Six long classics to dust off

When I was in college, I made the mistake of telling a teacher I would never read James Joyce Odysseus. My teacher promptly assigned it as required reading for the term. Stubborn as I may be about these things, on the other end of the cultural spectrum, I refuse, to this day, to look Titanic—I’ve always been an obsessively good student, so I gave in immediately. It took me about nine months to get over it, and I finished, quite by accident, “Bloomsday,” June 16, the date the book is set.

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

Literature shouldn’t be something we approach out of a sense of duty. But many long, complex, famous books are really that good. Like going on a long hike or following a complicated recipe, engaging with writing that challenges can be deeply satisfying. Each of the books below is challenging in its own way, and reading or re-reading them can be a fascinating, beautiful, and rewarding experience.

Genji's Tale
W. W. Norton & Company

Genji’s Taleby Murasaki Shikibu (translated by Dennis Washburn)

Written by a noblewoman known only as Murasaki Shikibu, this 11th-century Japanese work of fiction predates the term itself novel. But contemporary readers will feel comfortable with Genji’s Taleespecially in Washburn’s highly accessible translation. The tale opens with the imperial drama: the emperor’s favorite concubine gives birth to a son and, to appease her higher-ranking wives, removes the infant Genji from the line of succession. Genji was raised as a commoner, but it’s no secret that he is the son of the emperor and is loved for his looks, intellect and talents. But the “radiant prince,” as he is called, is far from perfect: “Indeed,” the astute narrator tells us, “his failures were so numerous that so lofty a nickname was perhaps misleading.” Genji is an unrepentant womanizer who is also remarkably sincere; his life revolves around climbing the political ladder of the court and stirring up its ceremonial events. As he continues into middle age and beyond, he becomes more contemplative, often pondering how fleeting life is. Full of intrigues, foibles, jokes and secret affairs, Genji’s Tale it’s both lusher and smarter than any HBO show.

Moby Dick
Penguin classics

Moby Dickby Herman Melville

Like many young adults, Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s great adventure of body and mind, is feeling restless and has little money in his purse. The only solution, as far as he’s concerned, is to go to sea and live a life away from the shore. The ship he chooses sails at Christmas, but he is anxious: “Despite this freezing winter’s night in the boisterous Atlantic, despite my wet feet and wetter jacket, there were still, it seemed to me then, many pleasant havens in store. ” although Moby Dick it’s action-packed (sailing is no picnic), it’s also an exploration of one man’s mind as it leaps into the unknown. Ishmael’s captain Ahab is driven by a single desire: to capture the whale that bit off part of his leg. Ishmael, by contrast, is curious and open-minded, eager to learn and experience all that he can. In recent years, Moby Dick‘S the fandom has expandedperhaps because the book provides both an escape from the world and a deep immersion into it, whales and all.

Vanity Fair
Penguin classics

Vanity Fairby William Makepeace Thackeray

Becky Sharp has the misfortune of being born to a poor art teacher and an 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 of her: she learns that to earn money and status, she must be “pleasing to her benefactors and … gain their trust to the fullest of her power.” she”. Witty, charming and a fantastic mimic, Becky makes herself extremely likable, especially to men, who continue to fall in love with her, and works her way into the wealthiest and most influential circles. Her need for financial stability is entirely understandable, and while her methods of obtaining it are questionable, it’s hard not to root for her. Becky’s lies eventually stack up, and her dramatic rise to prominence is matched only by her fall from grace. Funny and pungent, Vanity Fair it is social criticism at its best.

The cover of Middlemarch
Penguin classics

Middlemarchby George Eliot

In 1871, when Eliot was writing Middlemarch, Britain had recently undergone some 40 years of social upheaval. The first and second reform acts enfranchised men of inferior means and pedigree, expanding the voting public to include more than the wealthy and noble few. But his gigantic novel takes place before that change and explores the tensions between rich and poor, rural and urban, old and new. The story follows Dorothea Brooke, a wealthy and pious 19-year-old orphan who lives with her sister and uncle, and Tertius Lydgate, a sweetly naïve and eager doctor, as they both fall in love, marry, and find that much follows the expected forever joyful and happy. Subplots abound, of course, as this is a long and tangled “Study of Provincial Life” (the novel’s subtitle), but the love triangles, political maneuvering, and tangled gossip in the English town of the title make for thrilling reading. This is a book about wonderfully and frustratingly messy people.

Almanac of the Dead
Penguin books

Almanac of the Deadby Leslie Marmon Silko

Some readers may be more familiar with Silko’s beauty Ceremonywhich follows a Puebloan World War II veteran after his return to the reservation where he grew up. His next book Almanac of the Dead it’s a whole other (and much bigger) beast, though it’s equally, and perhaps more, brilliant. It begins in Arizona, where a white woman named Seese begins working for Lecha, a psychic. Lecha and her twin sister, Zeta, each have a unique gift: Lecha can find the dead and Zeta can communicate with snakes. Lecha is also tasked by her grandmother with completing and maintaining the Almanac of the Dead: ancient documents – complete with additions, re-creations and annotations made over the years – that tell history and foretell the future. The search for her, however, is only a common thread in the epic of Silko, and the author virtuously spreads the action across continents and years without losing sight of the details. Eventually, and impressively, the stories of the novel’s sprawling cast flow into one another, the plot spilling over into an ocean of beauty and menace. The brutality of colonialism and capitalism is laid bare, tempered only by belief in a better world to come.

Endless joke
Small, Brown

Endless jokeby David Foster Wallace

Wallace fans may have a reputation for being insufferable, but Endless joke by itself, while not an easy read, it’s a ridiculously satisfying journey. Exploring the addiction, masculinity, fanaticism and absurdity of war, the novel is littered with breadcrumbs, many of which are in the prodigious endnotes. It can be a pain to keep flipping between the main text and the back, but some of the most egregious moments happen in small print. The setting is superbly bizarre: a version of our world where Canada, the United States and Mexico have become a supernation; years are no longer known by numbers but are instead sponsored by corporations (“Year of the Whopper”); and a cult terrorist cell in Quebec is looking for a copy of a film that will make anyone who sees it want to do anything but keep watching it, over and over, until they die. Against this backdrop, Hal Incandenza, a tennis prodigy and teenage genius, attends his family’s athletic academy, spends time with his variously strange friends, and tries to solve his many problems. Some associate Wallace’s work with a sort of runaway toxic masculinity, but Endless joke deliberately evokes it: his pathetic and pompous men function as a searing critique of the very cultural messages that are transmitted to them.

When you buy a book using a link on this page, we get a commission. Thanks for the support The Atlantic.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *