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The classics: where to begin?

By Leah Hart

Which classics can grip students’ attention as they start university?

Even if you haven’t attempted one of the classics, it is generally agreed that they have a reputation for being wordy, sluggish, and all-together very long. Sometimes, that would be true. Dracula, a deceptively lengthy and action-less book, almost killed me. Classics require care and attention – if you want to remember the story – and when you’re the sort of person whose mind wanders every 10 seconds, it’s a lot harder to focus on Charles Dickens’ descriptions of fog in Bleak House.

What no one tells you, is that reading older classics requires training. I mean, it’s a completely different language. When I picked up my first classic, Pride and Prejudice, it took me months to even get past the 50-page mark, let alone finish it, but by the same time the next year, I had finished both Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Gray in the span of a week. Unbolting that first classic and learning to sharpen your focus opens up a world of brilliant literature, and it might just make you fall (even more) in love with reading.

Although the literary canon is unfairly ruled by the often male, white and wealthy Anglo-Saxons, the canon was also delineated by those same people. Starting this list with the former, we will venture onto parts and people of the world that have been disadvantaged by European imperialism and white literary supremacy.

Now, I know that I kind of cramped his style back there, but if there is a Dickens tale genuinely worth reading, it’s A Christmas Carol. Having been adapted countless times, A Christmas Carol is an enduring tale. Best read at Christmas, the plot is compelling, short, sweet and original. Contemporary to Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell combined various social and political elements of Victorian England in her novel North and South. While it may be a lesser-known classic, she rivals Dickens’ story-telling – surpassing him, even – with her careful deconstruction of social class and nuanced portrayal of the working class. Albeit polarising, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is another classic from the same era that holds a special place in my heart. My heart, that is. It’s dark and depressing – something I merit in a Gothic novel – and might just make you cry, either from misery or exhaustion, but beware, one GoodReads individual is fabled to have lost all desire for reading because of this book…

Published in the latter half of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde’s oeuvre and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland are also worth spending time on. Wilde’s wit is counterbalanced by a tragic energy most intensely explored in The Picture of Dorian Gray, while Alice’s whimsy with words awakens a childishness in readers.

Earlier authors from the canon include Shakespeare and Austen, both excelling at light-hearted works featuring timeless tropes. The great thing about these tropes is that you probably know what you like and don’t like in the 21st century, so picking a play or a novel by either author shouldn’t be too difficult. However, featuring c-sections, witches and daggers, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the quintessential tragedy (it’s also one of his shortest plays), while the troublemaking Emma is Austen’s magnum opus, both in length and quality.

While researching this list made me realise how few classics I had read by non-white non-Anglo-Saxon authors, it also made me realise the genius and individuality of the ones I had read. African-American authors Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Alice Walker have contributed greatly to the canon with works such as The Bluest Eye, Giovanni’s Room and The Color Purple. These novels focus on both the black and queer experience in the US with highly distinct prose that draws you in and keeps you, or in the case of Giovanni’s Room, the privileged experience of a queer Aryan man in Paris. Influenced by her own heritage, Nella Larsen’s short novel, Passing, also deals with the mess of race through the eyes of a biracial woman. Half-French, half-Haitian, Ida Faubert was also biracial, devoting her tender poetry collection Island Heart to her homeland. Translated from French, Faubert’s poetry is undeniably a welcome addition to the canon.

Lastly, some modern classics include Anne Frank’s Diary, for its frankness and moving innocence; Flowers for Algernon, for its brilliance and ability to make readers sob; Things Fall Apart, for its rich characters and canonical independence; and Men in the Sun, for its brutal manifestation of Palestinian sorrow. 

Abnormally, my favourite genre is classics, and my closest friends and family are probably done hearing me rant about them. But you can trust me, I swear. I won’t make you read War and Peace. Unless you want to.


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