The term “classics” can be daunting. For some, it conjures images of soporific hours spent in English class dissecting books until every crumb of appeal has been swept away. Perhaps for others, the term carries the connotations of antiquated language and social norms, coupled with slow-moving plots. In all fairness, there are many classics that do meet these criteria. But there are also an abundance of classic books that deal with contemporary subject matter, use simple, modern language, and actually can resonate with readers today. The following books, all written before 1960, should be added to every literature lover’s repertoire, and chances are they didn’t appear on your high school reading list.
1. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1953)
Short stories are often more accessible than longer works, as there isn’t space for long-winded descriptions and extended metaphors. O’Connor’s collection is composed of tales about average individuals spun with simple language. This is not to say that the stories are elementary; the juxtaposition of everyday protagonists against extraordinary circumstances is what makes these stories powerful.
2. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
This book offers an alternative for those who struggle to appreciate authors such as Jane Austen and Emily Bronte. Books like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice can be tedious, but at the same time, offer a much-needed window into the world of women in their era. Due to some outdated language, Vanity Fair still takes a certain level of dedication, but the quality of the story is more than sufficient compensation. Written from a male perspective, this is a compelling story for it’s genre.
3. Ward No.6 and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (1885-1902)
Among a collection of engrossing stories, Chekhov’s acclaimed “The Lady with the Dog” is particularly bewitching. It is a bittersweet love story narrated by the male love interest in a stark, minimalist style that leaves the reader wondering how exactly it manages to be so evocative. Storytelling of this magnitude is timeless–in fact, decades later, in 1972, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a companion story from the woman’s perspective that ingeniously adopts the same brooding energy and remained relevant in a vastly different time period.
4. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879)
Ibsen’s play is not a page turner, but it is easy to follow and projects an early feminist message. This play speaks out against the objectification and intellectual minimization of women. A Doll’s House follows Nora’s struggle to justify being an obedient wife and an independent woman. The conclusion would have shocked readers in its time.
5. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942)
One of the factors that makes this book so contemporary, aside from being fairly easy to read, is the presence of the anti-hero protagonist. In recent years, it has become a staple of art and media to ask consumers to feel akin to characters with questionable morals. This book also derives some of its relevancy from the random act of violence it centers around. Unfortunately, in recent decades, senseless acts of violence have become a reality of American life. Although the story is told from the first person, the reader never feels that they’ve grasped the protagonist’s motives. The fact that Camus withholds even a flicker of motivation or causation leaves the reader feeling a bit hollow and harrowed.
6. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (1949)
It has been proposed that the popular Hunger Games franchise was inspired by Jackson’s most well known short story, “The Lottery.” The dystopian tale seems to unfold outside of time and place, in some recent past or future. Another story, “After You My Dear Alphonse,” is ahead of its time in its condemnation of stereotypes and scathing commentary on subconscious racism. With tones of racism and persecution, both of these stories hit sensitive yet relevant topics.
7. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947)
Although most of Tennessee Williams’ plays are captivating, the tension and character development created by the dialogue in this play are paramount. The dialogue will draw you in, but it is the actions of a physically and psychologically abusive main character that keep the pages turning. Williams offers commentary on sexual double standards, classism, familial duties, mental health and the perception that female worth diminishes with age, that continues to be pertinent to today’s readers.
8. Junky by William S. Burroughs (1953)
Considered by some to be the original “hipster,” Burroughs received his highest accolades for his novel Naked Lunch. However, many readers find his earlier work easier to navigate. Junky has become increasingly relevant with the escalation of heroin abuse and a societal shift towards the humanization, as opposed to criminalization, of those suffering from addiction. Through horrific yet beautiful prose, this work gives readers the chance to walk side by side with a heroin addict.
9. Candide by Voltaire (1759)
This book gets its modern vibe primarily from the French philosopher’s sense of humor. It is a satire and delivers to its reader a permanent smirk. Not funny in an over the top manner, but in a way that is clever, mordant, and biting. Candide’s dark humor can be found in the tongue and cheek quip: “It was decided by the University of Coimbre that the sight of several persons being slowly burned in great ceremony is an infallible secret for preventing earthquakes,”a reference to the barbaric rituals meant to appease the gods
10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)
With a shockingly modern subject matter,it is hard to fathom how The Awakening was ever published in 1899, let alone survived to be read today. The title refers to the intellectual, creative, emotional, and sexual awakening of a young married woman; and the story implies that intellectual prowess is deeply linked with sexual liberation. The book also raises some painful questions about a woman’s obligation to family versus her obligation to self, all ahead of it’s time.
Sifting through classic literature can seem fruitless when each year there is more quality fiction being generated than one could even begin to conquer. However, familiarity with powerful classical literature provides a humbling confirmation that despite extensive social progress and technological advancement, the foundations of the human experience have not been altered over decades, even centuries. Great fiction is a tool wielded to gain insight into the inner workings of other human beings, and in doing so strengthens the muscle of empathy. It is all the better if we can gain this type of understanding and connection to prior generations and apply it to modern day.
Written by Kira Patefield