TheTop Ten Classics That You Should Read for Your Own Enjoyment

May 29th, 2009

Sometimes they’re just plain fun

My son announced yesterday that his school-assigned summer reading this year is Dickens’ Great Expectations. “I love Dickens,” I said, “but that’s not my favorite.” Apparently, the teacher herself said she wasn’t a huge fan of the book but felt it was something people “should” read which made me a little sad. The whole thing about Dickens is that he’s fun. A good Dickens novel is the best escapism there is–his books are exciting and fast-paced and romantic and play on your emotions in a way that leaves you vowing to be a better person.

I love Dickens but my least favorite novels are the ones that teachers tend to assign–e.g. Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities. Too many teachers (and subsequently their students) act like the classics belong to the vegetable category of the reading pyramid: you need to read them, they’re good for you, you’ll be better off if you just accept them as a necessity, but they’re not going to be anywhere near as enjoyable as the sugary treats we all crave. Unfortunately, the “healthy but not tasty” label becomes self-fulfilling when teachers lazily or unknowingly assign the least fun books in the canon of British and American classic literature for their kids to read.

I’m not an English teacher (well, I was once for one year, but that’s a long story) but it seems to me that it would benefit everyone if instead of assigning classics that are difficult for a teenager to plow through, an effort were made to assign the really fun works of literature. And those do exist. Literature is not by nature stuffy and miserable. Our modern tastes, cultivated by youtube and Dan Brown, may be so accustomed to fast moving, densely plotted books and movies that a lot of older books do feel slow and uninvolving. But don’t forget that Dickens, the Brontes, and many other authors from previous centuries were writing to amuse, not to enlighten, and, if you choose the right books to read, you can have more fun tromping through London and the moors with one of our distinguished classical authors than you might with a badly written thriller or modern romance.

So I’ve put a list together of my top ten truly fun classics that are worth curling up with, not because they’ll educate and enlighten you but because they’ll make the hours pass in pure escapist joy. Some of these you may have read. But try the ones you haven’t. (And, please, if you have any favorite “fun” classics, write in and let us know so we can all add them to our to-read lists.)

By the way, I’m not including Austen–everyone already loves her.

1. Good Dickens. Like I said, some Dickens is better than others. My top favorites are, in no particular order, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit and Hard Times. They’re engrossing, surprisingly modern in outlook (I defy you not to recognize people you know in many of the characters), and far better than their more famous siblings. 2. Colette. I’m always shocked and saddened by how few people read Colette and that the ones who do tend to read Cheri, which is one of my least favorites of her books. READ THE CLAUDINE BOOKS. I have a collection called The Complete Claudine which includes Claudine in School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie. They get progressively less good, but the first two are knock-your-socks-off sexy, wild, and fun.

2. The Brontes. Sure, you’ve probably read Jane Eyre, but how about Villette? It’s fantastic. Dark and bitter and brilliant. Wuthering Heights is considered a classic but it’s really just a gothic romance novel and what’s not to love about that? (I know I’m grouping the sisters together like they’re one person. Sue me.) Skip Shirley and anything written by Anne.

3. Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Yes, it’s old and creaky. Yes, it’s an epistolary novel. Yes, the entire book is about a guy trying to get into bed with his maid who virtuously resists him. There’s a reason women in the 18th century loved Richardson: he’s a FUN writer and knows how to be just salacious enough without being TOO salacious.

4. Vanity Fair by Thackeray. Sounds so stuffy and old-fashioned, right? It’s actually really fun. Becky Sharpe is a great character and every time I read the book, I find myself rooting for her even though she’s supposedly the villain and devoid of a moral code. It’s a real romp.

5. The Once and Future King by T.H. White. Now why don’t they teach this in schools more often? It’s based loosely on Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur so, you know, it counts as literature. It’s sort of a kids’ book, I guess, but I don’t know many kids who can appreciate the second half of this book. You laugh through the first half, cry through the second half. I couldn’t put this book down when I read it. Similarly:

6. All the Kings’ Men by Robert Penn Warren. So long, so epic in scope and personal in story, so moving . . . It’s one of those books that you can open to almost any page and instantly find something that gets to you. Power corrupts. And to do good in this world sometimes you have to compromise your beliefs and your principles but if you compromise them too much are you still doing good? Heady ideas–but it’s also exciting, sexy, and un-put-downable.

7. Lolita by Nabokov. Delicious. So much fun. Maybe not the best book to assign to teenagers, but every adult should read it, not because it’s edifying but because it’s a great read. Pale Fire is also fantastic–but should probably be read with a class because it takes a while to realize what’s going on. Once you get the joke of the book, it’s hysterical, one of the funniest novels ever written.

8. Nine Stories or Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger. Most schools assign Catcher in the Rye if they do Salinger, I think out of the belief that teenagers will simply relate to it better than his other stuff. I haven’t reread Catcher since I was assigned it back in junior or high school (can’t remember which) for one simple reason: it made me way too sad. But I’ve reread these other two books so often they’re dog-eared. They’re sad too but in a less personal way. And there’s more hope in them, I think. And they speak to me. And they’re brilliant. And when I write dialogue, I think of Salinger and how no one does it better. And just thinking about these books makes me want to dive back into both of them this second. Seriously, if you take nothing else from this post, and you haven’t read Nine Stories, do not stop at Go, do not collect 200 dollars–just go read it. Now. GO.

9. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. A teacher of mine assigned this in college and I approached it with huge trepidation. I mean, PYNCHON? I’ve never made it past the first few pages of Gravity’s Rainbow. Has anyone? Seriously, if you’ve read all of GR, please let me know because I DON’T KNOW ANYONE WHO HAS. But Lot 49 is another beast entirely. It’s short, funny, weird, and a really fun read. And you can still brag about how you just read a Pynchon book. No one needs to know it was easy.

10. Fanny Hill by John Cleland. Okay, I’m not going to say that this is a great classic that changed my life or anything. But COME ON–this is your one chance to tell an 18-year-old that the line between a classic book and pornography is very thin. If you want to get kids interested in reading more, sex is the perfect way to do it. And how else are they going to learn that describing sexual organs can actually get really boring if it’s done ad nauseum? That’s a very important lesson, right there.

So here they are: my ten picks for the classics you should read for your own amusement and which are more fun than the ones most teachers assign. If you suspect that I made the list by walking over to my bookshelves and searching for books by famous authors that I’ve actually reread many times for my own pleasure and enjoyment . . . well, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Happy reading!