Reading the Classics

Reading the classics

“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. My-Antonia by Willa CatherIn 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)

The Grapes of Wrath1. 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.

Rebecca Book4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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.

The Sun Also Rises6. 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.)

The Iliad12. 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.

The Age of Innocence14. 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?

101 things in 1001 days #75 (101 things in 1001 days): Read at least 15 classics I’ve never read.

Related post: Join a classics book club

About Marcy

I blog about trying to get out of my comfort zone, completing 101 things in 1001 days (and beyond), and writing my memoirs. My book: Timid No More.

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19 Responses to Reading the Classics

  1. Rahmath says:

    Great list. Loved the short reviews.I haven’t read any of the books though. I did start Uncle Tom’s Cabin but I just could not finish it. It was so so so sad.
    I have seen the movie adaptation of Rebecca and I loved it. Maybe I should get hold of the book.
    I have Illiad at home but now I think I will not read it. Hubby did not like it too.
    Will try to get hold of the others.

  2. Katie says:

    I have a bunch of classics on my “to read” list and honestly, I’ve been avoiding them. Reading your descriptions makes me want to bump some of them higher on the list.

  3. Carol Apple says:

    Thanks for this great list. There are couple I have not read (The Good Earth) and some that like you, I have read so long ago I have forgotten. I need to re-read My Antonia and The Age of Innocence. I am teaching (facilitating rather) Western Civ to my homeschooling senior and we have been struggling through The Iliad. I think it’s important for my son to read it but I am surprised how much I don’t like it. I have an aversion to violence for one thing. We should’ve done The Odyssey first. We are also reading Walden and Thoreau seems to have been big a fan of The Iliad. Go figure.
    Carol Apple recently posted..Thoreau, the dentist, and homemade dogfood: How I spent Columbus DayMy Profile

    • Marcy says:

      I have always meant to read Walden. I think I started it once, but didn’t make it through. I think I would appreciate it more now.

  4. beebeewworld says:

    Nice memories…. beebee

  5. Daniel Nest says:

    Wow. This list just made me realise how behind on the classics I am.

    I need to get back in the reading game!
    Daniel Nest recently posted..The totally true story of how I pulled a stingMy Profile

  6. I agree completely that audio books count. I think hearing the words read aloud offers a new perspective.
    Grats on completing your list.
    That cynking feeling recently posted..Silent Sunday Slideshow: Merry-go-roundMy Profile

  7. Chrys Fey says:

    Thank you for sharing! There are a lot of books on your list I plan to read, and what you said about them makes me want to read them sooner rather than later. 🙂
    Chrys Fey recently posted..Plagiarism is NOT Writing!My Profile

  8. Hi Squeamy –

    That would be tough go to go from the classics to 50 Shades, just sayin ~

  9. Cumulus says:

    So do you agree with those who believe that the the Iliad and the Odyssey were really written by different people?

    • Marcy says:

      Hmm, I guess I do in that I believe they were collected from oral stories over many, many years. I never thought about it, though, in terms of how I liked one and disliked the other.

  10. I LOVE to read too and listening works fine 🙂 Sometimes better if that’s all you can do. I love the good earth and need to read Rebecca and My Ántonia which I’ve never heard of (slight gap in knowledge revealed!) but sounds great.

    I wouldn’t bother with 50 shades! Go for State of Wonder – by Ann Patchett if you fancy a great read by a great writer 🙂
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot recently posted..Urban Safari in Harare and Zimbabwe Travel Myths BustedMy Profile

  11. Lenore says:

    Thanks for posting your list. I’ve enjoyed reviewing it. I’ve read 3 out of the 15, started (but never finished) 3/15…and put a few more of these on my list. Thanks again!

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