It’s no secret that I am a great lover of Classic Literature. Anything before about 1940 and I’m sold. Except for Dickens, don’t know why. *shrug* And when you are a lover of the classics, it comes up a lot. Especially on Instagram, for some reason. So a lot of the time I get asked the question:
“I want to read more/some classic literature, but I’ve never really read any. Do you have a recommendation of where to start?”
Why is it so hard for people to find a classic they think they’re interested in? My theory is because so many of them are SOOOOOO long, and people are intimidated by the length, and that they may have a preconceived notion that classics are slow or dull. Well, I’m not going to lie friends, many of them are long. And if your main source of literature is 21st century YA, then yeah, the pace is going to be a lot slower than you are used to. But I think they are worth reading anyway. Once you get used to the slower pace, you’re going to find some amazing stories.
Which brings me to my first recommendation. Don’t stop after one. If you find you don’t enjoy your first classic, don’t give up. Like I said, if you’re mostly used to YA, the different pace is going to take some getting used to. And, therefore, my second suggestion. Don’t read the one you’re most interested in first. I would hate for you to have a bad experience with Pride and Prejudice because you didn’t understand it, or because you were bored. Start out with one that you’re willing to not be in love with.
So, with no further ado, here are my suggestions for first classics.
The Scarlet Pimpernel
The Scarlet Pimpernel is always my go-to suggestion for a first classic. Set in the era of the French Revolution, the daring Scarlet Pimpernel is an English spy who rescues the fleeing French nobility from the very jaws of Madame le Guillotine. French actress Marguerite, who has married into the very British nobility in the thick of these plots, must discover the identity of thy mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel, but will doing so forever estrange her from her doting husband?
I always recommend this book for a couple of reasons. The writing style is fairly quick and exciting for most of the book. It opens with a bang, a deception and a chase sequence sure to hook the reader in. By the end of the book I was turning pages so fast I don’t know if I was reading even half the words on the page, so desperate was I to find out what would become of Marguerite. The second reason is that this book has a really nice blend of a great spy story (with all the twists, disguises, and surprises) with a swoon-worthy love story. I think modern readers will really connect with the content of this book, and the writing style is very accessible. It is one of my all-time favorites.
Sense and Sensibility
Everyone always wants to read Jane Austen, and Sense and Sensibility is I think a nice place to start. It’s the first book she published, so there’s that. Compared to some others it is quite short. It’s a great story, but few people’s favorites, so there’s no fear of hating the world’s most beloved novel. And the movie adaptation is EXCELLENT, so you can always watch that first if you’re worried you won’t understand the writing. In fact, if you’re a classic newbie I strongly recommend doing so. Austen is really very funny, but you might not catch the humor your first go-round. I know I didn’t.
Sisters Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood couldn’t be more different. Eleanor is quiet and reserved, keeping her thoughts and feelings always to herself. But Marianne longs for romance, always says exactly what she feels, and is in general the dramatic teenager you might expect. Both women fall in love, but handle the situation quite differently. Reader be warned that this is a very divisive book, and if you can’t handle some satire you will probably hate Marianne, who you are not intended to love or take very seriously.
And Then There Were None
I couldn’t not recommend Agatha Christie. Though she writes mysteries, which I know are not everyone’s favorite, she is well worth the read because her writing is so gosh darned GOOD. This novel in particular is so fabulous that it has entered the popular psyche to the point that you probably already know this story. Twelve strangers are gathered together on an island for a party, but at dinner a mysterious murderer starts picking them off one-by-one. Christie took pride in having written the “unsolvable mystery,” and it is SO MUCH FUN. The writing is simple and accessible. The characters are despicable but somehow still relatable. And the murders are ingenious but no gruesome. If you’re a fan of thrillers then I highly recommend And Then There Were None.
The Color Purple
It was actually really hard for me to make the decision to read The Color Purple because I admit that even as a seasoned lover of great literature I struggled to understand what was going on at first. That is because the main character, Celie, is not educated, and since this is written as her diary the spelling and grammar is … poor. It’s like reading a child’s diary. Even once I was able to make it all out, Celie didn’t understand what was happening to her, which made it hard for me to understand too. But after the first 5-10 pages it gets very readable. Also, this isn’t technically a “classic”, being only about forty years old. BUT. I’m recommending it anyway because it’s so powerful and uplifting.
Celie, a poor African-American girl, started life poor and abused. She lost first her sister, then her mother. She was taken advantage of by her step-father, and then her husband. But her unflagging optimism and her deep love for others raises her up to a place of respect in the community, and happiness. This is a beautiful story about queer women of color, which is why I think it continues to endure.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
This is another book that I debated including, because while the writing is very accessible, I fear the story may go over the heads of those unused to reading about the past. In the end, I had to include Oscar Wilde because his work is so funny and so easy to understand.
Dorian Gray has it all. Youth, beauty, money, adoration, everything but eternity. So when Dorian’s friend gives him a painting that seems to take all of Dorian’s mistakes from him, showing the lines and scars on its face instead of his, Dorian fears nothing. He sets off down the path of destruction without looking back, a path he may not be able to return from. But will he realize that the changes that don’t show on his face have still changed his heart and soul before it is too late?
Don’t let pop-culture fool you, this is no monster tale. It is more like an episode of the Twilight Zone, eerie and thought-provoking. If you’re interested in gothic literature but intimidated by the size, give this novella a try.