Thursday, August 20, 2009

Laura’s Favorite Classics (Part 1 from Austen to Dreiser)

What defines a classic? Is it something that a stodgy college English professor tells you to read? Is it something that you read and enjoy? Is it a book that taught you a lesson? Is it science fiction, a graphic novel, a children’s novel? Is it a book that is often read and cited by other people and pop culture in general? I think a classic novel is all of these things. I loved my high school and college literature classics, but used them as a spring board for where to start in my search for great novels to read. Going through the lists of “classic” novels has made me think about my own personal library and favorite classics. I’ve also had several friends tell me that they are going to read “the classics.” This is part one of my favorite classic novels.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Angelou writes a tale that is funny at times and heartbreaking at others. Overall it’s unforgettable.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was one of my favorite books as a young girl. I just reread it a couple of years ago and loved it again. While there are “moral lesson” parts that drag a bit, the overall love for family in the novel, and engaging stories of home life make this novel a classic.

Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion by Jane Austen. All six of Austen’s novels are excellent and must reads. I’d start with Pride and Prejudice. I love the humor and the social commentary. Persuasion is my other favorite. It is a tale of true love and how far we will let our friends “persuade” us against our better judgment.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. The Bronte sisters and their passionate tales are must reads. Anne often gets short shrift, but I feel her novels are as good as her sisters. While all are passionate tales, they can also be taken as stories that bring to light the position of women in Victorian society. Each of these novels is my favorite by each sister (I’ve read all of their collected works).

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. Buck was a very popular author in the early part of the twentieth century. Reading her novels of life in China and the eternal questions of love and life as a woman, it is easy to see why.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This riveting tale of murder in rural Kansas is a classic. This book was the start of literary true crime narratives.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, O Pioneers, and My Antonia by Willa Cather. Cather is one of my favorite novelists. Skip her Pulitzer Prize winning novel (One of Ours) and opt instead for three of her masterpieces. Death Comes for the Archbishop is a wonderful story set in the Southwest that is full of descriptive narrative and wonderful characters. O Pioneers and My Antonia are unforgettable tales of the hardships of life as a pioneer in Nebraska.

David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I would like to read all of Charles Dickens novels before I die. These three are my favorites of what I’ve read so far. I love Dickens detailed descriptions and quirky characters. David Copperfield is his most autobiographical tale, A Tale of Two Cities is a tear-jerker that is one of his most quotable books, and A Christmas Carol is beloved and known by all.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I read An American Tragedy while I was in college (on my own – although I would have loved to discuss it in a class). It had a slow start, but once I got into it, I couldn’t put it down. It was only a few years after the OJ trial when I read it and I found that not much had changed in the 70 years since the book was written. Not only is it a love story gone wrong, but it’s also the story of a boy trying to get ahead in the world, of a system that doesn’t care for the individual, and public officials who only care about getting ahead and not about the people they serve. This book changed the way I feel about capital punishment. It is not a quick read, but by the end I cared enough that I cried.

I hope to continue posting on this subject in the future. This is my look through my first book case… I’ll do bookcase number two next!

As I look back through this list, I am struck by the fact that I didn't read any of these books for a high school or college literature class. The only one I did read in college, Pride and Prejudice, I had read on my own before and after the class. I think a lot of it was that for some reason in high school and college, not too many women authors made it onto the "great novels" list that we read. In fact, P&P was in my British novel class and the only book we read by a woman. My American novel class had not one book by a woman. What do you think about that? Why do teachers and professors (or at least mine) usually pick men authors?

I would love to keep discussing this in the comments section. How do you feel about these classics overall? What are your favorite classics?


  1. Laura, this is terrific list of classics. I think the definition of classic literature--books which have withstood the passing of time and are still relevant--defines your list. I've read many of them, in school and outside of school.

    I wonder which of today's books will become classics?

  2. Suko - I wonder that too. It's always funny looking back at what was popular literature in a different era versus what we remember today. F.Scott Fitzgerald was pretty much forgotten by the 1930's, but is classic today. At the same time Fannie Hurst was an extremely popular novelist and you can't find her books anywhere today.

  3. Yes i agree, those are classics

  4. I have to admit I haven't read too many of the classics. Charles Dickens I've only read A Christmas Carol. His other books are too depressing. I've all of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Jane Eyre's my favorite! Love Little Women and want to get to Maya Angelou, but the others I've never even heard of!! Well, Capote because of the movie just recently...I am horribly lacking in refinement.

  5. I love reading classics, but there are a few on your list that I haven't yet read. I think of the classics as books that survive a long time and that touch on universal human experience somehow. Or they may capture the essence of the time period they were written in. They always seem to have depth - themes that really get you thinking and that different people respond to in different ways. I look forward to the next part in this post series.

  6. Hey Laura! Just got your comment on the classics challenge blog. If everything works out, I'll definitely be hosting the challenge again next year--probably starting in April. You're welcome to join us this year, if you'd like. No worries about not finishing them all. :)

  7. Laura:

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    I always enjoy visiting your blog. Keep up the good work!

    Karen Henry
    Outlandish Observations

  8. I'd say that anything that still has a point and a meaning today is a classic. Will Dan Brown's books be considered classics one day? I doubt it, but anything like Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, Atonement, Saturday, that sort of thing will be one day.

    We had a good mix of men/women's books in high school, so it's not a constant. Some I loved, some I didn't (I still can't get through Wuthering Heights a second time). Still, at least we got a good representation. Of course, they were AP classes, so maybe that made a difference.

    I share your goal of reading all of Dickens before I die. I've still got 5 or 6 of the major novels to go, then I need to work on all of the shorter stories.

  9. For some reason when we read through short story collections (in high school and college) there were women included, but when it came down to it, the novels we read were by males. My high school teacher for American Lit loved a lot of the same authors I did and talked about them, but we still read A Catcher in the Rye, etc. My College English class (before there was AP English in my high school, you just took college prep classes) teacher was a woman, but only talked about male authors (especially Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck).

  10. Great discussion! A 'clssic' is one hard to define. I think the problem is that there are so many great books/classics that it is impossible to read them all. Because I earned my degree in English Ed people think I've read every classic out there. While I have read eveything that Shakespeare ever wrote I had not read A Christmas Carol until this month!
    I like your list of classics. I've read most of these, but certainly not all.

  11. Hm, it is hard to define the term classic. To me, I think they are the ones that remain relevant through the decades and are so rich they offer something new each time you read them.

    Little Women is one of my personal classics. I re-read it every few years or so, and it never gets old or stale for me. Austen is the same way. I also love the Bronte sisters, although I haven't read Anne. Perhaps I should remedy that.

    Dickens, however... I tried to like Dickens. I really did. I hated Great Expectations. Maybe I should give it another shot, though, and see if I like it any better now.

  12. I have a few in common with you that are my favorites. Little Women (which I've read many, many times), Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Rebecca. I'm going to have to borrow your idea some time and post my fav classics on my blog. Hope you won't mind...I'll link back to you, of course!

    Also, I have given you an award. Please stop by and pick it up here:

  13. Maybe ten years ago I decided to read all of the Dickens novel in a row by Publication day-0ne of the very best experiences of my Reading Life-I hope you do it also!