Classic Literature Made Easy

Classic literature is a debatable subject. What makes a book a classic is debatable, and the whole category of “classic” literature is vague yet exclusive. Classics could refer specifically to the Greek writers of thousands of years ago, or just a broad reference to books that have withstood the test of time and countless English class discussions. But how can we appreciate a genre whose authors are almost completely homogenous? The disappointing fact is that almost all the books our society considers classics are written by white, male authors. While a few women make appearances, classic literature almost always fails to incorporate the works of non-Western contemporaries, and while some of the recognized writers were queer, their novels only deal with LGBTQ narratives in the most subtextual of ways. This exclusivity may turn you off from the exploration of classic literature, but you can recognize the faults of classic literature while still appreciating its successes and its beauty. That being said, here are the go-to classics that should be read at some point, either to critique or to revere.

Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen, one of England’s most celebrated authors, and one of the most well-known female writers, crafts a witty and enthralling tale of love and scorn in Pride and Prejudice. A satirical tale of class and wealth, the story follows headstrong and sarcastic Lizzie Bennett, a heroine that every modern reader will love, and her tumultuous relationship with the snobby Mr. Darcy. It’s one of the classic, well-known love stories, but it’s not without its complexities and nuances. It’s a very harsh critique of socio-economic class and the biases and problems it causes. Austen succeeds in social observation, acutely capturing the oddities and mannerisms of people both in the book and in the real world.  Plus it’s laugh out loud funny.
Read if you like: wit, making fun of pretentious rich people, teenage drama, sassy female heroines

Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre, my favorite book, is kind of a darker Pride and Prejudice. Jane Eyre is a classic example of the romantic novel, an era of writing characterized by love and awe of nature, embrace of human emotions, and a liberal approach to social convention. Jane Eyre is all of these things: set in the misty, dark moors and mysterious manors of 19th century England, the book challenges the roles of women that the time period abided by. We follow Jane, the protagonist whom the book is named after, as she grows up and learns to own her natural passion and obstinacy that is constantly stomped out by the authority figures in her life. When she takes a job at the dark and creepy Thornfield Hall, she doesn’t exactly know what she’s signing up for. Like all eighteen year old girls, she’s curious and anxious to leave school, craving real world experience. The journey that follows is exciting, ominous, and heartbreaking as Jane grows up and learns to not let society define her. A harsh commentary on the roles of women, Jane Eyre is memorable for its beautiful, sweeping writing, enthralling plotline, and expertly developed characters. In Jane, everyone will find something of themselves; Brontë crafted perhaps the most infamous Byronic hero (a male protagonist whose usually dark past has turned him cynical and tempestuous, but retains a deep sensibility and longing for human affection) in Mr. Rochester.  Jane Eyre, perhaps one of the most iconic love stories of all time, is painful and bittersweet, triumphant and witty. It’s a book you won’t be able to put down; unlike many other novels of its time, its plot moves quickly, with plot twists galore. The first time I read it, I read it in a day—a real page turner.
Read if you like: sexually tense philosophical debates about atonement, creepy/haunted houses, standard-defying female characters, powerful love stories

Catcher in the Rye
While I don’t pretend to be the biggest Catcher in the Rye fan, or even a fan at all, it’s important to recognize the significance of the novel. Published in 1951, Catcher was shockingly honest and open about what it’s like to be a teenager. The lack of plotline in favor of Holden’s train of thought breaks the mold of most books. Many find Holden, the novel’s protagonist, and his ability to see through the phonies of the world honest and engaging. The images Salinger creates are vivid and the distinct voice he writes with makes the book a high school English class favorite.
Read if you like: angsty teens, ramblings, teen existential crises

Romeo and Juliet
For many, approaching Shakespeare is a nightmare. I’ll be the first to admit that Shakespeare is a challenge, a task that demands hard work, but it’s one that pays off. Reading Shakespeare is like solving a puzzle—it needs to be considered thoroughly, approached from all angles, and pieced together bit by bit. Romeo and Juliet may seem like it holds nothing for many readers. I’m sure you already know the plotline, so there are no unforeseen twists to move you; the writing is too confusing to actually get anything out of. But if you’re willing to work at it, the language of Romeo and Juliet is moving, exciting, surprisingly humorous, and painful. My advice would be to keep an open mind, and definitely find a copy with a reader’s guide.
Read if you like: sexual innuendo, archetypal characters, an all-consuming reading experience

The Great Gatsby
Perhaps the greatest modern classic, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is so accessible for all readers. The plotline and language is pretty easy to comprehend, but holds intricate references and wordplay that reveal countless deeper meanings of the novel. The story of a banker’s relationship with a mysterious and fabulously wealthy neighbor, Gatsby soars with a cast of tragic characters, extravagant parties, and an intricate exploration of what it means to love, to lose, and to be alive.  It’s a novel everyone must read at least once.
Read if you like: drinking to the point of oblivion, calamitous plotlines, callous and cruel social interactions, the flapper era

text: penny mack
visual: sienna kwami
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