When people see how much I love movies they sometimes assume that I don’t also like to read. This is probably because in my experience many men choose movies over reading but I think both are essential to be a full complete person. I love movies but there is something about the experience of living in stories that only books can give you. Movies give you a 2 hour story but a book can delight you for weeks depending on its size.
Recently I enjoyed watching the kickoff program for The Great American Read. This is a 2 hour show on PBS that has compiled a list of the 100 best books of all time. Some are questionable such as 50 Shades of Grey and an embarrassing number I haven’t read but watching the show inspired me to do more reading and to tell you my lovely readers about the books that I love.
To start off I thought it would be fun to share My Top 11 Favorite Classic Novels. Classic is obviously a relative term but for the sake of my list I started at 1960 as the end point (the year To Kill a Mockingbird was written). Some of these books are helped by nostalgia but they are all excellent on their own. It is also interesting that 8 of the novels are written by women. So here goes:
11. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)-
There was always a high chance I would love Middlemarch because it is my Mother’s favorite novel. Still I put off reading it for many years because its length intimidated me. However, if you can brave it Middlemarch treats you to a beautiful story about a woman named Dorothea who is trying desperately to do the right thing over what is convenient and easy. She marries out of a desire for intellectual enlightenment and then is sorely disappointed when it proves cold and distant. Then she meets Will Ladislaw and the 2 become friends. Everything is kept honorable but the connection Eliot has with her characters is beautiful and gives you hope for the goodness that lies within all of us.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
10. My Antonia by Willa Cather (1918)-
Like Eliot, Willa Cather is a novelist who always seems to find the humanity in her characters. It’s like she is writing about her dear friends not just people in a book. In My Antonia she captures the beauty and burdens of life on the American Prairie for orphan Jim and immigrant girl Antonia. We see them as children and then read as they grow up and life doesn’t turn out the way they think it will.
“Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”
9. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892)-
Where Middlemarch is beloved by my Mother, Sherlock Holmes is beloved by my Father. I’m not sure why he loves him so much but he always has. What appeals to me about the character is how Sherlock uses his brain as his super power. He’s unpredictable and intense but in the end always comes up with what is just and true- and usually staring the victims/police in the face the whole time! This first book has 12 of his stories including A Scandal in Bohemia, The Red-Headed League, and the Man with the Twisted Lip. So fun!
“As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.”
8. Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (1910)
I love novels that have a sense of humanity for all its characters and that is what I get with Howard’s End. What I love the most about Forster’s writing is he doesn’t have villains. In a lesser hand the rich capitalist Wilcox’s would be the greedy villains but that isn’t the case. They are operating within their upbringing and doing what they think is right. When Mr Wilcox gives advice to the struggling clerk Leonard Bast he isn’t trying to be underhanded but is genuinely passing on knowledge without thinking of its ramifications. The Schlegal sisters are of an intellectual class that have the money to think about such things without having the burden of leadership. Every character has clear motivations and a story that feels real and moving and Howard’s End feels like a sanctuary we all yearn for and seek out.
“Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.”
7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)-
Little Women was the first big novel I recall reading and being proud I had finished it. I loved the story of each of the 4 girls. I loved the romance both scorned and returned. I cried my eyes out at poor Beth. As an adult, I can see the pulpy nature of especially the follow up book but I still love it. Just like most, I relate to Jo who wants to make a difference in the world and be independent and free. But I also relate to the selfish Amy, insecure Meg and shy Beth. I have all of those sides in me. And it always made sense to me that Jo refused Laurie. They were not only very different but she needed to go out and see the world and not get married in some stuffy house. With Professor Bhaer she got someone who was experienced and she had lived a little bit more. She needed a thoughtful yet adventurous spirit and that’s what she got in the Professor!
