There are a ton of ‘classical literature’ out there, and if you’re not reading them in class it can be difficult to know which ones to chose, after all, they are classics for a reason. Some of these books are extremely long, some just have so much description they seem longer than they really are, some challenged the society they were written in, but seem to have a hard time doing that with our current way of living, and some took a look at the past and decided to make their own version of that. Not everyone will enjoy a 1200 page long book (I have weak wrists, and those things are heavy!), and some people will not see the point of rewriting the past. Whatever your temper is, picking the right classical literature to read can mean the difference between discouragement and falling in love.
Since I never read any classical literature in school (I went to school in Denmark, we read Skammeren’s Datter, not Wuthering Heights), I never knew where to start. My solution was to look through the Wordsworth Classics section at my local bookstore and buy whatever titles I recognized. Needless to say, not all of these were entirely to my liking. I now have a shelf full of Wordsworths where the spine haven’t been cracked. There are quite a few I’m too intimidated to even take down from the shelf (Moby Dick, I’m looking at you), and some where I later read the back page and realized what the book was actually about (I don’t usually enjoy love stories all that much). So yeah, my approach wasn’t the best one.
If you have ever found yourself in a similar situation and wondered which of the classics would fit your temper, mood, time frame or whatever other criteria you may have, I hope this can help you a little. I’ll go through a few of the classics I have read and give you a (very) short summary, the number of pages, the first sentence (to give you a sense of the style and structure of those), and end with an ‘I would recommend this if:’
Obviously, I haven’t read every classic there is (yet), so I enlisted the help of my good friend Alice ( we used to argue over whether the American or the British ‘North And South’ was better, and if Austen of Shakespeare was more interesting, so she’s well equipped for the task). We will start with five books, and return later with a few more. If you find our list lacking or disagree with our points feel free to leave a comment or add your own favorite classics, or request one that you would like to know about.
So without further ado, here’s a list of a few of the classics, and a guide to what type of reader they might fit best.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Summary: Mr. Lockwood takes up a new resident in Thruscross Grange, and when he takes ill his housekeeper, Ms. Nelly Dean, tells him the story of the people who used to live there and at the neighboring house. It is a love story of sorts (the term very loosely applied) about the dark Heathcliff who was found by Mr. Earnshaw and brought to his home as a foster child, and the daughter of the house Catherine. Heathcliff is a dark sort of man, not just in appearance, but in soul as well – that is to say he has a fondness for plotting revenge schemes. Catherine is a proud and selfish thing, despite claiming otherwise. Neither character has much to recommend them, indeed that can be said for almost every person in the book apart from Mr. Lockwood and Ms. Dean. The story is engaging, and you might find yourself rooting for utterly dislikeable characters to find what they seek.
Number of Pages: 248 in the Wordsworth edition.
First sentence: ‘1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.’
I would recommend this if: You like gothic novels and romances that aren’t all prince-charming-ly. If you enjoy interesting characters, untraditional writing technics (it is written mostly with secondhand narration), and unexpected twists. The family tree can be a bit confusing at first (Mr. Lockwood shares your confusion, so you’re not alone there), but if you stick with it all will become clear – and if I might inject a personal opinion here: worth the time and energy.
Persuasion, Jane Austen
This was Jane Austen’s last novel, and you can feel that as you read the book if you are familiar with her earlier novels. By the time Austen wrote this book she seemed to have matured in her style of writing as well as her sense and style of humor.
Summary: Anne Elliot, daughter of the baronet Walter Elliot, is in her late twenties when financial difficulties force her family to let out their home (Kellynch). It just so happens that the family renting the house are the sister and brother-in-law of Captain Wentworth, to whom Anne was engaged 8 years prior. She was persuaded to end the relationship by her friend Lady Russell. And so the novel tells the story of meeting your old love and coping with trying to hide the past and the feelings that might still be there.
Number of pages: about 234 pages
First sentence: Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somerset, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.
Would recommend if: you like a romance between people who have matured more than your average hero and heroine, and if you enjoy the intelligent kind of humor that relies greatly on sarcasm and irony.
Hamlet Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare
First of all, please note that Shakespeare never wrote his plays to be read, they were supposed to be seen, heard, and felt. Also, most of the people who saw his plays didn’t understand all the words (partly due to the fact that he kept making up new ones, partly due to many of them being illiterate), but they understood the emotions, and that was what it was all about. With that in mind maybe you’d rather watch this one than read it – personally I would recommend the one from 2009 starring David Tennant, there’s just something about those eyes staring at you like he can read your very soul.
Summary: The king of Denmark dies, and his ghost visits Prince Hamlet and lets him know that it was his uncle (the king’s brother) who murdered the king. Hamlet, in grief over his father’s death, then has to find out if the ghost is real or an evil spirit meaning to damn him, and if it is real, what he will do with its pleas for revenge. It becomes a bloody tale indeed, and no one is spared.
Number of pages: 44 in Wordsworth’s ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’. There are 5 acts and 20 scenes in all.
First sentence: ‘Who’s there?’ (Okay, this is a poor example of the sentence structure to expect. You’ll come across some long and complicated sentences, in fact, the first thing I remember thinking when reading this the first time was ‘This guy is not fond of full stops’, so be warned.)
I would recommend if: This might sound odd, but I would recommend this if you’ve ever experienced a depression. Something like that can be hard to go through and can make you feel alone and isolated. I think Shakespeare has a way of expressing this state in a way few others are capable of, in a way that makes you believe that truly, you are not alone. This is even more powerful with a talented actor delivering the lines, but that is another point entirely.
On a more literary note, I would recommend this if you fancy deep plots, intriguing language, a nice bit of humor dosed in intelligence (as an example Hamlet calls the king his mother, and argues his choice in such a way that you cannot help but to agree with him), if you like arguing morality and ethics, and if you want to read something that is sure to stay with you.
Richard III, William Shakespeare
Like I mentioned, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, heard, experienced, but he never intended for the public to read them. With that in mind, if you want to watch it instead I would personally recommend the 2016 version starring Benedict Cumberbatch – it’s a part of Hollow Crown The Wars of the Roses, and as all the Hollow Crown adaptations it’s brilliant. If you want more details and an alternative you can check out my post on the differences between the 2016 version and the 1955 version.
Summary: Richard, Duke of Gloster, covets his brother’s crown (yes, I just used the word ‘covets’, if you can’t take that, this play probably isn’t for you). He seeks to get it by any means necessary, including murder. The play follows his plotting, scheming, and talking to himself (or the audience, whatever you please), through family assignations, false friends, treacherous soldiers, and all the way to the battlefield and rolling crown.
Number of Pages: 41 in Wordsworth’s ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare’. There are 5 acts and 25 scenes in all.
First sentence: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York; and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
I would recommend if: You don’t mind the language, have a knack for keeping names straight in your mind (not a necessity, but might help a little. I personally suck at names, and I still enjoyed the play), and more importantly if you find ‘villains’ more interesting than ‘heroes’ and enjoy diving into the darker side of human nature.
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
For the sake of full disclosure, I have only read the Danish translation (I was desperate for something to read and unwilling to wait for delivery. I found this in a second-hand shop and had to own it.) Because of this I have had to google the first sentence, but it seems to fit fairly well with the translation I have, so I’m simply assuming it is correct. I also think it’s normally one book, whereas my version is divided into four separate books.
Summary: The story takes place in the southern states of America, just around the time of the civil war. We follow Scarlett O’Hara, a somewhat obstinate and vain girl whose main desire seems to be attention and flattery. She meets Rhett Butler, a man of questionable morals and plenty of charm.
As the war progresses Scarlett and her neighbors must fight for their way of living, and in time fight to adjust to new times. Through all of this external toil, we follow each character’s development, how time and circumstances change them, how their hidden strengths or obvious weaknesses demand to come to light or be acknowledged, and how their relationships change and evolve.
Number of pages: The version I have is 4 books, combined it adds up to approximately 1200 pages. (Wikipedia says 1037 in the first edition)
First sentence: ‘Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.’
Would recommend if: you like civil war fiction, strong-willed characters, and don’t mind long descriptions of southern beauty and cotton fields. If you believe the ‘strong’ won’t necessarily be the one who shouts the loudest, and if you think the ones who shout the loudest are often the ones who don’t know what they say, then I think this will be to your liking.
So there you have our first five picks – come back later for more, or leave your suggestions in the comments.