Classics that are worth reading

Ooh! Ooh! The Count of Monte Cristo.

My goodness, the kindle version is just $0.99. It’s unabridged. I actually especially favor the abridged version I first read, but you know what, fine. For that price, I’m picking up this ebook version.

What else?

Pride and Prejudice, which, is this a trend? is also available in a kindle ebook for $0.99. Well, in this case, I have lovely paper copies, so even though I prefer ebooks, I’ll stick with those. Also the rest of Jane Austen’s books … wow, this ebook collects all of Jane Austen’s works and it’s free? Okay, never mind. I still love my nice paper editions, but I mean.

What’s another great classic? Little Women. Not quite free, but certainly inexpensive. I haven’t read this for years, and I always pushed back a bit against certain elements, but nevertheless.

What else? Well, let’s pause to link to the post that caught my eye, which is at Book Riot: The Best Classic Books (That Are Actually Worth a Read)

I do not expect to agree with many of Book Riot’s picks because I usually don’t. I’m curious what they’re going to pick, and beyond that, I’m curious about their definition. Does a book have to be over 100 years old and still widely read in order to qualify? Does it have to be assigned in a lot of high school classes? What are the criteria? …. Doesn’t look like any criteria are stated? Well, that seems a little odd.

Well, some of these are things anybody would agree are classics, I expect. The author of the post seems to be treating this as “we all know what we mean by classics,” and I guess there are worse definitions. I’ve never heard of plenty, and some I hated, but here’s The Scarlet Pimpernel! I do like that one. I’m surprised to see it here.

A few of these were published as late as the 1980s. Nothing published in the eighties can be a classic, surely? I feel old.

Most interesting entry: The Ramayana. It turns out there are a zillion editions. The abridged this, the modernized that. I picked this edition because it’s the same one as at the Book Riot post, and I’m just trusting that person to have a reason to select this edition. Unlike everything else here, it’s not super inexpensive. but you know what, I’ve always kind of wanted to at least look at it. Maybe I’ll get a sample and see how it goes.

Entry where I recoiled: Like Water for Chocolate. I read it long ago and loathed some parts of it so much that this reaction colored the whole thing. No, I don’t remember what I hated about it. But I guess I’ll never know, because I remember the reaction well enough that I will never reread it.

Quick! One great classic that you would sincerely push on people who have missed it. Anything?

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34 thoughts on “Classics that are worth reading”

  1. The Hobbit. But only if you read it completely unprepared.

    When we read it to our then-seven-year-old (thirty next month, come here, time flies, I’ve got a wonderful arrow for you) she was thrilled but never liked LoTR later in life, or The Hobbit either any more.

  2. Kipling’s Kim. It’s a rip roaring coming of age, travelogue filled with a deep appreciation for the diversity of the subcontinent, and a compelling spy story. Kipling was also a poet, so I find the turns of phrase very compelling and beautiful in parts.
    It is a product of the colonialist times, so there is a certain unquestioned belief in the British Raj. But, having said that, just about all the best characters are poc – the Pathan horse trader, the Bengali clerk, the hill-rani old woman, and of course the Tibetan lama. Many white characters racism and ignorance are also shown. I particularly recommend Sam Dastor’s audiobook version, he voices a very large cast of characters really entertainingly.

    Kipling’s Captain’s Courageous is also a pretty great coming of age novel about a spoilt rich brat washed off a cruise ship and taken up by a cod fishing boat on the Grand Banks. Again a very compelling diverse cast. Still some period typical racist language tho, fair warning. George Guidall does an excellent audiobook version.

    Last of all, Dorothy Sayers Strong Poison.

  3. Hard to say which of Dumas many novels I like the best, but I think the Three Musketeers over the Count of Monte Cristo. The Man in the Iron Mask is from the third in that series- I read and reread a -5 volume set of his books while hiding in the library in eight grade, as I am sure many of you can imagine. I would also suggest John Fox Jr’s The Little Shepherd or Kingdom Come , a civil war novel written ?? likely around the turn of the century, by a Kentucky author. It’s a great coming of age story, obviously very, very dated, but you can get a glimpse of life back then. Also Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. Maybe not a classic? But a great romance novel nonetheless.

