Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 6th 2018
Reading is more than looking at tweets
The nineteenth century saw the start of what we would now call literature. Books were finally being written for all people to read and increased education standards meant more people could read. Stories were serialised, becoming the soap operas of their day (or the non-romantic equivalent in other genres). But, really, how can books more than a hundred years old still be enjoyed by people in this day and age?
Well, they can. And they can quite easily. Sometimes the language conventions can create barriers, but if you're going into classic literature, you're not going to be jumping straight from MAD Magazine to Shakespeare. I will make the assumption you are an intelligent and wonderful person (and hence, the reason you are reading this), and that these works are not going to create issues.
Now, first – the elephant in the room. You will notice a distinct lack of Dickens here. I find Dickens overly long, generally dull and normally boring, with huge patches in the middle of nearly all the books of his I've read that could have been excised without affecting the plot at all. (You can flame me in the comments section below…) And also, one of my proof-readers questioned why no Shakespeare. Because I said nineteenth century, that's why. (He is no longer a proof-reader, for what it's worth.)
So, here are 5 of my favourite 'classics'!
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Title page of 1st edition (wikipedia)
I was forced to read this book in matriculation English. Now, that is normally a recipe for disaster – most of the time, you do something in high school English, you analyse it to death, and it kills all enjoyment the book had (Death of a Salesman in my case). And, to make it worse, we read Jane Eyre first, which I hated. But…
I liked this. It is my favourite non-horror classic book of all time ever.
The 1840s story of the love between Heathcliff and Cathy that goes beyond death itself is amazing. It is full of passion and feeling and depth. The emotions are raw and stark. And the mood set by Brontë is amazing. She captures the moors and the weather and the houses and the buildings so brilliantly. The feeling from her writing of description is as good as the emotions she gives her characters.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. I've read it three times since leaving high school. Now, many of my high school friends will (maybe) read this and think I'm crazy. I'm not. This is awesome!
Oh, and the song by Kate Bush is pretty fantastic as well.
Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen
Title page of 1st edition (wikipedia)
I got to this book very late, in my early 40s. See, I actively avoided reading it. It was the sort of period romance (1810s) with much wringing of hands and long wistful looks out of windows that I would hate, surely. Well, I was wrong. This is a satire of the conventions of the time and, at times, it is laugh out loud funny. It is a great book, despite everyone who says it is a great book!
The story is so well-known it's almost become a trope. Girl meets boy. Girl hates boy. Girl discovers boy isn't a jerk. Girl and boy hook up. The end. But this did it first and, realistically, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who's done it better. It is full of awesome quotable lines and situations that have become a part of the culture.
While the characters are deliberate caricatures, the setting is well-realised and the sense of time and period is pretty close to perfect. So, yes, I wish I'd read it earlier, but I am glad I've read it now. And, no, I have NOT seen any filmic versions. Even if I am a sad almost 50 year old man, I am not that sad…
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Title page of 1st edition (wikipedia)
While I like the character of Dracula better as a character, this 1820s book is so much better written than Bram Stoker's novel. Forget the inarticulate grunting Boris Karloff monster of the movies, this creature is a desperate being who understands that he is an impossibility and hates his new life and ends up pursuing his creator to the ends of the earth (literally) to destroy him for what he has done.
While it is classified horror and the first true science fiction tale, it is more than that. The pathos expressed on the written page makes the monster the most sympathetic character in the book, despite the fact he does kill people and is unrelenting in his pursuit of Dr Frankenstein. This is a railing against technology and the dangers of men pushing things too far.
But it is also a really good story. It does not let up. Just when it seems things are settling, something else happens and off we, the readers, go again. Forget the movie versions – read the book version. It is worth it.
Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe (wikipedia)
Is it a cheat here to put in a collection of short stories? Well, I don't care, because this is where modern horror writing started. (In my opinion.) While there had been other horror writers before-hand, the short form version mastered by Poe is where so much of the best in horror is still found. It's where I have made the majority of my own story sales (let's be honest). But no-one comes close to the tales of Poe.
So many of them have become well known through film versions, but they cannot do justice to the written word. The Black Cat, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit And The Pendulum… I could go on but won't. He creates characters that are believable and then does things to them that are horrible… but also unfortunately believable. The Black Cat is my favourite and gave me nightmares as a 10 year old when I first read it.
Even his poetry can have this eerie effect, though the language there is often more difficult to infiltrate. Still, when The Simpsons used The Raven for one of their Treehouse of Horror specials and had James Earl Jones read it… that send shivers up my spine.
Oh, and not a bad album by the Alan Parsons Project, either...
She by H. Rider Haggard
Title page of 3rd edition (wikipedia)
This is one of the first of the so-called 'Lost World' genre books, first published in serial form in the 1880s. But it doesn't read like a serial – it goes beyond that. It tells the story of a group of English explorers who discover an African tribe ruled over by a seemingly immortal white woman. She falls for one of the explorers and they go to the Spirit of Life, but re-entering it reverses the process and she is killed. That's it in a nut-shell.
It's not as well-known as his King Solomon's Mines, but I prefer it because the mood he sets is not one of pure adventure but of genuine world-building. The old nineteenth-century Imperialism looms large over it all, sure, but the characters are well-realised and the setting is glorious. A word-picture is painted that is exquisite and well developed.
While the ending feels a little abrupt, the story itself still holds up remarkably well. Sure, it wouldn't translate well to our times (and I have written a novella where I tried to do just that and the fact it got rejected utterly 10 times should tell you how successful I was), but as a piece of its time, it works wonderfully well. Pity the film versions have been… less than stellar.
5 books well worth your time. An honourable mention should go to Ben Hur by Lewis Wallace, but I find it a little too preachy at times and the ending is too long and drawn out for my liking. Still, a good enough read. Also A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court is a fun little read by Mark Twain, although I find some of it a little too American for my taste. Still, you could certainly do worse than these two as well.
What have I forgotten? Agree? Disagree? Go for it – leave lots of comments!