Classic English literature
May 10, 2009 7:51 PM   Subscribe

Help me find classic English literature!

As a non-native English speaker, I started using English in my day-to-day business only after the age of 22. Now I am 30, and working in the US in the profession where I have to deal with a whole lot of scientific writing in English. Since I started so late, I almost bypassed developing my skills as a student of English language itself. As a consequence, I have no clue whatsoever as to what are the highly recommended / must read classic English literature works.

I realize that in all probability, reading classic literature may not directly contribute to enhancing my reading/writing skills---though I am inclined to believe in a more indirect influence. The work that I have read and that comes closest to the classics is J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the rye.

Thanks in advance to the hivemind.
posted by coolnik to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The Modern Library has a 100 Best Novels list, just as a reference. (Ignore the reader-selected list; it appears to have been cobbled together by a bunch of objectivist monkeys.)

I'd suggest Nabokov, to start. There is no more beautiful stylist in the English language, in my opinion, and he's especially inspirational as a non-native speaker himself.

I guess I'm sort of obligated to suggest Trollope, too.
posted by palliser at 8:02 PM on May 10, 2009

Catcher In The Rye is one of my favorite books, but it depends on what you mean by "classic". The true classics are supposed to be books like Moby Dick and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I wouldn't recommend those books though because they are dry even for native speakers.

If you really want to get a good feeling for american accents and dialects, I think Mark Twain would be a good place to start. Huckleberry Finn is excellent, as are many of his essays. I also love John Steinbeck and would definitely recommend Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, East of Eden, or most any of his others.
posted by crapples at 8:04 PM on May 10, 2009

If your only requirements are that the book be (1) "classic" (= good??) and (2) written in English, then you'll have a pretty long list of possibilities, I think. Could you narrow it down at all? Are you looking for only fiction, or also poetry, drama, essays, etc.? What about your language skills are you looking to improve-- vocabulary? fluency? "flow"? Would literature with a technical or scientific bent be especially desirable given your profession? Some specifics might help us help you here.

That said, Samuel Johnson specifically recommended reading Addison for those looking to develop a graceful, easy prose style-- and since Johnson was incontrovertibly a man who knew his way around the English language, I think it's hard to top that advice.
posted by Bardolph at 8:23 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for "classics" in the sense of books everyone has [had to] read in high school, the following come to mind (in no particular order): The Great Gatsby, The Collector, Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath, The Scarlet Letter, Fahrenheit 451, various works by Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe.
posted by asras at 8:34 PM on May 10, 2009

I agree with crapples -- as a former English lit major I can say that while much of the literary canon is interesting, and beautiful in its own right, I cannot think of almost anything written before the late 19th century that would be a good direct influence on speaking and writing artful contemporary English.

Along with Twain, "classic" authors from the modern period whose prose I find both beautiful and believable (in the sense of verisimilitude with real-world spoken English) would include Willa Cather (My Antonia), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Alan Sillitoe (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner). That list skews American -- I'm sure there are plenty of authors from other parts of the English-speaking world who deserve to be on it too, of whom I am ignorant.

If you want virtuosity -- prose style that shows you just how elegant, elaborate, or flashy the English language can be, although you'd never for a moment imagine real-life people speaking like this spontaneously, I'm with palliser that Nabokov is the gold standard -- I'd try Pnin first, then Lolita and Pale Fire. James Joyce is the other towering figure from (roughly) this period. The Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are the most accessible points of entry here. Ulysses is probably his most "important" work, for whatever that's worth.
posted by dr. boludo at 8:40 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


_Old Man and the Sea_, _A Farewell to Arms_, _The Sun Also Rises_, to name a few.

Also, i think everyone living in America should read _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_ at some point in their lives.
posted by chicago2penn at 9:07 PM on May 10, 2009

If you're just interesting in finding out what books are considered classics, just google classic books and lots of links will come up. This one seems like a decent list to me, I read quite a lot of those in school.

From the list I linked to, some books I've read and liked are (in alphabetical order) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies, Native Son, 1984, Pride and Prejudice (hard to get started, but worth it), The Scarlet Letter, and To Kill A Mockingbird (love that book).

