My new year’s resolution for 2020 was to read a minimum of 52 books, at least half of which I could reference in casual conversation without making people uncomfortable… so, not mobster erotic romance. Since I’ve never actually read most of the classics I was assigned in high school and, as a teen librarian, my main customers were still being forced to do so, I figured I’d make all 26 classics. I finished them just after my girls were born, with a six month delay due to the headaches caused by infertility medications. I only violently hated one and generally disliked a second one, as you can see in my review of books 1-7 and 8-13. So, I present, books 14-19.
14. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I was prepared to hate this book, purely out of spite. After all the praise given to Anna Karenina, I lost some faith in the tastes of the masses and Pride and Prejudice is beloved by women everywhere. So, it was with a begrudging heart that I downloaded the book that has spawned a dozen adaptations and retellings, only to realize within the first few chapters, that I love Jane Austen.
As much as I adore romance, historical has never been my jam, since the genre as a whole takes a pretty liberal suspension of disbelief with its sexy, wealthy, successful heroes and ambiguously curvy, sassy, independent heroines. In this particular subgenre, I nearly always find the men to be laughably attractive and the women to be overly abrasive for the time period, as I will enthusiastically rant about given the briefest mention of the movie Titanic. Without a time travel plot, it’s just too jarring to read about relatably modern characters in a historical setting, so my enjoyment is pretty limited to titles written during said time periods, like Little Women or Pride and Prejudice.
Y’all, I’m aware that I’m peaking as a basic white girl as I type this, but Elizabeth Bennet is likely one of my top five literary heroines across all genres. Written by a woman indisputably familiar with the day, Lizzie Bennett stands up for herself, voices opinions, and pushes just the right number of buttons to make her strong and independent but not completely ignorant the social norms of the era. Similarly, Mr. Darcy is written as the ideal man of the early 19th century, intelligent, proud, and wealthy, but with a level of introversion and stoicism not often found in literary romantic heroes that still adheres to the acceptable norms of the day.
Lizzie was endlessly loyal to her family and friends, standing up to Darcy for his slight against her older sister, despite the riches and comfort a romantic match with him would have ensured. She cried for her younger sister when she’d ruined her own reputation and supported her friend’s unenviable marriage, after overcoming her shock and prejudice. While Mr. Darcy has never been my type, he was a believable romantic hero who somehow made infuriating, yet understandable judgements and endearing apologies. Anyone familiar with the romance genre knows the value of grovel and Fitzwilliam Darcy nailed it when he saved the Bennet name to make up for the harm he had inadvertently caused.
While I understand that the writing style of Jane Austen takes some acclimation, I find that to be true of essentially every classic I’ve read. Pride and Prejudice was full of witty, relatable, fleshed-out characters, right down to all seven members of the Bennet family. The romance was sweet and I found the hero and the heroine to be pretty equally flawed and redeemable. The depiction of the time period was easily visualized, but not overly detailed. As much as a cliché as it makes me, I have to say that Pride and Prejudice is officially one of my favorite books, deserving five stars.
15. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkein ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Growing up, I often felt like an outsider among my family, as we watched Baywatch and Walker Texas Ranger, while I much preferred fantasy. Having been assigned a ridiculously high reading level, because American public schools are horrid at fostering a love of books, I often read solely to satisfy academic requirements that weren’t met by titles that would have actually interested me, like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. While I tried to watch the movies as a teenager, I found them slow and uninteresting and hadn’t really considered reading the books until I met my husband, who loves them.
I don’t know that it’s necessary to break down the plot of The Lord of the Rings, but I’ll give it a go. The story starts in the Shire, where Bilbo Baggins is celebrating his 111th birthday by telling everyone to kick rocks. Before he leaves, however, he gives his nephew, Frodo, the One Ring, ultimately leading the innocent hobbit on a great adventure to take the ring from the Shire with his three companions, Sam Gamgee, Pippin Took, and Merry Brandybuck. The quartet find themselves pursued by Black Riders, agents of the Dark Lord Sauron, who seeks the return of his Ring of Power. Shenanigans ensue in the form of singing (yet badass) elves, dangerous battles with the Black Riders, and a lot of walking.
