“Call me Ishmael” is maybe one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and it’s followed by a continuous stream of gorgeousness. Is it a difficult book? Absolutely, but it’s worth every minute. The trick is to let yourself sink into it, as if you’re meditating with it. The story itself is simple: Ishmael occasionally has an itch he needs to scratch when he gets restless, and that itch is going to sea. He makes friends with a man who will be on the ship with him (they snuggle in the same bed before heading to sea) and then boards the Pequod, whose captain, Ahab, has a mission he’s obsessed with: to find the whale that took one of his limbs years ago and settle the score.
A long book, Middlemarch is nevertheless totally and completely worth it. A family saga of sorts, involving several plotlines and characters, Middlemarch is, in the end, about humanity, goodness, the meaning of kindness, intellect versus emotion, and other big philosophical ideas. But conveyed through story, through beautiful language, and only the occasional narrative monologue, Eliot makes this masterpiece quite readable in the end. Dorothea Brooke and Doctor Lydgate make up the main plotlines of the novel; she marries a stoic, solemn reverend, while Lydgate tries to make a career as a doctor in the town of Middlemarch. Their patience is constantly tried, and their hopes and dreams rise and fall. The real historical events taking place around them create a landscape on which to paint stories of other characters as well.
The Brothers Karamazov
The last novel the Russian master Dostoevsky ever wrote, The Brothers Karamazov is easier to get through if you think of it as a modernist book written before its time. The narrative is straightforward in that it chronicles the lives of three brothers and their father as they try to settle disputes of various kinds. But that’s not a reader’s real experience of the book usually, as there are so many tangents and philosophical arguments that erupt between the characters. Looking at the book as a foray into human consciousness and its ethics and morals helps make the book more manageable. There’s also a love triangle between a father and son, disputes over inheritance, lots of hypothetical and real violence, and some pretty wacky tales about the devil.
Not as scary as Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, the short story collection Dubliners is a lot more digestible, though by no means a piece of cake. The stories are a kind of love/hate letter to Ireland and to Dublin specifically. They look at the Catholic faith, workers’ hopes and fears, the relationships between men and women. Joyce doesn’t shy away from difficult topics, but he also doesn’t force them. The stories don’t have a cohesive arc, but there is a sense of a narrator carrying you through them all, even as the voices change. It is, perhaps, the voice of the city itself and the moment in time when Joyce was writing about it, that echoes through the stories.
Bleak House is, in many ways, Dickens’ attempt to give voice to the London of his day. It isn’t the expansive, touristy, expensive city we know today, but rather the dirty, dusty, smog- and sewer-filled place where beggars were a dime a dozen, where class was as distinct and easy to spot as the hat a man was wearing or the fabric of a woman’s dress, where the courts were filled with lawsuits and barristers and lawyers and solicitors made money off inheritance disputes. In Bleak House, Dickens gives voice to a female narrator, Esther, orphaned, though her mother is secretly out there and looking for her. There is a mystery element to this novel and an early private eye kind of character, making the book even more fascinating. It’s another one of those huge books, but one that, like much of Dickens, is more approachable than it at first seems.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
An American classic, Twain’s book about Tom Sawyer’s unruly friend seems to have become the more beloved and better-known of the two friends’ tales. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deals largely with Huck Finn himself and his escape from home with his family slave, Jim. The novel has attracted lots of controversy in recent years over the language in it, but we must remember that it’s a product of its time. In fact, while it is still racist, Huck Finn’s story is also incredibly inclusionary, as he and Jim forge a friendship that would likely have been unthinkable to a grown white man. But Huck Finn’s youth allows him to see past the prejudice of his society.
One of Austen’s lesser known books (definitely not as famous as, say, Pride and Prejudice), it seems to be a favorite of English teachers precisely because it is perhaps the most convoluted and longest of Austen’s books. It tells the story of Fanny, one of nine siblings and half-orphaned, who at age ten goes to live with relatives who are wealthier than her and who constantly point out how expensive she is to keep, though they skimp on caring for her, though she is sickly. When she is seventeen, all hell breaks loose (in an Austen way) when the fashionable Crawford siblings come to Mansfield Park, the family estate. Fanny experiences friendship, heartbreak, and eventually happiness, although it is perhaps not the happiness that readers wish for her.
Each of Toni Morrison’s novels is different, but they’re all incredible. Sula is no exception. It deals with a mostly black neighborhood called the Bottom (which is on a hill). One of the main characters, Shadrack, is a shell-shocked soldier who fought in World War I. He’s one of the many people who haunt the main plotline, which centers around friends Sula and Nel, who come from very different families. Their friendship is tight as can be until a day when a traumatic event causes them to slowly break apart. While Nel marries and settles into a life in the Bottom, Sula goes off and travels, following love and lust and her desire for freedom. When Sula finally returns after ten years, she’s ostracized, her loose living and rumored affairs with white men labeling her as devilish. This is a story of friendship and choices and community, and it is ultimately more the story of Nel and what people think of Sula than a story about Sula as her true self.
A risque novel for its time, Flaubert’s crisp prose explores the nature of desire in his famous novel about a cheating wife, Madame Bovary. The protagonist, Emma, marries and lives a provincial life but finds herself incredibly bored, her whole life lackluster. She does all sorts of things to break the rules in order to make her life interesting—she has affairs, sneaks out of her house, lives beyond her means—and in doing so, exemplifies the independence that her society says she shouldn’t and can’t have. Emma Bovary isn’t an incredibly likable character, and that may be the point: she is a product of her surroundings, and even her rebellions are staged within the mindset of a married gentlewoman.
This beautiful novel tells the story of Jim Burden, an orphan who moves to Nebraska to live with relatives. He is fascinated by the family of immigrants, the Shimerdas, and their eldest daughter, Ántonia, who is older than him. The two become close, and Jim watches the Shimerdas’ difficulties over the years. When he’s older, his relatives move to town and he with them, but Ántonia follows in a sense when she’s hired as a domestic by the next door neighbors. As adolescence dawns, Jim finds himself more and more attracted to Ántonia, but she is older and wilder. As Jim grows up and becomes a student at Harvard (after a brief relationship with one of Ántonia’s friends, Lena), he keeps in touch with the girl he was once so fascinated with, but whereas his path takes him away from his meager beginnings, Ántonia can never escape her own.
The House of Mirth
Known for her scathing social commentary, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is an excellent take on class in New York in the early 20th century. Lily Bart, a poor but high class woman, is growing older and has yet to marry, which is a problem when you’re a woman who has no way to support herself, no real family to lean on, and no money to lavish on yourself. The book describes Lily’s attempts to stay in her high class status but her eventual descent to a place she once absolutely disregarded as a real possibility. Throughout the book she sees an acquaintance, Gerty, live the life that she can’t imagine for herself, and it is Gerty’s kindness, despite her situation in life as the poor relative, that contrasts with Lily’s pride and meanness.
Whether you took AP in high school or majored in English Literature in college, there’s a fair bet that you read (or pretended to read) many or all of these. There’s a funny thing about books we’re told to read for class, though; there’s a forced element to it, as if we forget, when a teacher tells us to read something, that we actually love reading. Then, too, we put on the English Major Goggles when we read things for class: we look for symbols and doubling and foreshadowing and other stuff of that nature. As an English major myself, I can’t say that’s not valuable, because it is. But there’s also a value to rereading these books after college, or remembering (when you’re reading them for class) that you really, truly, like to read, and that there’s a reason so many of these books are musts in the literary canon.