I’ll start by mentioning that this post is not about books that I think everyone should read, rather it’s to do with my New Year’s Resolution to read more classic books, and the list I’ve been working through over the past year. The list has been created as a result of analysing several indicators of book popularity, including the UK’s most borrowed library books, Desert Island Discs book choices, and assorted literary prize winners.
I ticked off the ones I’d already read (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, His Dark Materials, Watership Down, 1984, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Chronicles of Narnia, Vanity Fair, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice, Memoirs of a Geisha and The Lord of the Rings). I crossed out the ones I won’t be reading, either through literary snobbery (basically Twilight), knowing I won’t enjoy the story (Lord of the Flies etc) and ones that I am just not interested in reading (Harry Potter, War and Peace). Of the list I had left, I managed to read nine, in between reading other assorted books. I’d like to have read more, but I wanted to find the books either in my local library or in charity or secondhand book shops, so that I would be supporting something other than a big company whilst I became more ‘cultured’.
I’m taking a leaf out of my Twitter friend Dan Worth’s book (no pun intended) and writing some short reviews of the books I read last year. I’ll be continuing to work my way through the list this year (I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude at the moment, which is a nice big one to cross off the list), and who knows, I may do a little review at the end of this year too.
Emma – Jane Austen
I enjoyed the BBC adaptation of this and watched it again as I was reading the book. It’s lovely to lose oneself in a different time and place. I sympathised with Emma even when her meddling got her in trouble and adored Mr Knightley for his slightly exasperated devotion to her. Her growing maturity and clarity of thought is well conveyed, and it was interesting to join her on her journey into adulthood.
Atonement – Ian McEwan
A surprising book in many ways. I’ll admit to knowing nothing of the storyline beforehand, except for the green dress made famous by the film adaptation. The book told the story from the point of view of the three main characters, offering different snapshots of the same moment, which showed how the moment was significant to all three in different ways. As the story continued, I relaxed a bit about whether they would all live ‘happily ever after’, only to then be physically shocked by the revelations of the final chapter.
Dracula – Bram Stoker
There are so many vampire-related books and films and TV shows around these days, and they almost all draw their inspiration from this book. It was fascinating to discover the origins of many vampiric myths and attributes whilst reading this book. I especially liked the character of Mina Harker - a determined, intelligent young woman who I cheered on as she held her own with the menfolk.
The Three Musketeers – Alexander Dumas
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that I had the theme tune from Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds running through my head every time I picked up this book, and concentrate on more serious aspects, shall we? This was a lively story, full of duels and derring-do and beautiful women. It was surprisingly almost explicit in places, considering that it was first published in 1844. An enjoyable book.
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
This only counts as half a book from the list as I’d already read ‘Little Women’ many times, but not its sequel/second part, published at the time as ‘Good Wives’. I found the full version of the book, containing both parts, and enjoyed catching up with the Marches and all their happenings. I’d already seen the film (check out a very spoilerific trailer here) so this was another example of the book adding more depth to a story that I already knew.
Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
I’m still not sure what to make of this, five months after I read it. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book like it. The structure and narrative are unusual, and I now know more about cetaceans and the gory business of whaling than I ever thought I would. The ending left me gobsmacked and I had to reread the final chapter about three times before I could process the story in my head. I may yet read this one again just to see if I can comprehend it a bit more fully.
Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut
Another mindblowing book. I read this as part of a kind of self-imposed ‘Vonnegut Month’ when I decided to see what all the fuss was about and borrowed all of the Vonnegut books the library had. I think perhaps reading all those books in quick succession did not help me to get to grips with the story in Slaughterhouse-Five particularly well. I was also unsure what to expect – but I got pseudo-autobiography, war, time travel and aliens. Dizzying!
Middlemarch – George Eliot
I found this book quite depressing. I could see where the characters’ bad decisions and ill-advised life choices were going to take them and felt powerless to do anything; after all, they’ve been doing the same thing since the novel was published in 1874. There were lots of long, prose-y paragraphs that were actually quite difficult to understand, though I liked the part of the book where the author explained the differences between men’s and women’s views on love and relationships – differences that still apply in the 21st Century!
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
This is another book where I saw the (amazing and beautifully shot) film adaptation before reading it. In that regard, I knew that I would enjoy the book. I wasn’t quite prepared for Mr Rochester to be so ‘wild’ and a bit mad (his back story is not explained in the film as much detail as in the book). Jane has a maturity beyond her eighteen years and the book gives an insight into her thinking and her reasoning for things. A book I expect to read again and again.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my mini reviews. I hope I can read more books from the list this year, to continue my cultural education!