  4. Oh, I forgot to say, I have (embarrassingly ) never read Captain’s Courageous, but the movie with Spenser Tracy and Freddy Bartholomew is a favorite of mine, and there’s a movie called ‘Start the Revolution Without Me with Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland which is a hilarious mashup of a lot of the Dumas novels. Both classics, imo.

  5. That’s an interesting effect, Irina. I personally never much liked The Hobbit, only TLotR, but read them all later. Though still a long time ago … time’s arrow, indeed.

  6. So many of these I haven’t read! I’ve never even heard of Cold Comfort Farm.

    For me, The Count of Monte Cristo is by far my favorite of Dumas’ books, and I never actually got through The Man in the Iron Mask, though I tried it twice. This mashup movie sounds like it’s worth checking out!

    Brett, thanks! I guess I should see which others here have a free version from Project Gutenberg, which I can then drop onto my Kindle and probably never quite get around to reading, like Scaramouche.

    Which I have started, also twice, like The Man in the Iron Mask. Kim I did read, and pretty recently. Historical attitudes don’t bother me at all in historical novels.

  7. For public domain works in English, I’ll generally go with Gutenberg or, if available, Standard Ebooks, which takes Gutenberg books and adds another layer of proofreading and formatting. (Not that I’m averse to spending the 99 cents, but those are often just Gutenberg files anyway.) Uploading or emailing the file to my Kindle gets most of the same benefits in terms of cloud storage, syncing between devices, etc.

    For works in translation, I’ll try to get a sense of whether there’s a version that gets recommended a lot. Often there are more recent, non-PD translations that correct errors or get rid of elisons demanded by sensibilities of the time.

    (Though these days it’s necessary to be careful of omissions or outright changes going the other way for similar reasons. And sometimes the older translation is the better one; e.g., there may be more accurate translations of the Bible than the KJV, but often the language of the latter is more poetic and beautiful.)

    So for The Count of Monte Cristo I wound up going with the Penguin Classics translation by Robin Buss, since a lot of people seemed to think highly of it. That one cost fully $3.49. :-)

  8. It being the season, I recommend Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol’, which I intend to reread this year. What a delightful story of a man’s transformation!
    Not quite 100 years old, but I also love Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, which is a historical children’s book. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ and ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ or ‘Treasure Island’ by Rudyard Kipling are also must-reads.

  9. There are a lot of classics in the linked post that I’ve never read, hadn’t heard of, and feel no urge to read after seeing their descriptions.
    Whatever criteria they used, it’s clear that the list is weighted towards heavy material, with descriptors like harsh reality, not easy to get into, subject matters like the Nazi concentration camps, fleeing the dust bowl, and Palestinian terrorist bombings; and they seem to have aimed deliberately at a more world-wide list by including one (mostly very old) classic from a lot of non-western civilizations, but then have veered into depictions of American social history of injustice and inequality – classics with a message.

    If this list is supposed to get readers enthousiastic about reading more widely, I fear they’re missing the mark, as they seem to be already stuck in the same sort of lit-fic sense of what is worthy to be called a classic.

  10. Sorry for sounding disgruntled, I much prefer the recommendations I get from you guys here, and was disappointed to think that a list meant to enthuse readers is more likely to put them off.

  11. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. That’s what jumps to mind first. We got a set of “Swashbucklers” from a book of the month club when I was a kid and we all read them repeatedly. Included also The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Three Musketeers. I’ve loved them all at various times, and Scaramouche was my least favorite as a kid, but I liked it so much more as an adult. Has one of my favorite first lines ever – “He was born with a gift for laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”

    From that same book club we also had Captains Courageous and The Jungle Books. I’d forgot about them till I saw the mention above. Read many times. And all of Louisa May Alcott’s books. All of these were beloved when I was a kid.

    I didn’t think of A Christmas Carol when you posed your question, but it’s probably the one I’ve read most frequently in recent years. In our small town, every student for several generations filtered through Mrs. Lawyer’s 7th grade English class, and every class in all those generations had to read A Christmas Carol. Her Christmas decoration for her class was the words “Bah, humbug” stenciled on the wall. I have liked different staves of the book at different times in my life. I appreciate the humor in the writing so much more than I did as a kid. And the phrase “fellow passenger to the grave “ makes me stop and look at others – strangers, acquaintances, people I like and people I want to be disgusted with – with a more conscious desire to think of them generously. So this may actually be my favorite classic of all.

