“We read to know we are not alone.”
— C.S. Lewis
“Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
— Groucho Marx
They say you can find yourself by reading the classics, and it was true for me.
In the shrinkingly fearful unnamed narrator of Rebecca, I saw myself, but I also saw how far I’ve come in my mid-life quest to be more assertive and adventurous. In My Antonia, I marveled at the change the middle-aged me felt about the ending compared to the fresh-out-of-college me.
I am very slow in my pleasure reading, but I picked up the pace considerably when I started listening to audiobooks in my car while commuting to and from work. My younger son charged that this is not “reading,” but I am a certified English teacher and say that it is, so I overruled him.
In my task to read 15 classics that I had never read, I did bend the rules a bit in that I had previously read a few of these, but I had so thoroughly forgotten them that I gave myself a pass.
15 Classics (with my brief reactions)
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Joads leave the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and set out for jobs in California. I really loved this book, and it connected me with an important chapter in American history. It also, though, felt relevant to today’s environment of corporate greed and political heartlessness. I had read it long ago, but had forgotten more of it than I remembered. The ending I did remember, and it brought tears to my eyes again just as it did the first time.
2. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
Ántonia, a Bohemian immigrant, grows up in poverty on the Nebraska prairie. I had read this one long ago as well, but I had a very different reaction to it as a middle-aged woman than I had the first time I read it: My Ántonia Didn’t Change, But I Sure Did.
3. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
This book about slavery, while like a soap opera at times, is endlessly fascinating. I read an illustrated edition that was chock-full of historical side notes. I learned the horror of being “sold down the river” and that being called an “Uncle Tom” would not be considered an insult if people would read this book.
A fearful woman lives in the shadow of her wealthy husband’s dead wife. I didn’t love the book, but I was shocked when I discovered why the narrator had been irritating me so much: I Am Not Rebecca. I wasn’t crazy about the male character either (or the house for that matter), but I could have hidden behind those drapes.
5. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
A young English woman tours Florence with an annoying chaperone. I liked this book, but not as much as Forster’s A Passage to India, which I loved.
6. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
A group of the “Lost Generation” travels to Pamplona for the running of the bulls. I didn’t love this one like I have some of Hemingway’s other books, but it did lead to a great discussion at a book club meeting.
7. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I liked this one, and I was teaching it to seventh graders just as the first movie was about to come out, which made it a lot of fun. I identify with Bilbo, a little hobbit who just wants to stay in his comfy hobbit-hole, but agrees to go on a dangerous adventure. My favorite part is when Bilbo chooses to continue down the tunnel toward Smaug: “It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.”
I used some of its riddles in a Christmas treasure hunt I designed for my kids: A Christmas Quest: Solve the Riddles to Find Your Present. “Confusticate and bebother those dwarves!”
8. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
This is a ghost story about a creepy boy and girl being cared for by a governess. I disliked this book and found it tedious with annoying, convoluted language. When I read about it after I finished it, I did find it a little more interesting, but I do not recommend it.
9. Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway
Even though I am sure I would not like Hemingway if I ever met him in an alternate universe, and I would never dream of killing wild animals on a safari, I loved this book. Hemingway’s vivid descriptions placed me on those African hills with a rifle in my hand.
10. Candide by Voltaire
I disliked this boring book and found it hard to get through. It did make me feel a little extra empathy for my students who struggle with not getting the references in a text since I had to keep flipping to the back to read the footnotes about how he was satirizing different people of his day.
11. The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
I found this book to be hard to get through as well. I had expected to like it because I heard it was the inspiration for the Japanese movie Ikiru, which I adored, but it was all the death without any of the uplifting inspiration. (Check out Ikiru.)
12. The Iliad by Homer
As a lover of Greek mythology and Homer’s The Odyssey, I was disappointed by how much I disliked this book. So-and-so, son of so-and-so, of the island of such-and-such, put on his cuirass and blah-blah-blahed for 94% of the book. While there were a few moments of exquisite tension, I kept waiting for it to pick up and was relieved when it was over. And Achilles–I knew he was a jerk, but what a putz. I also kept mistakenly waiting for the Trojan horse to appear, but it’s not even in the book. Read The Odyssey, though; it’s great.
13. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I loved this masterpiece! I had seen the old James Dean movie as a kid and knew I would love Cal and Abra, but there was so much more to the book about the previous generation.
14. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I loved this book’s amazing description of the subtleties of social interactions. And, oh, poor Newland…. I wish he would have let himself make different choices.
15. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
This book pulled me into the world of rural China as it opened on the wedding day of Wang Lung, a dirt poor farmer who prepared for the special occasion by taking a rare bath and using tea in his morning drink of hot water, as his old father worried over how wasteful he was being. I liked this book as it traced his life from that impoverished day to prosperity.
Now that I’ve completed my challenge, I’ll focus on contemporary books for a while. Didn’t I hear something about an obscure book called Fifty Shades of Grey?
Read any good books lately?
#75 (101 things in 1001 days): Read at least 15 classics I’ve never read.
Related post: Join a classics book club