Friday, November 26, 2010

Spotlight List: Classics that are Actually Fun to Read

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

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

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?


  1. I have tried to read Wuthering Heights not once but twice. I just want to beat Cathy and Heathcliff with a stick in the worst way... I guess there are classics I should read, but I just can't trudge my way through them.

    But I loved seeing some of my favorites on your list! <3 Some other classics that I love are The Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, The Jewel of Seven Stars, and The Good Earth. I found Jewel of Seven Stars to be a surprise because I didn't like Stoker's Dracula quite as much as I had hoped to. Jane Eyre was also a pleasant surprise because I expected a dull story. Mr. Rochester gets maimed! But of course, so does the Scarlet Pimpernel later on in the series in order to fool Chauvelin.

  2. I must say I haven't read that many classics. I read Jane Eyre in the summer and as much as I wanted to like it I just couldn't. I definitely want to get around to reading Wuthering Heights though. I'm reading Pride and Prejudice at the moment in English and it seems good so far.

    The intellectual part of my brain wants me to read classics and I love the idea of reading them, I'm just not so keen on the actual reading of them.

  3. I must get round to reading Wuthering Heights sometime!

  4. Joining you from over at the book blogger hop, I thought I'd stop by and say hello.

    What a great post, I really thought you had some interesting things to say about the reading of the so-called classics. Not a genre I really like, I have just finished reading Dicken's A Christmas Carol and can't say I'm inspired to read any more of his works.

    Anyway, nice to meet you, I've enjoyed my visit.

  5. The only times I've ever read a clasic was during english class in school when we were made to. It definitely does take out some of the fun when you're forced to analyze the writing to within an inch of its life. But you're right, I think it's possible for them to be fun to read if you just think of them as being a good story. Someday I'd like to compile a list of classics that I would like to read just for myself to be completed before I die.
    Great post!

  6. Moony, aw, I can see how Wuthering Heights could be tough to get through. The Joseph parts completely confound me. I had a little trouble getting into it at first because I couldn't see how the author could actually like any of those people or how it could be considered a great romance. It wasn't until I started looking at it as an insane soap opera that I really got into it.

    The Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, and The Jewel of Seven Stars are all books that I know I want to read, but I just haven't gotten to them yet. I'm happy to hear what you said about Jewel in comparison to Dracula. I like Dracula, but there's a little too much "beat you over the head with symbolism" and too few action scenes (at least up to where I left off).

    Alice, Too bad about Jane Eyre. Do you think you might read the new YA version called Jane? I'll be curious about what you think of Mr. Darcey when you finish reading Pride and Prejudice. I have to say, I was unimpressed with him after all the hype.

    Aah, I know just what you mean about liking the idea of reading classics but not wanting to actually read them. There are some classics that I just want to read them because I feel I should but their plots don't interest me at all (erm, War and Peace). I wish I could just upload them into my brain (though I'm sure there's a dystopian out there cautioning about the dangers of that).

    ComaCalm, yes, it is great!

    Petty Witter, thanks for stopping by on the hop! I agree with you on A Christmas Carol. It put a bad taste in my mouth for all of Dickens' works now.

  7. Hi Aylee, that's how I read a ton of classics and I really didn't like them. I hated dissecting them and worrying about what tiny detail I was going to be quizzed on when all I wanted to do was just read. All of the listed classics I read on my own when I was well out of high school and I'm thankful for that. I think I probably would have hated them if I had to read them in school.

    I'm really interested in which books you'd include on your list. That's a great idea!

  8. I haven't read any of the classics since high school, I know I need to give them another try now that I don't have to read them because I'm going to be tested on the information. Great post, I love seeing the ones you've most enjoyed!

  9. It's like a whole different world reading them without the pressures of school. I'm glad you enjoyed my post!

  10. I know, I really wanted to like it. I'm definitely open to reading the YA version. If I like it I'll probably give Jane Eyre another go when I'm in my twenties. I shall be interested to see how I like Mr Darcy myself. There is definitely a lot of hype surrounding him.

    I totally agree. It would be so nice to know it without having to read it. Completely agree about a dystopian cautioning the dangers :P

  11. I love the classics, especially when you can take a moment to enjoy them as stories and not homework. My favorite classic is The Odyssey.

  12. I meant to read The Odyssey this year... maybe next year! :P

  13. I pretty much hated a lot of the classics we read in high school. However, I loved 'Faust'and 'Oedipus'. Something about those 'off' sort of books that kept my interest more than, well, 'Catcher in the Rye' or Jane Austen titles...

    Happy Hop!

  14. I haven't read Faust, but I liked Oedipus a lot. Talk about drama! I read that one on my own, but had to read Catcher in the Rye in school. I didn't like that one. Luckily I never had to read Austen in school.

  15. I have a really difficult time getting into most classical novels. I tried Moby Dick and failed to read past the first 50 pages. This year, though, I tried "Handmaid's Tale". I think this is considered a classic. I finished it and thought it was AWESOME!!

  16. I think you got further in Moby Dick than I did. It may be fantastic, but I just could not do it. Maybe someday, or not.

    I think it's safe to call The Handmaid's Tale a modern classic at this point. I liked parts of it, but I didn't like other parts (I also think I really wasn't in a dystopian mood at the time I read it). I've heard her other books are even better but I haven't gotten around to them yet. Have you read any of her other books?

  17. I liked the list! I think I will start out with Northanger Abbey. That one seems like I'll like it. And, it's short!

  18. I'm glad you liked it! I hope you enjoy Northanger Abbey. I thought it was so funny. And, yup, nice and short :D

  19. Awesome! I have a few classics on my shelf that I plan to have a go at... but first I want to get through ERAGON.IT'S HUGE.


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