Friday, November 7, 2008

A love letter to some favorite classics

As I like to say, classics are classics for a reason - they are excellent literature. Even when it takes a big dose of will to actually start one, once you do, they invariably draw you in with their masterful plots and characters. Today I want to talk about a few of my favorites.

The Power and the Glory - Graham Greene

I still have an old 1966 Compass Books edition (only $1.65) that was my mother's with her notes in the margins. This was one of my mother's favorite books and is in my father's top 10. It's set in Mexico and follows a drunk priest on the run from anti-catholic forces who want to erradicate the church. It is a dark adventure story with a wonderfully complex and flawed main character, and though a bit slow in the beginning, it's a beautiful book that gets even better with subsequent readings.

The Awakening - Kate Chopin

I always say that every woman should read this, because it speaks to the female experience so eloquently. I was disturbed to see several one star reviews of this around the web that say essentially "Spoiled woman gets bored with her life and commits suicide" because that's exactly the sort of superficiality that Edna wanted so badly to escape. She says, "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth." She tries to be a "bird with strong wings" and her affair with another man gives her an understanding: "She felt as if a mist had been lifted from her eyes, enabling her to look upon and comprehend the significance of life, that monster made up of beauty and brutality." But tragically, she is not as strong as she needs to be in the end.
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad

I've read this numerous times and I'm always fascinated by the idea that when people live in a "civilized society" and never develop any personal morality beyond external restraints how quickly they succumb to "the horror" of total lawlessness. I have trouble understanding why anyone would think Conrad is racist here - he seems to me to hold the african natives in the Congo in higher regard than the Europeans who try to bring their "light" into the darkness (the narrator mentions an image of a blindfolded woman with a candle to drive this point home). A must read.

Middlemarch - George Eliot

The subtitle to this 19th century novel is "A Study of Provencial Life" and it really does go into the minutiae of ordinary lives which on the outset may sound kind of boring, but somehow Eliot manages to make us care so much about the characters that the narrative becomes excitingly suspenseful and incredibly moving. The main character, Dorothea, also struggles with adapting to the role that society has allotted her and is refreshingly aware of her failures but still tries to make the best of life.

The Stranger - Albert Camus
An ordinary man attends his mother's funeral in Algeria, accidently murders a man, and is sentenced to death - none of which seems to emotionally impact him. The court judges this lack of emotion harshly and the reader sees the whole thing as absurd. This is an experiment in existentialism and is ingenious in its seeming simplicity. Not a comfortable book to be sure, but certainly profound. (And by the way, this is another book that I have in English and in German - read that discussion from Tuesday here).
What are some of your favorite classics?


Anna said...

Loved The Awakening, but I could never get into Heart of Darkness. I was supposed to read that in college, but that's the only assignment I couldn't finish.

Diary of an Eccentric

Stephen said...

I love the Greene novel too, and have a 60s Penguin paperback copy. In fact I have several of his novels in old Penguins - it's the only way to read them!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I loved The Power and the Glory and Heart of Darkness. I think I need to do a re-read on The Awakening because I know it's one of those important pieces of feminist literature, but I don't think I understood it when I read it in college. Will have to give the other 2 a shot, also.

Sandra said...

I thought Heart of Darkness was very powerful, and I enjoyed The Stranger. I've owned an old copy of The Power and the Glory for years and never got to it. I must rectify that situation. Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Native Son by Richard Wright, and Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry are some of my all- time favourites. I have so many it's hard to choose.

Alea said...

I have never read any of these along with a lot of classics. They find their way into my library and just sit there, bad Alea! My favorite classic (also my favorite book) is The Great Gatsby.

Shelley said...

I love Graham Greene, and Middlemarch is one of my very favorite books of all time. I also liked the Awakening and Heart of Darkness. Since we seem to have similar tastes, I should probably try The Stranger!

Unknown said...

I was at Goodwill earlier and there was a children's edition of The Awakening. I wish I'd picked it up to see what made it a children's copy and what they took out.

Ladytink_534 said...

I haven't even heard of most of these much less read them. Whenever I think of classics I always think of Black Beauty, Gone With the Wind, Alice in Wonderland, Little Women, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Secret Garden, Peter Pan, etc. but it's hard to classify just what a "classic" is...

Lenore Appelhans said...

Anna - I had unit of HoD both in high school and college from very enthusiatic professors so I ended up really loving it.

Stephen - I also have The End of the Affair which I love as well.

rjs - Yes, give The Awakening another shot, so worth it.

Sandra - Native Son is a good one!

alea - The Great Gatsby is another of my favorites.

chain reader - you should! Though it is very different than the others.

Taren - that would be interesting! I have a children's edition of Last of the Mohicans (my favorite as a child) and other classics like the Count of Monte Cristo, but somehow I can't imagine how The Awakening could appeal to children.

Tink - All great choices. I think a classic is a book that is well done, well loved, and has staying power.

Beth Kephart said...

I will confess to not having read Middlemarch. I confess. I confess. The others, yes. Middlemarch still sits here unread. It is next after I finish Grapes of Wrath (which I interrupted to read eleven YA novels in preparation for an upcoming conference).

Amee said...

I hated Heart of Darkness. I read it for a class, though, so that could have skewed my opinion.

caite said...

I agree with The Power and the Glory...a great book.

Emily said...

I love Anne of Green Gables. I grew up with that book and it will always be in my heart.

Anonymous said...

I loved The Stranger. Another favorite of mine is A Separate Peace.

Sarah Woodard said...

I love Little Women, The Great Gatsby, and The Bell Jar.

katayoun said...

loved camus' stranger, and also i think the plague is as wonderful. beautifully executed stories, perfect in every sense. i also love kafka; "metamorphosis" is also one of those stories that i think it's perfect, you look at it and you know that it can't be any better.

Fyrefly said...

My classics reading is woefully deficient, but I loved The Awakening when I had to read it in high school. As I remember, our class was pretty much split down the middle, with the girls all thinking it was fantastic, and the boys mostly being in the "She cheats on her husband then kills herself. So what?" camp.

Lenore Appelhans said...

Beth - Grapes of Wrath I finished but I've started and stopped East of Eden too many times to count...

amee - Have you seen apocalypse now? I find reading Heart of Darkness after that gives you a whole new perspective.

caite - I'm glad!

emily - yes, I read that whole series so many times as a tween. I should really revisit it.

tower - I need to read A Separate Peace.

sarah - love those too!

katayoun - I agree. Not one word out of place - perfect.

fyrefly - typical guy reaction, eh?