I wanted to love this book. Sadly, while I recognize the brilliance behind the work, I’m simply unable to live up to my aspirations of becoming an LotR Fangirl. I have a great deal of respect for the fact that Tolkien literally set the stage for high fantasy. In an age when it would have been impossible to depict such a tale on screen, Tolkien painted a vivid and beautiful picture of Middle Earth and its inhabitants, though some of the latter have been decried for their obvious anti-Semitic stereotypes. Had I been read this story as a child, tucked snugly in bed by a mother who enjoyed fantasy, I’d have surely adored it… but I wasn’t.
I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time at age 33, already familiar with tales such as The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. While I recognize that, in many ways, The Lord of the Rings is the source material for these stories, knowing that fact doesn’t make it any less redundant to read a painfully detailed description of settings I can easily picture from my prior knowledge of high fantasy. It also doesn’t pick up the pace. It’s not that The Lord of the Rings isn’t a good book. It’s an amazing feat of literature, the literal metric for all epic fantasy to follow. A product of the age it was written, it’s just kind of a slog compared to those followers and so, I give it four stars.
16. 1984, by George Orwell ⭐⭐⭐
2020 was a bad year to read a bunch of politically dystopian classics and 1984 was no exception with its tales of government corruption from censorship to legit brainwashing. 1984 has long been a reference point for both American political parties to warn the public about overreach from the other. Since Orwell modeled his make-believe society after Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, I personally find both claims to be pretty hyperbolic. Even if it is more representative of China or North Korea than present day U.S., that doesn’t make 1984 any less worthy of a read.
Orwell’s final novel tells the story of Winston Smith’s gradual betrayal of The Party, rulers of a province of what was once Great Britain but is now a totalitarian superstate called Oceania following an ideology called Ingsoc or English Socialism. Winston is an outwardly loyal worker of The Party, altering historical documents so the regime appears to have always been in the right, though he secretly opposes their rule. He begins his gradual betrayal through an affair and illicit meetings with those who claim to be members of the resistance, growing increasingly careless. As one might predict, Winston is discovered by the Thought Police and his story doesn’t end well, serving as a bleak cautionary tale against protest of an all powerful government.
While I wouldn’t recommend reading 1984 (or any of the other politically disturbing classics I’ve reviewed) in an election year, it’s definitely a compelling read. It primarily suffers in its characterization, an entirely forgivable flaw considering the predominant goal of The Party is the quelling of individuality or independent thought. This does, however, make both Winston and his lover, Julia, less sympathetic protagonists. By extension, the grim ending of 1984 doesn’t hit as hard as say, the ending to To Kill a Mockingbird, warranting an overall three stars.
17. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
In my experience, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of the most frequently praised classics and horror novels. It seemed an obvious choice for my project, considering how much I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Like Dracula, the story of Frankenstein is woefully misrepresented in every adaptation, as even those who’ve never read it will insist that the title references the creator and not the monster. The monster doesn’t actually have a name, because Victor Frankenstein is an unethical blasphemer who gets what he has coming to him. The deviations go well beyond this, however, overlooking the point of the story entirely.
The tale of Frankenstein starts as a correspondence between an arctic explorer named Captain Walton and his sister, as he passes along the story of an emaciated man he’s rescued, Victor Frankenstein. Victor has succeeded in the unthinkable, bringing forth life from spare parts. Tragically, this scientific marvel has gone horribly awry, ultimately finding Victor chasing his creation through the frozen tundra… and it is all his fault.
After Victor breathes life into his creature, he’s horrified by his achievement and abandons his innocent, if repulsive, creation to wander the countryside alone. While Victor returns to his childhood home in Italy, his monster is left to fend for himself, growing attached to a family he secretly observes in a cottage in the woods. Over time, the Creature teaches himself to speak and read, longing for love and companionship, yet only interacting with a blind old man. When the family discovers the monster they flee in terror, causing him to seek out Victor’s aid. During his travels, the Creature is attacked for trying to help humans and yearns for vengeance against his creator. When the monster finally catches up with Victor and shares his tale, he begs him to create a companion, promising to retreat into the wilderness with his bride. If refused, the monster vows to kill everyone Frankenstein loves.
