WHAT: A Southern writer known for her short stories, novels, essays, and literary criticism. She was a devout Catholic who suffered from lupus.
WHEN: Born March 25, 1925; died of lupus on August 3, 1964
WHERE: Born in Savannah, Georgia; died in Milledgeville, Georgia
WHY SHE MATTERS: O’Connor has a fiction style that’s all her own. She blends the spiritual and the grotesque, the comic and the tragic, moments of grace and moments of violence. Her work still provokes passionate conversations and shocks with its surprising twists. Her nonfiction writing is full of humor, vulnerability, and spiritual insights.
Back in October, I wrote a post about classic books I didn’t finish. In today’s post, I want to talk about books I did finish, books I think are so good they should be considered classics someday.
First, it might be helpful to identify what I mean by a classic. I like the famous definition from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I think of a classic book as being a title that’s widely read and discussed decades after its publication. It’s a book that has endured because of a specific reason, whether that’s a timeless story, a profound message, the exploration of universal truth, an in-depth look at culture, or clever writing. The books I’m sharing today have that something special that will allow them to endure. Keep reading to see if you agree.
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward Published: 2017
I remember finishing this book and being stunned by it. I read it all in one day was tempted to start all over again after I read the last words. This novel explores a lot of different things, but what stands out to me is how Ward addresses addiction and sibling love. Jojo shows such tenderness and kindness toward his little sister, and it’s those moments that shine so brightly in a dark story. Leoni, Jojo’s mother, cannot provide what her daughter needs due to her addiction, so Jojo picks up the slack. I appreciate how Ward shows the different roles family members can take on when necessary and how addiction affects everyone in the addict’s orbit.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara Published: 2015
I can’t think of another novel that affected me quite as profoundly as A Little Life. Before I started this book, I kept seeing the word “heartbreaking” in just about every review. That’s for a good reason: it is indeed heartbreaking, and it’s not a story for everyone. If you’re a sensitive reader, this is probably not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a story about friendship and surviving trauma, there is much to appreciate here. Jude’s story is bleak and full of tragedy, yet Yanagihara shows how sometimes the smallest things can keep a person going. It took me a few days after finishing this book to get over it. Once you meet Jude, you won’t forget him.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Published: 2003
It’s easy to see why this book won a Pulitzer prize. It’s epic in scope, beautifully written, and wholly original. I haven’t read anything else quite like Middlesex. Cal’s story and that of her family are fascinating from beginning to end. This book is over 500 pages, yet I finished it in less than a week. Not only is it a masterful story, but it’s highly readable and engaging.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson Published: 2004
When I read fiction, I don’t tend to underline passages very often. Open my copy of Gilead, though, and you’ll see page after page bearing my uneven scrawl. I mentioned this novel in my post about Christian faith in mainstream fiction, and if you read that, you’ll know part of the reason why I appreciate this book so much is because Robinson handles Ames’s faith with honesty and nuance. Readers can learn a lot from this novel, yet it’s never preachy. Rev. Ames is a character who has stayed with me, and I bet he’ll stay with you, too.
Columbine by Dave Cullen Published: 2009
I was in middle school when the Columbine tragedy occurred, and was equally horrified and fascinated. School shootings had happened before, but never at that scope. It’s easy for us to watch the news and think we know precisely why these shootings occurred, but in this book, Dave Cullen challenges every assumption and presents facts that can’t be denied. It’s hard to read, yet is an essential book if we’re hoping to understand more about what turns a kid into a killer.
So what do you think? Do you agree with any of my additions to the canon? What books do you think should be added?
As an undergrad student majoring in English, the one question I got all the time was, “So you’re going to teach?” My answer always has and always will be “no.” Teachers are amazing, but teaching isn’t my calling. If I taught, the students and I would both be crying a lot, and I find it best to avoid mass crying.
Though I don’t use my degree to teach, it’s come in handy a time or two over the years. Today I want to share the three most important lessons I learned while getting my degree and how I’ve put them to use.
I LEARNED HOW TO REALLY READ.
I’ve always been an avid reader, but it wasn’t until college that I learned how to read through various lenses. Whenever I read anything before, I read it through the lens of a white, middle-class millennial. But in college, I learned how to read through the lens of the Victorians, the Romantics, and the audiences who witnessed Shakespeare’s plays. As I earned my degree, I learned that when I read, I need to think about context, such as:
What time period was this written in? Who was the original audience? What would stand out to them that can inform my opinion today?
That knowledge has been incredibly beneficial and opened up texts to me in whole new ways.
