One on hand, I wouldn’t really recommend any of these, and on the other, I would recommend all of them. That’s how I feel about classics in general. (Of course To Kill a Mockingbird is an exception, that goes without saying.) Sometimes they’re confusing, and sometimes they’re boring, but I don’t know — there’s just something about the fact that they’re classics that make them compelling.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Page count: 1110
War and Peace is not what I expected. It literally is about war and peace. It switches back and forth between the front lines (aka Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, soldiers, really specific descriptions of battles and strategy) and society (aka dinners, parties). I thought that the “peace” sections were way more interesting than the “war” parts, and apparently that’s a common opinion — so common, in fact, that I saw one article arguing how you can’t fully understand the book if you skip the “war” chapters.
The second thing about this book that I did not see coming were all the ramblings. Tolstoy goes on so many detours — history, calculus, free will. I’m still not completely sure what argument he was trying to make. Or if he was trying to make one at all. My best guess is that the book’s about how history is determined by all the million little decisions made by regular people, not by the famous heroes.
Finally, although I knew how infamously long this book was, I was still thrown off-guard by how it was SO LONG. Not only is it over a thousand pages, but the spacing and the font was smaller than almost every other book on this list. If it was 1.5 or double spaced, it would have maybe been two thousand pages. It was so long that when I still had 200 pages left, I already felt close to the end.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Page count: 521
Once again, I was surprised by how unfigurative the title is. Crime and Punishment is about a man who maybe commits a crime and maybe gets punished for it. When I saw that the back cover called it “one of the most gripping crime stories of all time,” I was very skeptical. In the beginning, my suspicions were very much confirmed. It seemed like it was going to be filled with confusing philosophical meandering like War and Peace. But then it started getting good and lived up to its description of being a murder mystery–it still does have a philosophical bent though.
Just look at these insults.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t be worth a baked onion myself…perhaps with you thrown in.”
“That’s too little; I’d give two for you.”
“But that’s not the point,” Raskolnikov interrupted with disgust. “It’s simply that whether you are right or wrong, we dislike you.”
Update: I’m actually reading this for school right now?? And I have to say, after reading it again and hearing my teacher explain things, it makes a lot more sense now. It’s also just making me like it more. Specifically, Razumikhin. I might be slightly coming around to Raskolnikov too. I’m also impressed by myself being able to spell and pronounce these Russian names. SVIDRIGAYLOV. (Uhh, I hope that’s correct.)
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Page count: 229
Once again again, I was surprised by how unfigurative the title is. It’s literally about the painted portrait of Dorian Gray. This story was very strange, but it’s certainly memorable. I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s angsty, it’s dark, and it has basically no likeable characters. A bunch of these classics felt like they were trying to make a point, but that felt especially clear in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Page count: 794
Once again again again, I was surprised by how unfigurative the title is. It’s literally about this village called Middlemarch and the lives of several people living in it. Middlemarch is by far my favorite one out of all of these. It’s the only I truly liked. The writing feels both similar to Austen and very distinct. (Also, George Eliot was a woman as well!!!) It started out slow at first and there were one or two chapters later that I was confused about, but somewhere in the middle, it got so good. Basically, certain moments at the end made any previous boring sections irrelevant in my mind. After reading three classics with only one or two likeable characters, it almost felt strange to fall in love with several characters in the span of one book.
Another amazing one-liner.
“Oh, Brooke is such a leaky-minded fool,” said Lydgate contemptuously.
“Well, I was glad of the leakiness then.”
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Page count: 680
This time I was expecting the title to be extremely unfigurative, but I was let down. Vanity Fair is actually a metaphor–of what exactly, I’m still not sure. My version has an introduction by Nicholas Dames, and he describes it like this:
“If Dicken’s novels describe a generally garrulous, sociable crowd of eccentrics, and if George Eliot’s novels (ANNIE HERE: aka Middlemarch) show us individuals consoled for their social and vocational failures by rich inner lives, Thackeray’s characters retreat from their social performances to private emptiness.”
My translation: Dicken has a lot of interesting characters, Eliot has a lot of moral characters, and Thackeray has a lot of characters who just…I don’t know how I would translate this part. I think Nicholas Dames said it really well — “private emptiness.”
I wouldn’t say the book is sad, but it isn’t a pretty sight either. I didn’t realize the subtitle of this book was “A Novel Without a Hero” until the Story Sponge wrote about it in her post, but that really sums this book up. I think Thackeray’s main point is that none of his characters are very admirable because none of us are either.
One of my favorite things about classics is how they take something we would say very simply and describe it with fancy words. For example:
On voice cracks: James Crawley, when his aunt had last beheld him, was a gawky land, at that uncomfortable age when the voice varies between an unearthly treble and a preternatural bass…
On trying to grow facial hair: Young Tandyman, a hero of seventeen, laboriously endeavouring to get up a pair of moustachios…
On marriages with large age gaps: …there was old Methuselah, who had married his young wife…
It’s also interesting to find oddly relevant lines.
And as dubious goods or letters are passed through an oven at quarantine, sprinkled with aromatic vinegar, and then pronounced clean…
And finally, another clever quip. I really want to use this one at some point.
“But as for paying your creditors in full, I might as well hope to pay the National Debt.”
Have you read any of these–if so, what were your thoughts??
Do you have a favorite classic?
What are you reading right now?
P.P.S. I didn’t want to write any more actual reviews, so here are my brief takes on the last three. Ivanhoe: Dude why is Robin Hood the character that gets all the attention from this book? Wamba the Jester is clearly the star). Tess of the D’Ubervilles: Possibly the most tragic book I’ve ever read. Wuthering Heights: Uhh, I don’t know how I feel about this book.