If you're a literature nerd like me, you've probably read buckets full of classics and found something to love about most of them. But objectively speaking, it's fair to say that a lot of books that have made their way to the "classic" distinction over the years can be a little long, dense, or dry. On the other hand, a lot of them are a lot more fun (and quicker to read) than some people might expect! So for anyone who's ever wondered what the fuss was about with some of these titles, I'd start a reading list like this:
1. "For Whom The Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway's name is often included in a long list of early-20th century authors with lasting impact. But he might just be the most unique one of the bunch, largely because of his typically abbreviated prose. Hemingway approached his work armed with a so-called "Iceberg Theory," which basically means that he found the true beauty in writing to be in what's left unsaid. As the theory goes, the "dignity" of the movement of an iceberg is due to only one eighth of it being above water. So goes his writing: compared to many of the other authors of his time, Hemingway explicitly says very little but achieves great power with the words he does choose to write.
The result is that his novels are pretty easy to consume, lacking clutter but profoundly impactful nonetheless. That, plus the subject matter— "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is about the Spanish Civil War and among the most realistic war novels ever written—makes this a perfect book for a classic lit skeptic.
2. "Sula" by Toni Morrison
Considered one of a number of modern classics by Toni Morrison, "Sula" might blend in on a first glance, appearing to be one of a great many novels about race relations in the South. But to dismiss it as such is a mistake on multiple levels. For one thing, Morrison is pretty much the queen of black feminist literature, so even if it feels like this book is part of a crowded genre taught in schools, consider it the best of the best. Moreover, "Sula" isn't so serious or so focused on message that it isn't fun to read. In fact, it almost reads at times like a fable, with vivid characters and events that simultaneously border on fantasy and horrify you with their realness. It's a quick, astonishing read.
3. "Around The World In 80 Days" by Jules Verne
Jules Verne will always be recognized as one of the more fun or entertaining classic literary figures, and that's actually been evidenced in recent years by the fact that this particular novel has become a source of inspiration for video games. An "Around The World" title is featured among the games at Gala Casino, and it's enjoyably rooted in themes from the novel. It's basically a guessing game with betting components, but it also simulates a trip around the world in a hot air balloon. Similarly, there's also an "80 Days" app by Inkle that turns the bulk of the novel into a playable mobile experience.
The point is, they don't just go making video games about dry, boring old literature! "Around The World In 80 Days" is simply a blast to read. It's an adventurous and wildly inventive tale about a wealthy man and his valet as they attempt to circumnavigate the globe (in the 1800s) to win a bet.
4. "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee
"To Kill A Mockingbird" is a vital read for a number of reasons you may remember hearing about in a classroom. To me, it's the preeminent novel in depicting everything from racial injustice in the deep South to the loss of innocence that inevitably exists as one grows up. Those are some heavy themes, but as with "Sula" (though in an entirely different voice), this novel is oozing with the near-mystical elements that seem to come to the surface when a writer captures the deep South.
It's a quick and easy read and it remains extraordinarily thought-provoking over 50 years after its release. It's also become newly relevant thanks to the surprise release of a lost manuscript called "Go Set A Watchmen" in 2015. It doesn't directly follow the narrative of "To Kill A Mockingbird", but the new book is viewed as something of a distant and slightly disconnected sequel.
5. "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville
I suspect that "Moby Dick" will be the most daunting title on this list to those who don't habitually read classics. It's a massive book, commonly mentioned as a cumbersome classroom requirement. It also may be the most surprising book to read among popular classics, because once you get into it you realize that it's an extremely colorful adventure. "Moby Dick" is undeniably long, but it seems to have been written as much to entertain as to preach, which is something a lot of us want a little bit more of in classic literature. There are themes of race, perception, conquest, morality, and much more, but there are also deeply unique and fascinating characters that keep this novel interesting from cover to cover.
These are just a few to start with if you've ever wondered where the fun is in the classics. If you have any more to suggest, share them in the comments!
John Bergman is a New York City-residing freelance writer. When he isn't obsessing over his book collection (and trying to trim it down), John enjoys playing The Witcher 3 and watching Daredevil.