“I want to do something splendid…something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”
6. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)-
I have always loved a great romance and what makes Jane Eyre so great is it is about 2 troubled souls who find each other and just when all seems to be lost it all works out. As readers we start with Jane as a young girl being treated terribly by the Reed family and then being sent to Lowood School where she is beaten but finally finds a friend in Helen and Miss Temple (so sad with Helen). Then she is grown up and it is time to go to Thornfield Hall and meet Mr Rochester. These 2 have such chemistry because they both have been battered and bruised by the world. I love the dialogue between them and how it builds slowly over time. And then when his secret is revealed Jane’s morals must send her away and it is devastating. Then we get the contrast between those morals and the missionary whom she has no chemistry with at all. It’s a fantastic love story.
“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you… I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”
5. Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery (1908)-
Much like Jo March, Anne Shirley was a literary hero for me as a child. I was not a child that loved fantasy stories with mysticism and lore but I did like to daydream and Anne is the ultimate daydreamer. You could say that daydreaming rescued Anne. I love the way she see’s everything through her own world and is confident enough to voice that world out loud. She doesn’t care what the locals call the pond. To her it is the Lake of Shining Waters. There is something so appealing about this kind of hope and dream. The rest of the characters are so lovely and it has such heart. It made me constantly search for kindred spirits and hope for a love I might want to occasionally break a slate over his head!
“Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it… Yet.”
4. A Christmas Carol (1843)-
We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge (you can read my Scrooge Month reviews here) but I fear our familiarity with the text causes us to forget how great a story it truly is. I love stories of redemption and Scrooge coming to know Christ through Christmas is one of the greats. Like so many Scrooge has become bitter because of the disappointments and tragedies of life. He has decided to separate himself from Christ and his fellow mankind because he doesn’t want to get hurt. This is the lesson he learns from his ghostly visitors and from the frail but faithful Tiny Tim.
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused”
3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)-
If someone asked me for a novel that might help them become a better person I would give them To Kill a Mockingbird. Told from the innocent perspective of a young girl observing her father, we learn in the novel what it means to have integrity and to fight for lost causes. Atticus knows representing Tom is a futile endeavor but he does it anyway. He see’s the value in the mockingbird which is ordinary and worthless to others. To Kill a Mockingbird gives us hope that good people like Atticus will always do what is right and will love no matter what. Boo Radley in contrast is the quiet one who saves Scout when nobody else can. It’s just beautiful and perfect.
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)-
I could easily put Sense and Sensibility or Persuasion on this list but when it comes down to it Pride and Prejudice is my favorite from Jane Austen. As a teen I got caught up in the romance of this book. Will Darcy forgive Lizzie after she so hotly rebuked him? Will they survive the shame of Lydia’s carelessness? Will Bingley and Jane ever get together? It was all very compelling stuff! But as an adult I appreciate the novel on a deeper level. Austen really doesn’t have much romance in her books but she has characters that have to make choices and that are brave for their time. Lizzie could even be considered reckless considering the financial state of her family for refusing Mr Collins let alone Darcy. This is what makes her story compelling and their final union so satisfying. It is also full of witty satire that still holds up and is funny over 200 years later.
“I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh.”
1. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)-
Elizabeth Gaskell is my favorite author and I try to read her books each year. When I do I am always struck by how modern her characters feel. If they were to sub out more modern language the characters choices would feel right at home in a contemporary novel. In North and South she creates 2 fantastic characters in Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Margaret has been forced to move the Northern city of Milton where she meets the proud self-made Thornton. He is strong-willed like her but not a gentleman in her eyes. Then she and him get mixed up in the woes of the factory workers at his mill and the tension begins to mount. There is such chemistry between Margaret and Thornton from the first moment they meet, but it is not just a romance but an exploration of these 2 characters and how they let go of their pride to love. It will be too long for some folks but I adore it and find it endlessly re-readable.
“He knew how she would love. He had not loved her without gaining that instinctive knowledge of what capabilities were in her. Her soul would walk in glorious sunlight if any man was worthy, by his power of loving, to win back her love.”
So that is my list! What do you think of it? Let me know! I will be putting out a couple more book lists so let me know what you would like to see.