Right or wrong, love them or hate them, there’s no denying there’s a certain air of intelligence that goes along with reading classics. It’s because of this (and all those years of nagging English teachers, really, I did love them) that makes me feel I should read classics. But do I want to? Well, yes and no. Some just seem so boring and with all the exciting books on my TBR, I’m not really jumping at the opportunity to read a book I have no interest in and am going to be bored to tears as I struggle through them.
But not all classics are a chore. Some are actually really great. Forget all the literary things your English teachers taught you when reading classics. Forget character studies or deep analyses of why the author had the character use a pen instead of a pencil and what that might signify, blah, blah, blah. Don’t get me wrong, those things are all important and great and often even totally interesting. But sometimes you just want to sit back, turn off the school part of your brain, and just read a good story, you know?
The following classics are books that are just plain great stories. They’re romances, murder mysteries, revenge stories, adventuring tales. Their heroes are just as exciting, mysterious, dangerous, and hot as the best YA heroes. Most of these books are pretty short, too. So next time you’re looking for that “air of intelligence” or just looking for a darn good story, consider picking up one of the following:
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Publication Date: 1847
Pages: About 290 depending on your edition
Often described as THE ultimate love story, Catherine and Heathcliff’s romance is, to me, far from the ideal love. Instead, I’ve always thought of WH as one of the best revenge stories. Selfish and, I think, downright loony, Catherine callously spurns Heathcliff’s love early on and spends the rest of the novel paying for her cruel rejection. Heathcliff, equally crazy, doesn’t limit his wrath to just Catherine. Oh no, he sets his sights on destroying everyone and everything Catherine ever knew. How’s that for a love story? WH is also a prime example of Gothic fiction, so tempers flare, emotions run to exaggerated highs (I can’t help but giggle at the level of absurdity), the atmosphere is dark and brooding, and the story spins out like an insane soap opera.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
Publication Date: 1910
Pages: About 300
Think you know the story because you’ve seen the play and sung along to the music? Think again. The play is pretty much a sweet story about a talented girl, the guy she falls in love with, and a sympathetically tragic guy with a mask. The book has those elements, but the Phantom isn’t the mostly nice guy of the play. Leroux’s Phantom is downright in-freaking-sane. He spends his time threatening the theater staff with violence in order to get what he wants, but he becomes increasingly tyrannical once he begins to fall in love with Christine. He captures her, torments her, threatens her life, threatens suicide, tortures her lover, and that’s only part of it. Somehow, along the way he still manages to be a sympathetic character and every time I read the book I switch between loathing him and actually almost kind of hoping he gets what he wants.
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Publication Date: 1901-1902
Pages: About 165
Do I really need to explain the awesomeness that is Sherlock Holmes? I could have picked any of his books or stories, they’re all superb, but this one takes the detective hero to the moody moors of Gothic fiction and I just love Gothic fiction. Holmes is approached by a young man with a generational family curse. Can Holmes solve the mystery of the curse before his client becomes the next victim? If you have any faith in Holmes, you know the answer to that question, but following along as the world’s greatest detective unravels the clues in the most ingenious ways is a ton of fun. How many clues can you catch?
King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard
Publication Date: 1885
Pages: About 230
Adventurer Allan Quatermain is approached by two English gentlemen with a request to help escort them through the wilds of Africa in search of a lost comrade. A hunt in search of the fabled treasure hidden in King Solomon’s Mines is added to sweeten the deal, and so the three set off on their quest. African game hunts, tribal warfare, and battles for guarded treasure ensue in this wild adventure through untamed Africa. Totally not politically correct, King Solomon’s Mines is filled with laugh out loud scenes and edge-of-your-seat escapades. Gagool completely creeped me out and remains one of the strangest, funniest, and most unsettling literary characters I’ve come across.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Publication Date: Written in 1803, published in 1817
Pages: About 200
Everyone always talks about Pride and Prejudice, but my favorite Austen is this hilarious little novel that is both a parody of and homage to Gothic fiction. Catherine Morland is an adorably naïve girl with a heart of gold. We follow her as she first makes friends in Bath and then goes to stay with one in their family’s abbey. Upon arriving at the abbey, Catherine immediately begins conjuring ideas of locked away wives, mysterious chests, hidden letters, and dangerous men. It’s really funny, but also totally relatable (wouldn’t you kind of hope for some kind of Gothic excitement if you stayed in a spooky castle? I would.) Austen uses her signature wit to make funny asides to the reader and good naturedly poke fun at Catherine’s naiveté and Gothic fiction, all while also skewering social conventions and hypocrisies. The romance is super sweet and has a much funnier and nicer man than Mr. Darcy (gasp!). I spent most of the book roaring with laughter and will forever hold a special place in my heart for Catherine Morland.
