Revisiting Recent Classics

This fall I found myself in a reading slump. It isn’t that there aren’t a number of great books out there, I’d just gotten in the habit of selecting books similar in genre and subject matter. I was bored and needed something to shake up my reading world.

I fired up my computer and googled “best books of all time.” One of the first hits was a list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present as determined by TIME magazine. I love book lists, so I printed off a copy, and headed down to East Side Books to see what I could find.

There were a number of titles on the TIME list that brought back memories of high school English classes such as Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. A friend recently told me that he refused to read Moby Dick by Herman Melville as a teen, but once he reached adulthood he gave it another try. Now, it is an all-time favorite that he revisits once a year. He wasn’t ready for Melville’s classic in high school, but he appreciates it greatly as an adult.

I recognized a number of titles from my college literature classes as well: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and There Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Each of these are incredible, and I read them with great absorption and awe.

And even though there were a number of recent classics listed that I’d enjoyed thoroughly in the past few years such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, White Noise by Don Delillo, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith, there were many titles that I’d never read, some I had never even heard of. List in hand, I made my way through the East Side Books shelves in search of something new.

I’m not a big science fiction fan, so in the past I’ve skipped over the classics such as Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. I knew that Ray Bradbury was one of the best science fiction writers around, but I didn’t realize that he was the author of Fahrenheit 451, a book that makes just about every “best book” list. Feeling adventurous, I picked up a copy and gave Bradbury a chance. Within the first few pages, I was blown away. Bradbury’s writing is intense, vivid, and mesmerizing. In the introduction, Bradbury states that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in a span of just over a week in the basement of a library. He describes himself writing at a feverish pace while feeding his rented typewriter hourly from the stack of dimes he kept on the table.

Flush from my success with Bradbury, I bought a copy of If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Published in 1974, I expected the story to be a bit dated, but I was overwhelmed by the beauty and power of this often overlooked classic. Baldwin writes like a poet; his language is lyrical and beautiful even as he examines the stark realities of being Black in America. I put a star by Baldwin’s name, and intend to read many more books by him.

Work by Ernest Hemingway appeared on the Top 100 list, but I’d already read and loved  Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls as well as all his short stories. Regardless, I perused the Hemingway titles on our shelves and decided to check out A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his early years as a budding writer in Paris. I’m glad I did because it was excellent. The spare, tight descriptions were classic Hemingway, but the subject matter was lighter and happier than most of his fictional work. This got me interested in other works by my favorite authors that I have overlooked. I now have on my to-read shelf at home a copy of Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather who wrote My Antonia and O Pioneers!, This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame, and Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham who wrote The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage.

Excited and inspired by my expanded reading repertoire, I find I can’t help but quiz others: “Have you read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler?” or “Have you ever heard of The Recognitions by William Gaddis?”  When I emailed my friend Seth asking if he’d read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which was listed on the best 100 TIME list, he responded immediately. “Snow Crash is hands down one of the most creative books I have ever read. He is an excellent writer.”  When told my hair dresser about reading Bradbury for the first time, she asked if I’d read the Tolkien series. When I confessed that I hadn’t, she put down her scissors and refused to continue my hair cut until I promised to run right out and pick up a copy of The Hobbit.

As I read book after book from the TIME list, I found myself asking, “Why haven’t I read this before? This is such an amazing book! What if I’d missed it?!?!” I think I’d previously thought that classics were too dense to jump into at the end of the day, and admittedly, some are. (I have avoided the Russians for now.) But others read like a conversation with a friend: smoothly, easily, even quickly. That is what good writing is–readable yet inspiring. Examples of more excellent yet readable classic literature are: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

There is still a long list of classics I want to read: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, and Under the Net by Iris Murdoch. Now, instead of not being able to find something to read, my to-read book pile has grown to an enormous, teetering height. If you are in a reading slump or just want to be a little adventurous, pay a visit to East Side Books and pick up a recent classic today. The TIME list of 100 top books will be posted on the front counter for your convenience.

And remember, if you ever need help locating a title, please ask our staff for assistance. We are happy to help, and always pleased to recommend a title.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Recent Classics

  1. Melissa,
    You are ambitious. I just read that Ray Bradbury finally caved and allowed Fahrenheit 451 to be “eBooked”. I am impressed he held out for this long. When the smart glass wall television goes on the market in 3 years, his dark vision will complete itself.

    Iris Murdoch is one of the writers on your list I hold close to my soul. Her insight into human character is profound and disturbing. She is elegant and gritty at the same time.

    You have inspired me to pull up the Times list and start in on it.
    Peace!
    Seth

  2. Cara, this is an excellent endefse of classic literature. When people, engaged in one of those conversations, ask me what I’m reading and I say Our Mutual Friend or The Magic Mountain or War and Peace, they always say wow and conclude that I’m a literary snob. However, I just read what I love. And I love these classics and reread them regularly simply because they are so much more interesting, meaningful and moving than modern popular fiction. The beauties of a well-constructed plot (or, in some cases double and triple plots), genuinely interesting and unique characters facing and making difficult moral choices, and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of good language and original thought these are what I look for when I read. I love being amazed by a particularly apt sentence or phrase that puts into words a great truth that I instinctively recognize but could never have articulated. The only place to find these qualities is in the classics. Thus it is that I reread the same works over and over again. Fortunately, the canon is large enough that it takes a few years to work my way around to rereading any particular novel or play. And when I do, of course, I always discover a hundred new things to love about it! Great literature has fed my soul and deepened my understanding of humanity in all its moral aspects all my life, and I see everything through its filter. I am deeply humbled by the intelligence and artistry of these great writers, and exhilarated by their work. Reading great literature does indeed make us more intensely human; it lifts us from the temporal realms of petty personal politics and personalities into the realm of eternal, essential humanity. Like I always used to say to my students: that’s why it’s one of the HUMANities.

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