Like many people, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the classics. On the one hand, they can be notoriously wordy, dense, and tedious. However, reading the classics can also be rewarding. Not only is it an excellent way of gaining insight into the culture, customs, and values of the past, it also introduces us to some of the greatest characters, storylines, prose, and lessons in all of literature. Whether you recently got into reading, want to read more classics but don’t know where to start, or are simply looking for some book recommendations, I hope there will be at least one book here that interests you! Please look up trigger warnings for each book before you dive in, as many of these books tackle serious topics.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The novel revolves around three characters: Basil Hallward, a young painter; Dorian Gray, a young and good-looking boy; and Lord Henry, a corrupt aristocrat. Basil is entranced by his friend Dorian’s beauty and paints a portrait of him. Dorian Gray is then stunned by his beauty that is depicted in the painting and becomes jealous that his beauty will fade through time, whereas he in the painting will stay young forever. His wish, perhaps accidentally, came true. Influenced by Lord Henry’s decadent lifestyle and worldview, Dorian gradually falls into corruption, prioritizing sensual pleasure and beauty over morality and higher pursuits. Meanwhile, for every sin that Dorian commits, his portrait gets older and uglier, whereas he himself remains forever young and attractive.
This story is a critique of art, morality, and beauty, and the effects that one’s environment plays on shaping one’s values and self-perception. Wilde’s prose is elegant and witty, and there are so many unforgettable lines in this novel that linger in my mind long after finishing it. If you love art, philosophy, and morally-gray characters, The Picture of Dorian Gray is the perfect novel for you.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Fire Next Time is composed of two non-fiction essays. The first essay, titled “My Dungeon Shook”, is a short letter Baldwin wrote to his nephew that comments on the experience of Black people with racism in the United States. In the second essay, titled “Down at the Cross”, which takes up the majority of the book, Baldwin delves deep into his personal experience with race and religion in the US as a Christian pastor in his teenage years. Baldwin recounts his experiences with the corruption of his church and the discrepancy that he felt between the message of God’s love that he preached and the harrowing reality that Black Americans cannot escape. Additionally, he discusses his views on the Islamic Nation Movement led by Elijah Muhammad in the context of segregationist policies in the US.
This book is one of the most impactful pieces of literature that I have ever read, and it contributes such a unique but crucial perspective to the discussion of race relations in America. While reading this, I was astounded by Baldwin’s prowess as a writer; he conveys emotions and thoughts poignantly and makes a lot of enriching commentary about race in America. The Fire Next Time is a must-read for everyone.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.”
This is the opening line of The Bell Jar, and in my opinion, one of the greatest opening lines in all of literature. The Bell Jar is about a college girl named Esther Greenwood who, as the opening line suggests, is spending the summer in New York City and is struggling with her mental health. The book does not have a distinct plot- it simply chronicles Esther’s day-to-day life, social interactions, and emotions as someone who has depression. As the novel progresses, Esther’s mental health deteriorates, and she ends up institutionalized and subjected to unscientific forms of treatment that do not help her improve. However, Esther also manages to find glimmers of hope throughout all this.
The Bell Jar is a powerful statement about mental health and women’s status in society. It is also a semi-autobiographical novel; the author, similar to the protagonist, also suffered from depression throughout her life and took her own life when she was only 30 years old. The Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel- she is mostly known as a poet. Her background as a poet allows her to craft uncanny imagery to depict emotions in a flawless way. The novel is often compared to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for similar structures and themes, so if you are a fan of that book, you will enjoy this one too.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
This novella follows a man named Gregor Samsa, a salesperson, who wakes up one day and finds himself transformed into an insect. His family and boss yell at him through his bedroom door, frustrated with the fact that he could not get out of bed and go to work on time, only to find out eventually that he had become an insect. The family falls into despair, yet they continue to care for him and value him as a family member, especially his sister. However, the financial situation of their family worsens and they become more and more challenged by the burden Gregor imposes, so over time, they care less and less about him.
Absurd, impactful, and thought-provoking, this novella urges the readers to confront the unpleasant truths about love, family, and money within a society driven by capitalism. Kafka poses the idea that all love is a series of bonds formed based on mutual profit, and when one side is no longer able to fulfill that, they receive no sympathy. Kafka’s writing is concise yet moving. As a reader, I was able to empathize with both Gregor’s emotions as well as those of his family’s, which adds complexity to the story.
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
To The Lighthouse delineates the lives of the people in the Ramsey family and their acquaintances over the course of more than 10 years. The story is built upon a simple premise that is revealed very early on in the novel: the Ramsey kids want to go to the lighthouse, but their father objects. Using that as a catalyst, the novel then goes on to explore the complex, rich, and astonishingly beautiful inner lives of the characters. The novel is written in a stream-of-consciousness style and the plot is not the most important aspect of the novel; instead, the readers fully immerse themselves in the minds of the characters and experience their day-to-day lives.
In this uniquely beautiful and innovative piece of modernist literature, Woolf explores the meaning of life, the value of human connections, gender roles, war, loss, and hope. Woolf also experiments with the representation and experience of time, often amplifying the briefest moments and diminishing long years into a single passing remark. To The Lighthouse is one of my favorite books of all time; when I first read this book around two years ago amid Covid lockdowns, I was in awe of the beauty of Woolf’s prose and found comfort in the musings of the characters. Woolf’s writing style can be challenging to read at first; but once you get familiar with it, it is lyrical and poignant. If you love something that is introspective and wistful, this is the book for you.