  12. Ooh, ooh. I forgot. Classics – lite. I just listened to the entire Anne of Green Gables series this year. Hadn’t read them for years. They hold up. Very sweet and charming, especially the first book, and the last book, Rilla of Ingleside, which is about her daughter, and takes place during WWI, so has a little more angst.

  13. Hah! I was mulling this topic in shower, and realized I’d entirely left out Mark Twain. Haven’t read him in years. I actually liked The Prince and the Pauper the best of his books when I was reading them. (I’m a sucker for hidden identity tropes.) I also liked Robert Louis Stevenson’s adventure stories. And Swiss Family Robinson.

    Another classic I just thought of that has appeared frequently in my life in the past year is To Kill a Mockingbird. First I read a book that referred to it a lot. Then I went and saw the movie on the big screen in a cinema revival event. And then I saw the play. And then I felt compelled to listen to the actual book, as narrated by Sissy Spacek. I highly recommend the audiobook, and for anyone who has never read the book, I suggest you read it or listen to it. Either way, it will touch you. I haven’t read the recent release by Harper Lee. I’m afraid it will destroy my image and concept of her characters, especially Atticus.

    I’ll stop commenting now. The topic just stirred up so many memories!

  14. Kathryn McConaughy

    Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens, is also seasonally appropriate! He wrote quite a few Christmas stories, C Carol is just the most famous.

  15. I second Nanette’s mention of Cold Comfort Farm. Hilarious. As is any Wodehouse. And like Meera, I like Dorothy Sayers but my favorite Sayers is Gaudy Night.

  16. If you’re interested in the Ramayana, I highly recommend the movie Sita Sings the Blues – it’s a mix of 20’s blues songs, the Ramayana, and some autobiographical bits from the animator. Due to some copyright issues she ran into with the old recordings she used, she ended up releasing the movie for free, so you can watch it here:

  17. Also, yeah, definitely questioning their definition of classic – I’d include some kids’ classics in my list, like Narnia, Secret Garden, or The Little Prince.

  18. I didn’t look that closely, Hanneke, but we’re all probably aware that a lot of people think that something has to be dark in order to be deep. I’m no longer especially bitter that no high school or college instructor assigned anything I would ever have read voluntarily, but … you know what, I am still a little bitter about that. Why in heaven’s name keep assigning Madame Bovary and never Pride and Prejudice?

  19. The Secret Garden is lovely; my favorite of that type is A Little Princess. Narnia for sure!

    Jeanine, I agree, Gaudy Night is my favorite of Sayers, and I guess I would consider it a classic. However “classics” are being defined.

  20. You know, I should have definitely remembered The Secret Garden, but actually I think of all Frances Hodgson Burnett’s stories, the 1993 edition of her story The Land of the Blue Flower, illustrated by Judith Ann Griffith, was, and still is, one of the most beautiful books in my collection – both the story and the illustrations.
    Also, sorry, wrote my above recommendations in a roaring hurry and didn’t realize I’d left out that Treasure Island is by Robert Louis Stevenson.
    I’d also add Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter or pretty much anything by George MacDonald to my list; Phantastes is a great place to start.
    I very much agree with you, Hanneke; a story needn’t be dark to be deeply meaningful, nor does it have to delve into the worst of the human psyche to be compelling.

  21. EC, I’ve never read The Land of the Blue Flower. I should … well, look at that. Amazon says I bought the kindle version two years ago. Pulling that to the top of my kindle app now.

  22. So, because I’m Hungarian I’m going to recommend some Hungarian classics I loved and are available in English translation.

    The Stars of Eger by Géza Gárdonyi, a different translation titled Eclipse of the Crescent Moon is also available.
    It’s a historical with lots of action, adventure and a really sweet romance, but one third of the book is a siege, the real siege of Eger Castle in 1552, and it’s… bloody. The ending is HFN. It is extremely well researched, but it was originally published around 1900 and some new information’s been discovered then. The author also took some artistic liberties with the life of the MC., especially the romance.

