Best Books Ever (a list of classics compiled by ME)

We were sitting around after brunch a couple of weeks ago when we started arguing over whether middle and high school teachers should assign books that are challenging–to expose the students to meaningful works that they probably wouldn’t come to on their own–or books that are accessible and entertaining–to foster a lifelong love of reading. We didn’t come to any grand conclusions, probably because there are decent arguments to be made on both sides, although the fact we were all talking over each other may have had something to do with it too.

What we did agree on was the following:

books are so beautiful

books are so beautiful

1) that too often teachers will choose books that they think middle or high schoolers will like because they were written for that age group, but the students all detest them. Our conclusion: if you’re going to go for something easy and enjoyable, make sure it really is enjoyable. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

2) that a challenging book can become a beloved one when a really good teacher helps the student find the universalities in it and make sense of the whole thing. Working on a puzzle is only satisfying if you can ultimately SOLVE it. Reading an opaque book is only pleasurable if you can ultimately break through and understand it; and

3) that there are many classics that are entertaining in their own right, and teachers don’t assign those enough. Instead they include the most famous books by the most famous authors, which are often neither their best nor their most enjoyable. My own pet peeve is about Dickens: Our Mutual Friend is a terrific read and very relatable, but teachers love to assign Great Expectations, which is just annoying. How are kids supposed to know that Dickens is a magnificent entertainer if their only early exposure is to his dreariest work?

It made me realize that there’s a “sweet spot” for classics–books that are in the traditional canon and are also really  fun to read. While I can’t completely resolve the “reading for gain versus reading for pleasure” debate, I do know that these books solve the issue simply by giving us both.

After the brunch, one of our friends emailed me to ask if I would send her a list of the books I considered important for everyone to read at some point in his life. While I was working on a list for her (mostly culling from other people’s “best of” lists–I’m lazy that way), I decided I’d edit it for my blog to include only the books I feel hit that sweet spot of being challenging and delightful in equal measure.

So here’s my list of TRULY GOOD books–ones that are as enjoyable as they are famous. They’re in no particular order–except that Austen, Bronte, and Dickens come first here, as they do in my heart.  And please note: I was an English literature major in college, so 19th century Brits may be somewhat overrepresented. I wish I had as wide a knowledge of other countries’ literature as I do of England’s, but I don’t.

Samuel Richardson (PAMELA)
Lawrence Sterne (TRISTRAM SHANDY)
Henry Fielding (TOM JONES)
Thackeray (VANITY FAIR)
Robert Penn Warren (ALL THE KING’S MEN)
David Mitchell (CLOUD ATLAS) 
David Mazzucchelli (ASTERIOS POLYP)
Now, again, this is MY list. These are books I genuinely enjoyed reading (and rereading) and that I think  also deserve to be called “classics.” It’s a short list because I have a bad memory–please tell me which ones you would add to this list, keeping in mind the two requirements.


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18 responses to “Best Books Ever (a list of classics compiled by ME)

  1. Quentin Hardy

    Daniel DeFoe (ROBINSON CRUSOE is obvious, but A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR is riveting. The middle part would be a great movie.)
    John Dos Passos (USA- The 49th PARALLEL)
    F. Scott Fitzgerald (GATSBY, THE CRACK-UP)

    Do “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” “White Noise,” or “The Franchiser” counts as classic-y enough?

  2. Claire

    I included ASTERIOS POLYP so I figure other people are free to choose THEIR own classics. I haven’t read those though–should I?

  3. Claire

    I mean, obviously I SHOULD. I will!

  4. I love Steinbeck. I was terrified to read “Grapes of Wrath” freshman year of college, but I absolutely loved it. It pushed me to read all his other works on my own. In high school, I was forced to read “Of Mice and Men,” and it did not incite the same reaction.

    If you want to add plays, I think “Macbeth” would be at the top of my list.

  5. Claire

    I think Measure for Measure might be my favorite Shakespeare–just because it’s so weird and unexpected and unknown. And has some issues that a modern reader could relate to. But I guess you could say that last thing about any Shakespeare!

