Here are ten classics I wouldn't mind reading again--and most I have read again, more than once.
Literature Classics for the not terribly classic
1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
What can I say about Gatsby that hasn't already been said? What I admire most about the book is that it does not have one superfluous word. This story of the emptiness and uselessness of life with nothing to sustain you but gold, glitz, and frenzy is especially poignant for today. Amor Towles gives a nod to Gatsby in his book, Rules of Civility.
2. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee
I first picked up this book while researching The River Nymph. I wanted to find out how sharecroppers lived in the 1920s. These souls lived in the 30s, but I can't imagine their lives were any different. James Agee, a gifted young writer, and Walker Evans, a talented photographer, were assigned this project as a magazine story. The editors decided not to print it. Later, after Agee's death, the book appeared.
3. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
I dreamed I went to Manderley again...much more than just a gothic suspense novel, it's
the gold standard against which all historical romance with suspense should be measured. I can see the fog rolling over the grounds even now.
4. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
John Kennedy Toole wrote this book about an eccentric character in New Orleans and tried for years to interest a publisher. When his efforts failed, he killed himself. His grieving mother so believed in the book that she took it to Walker Percy and begged him to read it. He finally agreed, and the book was published. It won a Pulitzer Prize. I never see a hot dog without thinking of Ignatius Reilly.
5. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
You don't see many books that are the essence of charm. (Well, maybe those of Amor Towles) This book, set in the 30s, is told by the young daughter of a family living in a dilapidated castle and suffering genteel poverty. The story is full of eccentric characters, family squabbles, love triangles, and the coming of age by Cassandra, the narrator. The castle is dilapidated because the father, an author whose first book was wildly successful, took a forty-year-lease on it and hasn't been able to write anything since. Dodie Smith went on to write A Hundred and One Dalmatians.
6. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy
The characters are all familiar, despite their being English and existing a hundred years or so in the past. Women in that era really had very few choices, constrained by their stations in life and the mores of the time. Men were constrained too, but they could get away with more, and Galsworthy's men try. If you are tempted to watch the mini-series, the original black & white version, if you can find it, has characters more as Galsworthy wrote them than the "new" version, and is more complete. And the acting is better.
7. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
In my consideration, this is the only really good novel from one author using characters from another author's novel, in this case, Jane Eyre. Jean Rhys uses her own background growing up on the island of Domenica to give a background to Bertha, whom she calls Antoinette, the madwoman in the attic of Mr. Rochester. It is both a lyrical and horrifying story, and could have stood on its own without the connection.
8. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Actually anything by Raymond Chandler. He invented the noir genre, and is the father of the literary crime novel. There's nobody who can write atmosphere like Chandler, and make you feel you're there on those mean streets and in those dingy apartments and down-at-the-heel offices along with Philip Marlowe, his private eye.
9. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I've read it only once, but I also watched the film produced in Russia, all six hours of it, at the Tara Theatre, and also at home on three video cassettes. Everybody ought to see or read War and Peace once in their lives. This timeless saga of Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Helene, and their families during the Napoleonic wars of 1812 will stay with you long after the story is over.
10. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford
Ford's original title was The Saddest Story, and while it is a sad story, in fact a tragedy, I'm sure anyone who has had a messy marriage or tortured relationship can understand the complexities of two couples who are friends. The narrator is unreliable, and nothing is quite as it seems. The book was written in 1915. The publisher changed Ford's original title to The Good Solder: A Tale of Passion.