While I often find myself reading for entertainment these days, I’ve always been a huge fan of reading the classics. After all, the Literary Canon has quite a bit to teach us.
If you’ve never heard of it before, the Literary Canon is a special (read exclusive) comprehensive list of all of the books that are deemed “classics” or important to literature. It’s basically the Hall of Fame in the literary world, and with good reason. Many of the books on the list are celebrated authors from difference centuries that created literature that defied social norms.
Who Decides What Goes Into The Canon?
While we don’t know for sure how books sort of end up in the cannon, the general consensus seems to be that any book that stands out for a specific number of reasons. Typically, popular books over the years will stand out on their own as they are discussed and analyzed by contemporary readers. If you’d like more information about the deciding facts of the Literary Canon, check out this informative article from The New York Times.
The Literary Canon explores books of all genres and all backgrounds. That means that one of Steinbeck’s famous novels about the American Dust Bowl can be right next to Jane Eyre without a problem. For that reason, the list of classics is never0ending.
While there are so many books in the Canon to explore, as a former English major, I’ve read quite a few of the more well-known ones. While I haven’t loved every classic book I’ve read, there are a few that I will never stop re-reading.
If you’re looking to pick up a classic book this summer, here are a few of my favorites that might interest you.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Yes, she’s a little overhyped, but for all the right reasons. If you haven’t gotten your hands on Pride and Prejudice, you are missing out. This classic novel is the story of Elizabeth Benett and Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth comes from a family of many marriageable daughters and a mother who wants the best for her children. Mr. Darcy is a wealthy suitor who is a bit judgmental and is determined to be single forever. The original “enemies to lovers” plot, this romance is one for the books and it’s timeless, no matter when or where you read it.
Tess of The D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
It’s took me way too long to read this one, and I’m going to save you the same mistake–this book is an absolute MUST READ.
This book was actually the first book I read of Thomas Hardy’s and I was amazed that I made it so long without reading any of his books. This one has a bit more depth that Pride and Prejudice and it reads a little bit more serious. Though this book has romantic inclinations, Tess’s story is not a happy one. In this story, we follow Tess’s journey as she has a child outside of wedlock and tries to make a life for herself in a world where sex before marriage is a serious social crime. Hoping to find happiness, Tess gets a job where her past is unknown. There she meets Angel Clare, a man who has no clue that she isn’t “pure” and has all intentions of marrying her. This book has (what I consider) to be one of the original feminist protagonists and a tragically captivating story to go with it.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Believe it or not, David Copperfield was actually the first classic book I ever read. I picked it up on my own in high school, determined to be challenged, but instead I fell in love with literature.
Charles Dickens is one of my all-time favorite classic authors because of his incredible ability to make any novel read like it was written yesterday.
Now if you’re interested in David Copperfield, this is the story of a young boy growing up in poverty in industrial London. It is a coming-of-age story with notes about the time period, debtor’s prisons, and social concepts. More interestingly are the people that David Copperfield meets along his way to becoming a successful novelist.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
While the The Picture of Dorian Gray has been popping up on literary pages again more recently, I actually prefer the lesser known Oscar Wilde play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
While Dorian Gray’s story is undeniably haunting and memorable, The Importance of Being Earnest is witty and eccentric in all the best ways.
In this story, the characters go through secret engagements, mistaken identities, and strange lover entanglements. Two women are in love with the same man, and only a senile nurse and an old handbag can save the day. This comedy is absolute GOLD and I’ll NEVER get tired of it, no matter how many times I read it.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Moving on to my favorite American classics, I have to start off with Shirley Jackson. While you might have heard of the Netflix remake of The Haunting of Hill House, it’s only very loosely based on this classic novel.
In this story, four characters arrive at a house with a job, only to find that the house is VERY haunted. The story follows Eleanor’s character and beyond its spookiness, there are a lot of in-depth character development aspects of this plotline that have stuck with me through the years.
I’ll admit, I re-read this novel every fall and I’ll honestly never get tired of it. Every time I read it, I find something new to discover.
Note: If you haven’t already, also check out Jackson’s short story The Lottery. It’s equally as haunting and a quick read.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
In probably my favorite feminist novel/novella ever, main character Edna Pontellier is living in New Orleans and struggling with motherhood and her roles as the household’s matriarch. This is one of the earliest novels on women’s issues and it explores post-partum depression, marriage infidelity, and mental health.
This book is surprisingly short and yet it has a huge impact. I’ve found that Edna’s character is often someone that readers connect with, even though her character is viewed as extremely flawed for the social time period.
That being said, while this book has beach scenes, it’s not one you’ll want to take to the beach. This novel has some in-depth character that you’ll be thinking about long after you finish it.
The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Though readers are more often likely to think of The Scarlet Letter when they think of Hawthorne, I actually prefer The Blithedale Romance. While this book is not near as popular, I find that the characters have haunted me long after reading the book and I just keep coming back to this one.
In this classic novel, a group of characters join a commune where they leave the city set on reforming a broken America. Together, they hope to build their own utopian society. Yet, the group is chock full of unique characters, and it seems they never get much accomplished. With competing personalities, the characters all take egotistical paths that ultimately lead to tragedy rather than the “American Dream” that they all envision.
This book is a social commentary, but the characters all also easy to connect with. It is definitely a favorite of mine, and upon reading it, I’m sure it will be one you’ll think about for ages, too!
Though there are SO many books in the Literary Canon that it would be impossible to list them all, these are a few of my favorites that I’ll continue to re-read and think about, no matter how many times I’ve already explored them.
What are some of your favorite classic books? Do you prefer American or British Literature? What books would you recommend? Let me know in the comments below–I’d love to hear from you!
Not sure what to read next? Check out my Book Reviews page for contemporary recommendations.