For many of us, summer is a time to catch up on our overgrown reading lists and search for new treasures to read. We scour the tables in our local bookstores for the newest, most popular reads and place holds on recently published books at our nearest libraries. While wanting to get our hands on hot-off-the-press works is never a bad thing, we need not forget the classics, those which have stood the test of time and from which we can still learn.
There are some classics it seems everyone has read, yet there are still others that slip through the cracks. Some of these classics that go unnoticed by the general public are very much worth bringing to light. We won’t go down the black hole that is literary merit, but I think it’s safe to say most English majors would agree with me on this.
So if you’re searching for books to read this summer, take a look at this list before buying or borrowing your next book. (Also, for those you wanting less time-consuming reads, I’ve included a few short stories as well.)
“Emma” by Jane Austen (1815)
You’ve likely read Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” — or, you’ve at least seen the movie. If you’re used to Elizabeth Bennet’s strong nature and delightful wit, you’ll need to do a little adjusting in getting acquainted with Emma Woodhouse. Though clever, Emma is rather hardheaded and, though well educated, has much about life to learn. Emma declares she will never marry, but she loves playing matchmaker, a role in which she prides herself.
Through a series of comedic mishaps, you’ll laugh at Emma’s misfortunate errors and her overestimated confidence in her matching-making skills. The length of this novel usually intimidates potential readers, but let me assure you, Austen’s beautiful prose makes each page worth the turn.
“The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis (1942)
Most know C.S. Lewis by the name of his famous series, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters” is a much different book. Screwtape, a demon with much seniority, acts as a mentor to his nephew, Wormwood, who has been assigned the role of tempter to a young man only referred to as “the Patient.”
The novel is written in a series of letters from Screwtape to Wormwood, as Wormwood surreptitiously attempts to bring about the Patient’s spiritual demise. With Christian theology at its core, this fictionalized epistolary-style novel unveils some of humanity’s greatest temptations as Screwtape advises Wormwood how to best lead the Patient to evil and deter him from knowing God’s goodness. This novel will leave you thinking about failing, overcoming and loving.
“Evelina, or, The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World” by Frances Burney (1778)
Though a predecessor to Austen, Frances (Fanny) Burney is not a name popular in the public eye, yet it is one you hear quite frequently amongst the eighteenth-century graduate school/professor crowd.
“Evelina” is the story of a young girl who has grown up in the countryside with Reverend Arthur Villars as her guardian since her father will not claim her to be his child. Evelina ventures to London (thus her “entrance into the world”), but she is unprepared for that which is the world.
Ultimately, Evelina must choose between giving into the vices of the secular world or upholding her virtues learned in the country. She spends the novel in eighteenth-century family limbo and deals with critical identity conflicts, but her dealings with these conflicts ultimately force her to address her own stances on virtue. Though Burney’s prose is not as beautifully crafted as Austen’s, this story has it all: humor, sadness, romance and happiness.
“The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell (1924)
For those of you searching for a quick thrill, Connell’s short story will leave you both shocked and amazed. The story begins with two men, Rainsford and Whitney, sailing on a yacht at night while discussing the thrill of hunting, the unlikelihood that animals have feelings and the mysterious island they are in midst of passing.
Whitney excuses himself to turn in for the night, but Rainsford remains on deck. Soon after Whitney has gone, Rainsford hears gunshots in the distance, and while trying to peer through the black of the night, he falls overboard. Astonishingly, he makes it to the island after quite a long and difficult swim. Rainsford arrives to what he believes is safety, but what awaits him on the island is the biggest shock of this tale. The title turns out to be a play on words: game being a competitive activity and game as in wild animals — and the like.
“The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant (1884)
“The Necklace” is unlike many of Maupassant’s stories in that it is more of a lesson-to-be-learned tale. The story begins with a description of Madame Loisel, a woman of low class who longs for aristocracy, wealth and notoriety. Her genuinely kind-hearted husband comes home one day with an invitation to a ball thinking his wife will be elated to go to such an event. Unfortunately for Monsieur, Madame is first upset that she has nothing to wear and then later upset again because she has no jewelry.
While you may find yourself despising Madame Loisel’s attitude, you’ll likely be pleased by the twisted surprise in store for her at the end. This tale can teach us all a thing or two about material possessions, gratitude and responsibility.
Let’s not stop reading the popular books. Even as an English graduate I can appreciate the worth of those that are newly published. But let’s also not forget the true classics or even the ones not fully appreciated either. May your next library trip or bookstore stop be full of good reads and great tales.