Six long classics worth dusting off

When I was in college, I made the mistake of telling my teacher that I would never read James Joyce Ulysses. The teacher immediately assigned it to me as compulsory literature for the semester. As stubborn as I can be about such things – on the other side of the cultural spectrum, I refuse, to this day, to watch Titanic— I was always an obsessively good student, so I gave in immediately. It took me about nine months to get through it, and I finished, quite by accident, on “Bloomsday” — June 16, the day the book takes place.

I discovered, one difficult page at a time, that Joyce’s novel is not just important, but also funny, mischievous and delightfully strange. A decade later, I still remember the sheer pleasure of delving into a story that demands that kind of attention; it feels like intimacy.

Literature should not be something we approach out of a sense of duty. But many long, complex, and well-known books really are that good. Like taking a long hike or following a tricky recipe, engaging in challenging writing can be deeply satisfying. Each of the books listed below is challenging in its own way, and reading or re-reading them can be a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding experience.


The story of Genji
WW Norton & Company

The story of GenjiMurasaki Shikibu (translated by Dennis Washburn)

This 11th-century work of Japanese fiction, written by a noblewoman known only as Murasaki Shikibu, predates the term itself novel. But modern readers will feel comfortable The story of Genjiespecially in the very accessible Washburn translation. The story begins with an imperial drama: the emperor’s favorite concubine gives birth to a son, and in order to appease his higher-ranking wives, he removes the newborn Genji from the line of succession. Genji was brought up as a commoner, but it’s no secret that he is the emperor’s child and is loved for his looks, intellect and talents. But the “shining prince,” as they call him, is far from perfect: “In fact,” the sly narrator tells us, “his faults were so numerous that such a lofty expression might have been wrong.” Genji is an unrepentant womanizer who is also incredibly honest; his life revolves around climbing the political ladder of the court and making waves at its ceremonial events. As he enters middle age and beyond, he becomes increasingly contemplative, often meditating on how fleeting life is. Full of intrigue, flaws, pranks and secret affairs, The story of Genji is both lusher and smarter than any HBO series.


Moby-Dick
Penguin Classics

Moby-DickHerman Melville

Like many young adults, Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s great adventure of body and mind, is restless and low on money in his purse. The only solution, as far as he is concerned, is to go to sea and experience life far from the shore. The ship he chooses sails on Christmas Day, but he is impatient: “Despite this cold winter night in the stormy Atlantic, despite my wet feet and wet jacket, there are still, as it seemed to me at the time, many pleasant havens waiting.” Although Moby-Dick it’s eventful (sailing is no picnic), it’s also an exploration of one man’s mind as he throws himself into the unknown. Ishmael’s captain, Ahab, is driven by one desire: to catch the whale that bit off part of his leg. Ishmael, in contrast, is curious and open-minded, eager to learn and experience everything he can. In recent years, Moby-Dick‘with the fandom has expandedperhaps because the book provides both an escape from the world and a deep immersion in it, whales and all.


vanity fair
Penguin Classics

vanity fairWilliam Makepeace Thackeray

Becky Sharp has the misfortune of being born into the family of a poor art teacher and opera artist, and vanity fair follows her young adulthood as she and her peers begin the work of becoming true 19th century Englishwomen. Some try to be good, but Becky longs to be in charge: she learns that in order to gain money and status, she must “be pleasant to her benefactors and … gain their confidence as much as possible.” Witty, charming and a fantastic mime, Becky becomes extremely endearing – especially to the men who keep falling for her – and makes her way into richer and more influential circles. Her need for financial stability is completely understandable, and although her ways of achieving it are questionable, it’s hard not to root for her. Becky’s lies eventually pile up, and her dramatic rise to prominence is matched only by her fall from grace. Funny and biting, vanity fair is social criticism at its best.


Cover of Middlemarch
Penguin Classics

Middlemarchby George Eliot

In 1871, while Eliot was writing Middlemarch, Britain has recently gone through some 40 years of social upheaval. The First and Second Reform Acts gave the right to vote to men of lesser means and pedigree, expanding the electoral public to include more than just the wealthy and noble few. But her mammoth novel takes place on the eve of that change and explores the tensions between rich and poor, rural and urban, old and new. The story follows Dorothea Brooke, a rich and pious 19-year-old orphan who lives with her sister and uncle, and Tertius Lydgate, a sweetly naive and eager doctor, as they both fall in love, marry, and discover that much follows the expected happily ever after. Subplots abound, of course, since this is a long and convoluted “Study in Provincial Life” (the novel’s subtitle), but the love triangles, political maneuvering, and intricate gossip in the titular English town make for an exciting read. This is a book about wonderfully and frustratingly messy people.


Almanac of the Dead
Books about penguins

Almanac of the DeadLeslie Marmon Silko

Some readers may be more familiar with Silk’s beauty Ceremonywhich follows a World War II Pueblo veteran as he returns to the reservation where he grew up. Her later book Almanac of the Dead is a completely different (and much bigger) beast—though just as, if not more, brilliant. It begins in Arizona, where a white woman named Seese starts working for Lecha, a psychic. Lecha and her twin sister Zeta have a unique gift: Lecha can find the dead and Zeta can communicate with snakes. Lecha has also been tasked by her grandmother to complete and preserve the Almanac of the Dead: ancient documents – complete with additions, recreations and notes made over the years – that recount history and predict the future. Her search, however, is only one thread in Silk’s epic, and the author virtuoso spreads the plot across continents and years without losing sight of the details. Eventually, and impressively, the stories of the novel’s large cast flow into each other, and the plot spills out into an ocean of beauty and menace. The brutality of colonialism and capitalism is laid bare, softened only by faith in a better world to come.


An endless joke
Little, Brown

An endless jokeDavid Foster Wallace

Wallace’s fans may have a reputation for being insufferable, but An endless joke on its own, while not an easy read, it’s a funny and satisfying journey. Exploring addiction, masculinity, fanaticism and the absurdity of war, the novel is littered with breadcrumbs, many of which are found in the incredible endnotes. It can be a pain to scroll between the main text and the back, but some of the most exciting moments happen in the small font. The setting is extremely bizarre: a version of our world where Canada, the US and Mexico have become one supernation; years are no longer known by numbers, but are sponsored by corporations (“Year of the Whopper”); and the iconic Quebecois terrorist cell is looking for a copy of the film that makes every person who watches it alone keep watching it, over and over, until they die. Against this background, Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and teenage genius, attends an athletic academy run by his family, spends time with his various strange friends, and tries to solve his many problems. Some associate Wallace’s work with a kind of uncontrolled toxic masculinity, but An endless joke he evokes it deliberately: his pathetic and pompous people function as a scathing critique of the very cultural messages conveyed to them.


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