It’s clear from the start that this story doesn’t end well for Victor or the Creature, but the turns the tale takes are shockingly dark for a classic written by a 19-year-old woman over 200 years ago. While the movie adaptations of Frankenstein focus on the horror of the pieced-together monster, it’s clear that Shelley intended him to be a sympathetic character. In fact, Victor comes off as the true villain, playing God only to shirk his responsibility as a creator and lead his family and friends to pay the price. Frankenstein’s Creature isn’t simply a 19th century serial killer, but an abused and tortured creation seeking only love and affection. Frankenstein is the shockingly complex story of a being heartbroken by society’s complete ostracization. This book easily ranked in my top five and I’m disappointed that no movie has done justice to the intended story, which absolutely earns five stars.
18. Anthem, by Ayn Rand ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I first read Anthem in the 10th grade and loved it. When I say that, I mean I had the email addresses and Xanga tags Liberty-53000 and The Golden One. It wasn’t Pre-AP English kid pretention, either… or rather it wasn’t solely Pre-AP English kid pretention. I genuinely adored the story of one man quietly rebelling against a collective regime that had destroyed all sense of individuality and ultimately finding happiness. Considering 17 years had passed, I felt it was reasonable to count this title in my total classics, despite it technically qualifying as a reread.
Anthem is a novella, written by Ayn Rand while she was taking a break from her research for The Fountainhead. It tells the story of Equality 7-2521 as he records his life and perceived transgressions in a forbidden journal in an underground tunnel. Equality 7-2521 shares details of growing up in a collective society, where individualism is a crime, where there is no I, only We. He writes about the “curse” of intellectual curiosity that plagues him, a streetsweeper, the experiments he does in his tunnel and eventually, of a flaxen-haired girl he’s dubbed The Golden One.
Since Anthem is literally 105 pages long, I won’t give more details, as it’s not my goal to completely spoil these books. I will, however, report that Equality 7-2521’s story ends in a happily ever after. I’m sure that’s partially to credit for why I loved Anthem at 33, just as much as I did at 16. I think this is also due to the fact that, despite Rand’s works having quite the reputation to the contrary, there’s just something so palatable about this book. After having read essentially every weird dystopian science fiction classic for this project, I can say that Anthem is in the minority in both of those, possibly competing with George Orwell’s Animal Farm in the latter. Like We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Anthem sprung from the mind of someone who lived in Communist Russia, but lacked the confusing jargon, world building, and translation issues despite having been written only 16 years later. It’s just more readable and I truly enjoyed We.
I only wish Anthem hadn’t been a novella. I’d have loved a more fleshed-out picture of Equality 7-2521’s society and how it came about, of the characters and what made them different, if they even were different or if everyone felt the same way. Of course, that was part of the magic, the not knowing, but it does leave a little something to be desired. With that, I give Anthem four stars.
19. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brone ⭐⭐⭐
I was supposed to despise Wuthering Heights. It was going to be a contender against Anna Karenina for worst classic ever. It’s predominately loathed by readers and according to the judgmental ninnies at r/romancebooks, anyone who enjoys it condones abuse. Maybe my low expectations are actually to credit for why I genuinely enjoyed this book, but aside from the complaints about length, I found many of the criticisms of Wuthering Heights to be unfounded.
This book was a lot of things for me, but romance wasn’t one of them. I think that inaccurate classification might be why it gets so much hate. It’s a pretty universally accepted rule that all romance ends in a Happily Ever After or HEA, which is far from the case for Heathcliff and Catherine’s story. No, Wuthering Heights is more accurately described as a story of vengeance, as Heathcliff sets out to get his retribution for the racism and mistreatment he’s experienced from Catherine’s brother, Hindley Earnshaw, and the neighbor for whom she left him, Edgar Linton. If read with Heathcliff in mind as the protagonist, but not as a romantic lead, Wuthering Heights is an epic tale of revenge as a dish best served cold and I found it delightful.
As with most classics, this one is unforgivably long, but that adds something to the story as the reader experiences the wait for justice right alongside Heathcliff, while the years pass. Essentially no one in this story is even remotely likable, but that made it more fun for me to witness as they all got their comeuppance through Heathcliff’s sociopathic shenanigans amidst the gloomy backdrop of the moors. This story really was the ultimate tale of just desserts and I was pleasantly surprised, though I can understand why others wouldn’t enjoy such a bleak tale, especially one so often billed as romance and therefore award it only three stars. Additionally, I highly recommend the MTV movie adaptation starring Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen as a fabulously terrible trip through time to 2003. It is painfully bad and the best $3 I’ve ever spent on Ebay.