Don't Wait — 5 Classics to Read Now

I’m a worst offender when it comes to “waiting till I’m ready” for this classic or that classic. In fact, I’ve been psyching myself up for Jame Joyce for over ten years! So in the spirit of “don’t be like me” I thought I’d share five of my favorite intimidating classics that don’t deserve their stonewalling rep.

  • Julius Caesar. I think this is a great start if you’ve been avoiding Shakespeare for the bulk of your natural life. Here’s the thing about Shakespeare, by the way: he trades off of emotions and situations we can all relate to and, believe it or not, he’s entertaining first, good for you second.
  • Robinson Crusoe. I read this last year for the first time. It’s now my favorite puritanical page-turner post Pilgrim’s Progress. Perfect? Probably.
  • The Bible. Speaking of puritanical page-turners — OK, this isn’t exactly a page turner. But, like Shakespeare, if you’re not familar with the Bible you’re sort of not familiar with your own culture. Just don’t read some weird, weepy modern translation of it. Yech. Read the NRSV or something (you won’t finish King James’ Bible). Those English have a history of doing this sort of thing right.
  • The Brother Karamazov. Surprisingly just a soapy murder-mystery. Of course it’s a soapy mystery written by one of the greatest novelists of all time so it’s about everything else in the world. But trust me, you’ll love everyone in this book. I mean it.
  • Anna Karenina. Often called the greatest novel ever written but don’t let that intimidate you. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy is also a fan of melodrama. You’ve seen this story play out a million times in movies and with your friends but you’ve never had a piercing psychic look at the emotions and thoughts of all the players. A phenomenal example of an ultra-realistic novel. It was Tolstoy’s brilliant efforts that drove me through the book. A rare thing.

Anyone else have any classics that don’t deserve their intimidating rep? I know I could go on and on.

31 thoughts on “Don't Wait — 5 Classics to Read Now

  1. I am a big fan of rediscovering the classics. Dickens’s David Copperfield was a magnificent read, and I wholeheartedly agree with you about Brothers K and Anna Karenina–and would add War and Peace to that list.

    Re: the Bible–
    My favorite translation is the New King James. It has the beauty and the rhythm of the most superior translation, but with the “thees” and “thous” updated for modern readability. It’s simply beautiful. Emily Dickinson used to read Revelation 22 aloud just to feel the words in her mouth–it’s definitely worth trying.

    The NIV is not bad for modern translations. Just stay away from the “gender neutral” translations which butcher the language for no good reason.

    1. I agree with you about gender neutral translations, Annie. Who would do that with anything else? Plus, it cracks me up when I’m in Church and we’ll sing a gender neutralized hymn only to have it broken up into male and female parts where the female parts are about tender things like emotions and nurturing, while the male parts are about strength and adventures. It gets me every time.

  2. OK, that was too funny, Patrick. Jane Eyre’s been unofficially on my list for awhile. I’ve waited enough. This afternoon I’ll physically add it on there.

    And welcome to Upper Fort Stewart.

  3. I heartily concur about the Bible, Robinson Crusoe and The Brothers K. Dickens is another author who used to intimidate me and then one day I discovered how funny and friendly he was. Still haven’t been able to get into Anna Karenina. The first chunk of Moby Dick is also great fun, but then you run into the boring stuff.

  4. Did I tell you I bought A Christmas Carol on your recommendation, Elliot? In fact, I bought it twice. Once by itself and then a week later in an Anthology of short stories. I’m going to read it this winter.

  5. Mrs Dalloway – the writing just carries you along.

    The Iliad and The Odyssey – lots of action, emotion and heroics. Too bad Hollywood never gets it right.

  6. I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf but I’m right there with you and Homer. And I have plans of never watching any adaptation of Homer. I think those plans will serve me well.

  7. Concur with your list.

    Now reading Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I have avoided all these years even though (because?) I thought it would be “good for me”. The idea of reading about a sojourn in a sanatorium did not excite me! It is not an easy read but it is wonderful – in the full sense of the word.

