I’m an English major and an English teacher so it’s impossible for me to definitively list my all-time favorite works of classic literature. I love so many! Plus, each time I revisit one (which is often!) it carves out more space in my heart. But I still wanted to share a few of my most beloved classics. These five classics are perennial favorites. They’re books I read at the right moment. They’re books I read when I was highly impressionable. They’re the books I’ve returned to again and again whether that was in the classroom or out of it.
So to celebrate the back-to-school season, here are five classics that are beautiful, timeless, and worth the effort:
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I read this book in high school when I decided I was too intellectual to continue with the YA series I adored and too much of a nonconformist to do my assigned reading. I’d read and loved A Room of One’s Own and wanted to take the plunge into Woolf’s fiction. To the Lighthouse takes place in a single day in the life of the Ramsey family whose vacation on the Isle of Skye is infused with each family member’s desire to visit the lighthouse off the coast. Woolf’s signature stream of consciousness style weaves in and out of the minds of multiple family members revealing their fears and shames, as well as their hidden pride and desires. Woolf’s writing is spectacular in that she reveals so much about each character in so few pages. She also managed to keep me in raptures although nothing much happens. When I first read it, this book was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Now I love it in part because it’s so informed contemporary writing. I’ve read this one multiple times and find it’s most accessible on audio. Nicole Kidman narrates and without seeing the length of sentences, readers are less likely to get lost in Woolf’s prose. I’d recommend To the Lighthouse to anyone who loved the narrative style of The Handmaid’s Tale, and if you’ve already read and loved Woolf’s canon, I recommend trying Katherine Mansfield’s stories next.
Passing by Nella Larsen
This book! This ending!! Passing is an underrated classic and I will forever be grateful to my favorite college professor who assigned it to me in my senior seminar class. This Harlem Renaissance novel explores race and racism, female friendships, sexual desire, jealousy, obsession and more in a gripping plot and about 150 pages. If you think that’s too much to tackle in a novella, you haven’t read Nella Larsen. The woman is a genius. Passing follows two friends, Clare and Irene, both living in Harlem with their families. Both African American women are light-skinned and can pass as white. While Irene is still a part of her Black community, Clare has married a racist white man who doesn’t know anything about her past or true identity. This choice creates a sense of impending doom that hangs over the novel building an incredible, authentic tension. What I love most though is the friendship between Clare and Irene, which is built on both compassion and envy. The obsession that blooms reminds me a lot of The Great Gatsby, a wonderful but racially problematic novel of the same era. I recommend Passing to anyone who loves works on female obsession like My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Social Creature or the Harlem Renaissance masterworks by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. This also pairs beautifully with contemporary works about friendship between Black women such as Silver Sparrow and Another Brooklyn.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The Brontës were another one of my high school obsessions. The gothic moodiness of the book just suits my teenage certainty that “no one understood me.” While I honestly prefer Wuthering Heights as far as Brontë masterpieces go, Jane Eyre is the book I’ve returned to and recommended the most. The story of the poor, penniless governess who falls in love with her brooding employer is one of the best fairytale retellings I’ve ever read, even as I absolutely cringe at the romance. And while I shout at Jane to make different choices pretty much every time I read it, I love that she truly makes her own decisions. I’d be remiss to add that I also just adore how utterly creepy this book is. I cannot pass up a book with a creepy old house, and this is the best there is. If you love Rebecca, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, or really any twisty thriller on the market, Jane Eyre won’t have that same thriller pace, but it’s fascinating to look at one of the stories that started the trend centuries ago.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
A little over two years ago I had the opportunity to live my dream and take a Jane Austen summer course at Oxford. When my class asked our Professor what her favorite Austen book is, she said, “Whichever one I’m reading at the time.” I’d have to say I’m in the same boat, I just happen to most often be reading Pride and Prejudice. Like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice represents one of the earliest examples of an entire genre. I love when I get to the end of this novel with my students, and their biggest complaint is the plot was “too predictable.” It leads to a wonderful conversation about romantic comedies and how, in many ways, this is the book that started it all! But what I appreciate about Pride and Prejudice is that it goes beyond the romance. This is a book about economics, as boring as that sounds. Austen’s sharp criticism of the economic realities facing women of her time is subtly subversive and quite frankly hilarious. If you love authors like Jia Tolentino and Rebecca Solnit, give this early radical a chance. Of course Pride and Prejudice is also great for romcom and romance lovers so if you’ve been devouring Jasmine Guillory and Sally Thorne, this classic may be for you too!
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
When I was six, the Les Mis musical soundtrack was all I wanted to listen to in the car. I loved the story so much that I read the unabridged book when I was in 8th grade...and I loved it. I adored the story of first love and the story of unrequited love. When I reread it when I was a little older, it was Jean Valjean’s incredible escape from prison and subsequent rehabilitation of his life and reputation that moved me the most. It’s a sprawling novel that features a decades long grudge, a heart wrenching love triangle, political commentary, an expression of faith, and even moments of laugh-out-loud levity. Every element of this book strikes a perfect note with me. To me, this is a book about empathy and redemption, and to this day, these are themes I look for in the books I read. I highly recommend this book to all readers who love phenomenal and expansive stories with characters who leap off the page like A Little Life and The Heart’s Invisible Furies. And this English teacher approves of you choosing the abridged version!! Trust me, you don’t need to understand the history of the Parisian sewer system to love this book.