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Making Up for Missed Opportunities: Back to the Classics

Seven paperback books are laid out over a blue cloth. The titles include Master & Margarita, A Good Man is Hard to Find, Jane Eyre, Kokoro, One of Ours, The Secret Garden, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

My English education strayed from the norm. In middle school Mrs. K, stout and exacting, skipped the typical reading list of a language arts curriculum. Instead our classroom subscribed to The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and Smithsonian Magazine, from which every two weeks each of us would pick an article to present and discuss.

Mrs. K treated us preteens as if we were college students, taking us on a field trip downtown to Chicago’s public library so that we could conduct research for a project in which she demanded we have at least fifty sources.

Upon middle school graduation, I had read peer-reviewed scientific articles on phobias (the topic of my research project), corresponded with the National Institute for Mental Health, and made a striking trifold poster outlining the differences between specific phobia, agoraphobia, and social phobia to present at our class research fair, yet I had never read a page of Animal Farm. Or Flowers for Algernon. Or The House on Mango Street.

In high school my English classes were only slightly more conventional. Mr. P, a scrawny man with thick glasses and a pointed nose, assigned each of us one of the 100 best cities to live in according to the U.S. News and World Report as the topic of our freshman research papers. I had Worcester, Massachusetts. In the midst of coming up with a three-part thesis to argue about good ol’ Wooster, our class reading assignments anchored us in the canon of high school literature with A Separate Peace, Romeo and Juliet, and Tale of Two Cities.

By senior year I had had enough of the canon, of writing asinine papers, and doing the insane amount of homework that ironically necessitated taking the occasional day off school in order to catch up.

Mrs. V, petite and earnest, assigned us to read the entire novel The Mayor of Casterbridge over Thanksgiving break, which unleashed a rebellion inside of me. I had already read Grapes of Wrath during summer break, which was supposed to be a BREAK from all of this stupid work, and there was no way in hell I was going to spend my next, shorter break reading another book I didn’t want to read. So I didn’t read The Mayor of Casterbridge. Then I didn’t read Wuthering Heights. Nor King Lear after that.

I used to brag about getting an A in that class despite not reading the books. Only a decade later did I realize that I had missed out on great literature. Between Mrs. K swapping out classics for current events and my own exhaustion-fueled obstinance, I spent years of my English education flouting the classics.

Those works became classics for a reason. A combination of solid writing and cultural significance lifted them above other books swept away by time. So how did I get to be my age without having read To Kill a Mockingbird?

There’s no need to lament that fact when I can just pick it up now. This is where the timelessness of classics is a boon: opportunities to read them reappear whenever I have time to read.

This year I’m recommitting to the classics. To propel my reading toward canonical literature, I’m participating in Books & Chocolate’s Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.

It encompasses twelve categories that must be fulfilled with books originally published 50+ years ago. Below are the categories and titles I’m considering for each.

1. A 19th century classic

Any book first published from 1800 to 1899

Frankenstein Mary Shelley

The Turn of the Screw Henry James

Tess of D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

2. A 20th century classic

Any book first published from 1900 to 1971

(Why 1971? All books for this challenge must have been published 50 years ago.)

Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury

The Scapegoat Daphne du Maurier

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith

3. A classic by a woman author

Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë

A Good Man is Hard to Find & Other Short Stories Flannery O’Connor

4. A classic in translation

Any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer.

The Idiot Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Stranger Albert Camus

5. A classic by BIPOC author

BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, Person of Color.

Kokoro Natsume Soseki

Silence Shusako Endo

The Fire Next Time James Baldwin

6. A classic by a new-to-you author

An author whose work you have never read

The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde

Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author

A book by an author whose works you have already read

One of Ours Willa Cather

Parade’s End Ford Madox Ford

The Member of the Wedding Carson McCullers

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title.

The animal can be real or metaphorical.

To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov

9. A children's classic.

The Secret Garden Frances Hodgkin Burnett

The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

10. A humorous or satirical classic

Brave New World Aldous Huxley

Evelina Frances Burney

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction)

It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure.

The Plain in Flames Juan Rulfo

Murder on the Orient Express Agatha Christie

On the Road Jack Kerouac

12. A classic play

This is a work that was originally written for the stage. Plays will only count in this category.

Macbeth Shakespeare

King Lear Shakespeare

Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Tom Stoppard

What classics did you love? What do you recommend? Which would you skip? Share in the comments!

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