    Recently re-read War & Peace and Anna Karenina – both even better the second time around. Go on, Elliott, dive in 🙂

    1. I was having the exact same experience with The Magic Mountain as you, Des. And I know what you mean about wonderful. Two scenes stand out in my memory, the X-Ray machine and reading Biology books on the balcony. But, like I said, I was having the exact same experience — until I got to the French. One day I’ll pick it up again and read the translation of the French I have set aside. I wish I’d found that sooner.

      Welcome to Upper Fort Stewart.

  8. I love this post and I have to throw in my two cents. I would also recommend James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” as another classic that gets a bad wrap for difficulty. That’s not to say it isn’t difficult at times (especially the first time you read it), but the experience Joyce gives the reader is totally worth it.
    (I found that reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man right before Ulysses helped me, because you leave the character “Stephen Dedalus” in Portrait, only to meet him again when you open up Ulysses. It creates an immediate connection because you know him already)

  9. A friend of mine is following the exact same path — or at least intends to. Me? I’ll definitely be reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before I read Ulysses. In fact, I’m going to read The Dead before I even read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. How’s that for literary caution?

    Welcome to Upper Fort Stewart, S.O.S. Save our Stephen (Dedalus)? Probably not.

  10. I’d recommend Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Unabridged.

    For me, ‘Ulysses” perhaps. Augustine’s “City of God” and probably anything by Dostoevsky. “Moby Dick” was on that list until I found an audio book version. There are a few others but can’t recall them right now.

  11. It’s been burning me up every time I go to the bookstore and see the unabridged Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for 40 dollars. In hardback with a nice slipcase no less. I received the abridged version as a gift so I sort of feel obligated to read it as is.

  12. McNally’s has multiple cases containing volumes 4, 5 and 6 of Decline & Fall on sale in their discount section. No sign of volumes 1, 2 and 3, though.

  13. Definitely Ulysses, although maybe I should let you know when I’ve actually finished it. A book that is taking me a long time – but well worth it.
    For (very) long and complex novels I’d pick Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. A door-stopper of a book, but another that’s well worth reading.
    I agree about Shakespeare – and would pick King Lear for sheer brilliance.

  14. Welcome to Upper Fort Stewart, Stephen. I’ve never heard of Clarissa or Samuel Richardson.

    Knowing me I will now run into a Clarissa today after tripping over a pile of Samuel Richardson novels.

  15. This post actually inspired me to pick up “War and Peace”. I loved Anna Karenina, but War and Peace was intimidating. Tolstoy’s characters kept pulling at me, but I just wouldn’t pick it up. After reading the posts, I am going to dive in. Thanks!

  16. How did I miss this post first time around?
    Anyway, I’d add these to the list:

    Crime and Punishment–Dostoevsky;
    War and Peace–Tolstoy;
    The Makioka Sisters–Junichiro Tanizaki;
    The Persian Expedition–Xenophon

    Re the Bible: I”d recommend a few books of both the Old and New Testament, but you couldn’t expect anyone to take anything useful away from the book of “Chronicles” or “Kings”–some of the dullest stuff ever written. I’d recommend the first few chapters of Genesis; one of the little books like Ruth, one of the Gospels (my preference is John’s); and if you’re into SF then, Revelations.

  17. I actually had a chance to study Genesis (and the rest of the OT) semi-seriously two years ago. That and reading the Book of J (and reading N.T. Wright’s thoughts on the NT which influenced my reading of the OT I guess) really opened up Genesis for me. It’s fable, it’s truth, it’s simple and incredibly rich. The way Genesis is written is the way life should be spoken.

    OK, now I’m showing my true nerd colors. Anyway, I can definitely say it’s one of my favorite things to read.

    Oh, plus, favorite Gospels. Luke.

  18. I think most people read Moby Dick too early. I found it easy to read and a brilliant story.
    Right now I am working my way through the Seamus Heaney Beowulf translation, and I can’t recomend it enough.

  19. I think I’m adding Beowulf to my Christmas list. I’ve been picking up and putting down Heaney’s translation for a few years now. Thanks, for the reminder Luke.

    And welcome to Upper Fort Stewart.

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