Weekend Picks: Five Must-Read Classics

To understand literature and fundamental notions of human nature, one must read the classics. Not two, and not just five, but at least thirty classic novels. And then one must start reading contemporary authors. Creating the list below wasn't easy, but it surely highlights important universal works which every reader should peruse.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although the book has been made into a movie, reading the book is highly recommended. It is a pitch-perfect novel set in the Roaring Twenties filled with gin and jazz. It is structured around Jay Gatsby’s obsessions: money, love, and ambition.

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” 

This book represents a supreme achievement by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Mr. Gatsby is an extremely rich man, a mystery figure in his part of the town. He organizes fabulous parties in his house and yard, and everyone is always welcome to come, although Jay himself rarely really shows up. His love, Daisy Bunchanan, is his inspiration, his ultimate wish, someone he wasn’t able to have in the past.
The narrator is Nick Carraway, Jay’s friend throughout the novel, who seems to be the only sensible character in the book. He tells the story as he moves through it, step by step, unrevealing who Jay Gatsby is.

“I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.” 

This novel is about a deception, perfectly narrated, gorgeously structured, written to seduce us into the American Dream and crush us with reality. Think of The Great Gatsby as the beautiful wake-up call we all need.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 


Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne, a clergyman, published this work in the mid-18th century and hit the critics right in the soft spot of originality, humor, and strangeness. Even Samuel Johnson said that it would not last.

But the book did last, mostly because of its peculiar sense of humor, modern gags, and all around Monty Pythonish vibe (which seem to be quite universally charming). This novel can be easily seen as a precursor to the modern novel.

“[O]f all the several ways of beginning a book which are now in practice throughout the known world, I am confident my own way of doing it is the best—I’m sure it is the most religious—for I begin with writing the first sentence—and trusting to Almighty God for the second.” 

“Human nature is the same in all professions.” 

The plot is quite simple, but Sterne’s chaotic style makes the novel extraordinary. Sterne opens the story with Shandy’s parents while they are conceiving him, and keeps the story going in the same direction. Shandy is born after cca. a hundred pages. He narrates his own life by starting with a smashed nose, an odd youth, and an even odder growing up. The secret to this (oddly) addictive work is its lack of straightforwardness, almost like building a mystery.

“I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.” 


On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac looked for four years before he found, in 1957, a publisher for this novel. The book speaks about the restless post-war beat youth while covering road-tripping North America with a friend named Neal Cassady. It seems as if these characters are in constant search of experience, their identity, and self-knowledge – just like the generation belonging to the Cold War era.

“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”

On the Road is an inspirational work which makes a lasting impact on a reader, with its honest compassion for humanity, longing for freedom, and search for identity. It tackles topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, religion and sex versus the open-minded visionaries of Kerouac’s generation.

“[…] the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” 

Kerouac’s novel is a classic of the 20th century, a masterpiece which brings vigor to a newly-created bohemian American beat-like life. It is highly recommended to read this amazing high point of the last century’s American literature.

“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” 


Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was eighteen years old, not imagining that what she was creating would be an instant bestseller, one of the first in the horror and SF genre. This book will bring to you a Gothic thriller, a tale about science, and a romance – quite a strange but profoundly successful mixture. Frankenstein consumes the reader with its perceptions of loneliness, isolation, human nature, murder, life, hope, and love.

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” 

Frankstein is the story of a committed student of science, called Victor Frankenstein, who is obsessed with the cause of everything including the ways to bring lifeless matter to life. It tells us a terrifying story, but also makes us question our own identity in terms of human kindness, the responsibilities we take for each other as human beings, and how smart it is to play with human life.

In today’s age of bio-terrorism, genetic engineering, and questionable morals and human kindness, this novel is a must-read.

“Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seem still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth. Such a man has a double existence: he may suffer misery, and be overwhelmed by disappointments; yet, when he has retired into himself, he will be like a celestial spirit that has a halo around him, within whose circle no grief or folly ventures.” 


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Rarely has any work been so influential as Crime and Punishment. Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was adored by almost everyone from Freud to Einstein, this novel can never be a disappointment to the reader.

It is an intense story describing a young student who perceives himself as something different, a person exempt from regular society. Thus, he gives himself the right to kill a pawnbroker and to take her money. After killing the woman with an axe, he starts to realize what he has done, and questions his decision and feelings of guilt and self-loathing. An official named Porfiry and a religious woman called Sonia come to his door and offer no relief from the guilt he feels.

“I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’ –and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again – in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.” 

This book will put you deep inside the troublesome and complex character’s mind and will leave you there. Dostoevsky succeeded in revealing a notion specific for human nature – the more we try to intellectualize, the more we are imprisoned. He explored redemption through suffering, and created one of the most influential novels in the history of literature.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth.” 

Photo: Shutterstock

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