  6. Chuck

    Anthony Trollope needs to be on the list. Pedestrian writing style but modern characters and topics. Barchester Series, Palliser Series, The Way We Live Now.

  7. Claire

    Agreed. Did you see the mini-series of The Way We Live Now? It’s terrific.

  8. Chuck

    Yes I saw the series and agree it was wonderful.

  9. I liked A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Rebecca.

  10. My choices are different– although I agree with you about Jane Austen, Dickens, Vanity Fair, pretty much all of Shakespeare, and Brontë. I love War and Peace, Dream of the Red Chamber (which is all about teenagers), Icelandic sagas especially Njal’s Saga, Egil’s Saga and King Harald’s Saga, Lord of the Rings, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, and Trollope– whose style is not his strong point, but his characters really stick in your head, they’re very real. A reason I like him is that he creates a world that continues in book after book.

    One of my very favorite books is a German trilogy, whose first book is Jauche und Levkojen, that I had to read for a Goethe Institut class. It was a portrait of a Prussian family from before World War I till after World War II, and very moving.

    I have tried to read Faulkner a few times and just find him intensely pretentious and boring. I feel as if it’s really hard to get to the story, and when you get there, after all that digging, you find a nugget of meaning that’s not at all worth all that work. People whose literary opinion I respect seem to feel differently, but I dislike him too much to give him another chance.

    The poet Bai Juyi read all his poems to an old peasant woman and if she didn’t understand anything, he would strike out the line. I think that is not a bad way to make sure your poetry continues to be read a thousand years later.

  11. Claire

    I love all of this, Julie. Now I really want to read the Icelandic sagas–I don’t know anything about them but I’m going to go do some research! That last story is amazing. Oh, the only thing I disagree with is the Faulkner. I reread The Sound and The Fury recently and I thought it was pretty incredible and mostly readable. (It changes a little depending on who’s telling which part of the story.) I haven’t been able to get through some of his other books though.

  12. East of Eden by Steinbeck. My all time favorite. First read it in eighth grade and have been reading it ever since, and every time, I find something new, something more. The 1955 movie with James Dean is very good though it is only the last third of the book. The miniseries in the early eighties with Jane Seymour rocks. But nothing comes close to the amazing book.

  13. vannessa

    A Room With A View — my all time favorite book. Lucy Honeychurch falls in love with George Emerson in Italy before she returns to her real life at Windycorner…I first read it when I was 14 and I’ve read it every year since.

  14. Claire

    and let’s not forget the swoon-worthy movie with Helena Bonham Carter . . .

  15. Vanessa, Room With a View – YES! And Claire, I agree,the 1985 movie version is unbeatable. Probably the most faithful film adaptation of any book I’ve ever read. The more recent attempt by Masterpiece Theatre – awful! They added a frame story that makes decisions about the lives of the characters that E.M. Forster never made. The hallmark of a really great book, for me, is that you cannot stop thinking about the characters and how their lives go on beyond the end of the book. (Like how I could not stop thinking about the lives of the characters after I finished Same as It Never Was!) I hardly need Masterpiece Theatre stepping in and making those decisions, and hideous ones at that, for me!

  16. Claire

    Oh, I’m glad you didn’t like that recent version–I tried to watch it and didn’t make it past the first ten minutes.

  17. Mari

    As a high school, and now middle school teacher, I have students who hate to read period. Reading the right classic doesn’t always work because they are so turned off to the idea of reading “classics.” I had a student who had never finished a book before, but by the end of the semester she had finished two – Epic Fail and The Trouble with Flirting. She took a copy of Pride and Prejudice home for the summer because, “If Elise and Derek came from that, maybe it won’t be TOO bad.”

    Your books are generally the first books I loan out to girls who say they hate to read or have never read a good book. So thank you.

  18. Claire

    Wow, thank you thank you thank you! I can’t tell you how happy your comment makes me!

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