An English Teacher’s Beloved Classics
For tonight’s means of procrastinating while I should be grading, I am going to type a list of books and/or short stories with a brief explanation of why I love them. I am permitting myself exactly 15 minutes to complete this exercise, and the list will be biased toward things I’ve read recently, I’m sure - I’m just typing what pops in my head for 15 minutes. K. Here goes.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf - my fav. There’s sentimental value because going to see The Hours was my first date with my wife, and a copy of this novel her first gift to me, but it’s also amazing. No one narrates the small moments like Woolf.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy - This was my gateway to Hardy, whose sense of scale and capturing a bygone world enthralled me. Thus, it was a comfort book for me at the start of the pandemic, despite the fact that it ends sadly. You know, like every other Hardy novel.
Macbeth, by William Shakespeare - If I need to pick one book for a desert island, is it cheating to say The Complete Works of Shakespeare? This one’s my fav. Dark, brutal, and gorgeous, and somehow the same dude who wrote the world’s most favorite lovestruck teens also wrote the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
“Old Man at the Bridge” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway - I know: “white dude recommends Hemingway” is a punchline. But seriously... these are great, less tainted by Hemingway’s chauvinism than other works (and I do think the chauvinism is a problem that often hinders his work), and I do think anyone with aspirations of writing prose owes it to themselves to spend some time contemplating Hemingway’s style. It’s not the alpha and omega some make it out to be - I like Woolf more, and she’s his antithesis! - but Hemingway’s minimalism is instructive.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen - Hilarious. Hilarious. Hilarious. If you’re new to Austen, try using the BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as a companion, and pick up What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew as a reference tool (for this and any other 19th century British text).
The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro - because not all unreliable narrators are in batshit crazy Poe stories. Just reread this. A restrained butler reckons with his life. Heartbreaking.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates - “white liberal recommends BtWaM” is also a punchline, but there’s a reason he won a MacArthur grant after this one. Really, I’d read anything by Coates - brilliant stylist. The Beautiful Struggle, about his Baltimore childhood, is also great, and while you might disagree with his conclusions, everyone should read his modern classic of longform journalism from The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations,” which sure as heck helped me to better grasp A Raisin in the Sun.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - so, so good. ’Nuff said.
Wolf Hall, by Hillary Mantel - and the whole trilogy, but especially this and Bringing Up the Bodies. Stunning historical fiction of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIII’s key advisor. Ack, I’m running out of time...
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald - my pick for “The Great American Novel.” Lyrical and gorgeous. (For the curious, Huckleberry Finn doesn’t stick the landing, and Moby Dick sucks.)
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad - Chinua Achebe is right about it, and you need to read his famous critical essay, too. But still an incredible, complex text.
and now, with time elapsed, I glance at my bookshelves and select with a glance -
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus - Greek tragedy is fascinating, and this trilogy is as early as we still have. Aeschylus, in particular, reads as much as ritual as theatre; you can hear it in the chorus so clearly you’d be forgiven for turning around to see if there was a nearby goat sacrifice.
crap! I forgot things!
“The Dead,” by James Joyce - requires some notes on Irish history, but my God... the last paragraph...
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene - As a (mostly) recovered Catholic, I had to include either this or Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited to deal with the religion that shaped and scarred me, and I’m choosing Greene on a whim.
Alright, bolding the titles and authors for readability, then posting sans edits. Send complaints to the comment section :)
If you do plan on reading the (now-lengthy) comment section, can I suggest doing so on the beta site? Having some of the comments nested makes it MUCH easier to read: https://beta.theprose.com/post/429324