Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Lit-Fic Starter Kit: Your Quickstart Guide to the Classics

No sooner do we claim to be dealers of the “gateway drug to literary fiction,” than one of our readers calls on us to prove it. In response to yesterday’s post, ElizabethR writes the following:
“Will you recommend a book for one who has never read any of the classics or contemporary greats? I find the thought of reading literature daunting. I'd need a book that would not send me to sleep by the fourth page. Because I literally fall asleep while reading.What would you recommend as my first piece of great literature? And how would I go about staying awake?”
First of all, you’re not alone in being daunted, Elizabeth. Great literature is almost universally seen as an impenetrable beast. The trick is finding the soft underbelly that will allow you to attack the fierce beast and find your own niche within.

And just so you know, I came late to the game myself. I detested having classics shoved down my throat in school. I scraped by in my high school English classes using a hackneyed amalgam of Cliffs Notes, film adaptations and a lucky knack for turning in-class discussions into serviceable essay answers. I think the only three assigned books I actually read during those four years were Great Expectations by Dickens, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (All three are fantastic, by the way.)

The turning point for me came years later when it occurred to me that I had really loved each of the “great” books I had taken the time to read. They had all stuck with me in ways that riveting reads like Grisham’s The Firm, or Crichton’s Jurassic Park, hadn’t. It caused me to wonder what else I might have missed by turning my nose up at my schooldays literature syllabi. And as I explained yesterday, I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.

Sometimes a book will hit me like a ton of bricks, and sometimes a revered classic will just fall flat. On very rare occasions I’ll hit the eject button before I’ve even given the book a fighting chance. (I’m looking at you, Homer’s Iliad) Like, multiple times.

The final caveat I’ll share is that I don’t believe in the existence of one perfect book that will captivate every reader from the first page to the last, and inspire a lifetime devotion to literary fiction by force of its sheer awesomeness. If such a thing did exist, it would be entirely dependent on the personal tastes of each reader. But here are ten books that can serve as your Trojan Horse into the daunting world of classic literary fiction. (And I use the word ‘classic’ here as Italo Calvino defines it: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.")

This isn't meant to be a top-ten list for entry-level classics, but you'll find that all ten books are either extremely short, or extremely approachable works of great fiction. Any of them would be a good place to start.

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

All the Pretty Horses, by Cormack McCarthy

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

As for staying awake,that’s for due dates and homework assignments. Hopefully the reading is compelling enough to hold your eyelids apart, but if it isn’t, enjoy the rest. It sounds like you could use it.

How about the rest of you? What recommendations would you make to a hesitant beginner?


  1. I have always been a great fan of classics, but there are always ones that are duds, even for devoted classics lovers. For quick-read classics, I would suggest "Ethan Frome" by Edith Wharton, "The Awakening" by Kate Chopin, "The Death of Ivan Ilych" by Tolstoy, and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. In my opinion, you can't go wrong with "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte; I read it for the first time when I was 11 and have been hooked ever since. If you are into Austen but need something a little more involved and in-depth, "Jane Eyre" is the way to go. "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier is a haunting, gripping read. And while "Anne of Green Gables" and "Little Women" seem more like children's books, there is so much more to them underneath the surface. Plays can be great as well: "A Doll's House" by Henrik Ibsen or even Greek tragedies, such as "Oedipus" or, my personal favorite, "Madea". I know this is way too long, but I almost forgot "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Remarque. Sorry for the novel here... good luck to ElizabethR with her classics reading!

    1. I'm currently enjoying Jane Eyre, and loved All Quiet on the Western Front. Huck Finn, obviously, worth anyone's time. And I'm all for including plays.

      Great list.

    2. Jane Eyre is my one weakness. My obsession has moved on to collecting old copies of it. :) I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it as well!

  2. Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

    The Complete Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne

    The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum

    I know that all of these are considered children's books but if you read the non-Disneyfied editions you will find them both challenging with beautiful rich language. If you are concerned that they wouldn't be challenging enough you could try the book that saved my reading life (I had stopped reading altogether and then had to read this):

    Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

    Plus my favorite book:

    A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

    Happy reading!

    1. The closest I've come to children's lit in the past couple years is Antoine de Saint-exeupery's The Little Prince. But I'm sure there's a ton for me to rediscover in the other books you've listed, as well.

      Also, I read a Room with a View last year, but never reviewed it here. Thanks for the reminder. It's a good read.

  3. The Catcher in the Rye! I've always been more of a contemporary lit girl, but I love Catcher. I like how easy it is to read, but I think the swear words and slang appealed to my 12 year old sensibilities, especially since my mom recommended it.

    1. I'll second this. In fact, I already have:


  4. Oh, the possibilities! Tess of the d'Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge are both beautiful works by Hardy. I second Rebecca - what a great October book Another great October-y book is the original Phantom of the Opera. However, no list can be complete without Les Miserables or Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo was a master.

    1. Wait a second... you're going to start someone on Les Mis and Hunchback? Phew! You're hardcore, Mayhem.

  5. I think I'd go with "The Sea, The Sea" by Iris Murdoch. The main character is just so fascinating in a love-to-hate way. It's a book that opens you up to your own flaws as a person without forcing a sense of self-loathing. Also, it's mystical and mysterious and fast-paced and very interesting.

    Other good starter classics might be "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "The Outsiders," or anything by Toni Morrison or Kurt Vonnegut.

    1. Love Morrison, love Vonnegut. Want to read the others you mention.

  6. There are a lot of good books above, but most aren't the kind of starter classics that will lead to a serious habit. I think we're looking for a hit that becomes an addiction. Try Animal Farm for a great (and short) political allegory. SlaughterhouseFive is weird, funny, and fun to read. Even Huck Finn makes a good first classics read. The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men are others. Short. Sweet. Enjoyable.

    The key here is a quick, delicious hit, not an 800-page novel that one has to plow through. Lots of people love Middlemarch, but it's not the kind of book a beginner will stick with until page 600 when things almost start happening. No way I'd recommend Room with a View or Le Mis as a first read. In fact, stay as far away from RWAV as possible if you want to love reading classics.

    One other thing that may help... try listening to a few classics instead of reading them. There is an audio version of Slaughterhouse Five read by Ethan Hawke that is amazing. Even stories like Animal Farm can be more easily consumed when a good actor is doing the voices.

    1. I'll cast a vote for audiobooks, as well. I'm plowing my way through a recording of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way- a monumental work of literature that I'd always assumed would be more work than it was worth. And I have been absolutely delighted by it.

      Also, in the audio version of Animal Farm that I listened to, "Beasts of England" was sung to the tune of "Oh my Darling Clementine." Wikipedia tells me that's not accurate, but it worked for me.

  7. My suggestion would 100% be Jane Eyre. That's the one that got me started. :)

    Great blog!