Best Books of 2018: Part 2/7, The Classics


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Compared to previous years, I read far fewer classics last year. That could be because I teach classics, such as Frankenstein (which I recommend you read in an adapted version – the 1818 is quite lengthy!), A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beowulf, on the regular. So my brain enjoys a break from the classics, even though I do love them. This year, I only loved a few of the classics I read. Some of them were take it or leave it, and others, I wish I had left – on the shelf!

But let’s start with a good one – The Good Earth. I read it precisely because its setting was the one question I missed on my English content teaching exam. (Seriously, I made a 199/200.) By the way, the setting is China. You’re welcome, there’s a Jeopardy question for you 10 years from now. I was determined to read this book first in 2018 and I did. And I didn’t regret it. I loved the setting, the descriptions, the relationships between the characters. I loved the ending. I could visualize it all and I could identify with the characters’ struggles, and the ups and downs that Wang Lung experiences. Please read this one. Give it some time and I promise you’ll like it. (This especially goes for my brother, Ben, and my father-in-law, Terry, who both despise this book! Go figure!)

Next up, I did read two versions of Beowulf (three if you count the graphic novel inspired by the Neil Gaiman screenplay, which unfortunately led to a very disappointing movie…nevertheless, moving on) – including a picture book, Beowulf: A Tale of Blood, Heat and Ashes, a book that contained beautiful artistry; and the Burton Raffel translation of the original. The picture book was probably the best in that the visuals were gorgeous and there was new insight from different characters’ points of view. The Burton Raffel translation is definitely worth a read sometime, and is of course much better than any big-screen adaptation thus far.

The next classic was the only classic on this year’s N.C. High School Battle of the Books List. Murder on the Orient Express was my first (and as yet, only) Agatha Christie novel, and I must say it was rather entertaining. I learned that Christie was made a dame in England, was an insanely prolific writer in addition to being wildly famous during her time, and her books have sold more than 2 billion copies in 44 languages. Also, I did not figure out the murderer before the end. But I have a new favorite book quote:

If you will forgive me for being personal – I do not like your face.

Ah Poirot, you are a clever bandier-about of phrases. As a side note, there is a recent Murder movie adaptation with quite a few big stars, but I have not yet seen it.

Sadly, two of the classics I had always told myself I absolutely must read were rather disappointing, in different ways, even though the books do have some similarities between them. Slaughterhouse Five was my first Kurt Vonnegut book, and it has not inclined me to read more of his. I don’t know if I simply read it at a difficult time, but I found it extremely depressing. (I know that’s part of the point.) I understand it, I just simply didn’t enjoy the organization, with the non-chronological, time-jumping plot. Give me more ideas for Kurt Vonnegut and I might give him another chance. I did prefer it slightly however to The Catcher in the Rye, which I desperately struggled to like, mostly because I struggled to like the main character. I failed in both respects – liking the book, or the main character. Interestingly, both novels end with the main character back in the present, having told their story through flashbacks, and both MCs end up mentally disturbed or incapacitated. I may try both again someday in the hopes of seeing a new message, but for now, I would trade both for a better read. Lastly, before I move on to the final classic that I did enjoy, I did get a Jeopardy clue right because I read Catcher, so there’s that.

I wanted to end on a good note, so I return to a book I have read at least three times in total: The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I don’t remember which month in which I re-read this classic, beloved by me since college, but I recall feeling a need to read it again sometime during the summer, after seeing it on my classics shelf in my living room. I spent an evening reading the entire thing, in much the same way as I read it the first time – in one sitting, one evening, from the first stirrings of Edna Pontellier’s desires for a different life, to her decision in the last few pages of what she will do with that life. I have always loved this book, perhaps most because it is so bold and brash and daring and brave. A woman who didn’t entirely fall head over heels in love with the idea of domesticity and nothing else was a rarity in Chopin’s time, and at times, to me, feels like a rarity today. In the past few years, nearly every woman I know except for a select few has had a child and fully embraced, often rather quickly, the married life of motherhood. Not a thing is wrong with such desires, but I think the message is that society should not impose its strict rules and behaviors on anyone to the point that a person might want to die for lack of freedom. I, too, one day will likely join the ranks of mothers, but I also understand that different women have different desires and joys and dreams. Different people have different desires and joys and dreams. And nothing should take them away.

Different people have different desires and joys and dreams. And nothing should take them away.

I suppose sometimes classics are classics for a reason. And while I didn’t fully grasp a message for my life in all of the classics I read this year, I did learn something from each of them and enjoyed quite a few. Have you read any of these classic novels? Please tell me if you disagree with me on any of them! I want to hear your thoughts, even if you think I totally missed the point of Catcher or Slaughterhouse and am dead wrong about The Good Earth. I also want to know what classics I should read (or re-read) next! 

So what’s your favorite classic? What’s that one book you consider a classic because you keep returning to it year after year?

This post is the second in a seven-part series on the 70 books I read in 2018. Read the introduction, post 1/7, here. Over the next few weeks, I’ll break down the rest of the books I read in 2018 by category, from biographies, YA and children’s, to nonfiction, graphic novels and general fiction.