Sometimes we bypass the classic novels on the way to the rich offering of current literary fiction. Fair enough; there is so much to love in today’s fiction. But once in a while, dust off a classic gem and consider the language, the depth, the metaphorical heft these books carry—along with being engrossing, powerful reads. Reading these novels has greatly improved my life—I am so much richer for having done so. You might like them, too, for a read or re-read.
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
“Caddy got the box and set it on the floor and opened it. It was full of stars. When I was still, they were still. When I moved, they glinted and sparkled. I hushed.” Forget the tortured approach to this novel you might have had to endure in high school and read it. It’s sublime; a soaring opera of the human condition.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
It is an intense experience to read this book just for the story, but even more so when layered with Ellison’s complex construction. A masterwork.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert wrote, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” That’s a writer’s writer, right there. Madame Bovary gets overlooked and accused of being stale when in fact it is timeless, as well as expertly crafted. I’ve read several translations and they are significantly different experiences. The 2010 translation by Lydia Davis is now considered to be the edition to read, and it is superb, but I’ve linked today to the version I prefer, the 2004 translation by Margaret Muldoon. The Washington Post’s Michael Dirda wrote in his review of it, “This is one of the summits of prose art, and not to know such a masterpiece is to live a diminished life.” Don’t lead a diminished life, read it.
- Native Son by Richard Wright
This tragic novel will break your heart with its story, with the character Bigger Thomas and with the racism of the 1930s it illuminates. A perfect, shattering book.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The sexual coming of age story of young women is almost never told in fiction. But Hurston did it, and in 1937, at a time when novels written by African-Americans were rarely published and when novels written by African-American women were virtually never published. The richly evocative novel is an unparalleled accomplishment on every level.
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