The summer of 2017 was pivotal for me.
For years, I’d called myself an “aspiring writer,” but at the same time, I refused to read much, even though I constantly heard the mantra of good writers are good readers. Finally, a few days after my birthday, I started getting serious about reading. One big problem for me, though, was what I should read in the first place.
At first, I bounced around considerably. I read a nonfiction military account. Then I followed that up with a YA coming-of-age novel. After that, it was onto John Knowle’s classic A Separate Peace. As time went by and I flew through books faster than I had ever thought I would, I found a groove in the realm of literary fiction.
Now, this isn’t to say that I reject other genres—in a future post, I’ll discuss whether you, the reader, should stick to one genre or explore many—but literary fiction, by and large, has proved to be a great companion over the past few years. What follows are five novels that made me fall in love with literary fiction. If you’re trying to be a more voracious reader, you should consider these titles as a great way to get into the many other classics I’ve discussed in the Dusting Off the Classics blog posts.
War and Peace. Before I was big on reading, I had a sorry record when it came to going through books—being a slow reader didn’t help. But even though it took me MONTHS to read, Leo Tolstoy’s masterwork about the Napoleonic Wars astounded me. Obviously, I’ve already talked a lot about this book (in this post from March), but I wanted to emphasize just how much War and Peace changed my outlook on books and reading. This was a work where historical figures like Napoleon and Russian generals could double as fictional characters, after all.
The Grapes of Wrath. I read this all the way back in the summer of 2014, so my memory of this novel by John Steinbeck aren’t perfectly clear. But I do remember The Grapes of Wrath being the first novel I’d read where there was a lot of unpacking to do. There are symbols and themes galore, and even if you don’t plan on doing that on your initial read, you get a sense of the weightiness Steinbeck adds just from the surface story of the destitute Joad family migrating from Depression-ravaged Oklahoma to the supposed paradise of California.
Animal Farm. Yes, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 gets all the attention, but I actually prefer this slim but powerful novel warning of the dangers of Stalin’s Soviet Union. I first read it in the late 2000s, then again circa 2011, and a third time in 2017. Each time I gleaned something new from this book about English farm animals creating their own self-governing society. While the narrative is meant to be an allegory, the story by itself is entertaining and disturbing. The tragic demise of Boxer the horse and the frightening transformation of Napoleon the pig will haunt my reading forever.
Olive Kitteridge. It’s just a little over ten years old, but this novel by Elizabeth Strout is cementing its status as a true classic. While reading it in February 2018, I was astonished by the bold structure Strout uses. Olive Kitteridge is like a short story collection blended with a traditional novel, and the results are like the best of both worlds: each chapter is a fresh beginning, while at the same time the overall arc of these stories features many of the same characters, including Olive Kitteridge, who witnesses a whirlwind of change sweep over her family and her hometown in Maine.
The Odyssey. Neither a novel nor even a work of literary fiction, I know, but Homer’s The Odyssey still got me intrigued on telling stories for the sake of showing how it happens instead of focusing so much on what happens. There’s a lot of repetitive language–“grey-eyed Athena” shows up so many times I lost count—and many, many, many digressions, some of which ended up being more entertaining than the main story itself. The Odyssey, of course, is the definitive journey story, where a hero finds his identity along his voyages.
Even if it’s not the most user-friendly for modern times, The Odyssey is still a crucial work to read if you want to understand pretty much the entire basis of Western literature in the centuries since it was compiled by Homer. It did, after all, serve as an important inspiration for James Joyce’s Ulysses, which Modern Library named the greatest English-language novel of the whole 21st century. That’s an impressive legacy to have!
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