How I Choose Books Part 2: Classic Fiction

In yesterday’s post I defended–nay, extolled–the virtues of reading fiction. Today I want to get a little more specific. How do I choose the Classic Fiction that I read? Now, the term “classic” is a bit of a problem–is Harry Potter a classic? Though millions thoroughly enjoyed the series, I would have to say no, at least not yet. However, if people are still reading it 200 years from now then it will certainly have attained that status.

In other words, some books are classics and others are not, and not everyone agrees on what books qualify. The phrase “instant classic” has always struck me as silly, because contemporary popularity is such a horrible predictor of lasting success. So what do I mean today when I talk about “classics?” I thought about drawing an arbitrary line and putting everything after, say, 1900 in Thursday’s Modern Fiction post. But that won’t do–someone will call it a terrible injustice to suggest that Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. are not classics. And obviously time is not the only thing that defines a classic. So I won’t do that.

Instead, I’ll just mention books that I think I can safely assume are generally agreed upon to have attained “classic” status. This is not a list of every classic fiction work I think should be read–that would take weeks of posts. So if you think I’ve left something major out, I’m sure that you’re right–you can leave a comment. In fact, please do so–I’d love to have others’ thoughts about classic works they love.

Ok, with that out of the way, here we go.

Whenever I think about the books I want to read, I ask myself, what are the books I must read before I die? I will never be able to read every book out there; I must choose some at the exclusion of others.

Obviously, at the top of the list are the ancient classics: The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid. Now, these are not really “fiction” as we understand it–rather, they are poetic retellings of historic events. Of course, these are wonderful works but I initially decided to read them because they are at the top of the “have to” list. There is nothing wrong with reading something because others think it is important and these works certainly fall into that category.

So one question to ask yourself is, “What fiction is most important?” Aside from the works above, I think the next names on the list must be Dante and Shakespeare. Again, these works are not “fiction” necessarily but I do not think that one can really understand the Western world without having read them. Deciding what fiction is most important is by no means easy, but “classics” are regarded as such because they are generally considered to be important works.

On the other hand, asking what fiction is important may help you find classics, but once you get past the must-read names like Homer and Dante, how do you differentiate between them? For example, both Pride and Prejudice and The Tale of Genji are important, and both are classics–so how I choose which one to read? That’s a bit harder.

Actually, it isn’t hard to decide what to read–classics are classics. The hard thing is deciding what to read when. Part of it simply has to do with what I am in the mood for, so let me explain what I love about some of my favorite classic authors:

If I want to read a witty story with entertaining characters and a well-developed plot, Jane Austen is by far my best bet. If I want to read a book that challenges my understanding of human nature I read Fyodor Dostoevsky. If I want to read something with an intricate story, something that is at the same time wonderful and tragically beautiful, I read Thomas Mann (can you tell I like him?). Buddenbrooks is my favorite work of fiction, hands down.

Everyone has something different to offer and since I want to read all the classic authors, it is really a matter of deciding what the order will be. If I want to read something Southern, I go to William Faulkner or Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor (if you’ve never read O’Connor, go find Everything That Rises Must Converge right now). If I want to read something expansive and grand, Alexandre Dumas or Victor Hugo are my obvious choices. Dumas’ works are simply exciting and fun to read, surprisingly close to our contemporary novels. And I have a real soft spot for the Russian classics.

Leo Tolstoy always tends to inspire and sadden me in the same work, which I rather enjoy, Anna Karenina in particular. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a repeat reading to appreciate a classic. I hated Albert Camus the first time I read him, but when I went back a reread The Stranger a few years later, I found it wonderful. It was the same with Voltaire’s Candide.

Well. This post is longer than I intended, yet it feels rather inadequate. It will certainly be easier for me to explain how I choose what modern fiction, or history, or religious books I read. Classics should be read simply because they are classics. I’ve left so many out, but I’m afraid I have to. Instead of trying to visit every author who deserves to be mentioned, let me recommend five works of classic fiction for someone who wants an introduction to a range of authors. These are not in any particular order.

Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)

Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann)

The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

Go Down, Moses (William Faulkner)

This list is simply intended to recommend some works I enjoy and to provide a wide range of authors. If you’re interested in more titles or recommendations, or have questions, leave a comment. And let me know–what are your favorite classic fiction works?


4 responses to “How I Choose Books Part 2: Classic Fiction

  • Brad D.

    I agree on Austen. Her understanding of the interplay between differing personalities is quite remarkable. I’m interested to hear what you think about Thomas Hardy, who I think has a gift for creating tragically flawed characters (and deep sorrow). Not for everyone, but I connect with Jude (Jude the Obscure) on many levels.

    Also, Gone with the Wind, one of my all time favorites. It has helped me understand my sisters to a greater degree than any other book (along with Sense and Sensibility). On reading this, I found which was Melanie and which was Scarlett. I’m sure you could guess which is which (without even knowing my other Sister). Now I understand/appreciate each of their strengths in a new way because of that book.

    Final thought- Flanner O’Connor is sublime. In my opinion, she understands with remarkable accuracy the two worlds that I live in- the South and the Bible Belt. Greenleaf is one that continues to haunt me, in a good way.

    Great post. Thanks for the insight.

  • GR

    After you’ve finished her fiction, give Flannery’s Habit of Being a try.

  • Clifton Griffin

    Thanks for this post, Jack.

    I downloaded all of the ones you mentioned that are in the public domain on my iPad as I read this post.

    I have been trying to read more classics in the last couple of years. For people’s curiousity:
    The Count of Monte Cristo
    Peter Pan
    Lord of the Flies (especially enjoyable when read immediately after above)
    Journey to the Center of the Earth
    Invisible Man
    Catcher in the Rye
    Franny and Zoey
    The Fountainhead
    East of Eden

    I’d recommend all of those except for Journey. Hokey action. Silly science. In short, a bit lame.

    But my real love has been dystopian novels with a prescient look at politics and human existence:
    Brave New World
    Fahrenheit 451

    I absolutely loved those books. I love the parallel characters. The symmetry, even with differing outlooks and messages.

    I would love any recommendations for other books like these. As I’m kind of addicted. (even as I branch out)


  • Betsy Clark

    So, this is the second post you’ve mentioned Mann, and I’ve never read any of his work. Maybe I’ll see if I can find Buddenbrook. and read it.
    I’ve loved Austen’s work as well. Dicken’s, and also George MacDonald. Have you read anything by him? He was instrumental in C. S. Lewis’ spiritual journey. I love his development of characters, setting, and plot.
    Sir Gibbie would be a good one to start with. Can Lewis’ work be called classic? I do love his writing.

    You’ve never posted your third post on choosing modern fiction. Do you still plan to?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: