Over the years, I’ve seen so many people talk about the classics they want to read or having goals for reading one classic a month or something along those lines. And recently, that got me thinking about which ones I’ve read already. Considering I just graduated with a degree in English Literature (I just got my diploma in the mail yesterday so it’s ~official~), my list of read classics is longer than I’d ever thought it’d be.
Now, before I start or list my qualifications for a “classic,” I want to give a very English-majory disclaimer: literary classics are a very exclusive academic category that are typically used as a means of gatekeeping literature and defining what is worthy of praise and attention and reputation. The general public typically has no say in what is considered a literary classic, with historically white and male academic circles existing as the sole deciding group in determining a “classic” label. This means that the category, in general, does not reflect the wider population and their experiences. This is not to say that we should just brush off classics; they are (generally) considered classics for a reason, and their place in the literary canon is a result of their impact on the broader literary world. So, yes, we should absolutely read them, but perhaps we should be reading from a place of critique and skepticism, reading them because we want to understand their place in the literary canon, not so we can act superior because we’ve read them.
So now that my mini-essay on literary academia is done, let’s get into it. My qualifications for “classic” for this list are very broad, and I’m really just using general perceptions of the book. There are going to be certain exclusions and generalizations, like I won’t be including Shakespeare because I took a whole class on him where we read a play a week and so like a third of this list would be Shakespeare plays if I included him (and this list is long enough as it is). My general rule is going to be if I had heard of a book in an academic or literary setting before reading it, I’m including it. How did I get to this conclusion? I’m not quite sure. All I know is that I took a course on Gothic literature this past year, and while all of those books are certainly Gothic/literary classics, I hadn’t heard of half of them before the class, so I’m a little iffy about calling them classics. There are also books that I love that I think should be considered classics but aren’t there yet in academia, but, again, maybe that’s for a different post/list. I’m also not including plays and autobiographies, just novels and epics. These are also not haphazardly ordered: the ones I liked least are first, moving towards the ones I liked most. For brevity, each will have a sentence or two about what I thought of the book, because I do want to give some thoughts about them but a) this post would be even longer if I wrote more than that, and b) I read some of these like eight years ago so I don’t exactly remember details, more just a general feeling or attitude.
Alright, enough of my rambling, let’s get on with it!
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
- Alright, look. This book is BORING. I don’t care if it’s considered the first English novel or whatever. It reads like a manual on how to survive on a deserted island, but not even a fun manual.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
- Holden Caufield is an annoying jerk and no one can change my mind. Sorry not sorry.
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard
- Kinda fun in terms of the adventure, but the whole “Lost World” doesn’t sit well with me because of the depictions of Africa and I think it’s more problematic than not.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- See above, but add a few more critiques of colonialism and a lot more figurative language that make it dense and hard to read.
Candide by Voltaire
- Bizarre, and not in a good way. Leonard Bernstein is lucky he writes good music that he can salvage this book to make an operetta.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
- Ok, I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much about what I thought of this (I read it at least 7 years ago), but I remember not loving it.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
- I think I’d like this book more if I read it now, but I wasn’t really a fan when I was 17. Thinking back, I might give it another go in the near future.
- As far as Middle English epics go, this wasn’t bad. That said, it’s still a Middle English epic.
- Again, see above, but change Middle English to Old English. Only ranked higher because dragons.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
- I’m gonna say it: I think Gatsby is overrated. I enjoyed it when I read it when I was 16, but looking back, I don’t dig it anymore.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why I didn’t really like this. I wrote a reflection on how I think Dickens’s original ending is better than the published ending, which I think greatly improves the story, but alas it’s not the widely-recognized ending.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
- This was the first novel by Woolf I ever read, and while I truly appreciate what it did for literature, I didn’t love it. I’d rather watch The Hours again.
Dracula by Bram Stoker
- Not quite as exciting or interesting as you’d think, and I would’ve appreciated it more if Mina had more agency. No one is more disappointed by this opinion than me.
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
- I think this is more of an honorary classic than a true classic, but I like when children’s literature gets classic treatment.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The only true account of what entitled, adolescent boys are like.
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
- A bit dense because it’s in verse, but I really liked the story and Aurora Leigh as a character.
The Odyssey by Homer
- As someone who grew up with Percy Jackson and a general love of Greek myth, I feel like I’m obligated to like this. Also, I just really did like it.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf
- Much better than Mrs. Dalloway. I really love the format of it, even if it does get a little confusing at times.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
- Really solid adventure story, but also I just love Treasure Planet so maybe I’m biased.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- This is just such a messed up story to the point that I didn’t want to like it. And yet I did, and I can’t really explain why.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
- I didn’t expect to like this, but I thought it was riveting in its own way. It’s not necessarily a page turner, but it’s one of the only really dense books that I didn’t mind reading.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- Kinda weird but absolutely beautiful. I wanted to one day read the original Spanish, but then I stopped taking Spanish and there’s no way I remember enough now.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Okay, yes, I’m basic. But it’s only because P&P is really that good.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
- I didn’t read this one until last year, and I truly don’t know how I went that long. It’s amazing. End point.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Honestly, same as above on all fronts. This is an absolutely phenomenal (and timely) book. Please read it. I wrote a final essay on why it’s an American classic, and it was one of the most interesting and fun essays I’ve ever written.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- Again, call me basic all you want, but I just love everything about this novel. It’s the only book I’ve reread for every class where it’s been assigned, and every time I read it, I fall in love again.
So that took me a lot longer than anticipated. I read about half of these before I started keeping track of books on GoodReads, so I had to really think back and even ventured into the attic to find the books I have stored there from college. But, this was actually really fun. Maybe I’ll do a ranking of all the Shakespeare plays I’ve read. It also made me really realize how many absolutely BONKERS books/stories I’ve read, so maybe I’ll do a list of those, because there are some truly bizarre ones.
What classics have you read? Which ones do you want to read? What are some of your favorites/least favorites, and why?