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Publication Date: 1938
Pages: About 400
Never has a place come alive as powerfully as Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Manderley is the estate of the troubled Mr. De Winter and his second wife (the nameless narrator of the story). As the second Mrs. De Winter, a shy and insecure young woman, adjusts to her new life as a wife, she slowly begins to uncover something very wrong at Manderley. The specter of Rebecca, the first Mrs. De Winter, permeates every inch of Manderley, and the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers seems determined to make sure Rebecca is never replaced. I never would have thought a character that is dead for the entire story could have such a profound and powerful presence as Rebecca had. She dominated, and now I can never look at the name Rebecca without immediately thinking of Rebecca De Winter. The story meanders in the beginning, wrapping the reader in the heavy atmosphere of Manderley’s beauty and secrets, and then builds steadily to a haunting and truly startling climax. Alfred Hitchcock made an equally excellent movie version that you should definitely check out, but do so only after reading the book.
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Publication Date: 1905
Pages: About 270
Pages: About 270
Les Miserables isn’t the only classic that deals with the French Revolution, and quite frankly I think The Scarlet Pimpernel is unfairly overlooked. There aren’t any singing children or lamentations of the poor in Orczy’s adventure romance. Instead we get feisty Marguerite, frustrated with her frilly air-head of a husband and captivated by the daring escapades of the anonymous Scarlet Pimpernel. Heads are rolling across France, but excitement runs high in England as the Scarlet Pimpernel uses his wiles and disguises to smuggle French aristocrats into the safety of England in the most ingenious and humorous ways. Speculations abound about the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity, and the slimy French envoy Chauvelin is determined to unravel the mystery and capture our hero. In a list of “dashing heroes” the Scarlet Pimpernel surely must rank highly. He’s suave, slick, hilariously irreverent, and smart. Marguerite’s heart isn’t the only one the masked hero makes off with.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Publication Date: 1886
Pages: About 90
Strange happenings are occurring across London and Mr. Utterson intends to ferret out their source. His investigations lead him to a kindly but distressed Dr. Jekyll and set him on the path of a depraved Mr. Hyde. What do these two men have in common, and can Mr. Utterson figure out what is going on before it’s too late? At this point, there probably aren’t too many people left who don’t know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so the tension of the mystery isn’t as nail-biting as it probably was when it was first published (though there are a bunch of plot points and a surprise I didn’t know about). Still, following Mr. Utterson as he pieces together the mystery is exciting and well worth the experience. This is storytelling at its finest, with an ending that leaves the reader haunted.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Publication Date: 1883
Pages: About 200
Did you like the high seas adventure, treasure seeking, and rampant switching allegiances of Pirates of the Caribbean? If so, then Treasure Island is the book for you. Long before Jack Sparrow sailed the seas, Jim Hawkins sought his fortune and wrestled with pirates. After discovering a treasure map, Jim teams up with the honorable Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney to hunt down the treasure. Trelawney hires a ship and crew, but he’s a little dense and doesn’t realize he’s actually hired the notorious pirate Long John Silver! Silver has no intention of playing by the rules set by Livesey and Trelawney, and it is up to Jim to catch and stop Silver before he makes off with the treasure—or worse! But as Silver begins to take Jim under his wing, the life of a pirate seems increasingly appealing. Allegiances form and break, but only half are genuine. A climatic battle between the pirates and the loyal crew adds edge-of-your-seat suspense and makes for a whooping good time.
Carmilla, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Publication Date: 1872
Pages: About 100
Pages: About 100
Living in the isolated wilds of Austria with her father as her only companion, Laura longs for a friend her own age. Laura is overjoyed when she receives news that her father’s friend is to visit with his daughter, but her excitement is quickly dashed when the young girl dies under mysterious circumstances. Fortune favors Laura, however, when a freak carriage accident occurs on their property and the beautiful girl riding inside is injured. The girl is introduced as Carmilla, and when her mother begs Laura’s father to accept Carmilla into his home so she may recuperate, Laura’s father happily agrees. All seems perfect at first, but odd events—some even bordering on the paranormal—begin to occur, and Carmilla’s behavior becomes increasingly strange. When an old portrait exactly resembling Carmilla is discovered, Laura realizes that the secrets of the past and the events of the present may be more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. Creepy and absorbing, Carmilla is one of the best stories of the genre (and one of the first!)
What are some of your favorite classics? What do you think about reading classics? Do you ever feel like you should read classics? Were you ever surprised at liking a classic more than you thought you would?Tweet