I hope it’s not just me: not only do I have a ridiculously long TBR list (that’s To Be Read, if you don’t usually discuss your reading life in acronyms), my personal list of bona fide classics I’ve been meaning to read but haven’t yet easily reaches triple-digit territory.
Readers, I know I can’t be alone in this—and that is why the very first category for the 2018 Reading Challenge—for those of you who want to get more out of your reading lives this year—is “a classic you’ve been meaning to read.
We’re starting the year with this category because for devoted readers, those books we’ve been meaning to read—for months, years, or decades—begin to hang over our heads after a while, and nothing hangs heavier than a classic. Consider this category your invitation to finally scratch a deserving book off your list and gather some momentum for the new year.
We know that many of you saw this category and knew immediately what book (or books) you wanted to read to fulfill it. We also know that some of you saw this category and immediately thought old books are boring. If you belong to the latter group, rest assured that we’ve assembled this list with you in mind. The classics compiled here are, by turns, strange, surprising, and completely unexpected, but “boring” doesn’t apply.
This gritty novel wrecked me when I first read it in high school: Wright's story is raw, violent, emotionally wrenching, and utterly unforgettable. Through the eyes of Bigger Thomas, a twenty-year-old black man living in Chicago in the 1930s, we see the extreme racial inequalities his family experiences— and how they first harden, and then desensitize Bigger. This was Wright's first novel, and on its publication in 1940, it became one of the fastest-selling novels in America's history, and remains incredibly timely today. More info →
This novel was first published in 1948, a short time before apartheid became law in South Africa, and has been called the most famous and important novel in the country's history. It was an immediate international bestseller, and was banned in Paton's home country of South Africa due to its "politically dangerous" material. Through this story of a man who sets out on a journey to find his lost son, Paton vividly portrays what it is like for those of any race to live in a starkly divided society. More info →
This is my pick for this category: I've been meaning to read this for decades. The title comes from the Yeats poem "A Second Coming"; in intertwined stories, the reader witnesses first an individual life fall to pieces, and then the society he belongs to. More info →
This atmospheric story about expectations, marriage, and unexpected love is richly atmospheric, set in the deep South's Florida Everglades in the 1920s. Hurston's classic is written in dialect, which is tricky for some readers (unless they choose the audio version). A classic for a reason, with well-developed characters and a thought-provoking story line. More info →
In her debut, the first of six autobiographies, Angelou tells the haunting story of her childhood in the American South in the 1930s. The prose is incredible, and the story is by turns heartwarming ("I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare") and utterly heartbreaking. If this is one you've been meaning to read, give the audio version a try: Angelou's lilting voice brings her powerful, touching story to life. More info →
I'm a sucker for a good first line, and Ellison delivers: "I am an invisible man." Not because he's not made out of flesh and blood, but because no one has much interest in seeing Ellison's protagonist, an African-American man in 1950s Harlem, for who he actually is. More info →
One Hundred Years of Solitude is his best-known work, but readers with great taste assure me this epic story of unrequited love, spanning fifty years, is much easier to get into, and that I can't go another year without experiencing it for myself. You could also read this as your book in translation. And I have to say: this book plays a crucial role in Serendipity, the romantic comedy featuring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. More info →
Baldwin was the son of a preacher and the grandson of a slave, and his life experiences heavily inform this semi-autobiographical 1953 novel, which tells the story of one day in the life of a 14-year-old boy in Harlem in the late 1930s. More info →
Cather herself considered this to be her finest novel. Because it's set in the midst of a brutal winter in the American West, this would be a terrific cold-weather read. If you've been meaning to read this, take note: it clocks in at a mere 232 pages. More info →
In this short Australian classic, a group of girls from the Appleyard College for Young Ladies venture out for a picnic at Hanging Rock on a beautiful afternoon. Three of the girls set out for a hike, and are never seen again. As I was reading this short novel, it strongly reminded me of something I'd read before, but I couldn't figure out WHAT. I finally realized it wasn't a book at all—it was the TV show Lost! (If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is.) More info →
This novel, originally published in 1932, has been repeatedly over the years, right up to the present time, for sexual content, offensive language, and insensitivity. While it's been removed from many libraries and reading lists, it still makes frequent appearances on others. Irony alert: the problem with banning a dystopian novel that envisions a totalitarian future world where literary content is strictly regulated is that it provides even more Brave New World discussion fodder delighted English teachers. More info →
Is it just me, or do the new Wrinkle trailers make you want to re-read everything she ever wrote? That set off a chain of L’Engle exploration, and has me resolving to re-read Wrinkle. L’Engle begins her groundbreaking science fiction/fantasy work with the famous opening line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and plunges you headlong into the world of the Murray family, who must travel through time to save the universe. Wrinkle is the first—and most famous—of the Time Quintet, but if you love this there are four more titles to suck you in. More info →
