have to add some Edgar Allan Poe, Orwell, Margaret Mitchell...and of course Tolkien. Very good list .