5 Classic books you need to read (like, right now)
Want to impress your friends with talk of classic books at your next dinner party? Here are five you need to read (so everyone can know you're an intellectual!)
What makes a classic? Is it the presence of universal, timeless themes? Is it the development of innovative writing styles? The creation of new genres? The illumination of previously overlooked issues?
Many great minds have grappled with this question, but perhaps it is best answered by simply reading the classics for yourself and deciding what’s so special about them. But where to start, when a Goodreads list of must-read classics can contain anywhere from 800 to 10,000 titles? Here are five books to get you going.
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818)
Godmother of science fiction Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 18—yes, we’re currently having an existential crisis about the fact that we haven’t written a book and invented a new genre of literature yet too. Her legendary novel tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, the original mad scientist, who decides to play God with somewhat disastrous consequences.
"It’s a story of unwavering obsession, unchecked ambition and unbearable loneliness"
Dealing with grief over his mother’s death, Frankenstein throws himself into various experiments, developing a way to create life. He decides to make a brand new person—out of body parts taken from corpses. He chooses the parts for their beauty, yet when he brings his creation to life, he is horrified by what he has made. It’s a story of unwavering obsession, unchecked ambition and unbearable loneliness that remains one of the greatest sci-fi horror stories ever written.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Has there ever been a story more ripe for adaptation? Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckler adventure has been adapted for film and TV so many times that “The Three Musketeers in film” is its own Wikipedia page. Set in the 17th century, the novel begins with d’Artagnan, who travels to Paris with the hopes of joining the King’s Musketeers (an elite branch of the French military). While initially unsuccessful, he does fall in with eponymous “three musketeers”: Athos, Porthos and Aramis.
From there, adventures ensue, including daring duels, star-crossed romances and political scheming. You can see why they keep making films about it!
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
Widely considered a landmark piece of African literature, Things Fall Apart follows Okonkwo, an Igbo man in pre-colonial Nigeria. Okonkwo is a wrestling champion who is obsessed with his own masculinity, and while he is violent to his family and unkind to his neighbours, he is well-respected among the people of his village. This changes when he is responsible for the death of another member of his clan, and he is exiled from the village for seven years. When he returns, he finds his village transformed by the presence of white Christian missionaries.
"Things Fall Apart is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential novels"
Things Fall Apart is a rich exploration of Igbo culture as well as themes of colonialism and cross-cultural misunderstanding. Perhaps part of the novel’s landmark status comes from Achebe’s decision to write it in English. This choice meant that many Western readers were able for the first time to read about the rich interior lives of African characters, rather than reading about them as exotic or savage figures. It was a hugely important book in challenging the misconception of African culture as “primitive” or “uncivilised”, and is considered by many to be one of the world’s most influential novels.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
No Brontë books on this list, sorry. But we do have Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre. It’s told from the perspective of Mr Rochester’s wife Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. Antoinette grows up in Jamaica, in a family that was once wealthy but has fallen into poverty since the abolition of slavery.
After a troubled childhood scarred by family tragedy, Antoinette marries Mr Rochester, but alas, the marriage is not happy. Rhys traces the deterioration of their relationship from their honeymoon in Jamaica to their return to England, where Antoinette goes on to become Charlotte Brontë’s “madwoman in the attic”. Wide Sargasso Sea is often interpreted as a postcolonial and feminist response to Jane Eyre, with its exploration of Creole identity, the legacy of slavery and power imbalances between men and women (particularly in marriage).
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1970)
This multigenerational family saga by Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez is a masterclass in magical realism. The story follows seven generations of the Buendía family as they try to escape the inevitable repetition of history in Macondo, a town they built. Time is not linear in this book—the plot is a tapestry of happenings rather than a series of chronological events—but that’s part of its dreamy charm.
"This multigenerational family saga is a masterclass in magical realism"
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a groundbreaking book, with García Márquez being credited with popularising magical realism, a style of literary fiction in which magical events occur in an otherwise realistic setting. It is easy to get lost in his spellbinding prose, but you’ll need to concentrate to tell the characters apart. Perhaps writing the book took up so much of García Márquez’s imagination that he had none left to spare when it came to naming characters—they all seem to be called Arcadio, Aureliano or Remedios!
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