One of my summer projects has been to put together a list of ten classic novels that I have always wanted to read (or reread in some cases) and read them before the end of the year. I looked at a lot of lists already compiled on the internet – the Top 100 Classic Novels You Must Read If You Want To Be Considered At Least Halfway Well-Read – you’ve no doubt seen them. These lists are all very different, depending on who is putting them together. Three of these very good lists can be found here and here and here.
My list was taken partially from the lists I saw, and partly from the book, Write Like the Masters by William Cane, which instructs that there is a lot to be learned (and imitated) by examining authors such as Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, George Orwell, etc.
My list doesn’t include a Hemingway novel, alas, but ten was the limit I set for myself, so ten it will be. We can’t include everyone. The value of the Ten Classic Novels List is entirely arbitrary. It’s a list of classics which I felt readers of this blog and readers of mostly women’s fiction would appreciate.
Nearly every list contains a few works that I know I should read, but don’t. Ulysses for example, Don Quixote, Catch-22 and Lolita, for some reason don’t hold much appeal for me. I could be wrong about these works though, that has been known to happen.
The Ten Classic Novels List:
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. I’m reading this now, 150 pages into it. Hooked! I know I’m hooked when I steal a few moments to read a page or two while the corn is steaming. First published in 1957, Rand’s fourth and last novel, it was her longest and the one she considered to be the best of all her fiction works. Her “baby”. It contains elements of mystery and science fiction and Rand’s stand on Objectivism.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Every list needs at least one Russian novel. The moral dilemma and subsequent mental anguish of Taskolnikov, who kills an unscrupulous pawnbroker for cash and tells himself that with the money he will perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime. He believes he is capable of murder, that he has a right to do it, and that he should do it but eventually he becomes more unsure and is consumed by guilt and longs to confess.
1984 by George Orwell. Orwell, provoked by the totalitarian system, wrote about it in the story of Winston Smith, trapped in a political nightmare and in a desperate struggle to free himself from a controlling, evil state. Everyone surrounding Smith has been brainwashed by The Party, whose objective is to control people. He rebels against The Party and trusts no one. The concept of “doublespeak” was documented here, euphemisms and watered-down phrases which consoled the citizens.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Published in 1939, this novel takes place during the Great Depression. It is the story of the Joads, who are a family of tenant farmers driven from their home in Oklahoma by economic hardship due to changes in financial and agricultural industries, and drought. Because of their hopeless situation, they sought jobs, land, dignity and a future, and set out on the road to California, only to finally realize that it may not be the windfall for which they had hoped.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Of course, everyone knows what this book is about. But did you know that Mitchell was considered a master of internal monologue and that what is so captivating about the novel is the heroine’s voice? I read this many years ago (more than I care to say) and now I would like to reread it with the eye or a writer, because for sure, Ms. Mitchell was doing something very right when she created one of the best-selling books in the world.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby wants one thing, to be reunited with Daisy Buchannan, who is the love he lost five years earlier. His quest for Daisy leads him from poverty to wealth, and eventually wins her back. Unfortunately Daisy is married to someone else. It is a tragic novel, and is noted for the unique way Fitzgerald captured the privileged cross-section of society, during the Roaring Twenties.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Published in 1960, this novel was successful immediately and won the Pulitzer Prize. It deals with serious issues of rape and racial inequality. Atticus Finch, who is appointed by the court to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman, is considered a “racial hero.” The novel deals with the issues of class and gender roles in the American deep south.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. This is one I’m not too sure about but it’s been so widely read and highly touted that I figured it must be one of those books that you don’t expect to like, but do. It seems like it will be somewhat grim, from the description, but is the story of the cycle of success and failure in one family. It gives the reader a very good idea of what life in China was like at that time and deals with themes such as women’s rights, class conflict, moral values, and the importance of family.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Published in 1847, this novel was a little ahead of its time, described as an “influential feminist text” because of the strong female character. Told in the first person, the novel gives the reader a true and complete exploration of Jane’s inner feelings and conflicts. Told in five stages, from a difficult childhood through her eventual marriage to the love of her life, Mr. Rochester.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. This is Jane Austen’s first work published under the pseudonym “A Lady,” It was published in 1811 and, next to P & P, is probably the most widely-read of her novels. This is the story of the life and times of the Dashwood sisters, who are left in reduced circumstances after their father dies and the estate passes to their half-brother, John. They are forced to take up residence in a meager cottage where they experience romance and heartbreak.
One addition: Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) was one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I didn’t include it though, because I read it recently and this is a “to-read” list. Read the Oprah pick version, it has the best translators.
If you decide to read any of these, happy classic novel reading!