I recently went on a quest to read a whole bunch of recent bestsellers. This is part of a larger quest to be more well-read in general, and also to broaden my relationship with words, writing, and English. The bestseller thing was kind of an attempt to get my head around what is popular, what sells, and what other people want to read. I am about to begin a new branch of this larger quest – the classics. Novels, specifically.
Like everyone who went to high school, I do have some grounding in reading some of these well-known, oft-forced, highly consumed works. My relationships with them vary from amiable liking to belly-level hatred that typically has nothing to do with the work itself, and everything to do with the circumstances of its entry into my life.
I have no problems with To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, or The Hobbit, which rate out on Goodreads as some of the most-read classics. I even rather liked The Hobbit, to the effect that when I heard Lord of the Rings was about Bilbo’s nephew rather than Bilbo himself, it made me put off reading them until just as the movies were hitting theaters (I was literally reading the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring as fast as I could the day that we were planning to go to the theater).
The Catcher in the Rye I didn’t manage to read until after I had graduated college on an earlier short sojourn into this same territory – at that time, I was making up for the “school reads” that everyone else had encountered, but I had not, because I took AP classes and in the same way that I missed the in-depth European History that many remember in favor of a much broader World History, I read a lot of things for English that aren’t as widely prescribed as high school curriculum (like Herland, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had a special mystique because in my freshman year there was some kerfluffle at the senior-class reading level, and it went from an AP required read to “banned,” leading my senior friend to bequeath to me her “Secret Banned Copy of This Book” upon her graduation.
I hate Frankenstein because I was saddled with reading it and with writing down the answers to a litany of detail-level questions over Thanksgiving break one year, and I felt betrayed that the subject I usually liked and found easy was taking so much time and requiring me to stay in my room while everyone else played card games and caroused.
Classics, though, are classics for a reason, and I believe there is much to be learned from them, and so I will go on this quest.
I would like to outline the top ten most-read classics that I have NOT read. I used some classics and best-books lists from things like the Times, and then sorted the lists by number of ratings on Goodreads, which while imperfect as a metric, gives a pretty good measure of a book’s read-ness. I will most likely be using this to guide which ones I read first.
I question the “classics” status of a couple on this list, for different reasons, which I will address within. This might in your eyes be a “Top 8,” for that reason.
#10: The Scarlet Letter
Yep. I made it through high school without reading this one. That’s what happens when you jump from 10th grade English to AP curriculum I guess. But it makes me feel like a bit of a phony when I try to sub as an English teacher, even just for a day.
It seems a bit silly to have never read Dracula, given my recent desire to investigate the literature of the monstery and paranormal. While my penchant is werewolves, Dracula is a classic, dammit!
#8: A Tale of Two Cities
I’ve read some other things by Dickens, and while he wasn’t my favorite then, I suspect I’ll find more merit in him now.
#7: Sense and Sensibility
I just started reading this, actually, two days ago, so this will be the first step in my journey. My reader friends (especially women) are probably shaking their heads right now. Most of them have read Austen’s entire body of works more than once.
#6: Wuthering Heights
I have no idea what it is even about.
#5: Jane Eyre
I saw the movie recently and it was pretty good. I also saw the Thug Notes, which were helpful in unpacking some of what I saw in the movie.
#4: The Alchemist
This one I was not sure was actually in the genre/category of “classics,” probably because it is so new compared to much of what is on the reading lists of students, but I still want to read it, and it is apparently a big hit.
#3: The Giver
My teacher roommate used to do a lot of work on this book for her students. But I have no idea what it is really about.
#2: Of Mice and Men
This is so iconic I can’t help but know the plotline, and I think I may have even seen the movie (or at least part of it). But have I actually read it? Naw.
#1: Pride and Prejudice
Yep. Never read it.
In fact, I have never read a book by Jane Austen at all.
My more generous friends will pull their eyebrows back out of their hair and be happy for me, that I have that ahead of me. My less generous friends will just continue shaking their heads.