I was an avid reader throughout grade school, but from sheer mental exhaustion in college my book consumption waned. When I attempted pick up my prior reading habits this summer, I realized something: most contemporary fiction doesn’t agree with me anymore. So, I spent this summer primarily reading two genres: contemporary nonfiction (see Michael Pollan), and classic fiction.
When I say classic fiction, I mean literary classics that are fictional, however, these particular works of literary merit have something else in common: they are depictions of society in a time where cell phones and the internet didn’t exist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to abandon society and go live in the mountains, but it is so intriguing to me to see the way people interacted without instantaneous social facilitation provided by the internet. In the five literary classics I’m about to present, the characters are so much better developed than in contemporary fiction books I have read, the descriptions more elaborate, eloquent, and precise, and the stories so much more meaningful even though they may not deal with such dramatic topics as are popular today. This may or may not have anything to do with the absence or presence of the internet during the time of their conception, but there is no question they are all excellent works. Warning: I am prone to geek out about these titles, so devouring this post in one sitting is not for the faint of heart.
1) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
|Source. “Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand.”|
I attempted to read this book when I was about 10 and didn’t make much sense of it. Now I see that it was really only the reading level that was over my head, the stories would so benefit a girl going into her teenage years. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are like my own sisters, and my heart rose and fell with them throughout their struggles. I always identified best with Meg. She and I are both eldest sisters and natural homemakers. I foresee myself running into the same tribulations as she when I first set up my own home. Alcott’s characters are unforgettable and easy to relate to, and I would have to say that out of these five she probably did the best job of creating a family that welcomes each and every reader with open arms.
2) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
|Source. “These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. “
I love Romeo and Juliet because it opened my eyes to the wonderful world that is Shakespeare. I first read this play for my high school freshman English class, and nothing more endears a high school freshman to a novel than sexual innuendos, which Shakespeare is riddled with. I became infatuated with finding the double meanings in Shakespeare’s words, which, as my love for Shakespeare matured, went beyond sexual puns and jokes into the larger, complicated picture and interpersonal dynamics Shakespeare weaves. Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favorite Shakespearean work (in all honesty, I couldn’t choose, but Midsummer and Twelfth Night, and Othello and Hamlet, are all up there), but it is, I guess, my gateway drug that began this marvelous addiction.
3) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
|Source. “A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony, in a moment.”|
Okay, yes, maybe this one is expected, but there is a reason this book is still widely admired today. There is much to love about P&P: the characters, the romance, the irony, but for me, Austen’s voice is the best part of the novel. I love the sarcastic tone she takes when describing some of her more frivolous characters, like Mrs. Bennet, which speaks volumes to me about her own views of their society, as does the nature of Elizabeth and Darcy’s relationship. Society expected each to fall in love with completely different people, and the fact that Mr. Bennet is the only one who isn’t upset by Elizabeth’s intentions only proves to me that Ms. Austen and I agree: he the only sane supporting character in the whole novel.
4) The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
|Source. “It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”|
The Great Gatsby didn’t particularly hit home with me until the second reading. The first reading was in school, and I think we may have picked it apart so much it ruined my enjoyment of the novel (or maybe enhanced it for the second reading?). This book is transitional, in the heart of the roaring 20s, and moral conflict is rampant, especially in Tom, who both openly has a paramour and resents the idea of his wife doing the same. Nick, the narrator, is a huge reason I love this book. Through Nick, Fitzgerald is able to show a wide scope of reactions to his other characters because Nick is both opinionated and observant. Nick not only sees the rise of the dynamic Gatsby but the circumstances of his downfall as well — and how it was all related.
5) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
|Source. “No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as that which will support the weight of human vanity.”|
Lily Bart, the protagonist of this 1900s novel, is a character to whom many women of this generation can relate. She is headstrong, idealistic, and opportunistic. If she were born in 1980, she would have easily risen to the top of whatever industry she chose, fallen in love, and lived happily ever after following the high-class social circles. Instead she lives in a society where her sole job is to get married, and the only conquest she fell in love with wouldn’t have been able to support her social status. There was no division between the marital world and the economic world, so Lily keeps foiling her own attempts for financial bliss because of her feelings, which most women simply ignored. Out of the five books I’ve mentioned, this one by far has the best descriptions of human feeling. When Lily and Selden had their one moment of romantic bliss, I was so excited that I had to put the book down and take a break to contain myself. I felt Lily’s shock at her aunt’s unprecedented betrayal and her frustration that she couldn’t hold down a decent job. Yes, this book is long, but it’s worth every word.