By Erin Caine
Elm Staff Writer
A literary work is christened a classic not only for its sophistication or popularity but also its continued relevance in modern society (and to a shifting readership.) A book is classic when it can weather both the rapidly changing market and the obscuring effects of time. Deriving true value from such works demands your list to be eclectic so that you are spared from stagnating in a single type of perspective or style. I offer to you a foothold into the world of the versatile reader below:
1. “1984,” George Orwell. The commercial market today provides you with an array of compelling dystopian stories but few that plunge quite so deeply into the mind as Orwell does in his well-known novel. Amid depictions of a war-ravaged, politically-charged world and a tightly-controlled populace, we find ourselves wondering about the nature of both reality and truth.
2. “The Poisonwood Bible,” Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver thrusts us into post-colonial Africa, weaving together a story of family and community as well as tyranny and social consciousness. It centers on a missionary family that struggles to remain afloat in the Belgian Congo at a time in history where the political atmosphere is tense and violent. Through them, we are granted an insight into a world of cultural differences and human universals.
3. “The Hours,” Michael Cunningham. This deeply moving work draws surprising and profound connections between the lives of three women from three different time periods. One of these women is none other than the English novelist Virginia Woolf. Cunningham details her bouts of mental illness in a way that is as authentic as it is heartbreaking.
4. “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Gothic novel is a tale of decadence, hedonism, and of the deterioration of the soul. The highly suggestible protagonist, Dorian Gray, adopts the worldview of his acquaintance, Lord Henry Wotton—the idea that beauty and sensual fulfillment are the only things worth pursuing in life. Once altered, what follows are scenes of Gothic horror and high-society antics.
5. “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Brontë. This book is one that appeals to the romantic and the pragmatic reader alike. We follow the life of the eponymous character from her childhood of maltreatment and isolation, to her adult years as a governess at Thornfield Hall in the service of the brooding and domineering Mr. Rochester. Brontë presents to us a female lead with an uncompromising moral code and a natural sense of independence – a character who can be both compassionate and unyielding.
Granted, just having these books in your collection and finding time to fully absorb them are two very different things, but when it comes to “classics” such as these, what distinguishes them from popular, highly commercial novels is that these are books that unsettle the reader. Good books entertain, but great books disturb. It is this quality that allows for their longevity. When reading great books, we are given perspectives that are totally unique, belonging to people with a set of experiences and opinions never conveyed to us before. Through these works, we can become a self-respecting governess or a morally bankrupt scoundrel, a manic-depressive novelist, or one man against an omniscient entity. These unique points of view become lenses through which we see the real world.