5 Literary Classics That Won’t Send you to Sleep
(and 5 that might)
I grew up in rural Dorset, England, in the 1980s and let me tell you, it was dull. The choices were: watch one of the three TV channels, stare at the ceiling, or trudge through muddy fields with a stick. And of course, if you got really desperate, there were books. My particular favorites were horror stories, in which rural backwaters were always being overrun by killer rats and zombies. I lived in hope. This period marked the beginning of my love of stories and taught me the elements of good writing that would go on to help me as an author. So, if I could go back, would I swap it for an hour shooting pimps on a video game? Hell, yeah.
Boredom is a thing of the past. I have two sons ages 10 and 12, and I’ve never heard them complain of being bored. I don’t even have to list the distractions of technology since you’ll probably check your phone at least fifteen times in the course of reading this horribly long article.
Considering the closest I’m ever going to get to those lost ceiling-staring days is a seven-minute meditation app, that means the time I set aside for reading is pretty short. These days I regularly hurl a disappointing book away after the first couple of chapters rather than slog through to the bitter end. But this was not always the case. During my English Literature degree, I spent long hours grinding through weighty tomes. I earned my intellectual stripes with literary classic such as Paradise Lost, Finnegan’s Wake, Chaucer, Beowulf in the original old English, Dante’s Inferno in medieval Italian. I would sniff at my grandad’s penchant for spy thrillers, and my mum’s beloved police procedurals I dismissed as “lollipops” for the proles.
It’s only now, twenty years down the line, that I can finally admit I hate classic literature, and several literary classics. Much of it is turgid, overwritten, laborious, filled with far too much description, for the times when playing the harpsichord or embroidering a cushion were the only alternatives to reading. Modern prizewinners, like Lincoln in the Bardo, Wolf Hall, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, etc. are so much more honed, lively, and accessible.
With this in mind, let me offer my personal opinion about which literary classics are worth your precious social-media time and which you should only buy to look good on your bookcase.
5 Favorite Literary Classics:
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and fully deserving of its place in the ten best books ever written canon, Beloved is the story of a former slave haunted by the ghost of her murdered child. With some deep themes and incredibly powerful writing, it also manages to be a gripping and rewarding read.
Treasure Island/Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
Vivid adventure stories easily as exciting as the best Anthony Horowitz. If you’re fed up with your little darlings’ addiction to Wimpy Kid and other junk, try them on these.
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Creepy and addictive, it grabs you by the throat from the first page with its lyrical, duplicitous first-person narrator, Dr. Humbert Humbert. Especially toe-curling in the context of our never-ending child-abuse scandals, this one’s definitely a guilty pleasure.
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
I read this to my little boy while he was going through a traumatic time at school, and it was as soothing as a half pint of Calpol. The writing and characterization are beautiful, like singing yourself a lullaby.
This book has the lot. All the tales you know but don’t know why you know them: Echo and Narcissus, Jason and the Argonauts, the Minotaur, Icarus, the Midas Touch. It’s dense and heavy-going but will make art gallery visits far more rewarding (along with God, these stories are some of the most popular subject matter), plus by the end, your IQ will have gone up twenty points.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
Having seen so many film adaptations, I wondered if it was the plot I loved,rather than the actual book, but a quick glance at a random page confirmed that the Brontës are a whole lot wilder and sexier than Jane Austen.
And the five literary classics that sent me to sleep:
Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
Yes, the films are marvelous, but as for the books, I have two words for you: Tom Bombadil.
Ulysses – James Joyce
Three months of my life I can never get back. And I only got to page 11.
Yep, all of it. Apart from maybe A Christmas Carol – as long as it’s the Muppets’ version.
Supposedly the granddaddy of horror, Lovecraft’s hysterical stories are just plain silly. In the antithesis of “show, don’t tell,” everything is either brooding, terrifying, monstrous, or uncanny.
“When I drew nigh the nameless city I knew it was accursed. I was traveling in a parched and terrible valley under the moon, and afar I saw it protruding uncannily above the sands…”
I rest my case.
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
With endless reams of description of pink rocks, it was all I could do to wade through it as a bedtime story for my sons. We whooped and danced around the bedroom when it finally finished. I don’t care if you hate me.
Sarah J. Naughton was shortlisted for the Costa Prize for her debut young-adult horror, The Hanged Man Rises. Her first book for adults, psychological thriller Tattletale, is a Kindle top-ten bestseller, and publishes in the U.S. as The Girlfriend by Sourcebooks Landmark in March 2018. A second thriller, The Other Couple, is out this March.
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