I like the lists palliser linked to. I've actually read quite a few of them too, and there's a fair amount of overlap with the list I linked to. The reader's list is oddly slanted towards sci-fi, but I do love Ender's Game and Stranger In a Strange Land - not really sure if they'd be considered classics, though.

Some of my favorite Shakespeare plays are Midsummer Night's Dream (one of the easier ones to read), Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III.

I loathe Charles Dickens.

I'm not sure if this counts as a classic, but I can't recommend The Poisonwood Bible highly enough.
posted by insectosaurus at 9:19 PM on May 10, 2009

I had a Russian linguistics professor in college who claimed to have taught himself English by reading Tristram Shandy.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:01 PM on May 10, 2009

James Joyce's Dubliners and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness are easily two of the most accessible, elegant, and profound works of early 20th century English lit in existence -- two of my favorite books of all-time, and two of the books I have unfailingly recommended for 20+ years. (You might also get an additional kick out of reading Conrad, as English was actually his third language; Polish was his native language, and French was his second.)
posted by scody at 11:20 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger are easy to read. Also Ray Bradbury. I'd add HG. Wells, Orwell, RL. Stevenson, Mark Twain. Oscar Wilde is surprisingly easy to read, his short stories, The Picture of Dorian Gray, any of his prose really. Henry James. Harder, yet worth the effort Faulkner, Conrad (get a taste with Heart of Darkness or The Secret Agent, it's shorter than Lord Jim or Nostromo). And Shakespeare is not as difficult to understand as it seems, once you get used to it, say after 2 or 3 plays.
posted by varoa at 2:55 AM on May 11, 2009

I realize there is a lot to pick and choose from, but I am inclined more towards fiction, non-fiction and essays, and less towards dramas and poetry. I am looking to develop my skills, specifically, fluency, flow or just plain readability. The works with scientific or technical bent would be welcome, but I cannot think of any. Thanks!
posted by coolnik at 7:31 AM on May 11, 2009

The BBC's top 100 books , because it was voted for by the public has a nice mix of old and new, popular and classic to get you started.

There are children's book on there as well as adult books, just to warn you - in case you end up picking on at random and finding it's Winnie the Pooh, complete with pictures! Though the Winnie the Pooh books are great, they might get you odd looks if you're reading them on the bus.

If you're interested in science, perhaps science fiction? Anything republished under the SF Masterworks banner would be a good start.

You may gather from my recommendations that I'm not a literature purist; I believe that good fiction can and really should be readable. And that "self indulgent wanker" is a better description for James Joyce than "genius" (Nabokov though, yeah, he's good).
posted by Coobeastie at 8:38 AM on May 11, 2009

I am a big fan of classics lists -- I use them to inspire my reading. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. The Stanford English PhD qualifying exam list contains only works originally written in the English language, broken down neatly by time period and type (poetry, fiction, essay, and drama). This list might be the best one for your purposes. In order to use this list, you really need a full set of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and Norton Anthology of English Literature (NB: working through these books is a good way to get a really solid grounding in the English-language classics). The books are an investment, but you can get them used. I've found the best prices on used Norton Anthologies in a university bookstore around textbook-buying time.

2. The Harvard Classics were selected in the early 1900s to be a "great storehouse of standard works in all the main departments of intellectual activity." Most (though not all) of these selections are originally written in English, and they are all easily accessible online.

3. The St. John's College reading list is amazing and wonderful. Although not all of these books are originally written in English, they are nonetheless classics of English literature. Many (if not most) of these are available online.

Good luck and have fun!
posted by ourobouros at 8:54 AM on May 11, 2009

Sorry -- I meant to say you need the Norton Anthology of English Lit and the Norton Anthology of American Lit. They're pricey but well worth the investment!
posted by ourobouros at 8:56 AM on May 11, 2009

A technical bent: All I could think of was Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. For essays, I really liked DF Wallace, Consider the Lobster.
posted by yoHighness at 7:43 PM on May 12, 2009

I am actually reading the "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" right now. I think it is pretty good, thought long-winded sometimes.
posted by coolnik at 8:23 AM on May 13, 2009

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