If you haven’t heard already, I love classic novels, and even though I’ve made a point of reading non-classics this year, that genre still holds a special place in my life and dominates my favorite books list. So, in lieu of my usual contemplative and thematic blog posts, I thought it’d be fun to gush a bit about my current top 7 favorite classics. Why 7? I had too many to condense into 5 but not enough for 10. Next time I update the list, I’ll aim for 10.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
This novel has everything I love in a story: extended family dynamics, drama spanning a long period of time, nearly 1,000 pages, and a rich and varied setting. But none of those things are why it’s my current favorite. Anna Karenina is not just about the titular character’s adultery and the drama that ensues—it’s a close look at the faults and strengths of human nature. Tolstoy does an incredible job at making each character understandable, even in their sins, yet he never indulges in condoning their mistakes nor fails to show that all of them, not just the ones with the greatest offenses, have flaws. Even when I disliked certain characters, I felt for them and was fascinated by them. That alone is a mark of brilliance. On top of that, the prose reads like a dream—aside from a few chapters where Levin debated Russian politics that I had no clue about, I could hardly put it down. Now if someone could make a TV mini-series that did justice to the story, then I’d be content.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
This is a classic that people either love to the point of over-romanticizing or hate with a burning passion—and it’s clear to see why. The characters are all despicable in one way or another and the entire story is anything but happy. But that is, in part, why I enjoy this novel so much. First of all, it’s a family saga—a small one, sure, but one nevertheless. If you accept that the characters are not going to be likeable or admirable (unless you choose to ignore their issues), the story moves from a mishap of a Gothic romance into a compelling tale about the destruction that cruelty and revenge causes. And on top of that, the thematic arcs and parallels in this story are flat out beautiful once you spot them. The perfect execution of a theme added with my love of good drama and the spooky, gloomy setting make this story one that I keep returning to again and again. (It also needs a decent film adaptation—one that doesn’t romanticize Heathcliff).
Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
I’m not sure if this novel is usually listed amongst the classics, but if it isn’t, it certainly should be. Lewis is a master of weaving spirituality into stories without turning them into poorly-disguised theology books, and Till We Have Faces is the ultimate show of that skill—enough to make someone (me) who doesn’t love fantasy or myths fall in love with the book. Beyond the deep truths that are woven throughout the story, the part I love most about this story is the character arc of the main character, Orual. She is jealous, doubting, skeptical, hardened, angry, and so very, very human in how she handles the stages of her life that it’s incredibly satisfying by the time her arc is completed at the end of the book. I was left with as many questions as answers and even though I finished reading this novel a year and a half ago, I’m still scratching the surface of the themes it holds. Definitely one that deserves a re-read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Is this a predictable choice? Yes. Am I ashamed of that? Not in the slightest. There’s a reason other than women’s love of Mr. Darcy that makes this novel so appealing and enjoyable. Of all the novels I’ve read by the author (all but Emma and Mansfield Park), this one showcases her satirical skills the most, while still making the characters their own people instead of stand-ins for Regency tropes. Humor and sarcasm show up all throughout the prose and nobody is immune from being the subject of said humor. But, beyond that, it really is a good look at how pride and prejudice get in the way of truly knowing people. And the romances, however restrained and subdued they may be, are ones you want to happen by the end. (The icing on the cake? The film adaptations of this novel are great. Take note, film makers.)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
This one made the list for none of the things that are typically associated with the story of Frankenstein: spooky monsters, good ole’ fashioned Gothic horror, or drama. This novel has those things, but, not to the extent that you’d expect. There are no crazy scientists or green monsters running around. Instead, there are isolated, sleep-deprived college students, eloquent creatures pushed to the brink of murder, and lots of sailing. But the real gem in the tale is the commentary about the importance of friendship and human connection, and what horrible, horrible things happen when we’re either deprived of it—or deprive ourselves of it. Much like Wuthering Heights, the characters in this tale probably weren’t meant to become your favorites, but when you get past the melodrama and blatant moral shortcomings, Shelley has some pretty powerful things to say about humanity. Plus, yes, there’s that Gothic element that makes it appealing.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
As the only American novel on my list, I think this one does a pretty good job at representing my home country. To Kill a Mockingbird is a quintessential tale of prejudice and racism in the South during the early 20th century, but it looks at those subjects with nuance and dexterity, coupling it with clear prose and a unique point-of-view. That point-of-view may be my favorite part of the story—by showing the audience the story events through the eyes of Scout, who had just started elementary school at the start of the novel, we’re spared the gruesome details of the court case while never losing a bit of the impact. Scout’s frank and innocent perspective brings the truth out more than if the story had been told from the perspective of any other character. It’s the sort of story that lingers with you for a long, long time, like the humidity of a Southern summer day.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Even though it’s last on my list, I don’t lack any love for this story. It contains many of the other elements that the rest of the novels on my list have—a rich setting, poignant themes, and characters that are compelling even when they’re shown with all of their flaws. We get a front-row seat to watch Jane struggle with loneliness and disconnection from others, which makes her ability to rally herself and never waver in doing what is right despite the difficulty all the more admirable. Combine the poignancy of her character with the spectacular Gothic settings and the spooky mystery of Mr. Rochester’s house, and there’s no wonder readers have loved this book for generations.
What are your favorite classics? Do they show up on my list? Leave a comment and let me know so we can gush about them together! And I promise I’ll update the list when need be—I have a bunch of classics on my to-be-read and currently-reading pile that I suspect will inch their way toward the top.