Whether or not you've read it, I'd bet you know the title's meaning: paper burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. Bradbury's slim sci-fi/fantasy novel revolves around a fireman who hates his job set in the saddest of dystopian settings: a future with no books. Firemen start the fires in Bradbury's future, because their job is to destroy any and all books as they are found. More info →
This book completely surprises many modern readers, who think they know the story and find it to be nothing at all like they expected. Many critics consider Shelley's gothic tale of a dangerously ambitious young doctor and the monster he creates to be the very first science fiction novel, and influential on the horror genre as well. The language sounds a bit antiquated to the modern ear, but the novel's themes remain timeless. More info →
"Happy families are all alike;" begins this classic novel, “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Fun fact: William Faulkner called this novel "the best ever written." I know many readers agree with my assessment: I'm so glad I read it. Numerous translations exist; if I had to choose one I'd go with Constance Garnett's, if only because Maggie Gyllenhaal does the corresponding Audible narration. (All 35 hours of it!) More info →
This groundbreaking classic is a gothic romance, mystery, and psychological thriller all rolled into one; its themes were astonishingly modern for 1847. If you never read it in high school, this is the perfect time to pick up this classic. You’ll be kicking yourself for not reading it decades sooner. Those who have read it will spot its influence everywhere. More info →
This 1930s Gothic classic is an un-put-down-able, curl-up-by-the-fire mystery. Suspenseful, and it holds its tension on a re-reading: a sure sign of a well-crafted thriller. Because the young unnamed wife doesn't understand what's going on for a long time, neither does the reader. Don't be put off by its age: this thrilling novel feels surprisingly current. Discussion fodder: marriage, Manderley, and (she says with a shudder) Mrs. Danvers. More info →
After dismissing this novel for years, it's re-earned a place on my TBR, because so many great readers I know admire it as a testament to the power of the written word. (I have my eye on the audio edition, narrated by Jeremy Irons, because I keep hearing Nabokov's superbly-crafted prose is even better when read aloud.) Some critics argue that Humbert Humbert is the best example of the unreliable narrator in literature; others argue that he's not unreliable, just painfully honest. More info →
My son read this book in his 6th grade English literature class. He wasn't excited about reading "that boring book." His 9-year-old (at the time) sister said, "I'm glad I don't have to read it." One week later, they were fighting over it. That's all I have to say about that—except you don't have to be a grade schooler to enjoy this one. It's a classic for a reason. More info →
My high school English teacher assigned us The Grapes of Wrath instead, so I didn't read this until a few years ago. Grounded thoroughly in its California setting, interweaving the stories of two Salinas Valley families, Steinbeck's magnum opus feels tragic, yet hopeful. When Oprah brought back her book club, it was with this book. She said, "I said I would bring it back when I found the book that was moving…and this is a great one. We think it might be the best novel we've ever read!" This is Steinbeck's most ambitious novel, and in his opinion, his finest work. ("I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.") More info →
I loved this story from page 1. Wistful, haunting, satisfying. I totally get why it makes so many readers' "lifetime favorites" lists. If you're new to this novel, brace yourself: Francie Nolan is about to win you over. Her Irish Catholic family is struggling to stay afloat in the Brooklyn slums, in the midst of great change at the turn of the century, while her charismatic but doomed father is literally drinking himself to death. But Francie is young, sensitive, imaginative, and determined to make a life for herself. A moving story of unlikely beauty and resilience. More info →
This classic is set in the Gilded Age among New York City's high society, and depicts the rise and fall of Lily Bart, a young woman trapped by social conventions, a victim both of society and of her own choices. Readers often recommend Wharton in terms of Jane Austen because they both write about women's everyday life: she's been called the new Austen, the anti-Austen, a more sophisticated Austen, a more depressing Austen. I'm so glad I finally read it—I can't believe how many references to it I've been missing over the years! This feels like social commentary and reads like a tragedy, and while I feared it would be boring it was anything but. More info →
Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert of Prince Edward Island, Canada decide to adopt an orphaned boy to help them on their farm. Their messenger mistakenly delivers a girl to Green Gables instead—an 11-year-old feisty redhead named Anne Shirley. You may want to binge on the entire series, which follows Anne from her childhood at Green Gables until she is a mother herself. More info →
In this 1960 classic, small-town attorney Atticus Finch attempts a hopeless defense of a black man unjustly accused of rape, and to teach his children, Scout and Jem, about the evils of racism. It's been a staple on high school reading lists for years (and I talked about my significant high school experience with Mockingbird here), but it enjoyed a fresh burst of publicity when its companion Go Set a Watchman was published. (I'd love to be in the course that reads both, together.) More info →
In this epistolary novel and modern classic, a young woman living in the South in the 1930s describes her life in a series of heartbreaking letters. But ultimately, redemption arrives in an unlikely form. A painful, beautiful book about the power of love, and a 1983 Pulitzer winner. More info →
What would you add to the list? What are YOU reading for this category?