In this 5×5 series, I’m exploring 5 books in 5 different genres, over 5 posts. If you missed the first post on fantasy books, you can check it out here.
The first literary classic I read was Heidi in second grade. I found it in my school library, and while my friends were reading The Boxcar Children and The Magic Treehouse, I was pouring over the 300-page Victorian classic. I think it was a foreshadow of my career as an English major.
Between my natural love of books, English classes and the great books program I did in college, I’ve read a fair number of literary works. Here are my favorites, and why I think you should read them.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
When I first read this book in high school, I thought it was boring and trivial. Then I had to reread it in college, and it has since become one of my favorite books ever. This is what I wish my high-school self had known going into it: It’s not exciting, and it doesn’t have a lot of action. If you want a story with adventurous characters and fast-paced scenes, try The Count of Monte Cristo (see below), but don’t visit Jane Eyre. Jane is quiet and steady and calm, but she has so much wisdom to impart if you can sit still enough to listen. The first time I read it, I wasn’t mature enough to mentally sit still, but the second time, I was able to glean the subtle themes of love and sacrifice, faith and confidence, spiritual strength and weakness. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in 1847 as fictionalized autobiography, but I see the story more as an analogy of the Christian walk of faith, and it has has encouraged me in my own walk with God.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The thing you have to understand about reading Les Misérables is that it was written by Victor Hugo. He was a rambler, and in the 19th century, with no computers that could easily cut scenes, the 1862 novel is very lengthy at 1,500 pages in English (or 1,900 pages in French). You could read an abridged version (most are about 350 pages), but you’d miss the full effect of the story, which, in my opinion, is worth it. Besides the full accounts of the characters, you’ll learn a lot about French history—from Napoleon’s rise in power to the recommencement of the French monarchy in 1815. While most Americans are familiar with the French revolution, the events after the Reign of Terror are foggier, and I came out of this novel much better informed. I also love the themes the novel explores, primary among them the tension between mercy and justice.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Ah, Sydney Carton. This novel is a sharp reminder to me not to judge a book by its cover—not literally, but regarding people. The individuals I disregard, pass on the street or scoff at because of the clothes they wear or the way they speak—those people are worth so much more than I give them credit for, and this novel reminds me to not judge hastily. A Tale of Two Cities is a book about sacrifice, justice, and judgement. It’s about hard choices and remembering that our lives on earth are a mere pin prick on the eternal time line. The only unfortunate thing about the 1859 novel that it has ended up in many high school English courses, which means that students grow to hate it simply because they’re required to read it. If that was the case for you, I suggest giving it a second try. It just might surprise you.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
My engineering, video-gaming husband loves this book, which tells you something about its faster pace, adventurous plot and interesting characters. The story line overlaps with that of Les Misérables, which takes place in France in the Post-Napoleonic era. It contains all the elements of a good adventure story, from sword fighting and prison breaks to tragic romance and treasure hunting. The 1844 novel also thoughtfully puts forth themes of justice versus vengeance, perseverance, mercy in hatred, and personal growth. If you have a young teen you’d like to introduce to literature (or want to delve into the genre yourself), this is a good place to start.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A friend once summarized Anna Karenina to me like this (spoiler alert): “Anna spends the whole book checking off a list of ways to ruin her life, and when she gets to the end, she decides that there’s nothing left to do, so she might as well kill herself.” That’s not how I experienced the 1873 novel, however. Honestly, I’m not sure why it’s named after Anna Karenina. Of all the many characters in the 800 page Russian novel, she was my least favorite, and didn’t even make an appearance in the first or last 100 pages. It’s the secondary main character, Levin, who drew and held my attention. He learns and explores throughout the story, and his growth provides a sharp contrast to Anna’s downward spiral. The novel ends on a high note, with Levin’s spiritual revival, and its conclusion is full of hope and joy, not depression and despair.
Interested in more book recommendations for 2017? Historical fiction, coming up next.
P.S. Looking back at this list, I’ve realized that all five of these books were published within a 30 year time period, in the Post-Napoleonic/early Victorian era. I’ve read more literature than this, I swear. It must really just be my favorite era, because the other books I was considering for this list (North and South and The Brothers Karamazov) were also written during those 30 years. Go figure.