As an English major, reading classics and ultra-literary books kinda goes along with the territory — but that doesn’t mean that I was always on board with it.
In fact, there may or may not have been a rather embarrassing email encounter with the head professor of the English department my freshman year in which I tried to worm my way out of taking some of the more antiquated required courses. Of course, I ended up taking and enjoying them. I even took a course with the very professor I had emailed before, and I loved it so much that I immediately signed up for another one of his courses just on Virginia Woolf (now my favorite course ever).
Obviously, it makes no sense to disregard an entire genre of books, no matter how old and dusty they may seem. (Do beware of excessively musty books, however, as they make for an unpleasant reading experience!) You might cheat yourself out of some truly fantastic books and new perspectives if you don’t give certain books a fair shot.
So in an attempt to help us all move past book prejudices, I thought I’d share some of the “brainy” books — classics, “must reads,” and soon-to-be-classics — that I’ve found to be surprisingly readable, valuable, and pleasurable, so much so that I’ve had to change my views on classics. Enjoy!
1) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I know, I know, I can’t believe that it took me so long to read this one either. Is it possible for a classic to be over-hyped? It seems to be on every book list ever, so I think I just got a bit intimidated.
After seeing and enjoying the 2005 movie adaptation, I figured that I probably wouldn’t need to read the book (gasp!). But I did end up reading it later on for a class. As I was starting the book, most everything seemed similar to me; much of the dialogue and many of the famous lines are preserved in the adaptation. But the more I read, the more differences I noticed. Most of them were subtle, but by the end of the book I was re-watching movie scenes and yelling “That’s not how they did it in the book!” like a true book snob.
I still love both the book and movie, but something about the book just really submerges you in Austen’s world so deeply — I’m fairly certain I was talking like Austen’s characters near the end. Really delving into the nuances of the social forces at work in the era makes Lizzy and Darcy’s romance all the more remarkable, and Austen’s writing is whip-smart and a pleasure to read.
2) Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I can still remember my disappointment when this was assigned for class. Another old book with the typical stock painting of a woman in a fancy dress? (My cover was not quite so fetching as this one.)
Yet Madame Bovary is anything but boring — it’s as drama-filled a classic as you’re bound to find. Affairs, sickness, scandals, and debts abound, and I was certainly glued to the pages as our tragic heroine, Emma, spirals out of control. She certainly toes the line as a character: do you hate her, feel sorry for her, or do you feel a mix of both for her? Emma is unforgettable.
Many other characters in the book are similarly fleshed out and given intriguing portraits. The entire book is filled with rich description that brings Emma’s world to life. My professor’s perspective helped me to appreciate the pioneering narrative style, as well as the intense realism Flaubert created that had all the women of France claiming to be the inspiration for Emma. I was also intrigued by the long literary tradition Madame Bovary follows in which people (especially women) fall so hard for the fantasy worlds of novels that they confuse the boundaries of life and fiction. (Ah, the classic book blogger’s dilemma).
3) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
I’ll never be able to speak my fill about Mrs. Dalloway, but hear me out in the small space I’ve allotted myself here. I’ve read the book three times now, and I still have new revelations every time I read it.
It’s complex in some ways, as Woolf’s flow-of-consciousness style and use of multiple POVs are challenging at first, though ultimately rewarding. But it’s also deeply relatable in the emotions of its characters, and in its portrayal of life lived day-to-day, even hour to hour (the book is set over the course of a day, interrupted by flashbacks). Woolf drops you directly into the characters’ minds, exposing their deepest fears and desires in such a way that each character is rendered painfully and endearingly human. Some of her characters are middle-aged, foreigners, or PTSD sufferers, yet each strives to be understood, and longs for connection.
Besides the gorgeous writing and incredible characterization, Mrs. Dalloway details a bustling and changing post-WWI London quite intimately. Thanks to the book’s style, you feel like you’re walking right alongside the characters: buying flowers, gawking at the royal motorcade, bumping into old friends, riding omnibuses, and people-watching (or napping) in parks.
4) “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” by James Baldwin
A recent professor of mine said that James Baldwin is one of her favorite writers, and I think her passion has rubbed off me. Though “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” is only a short story, it packs quite a punch and really puts you in the mind of its unnamed narrator, the main character.
Our narrator is an outsider in so many ways: he’s a foreigner, an American expat living abroad in Paris, speaking a language of which he has no native understanding; he is a black man living in the Civil Rights era, alienated from his own country which refuses to see him as an equal. Yet his struggles are also so relatable: he is a husband, striving for a deep connection free of judgements; he is a father, wrestling with lessons of the past that he must teach his son; he is a man, trying to make his way in the world as he is divided by different loyalties spanning borders, boundaries, and time.
All in all, Baldwin’s story is an absorbing, solidly penned piece with a distinctly modern sensibility. The story’s scope is nearly epic, taking on so many human problems while also jumping in time and location, though its straightforward narration helps ground it. It’s unlikely that I’ll forget this story any time soon, and I’d love to read more of Baldwin’s work.
Share your thoughts on my list! What are some of your favorite “brainy” reads?