    Hidden among the Huns /Slave of the Huns (original title actually means The Invisible Person :) ) by the same author.
    The story is told in the first-person by Zeta, a librarian of the emperor in Constantinople as he recounts his life and how he basically sold himself to slavery for a girl. It starts with a major spoiler, as we know he’s happily married to Gigia, but his first love was Emőke (might be spelled differently in the English version). Feels a bit similar to Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff I think. Also lots of adventure, but Zeta is exesperating at times, really talented, educated, sociable, etc, and does his very best to destroy his life for an impossible love.

    And a very different one Abigail a young adult novel by Magda Szabó, published in 1970, so a somewhat modern classic.

    It takes place during WW2 in a fictional city mostly based on the author’s birthplace. The heroine is a 14 year-old girl from a wealthy family in the capital with a secular upbringing who is unexpectedly sent to a very rigid Calvinist boarding school at the other end of the country which is a huge culture shock. Most of it is from her POV, it’s interesting because there’s so much she doesn’t know but the reader does. E.g. a little subplot with Jewish girls who receive fake documents and she actually helps, but has no idea what the danger was.

    The school is based on the school where the author had studied and later worked as a teacher, though she changed some things to fit the plot. It’s not that bad actually, far too rigid, but nothing like Jane Eyre for example, which is refreshing, I don’t think I’ve seen too many modern novels where a strict, religious institution wasn’t also horribly abusive.

    If you decide to give it a try, be aware that the translator’s foreword contains a spoiler.

    A lot of adult novels by the author are also available in English, they are all beautifully written, but far too sad for me.

  23. Thank you, Maria! The librarian sounds great except for trying to destroy his life, which sounds … uh … less great. I’m definitely picking up samples of the other two at once!

  24. Crazy with love is NOT a selling point. I have a hard time with characters who do self-destructive things for love. Although the setting sounds great!

  25. I’ve been meaning to read the Ramayana! It came up in conversation and my husband was telling me I’m too much of a WASP to understand dharma (he’s Indian; it was funny in context) and I want to actually read it to see if it makes dharma make more sense.

    As far as classics I would recommend, I am quite fond of North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. In some ways, Gaskell isn’t as strong a writer as better known names from her time, but I think she draws a very vivid picture of a specific place and time, and has an interesting perspective on the issues she tackles. Also, her books are much less depressing than the Victorian novels I read in high school (I had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge three years in a row!).

  26. I would also opt for Gaudy Night from Sayers, and I like the Louisa May Alcott books and many of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Another if you like those books would be Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster.

    Children’s books, I am very fond of The Railway Children by Nesbit. Her fantasies are good, but I like that one best.

    Swallows and Amazons, which I missed as a child but greatly enjoyed as an adult.

    Depending on how old a classic needs to be, The Once and Future King by TH White.

    A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute.

  27. Oh yes. The Once and Future King.

    But really, do check out Cold Comfort Farm. You’re welcome.

    Does Master & Commander fit in here?

  28. It does seem that when we talk about the classics, few of us talk about Russian literature, and gravitate more to those books that called to us as children- like A Little Princess, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and A Secret Garden, along with Anne of Green Gables and the Louisa May Alcott books. My guess is that when we were growing up, there wasn’t a large selection of children’s books the way there are today, so we all read the same books and loved them all. I can’t possibly say that I enjoyed Crime and Punishment, and only really loved for the romance in War and Peace. Shallow, but there it is.

  29. Rachel–
    So agree about HS English, until Senior year when we read rather a lot of Shakespeare, plus Robert Frost. And wrote a paper a week.
    But Scarlet Letter, Red Badge of Courage, and for pity’s sake GWTW? Huckleberry Finn was a huge relief.
    And OtterB–
    I agree about Swallows and Amazons, and especially Picts and Martyrs, which I began reading to my nieces. (Began, because they grabbed the book and finished I for themselves.)

  30. M.R. James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. If you read just one of them, make it “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.'”

    I started using an app this year called Serial Reader which has been great for keeping me plugging along on books I’ve intended to get around to. It breaks a book into daily chunks. Many popular public domain classics are available, and there’s also a feature to import your own non-DRM ePubs. One book I read this year was in over 100 segments, and it was nice to have “slow but steady” as an option for something longer.

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