When I was young, under ten, my mom would try to get me to read certain classic books she had enjoyed as a child – Little Women, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and others. Hopelessly contrary kid that I was (and still am, to a certain degree), I groaned and rolled my eyes and went back to reading my R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books. Or Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High. I wanted satisfying, modern shlock, Mom! Geez.
I’ve since quit reading cheap horror, but I still haven’t read Little Women or Sunnybrook Farm. Eight-year-old me is still rebelling on that front. (Now that I have an eight-year-old daughter, every time she is hopelessly contrary, my mom just laughs and laughs.) However, now that I’ve survived the mind-numbing ringer than can be high school and college literature courses, I’ve found that I am indeed woefully under-read when it comes to classic literature. Though I read a lot of current releases, I’m slowly making my way through those old books that adult-me finds potentially interesting.
Recently, I read The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, as part of a book club I’m in with a few friends. In high school, I hated reading The Scarlet Letter, so I was a bit apprehensive starting another Hawthorne book, but the friend that suggested it has tastes that I more or less trust, so into the words I dove.
You know what? It was actually quite enjoyable, and surprisingly funny, in a bleak sort of way. The story concerns a large mansion in Puritan Boston that is passed through a family for over a century. The land on which the house sits used to be the land of another man, a carpenter who was hanged for being a wizard. A rich military man wanted the land for himself, so he expedited the man’s hanging. Before the man died, he placed a curse on the family, saying that they would “drink blood” for what they’d done. And indeed, the family does have a string of mysterious deaths over the years, and when we come into the current occupants of the home, the family is not quite so rich anymore. The book is a romance, in the sense that it is not intended to be entirely realistic, and every character is meant to be an archetype – the villain, the sweet innocent, the mysterious man, the damaged, etc.
The narrator is what I’ve heard librarians refer to as a “nosy narrator,” in that he speaks directly to the reader, and in that, the humor comes. He points out the ridiculousness of certain plot points and characters, and also the mindset of a Puritanical culture. This was, of course, a bit of a theme with Nathaniel Hawthorne – the dangers of hypocritical moralism. Though the older style of language required some acclimating on my part, I was glad that I read it. Does it inspire me to reread The Scarlet Letter? Absolutely not – my life is too short for that – but it’s good to know that the man’s legendary status is now more understandable for me.
This got me thinking about the books I read in school and what ones I enjoyed enough to want to look at them again as an adult. There were plenty of books that I just could not enjoy, no matter how much teachers and others went on about them – Huck Finn, Ordinary People, Heart of Darkness, I’m looking at you – but the curriculum did have its bright spots.
Here, then, are my Top 5 Classic Books I Should Reread:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen– This was summer reading for my AP English class, before senior year. The language took some acclimating here as well, but once I got used to it, I could see why Jane Austen remained such a literary force. I’m a sucker for all of the film adaptations of her books, no matter how far they supposedly stray from the story, and I’d like to reread this. I’ve also never read any of her others, so they’re on the list too.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley– I’ve tried to read this book three times. Once, on my own at some point in high school. The second, as part of AP English. The third, as part of a literature course in college. Each time, something foiled my efforts. Either I suddenly became very busy with something else, and all my reading suffered, or as is often the case, some terrible virus-plague befell me and I just didn’t care about anything that wasn’t sleeping. I don’t know that I’ve ever made it past the first third of the story. Eventually, I want to conquer this damn book.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – This was also an AP English book. My teacher – Angela Nagengast, may she rest in peace – gave us a lot of great reading material that year. I’ve only read it the one time, but I think I’ve read probably two books’ worth of analyzation on it, and I’ve even seen the E! True Hollywood Story for the Fitzgeralds. (Do they still run that? I can’t picture that channel’s Kurrent Kardashian Klimate allowing it.) Considering this is sort of the bible of literary excellence, I must give it another go. Plus, the new movie version comes out soon and it’s always worth doing a comparison of the two.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Actually, I’ve never read this book, but I’ve read other work by Steinbeck. 14-year-old me did not enjoy The Grapes of Wrath (“Sometimes a turtle crossing the road is just a turtle crossing the road!” I said in class), and it seemed like every standardized test we took included reading excerpts from Travels With Charlie (“Your dog acted out of character while in Montana. Whoopity-doo! Don’t care!”), but I did enjoy reading Of Mice and Men. Because of that, and because I’ve seen the movie East of Eden (James Dean, get in), I’m interested in giving him another chance.
Anything by Edgar Allen Poe – Halloween 2011, I participated in a reading of Poe’s work at a local museum. I picked the story that was my favorite as a kid – “The Masque of The Red Death.” I have vague memories of reading an illustrated version of it at some point in my childhood, and I read bits and pieces of his work over time. My mom got me a hardcover collection of all his short stories and poetry last Christmas, and I keep meaning to dip back into it. He’s great, honestly one of my favorites.
So what about all of you? Tell me of the classics you loved, hated, or mean to get around to at some point in your reading life. Let us celebrate and commiserate together.