I LEARNED THERE’S A REASON WHY SO MUCH CLASSIC LITERATURE IS REVERED, EVEN IF I DON’T LOVE IT.
Reading Moby-Dick wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but I’m glad I read it. Melville’s story of an obsessed man going on an epic quest is a timeless story about longing and revenge. I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, but it’s astounding to me that people are still analyzing and enjoying his words even now. His use of language amazes me. I might not pick up Paradise Lost or The Scarlet Letter for light weekend reading, but those stories tell us something profound about humanity, sin, and judgment. I didn’t love all the reading I was assigned in school, but I did discover books like The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I also encountered contemporary works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Good fiction always tells the truth, and those books tell it beautifully. Even though I didn’t like every text I was assigned in school, I’m better for having read them, and I was exposed to some great writers along the way.
I LEARNED WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A FEMINIST AND THAT I AM ONE.
In my last semester of college, I took two classes that paired perfectly. One was an English class teaching the theory and fiction of the women’s movement thus far, and the other was a sociology class about gender. I went into those classes pretty neutral about feminism. It wasn’t a word I used to identify myself, but if someone else used it, that was just fine with me. I couldn’t have given you a good definition of the term at all until I read the passionate words of Audre Lorde, Naomi Wolf, and others like them. I didn’t fully understand how hard women had to fight to vote or to buy a house on their own. I couldn’t have explained why feminism is so important before I watched a documentary in my sociology class about how women are objectified. I knew that was true, of course, but it wasn’t until I saw scenes of women allowing members of a rock band to throw pieces of deli meat onto their skin to see if it would stick that I realized just how little women’s lives matter to people who only see them as entertainment. Learning about how the world has mistreated women and how so many have fought back shaped me in ways that I’m still uncovering.
What are the important things you learned in school? I’d love to hear them!
I’ve been an avid reader since birth (well, almost.) I know I read more than the average person. I have an English degree that required me to study everything from Beowulf to Zadie Smith. If there was an Olympics for reading, I might not be Michael Phelps, but I’d like to think I’d at least get a bronze medal or two.
In spite of my self-bestowed status as an Olympian reader, there are many classics that I have tried and failed to read. Today I want to share five of them and briefly explain why they weren’t for me. Keep reading and behold my literary failures.
Ulysses by James Joyce
Bless my precious heart for thinking this book couldn’t possibly be as daunting as people said. (It is.) Goodreads says this book is “a major achievement in 20th-century literature.” Even so, it’s just not for me. I admire Joyce’s creativity, risk-taking, and lasting contribution to literature, but I think I only made it ten pages before closing the book and putting it back on the shelf.
One of my college classmates did read Ulysses in its entirety. I still remember him and think in a Chris Traeger voice, “Way to go, buddy. Way to go.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I’ve always liked going to antique stores, even as a kid. When I was in middle school, I was in an antique store with my parents and found a beautiful copy of Pride and Prejudice. I decided to get it and read it. I did get it, but read it? Not so much. I tried, though. I’ve picked up this book at least five times and wanted to read it, but I just can’t make myself finish it. I can’t get into it at all. That didn’t stop me from buying another copy of it, though. I had to have the A in the Drops Caps collection. I tried reading that edition, thinking my brain might be tricked by the new cover, but no. I still can’t do it. Kathleen Kelly would be so disappointed in me.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
If you weren’t upset enough that I don’t like Pride and Prejudice, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I don’t like Little Women, either. I made it about 100 pages into this book (which is way farther than I’ve ever made it in P & P) but I lost interest and couldn’t make myself finish it. I own a beautiful edition of this book, so I keep it around for its looks, but I’m just not into its personality. Sorry, Louisa.
Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding
To earn my English degree, I had to take and pass a comprehensive exam. The reading list was lengthy, including novels, poems, plays, and stories. I honestly don’t remember much that was on the list, but I remember this book. I am an avid rule-follower, so I did my assigned reading. I wasn’t the student who would just use SparkNotes and hope for the best. But as I read Joseph Andrews, I actually said out loud, “I hate you, book.” I briefly turned into a rebel and didn’t finish the book, but I passed the exam anyway. Joseph and I were never meant to be.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
I hear Middlemarch come up all the time in people’s lists of favorite books, so it’s the only title on my list that I want to try again someday. I read quite a bit of this one and was really into it when I first started, but I lost interest around the halfway point. I’m not quite sure why, but I just didn’t care enough to go another 400 or so pages. Maybe the timing was wrong. I promise I’ll come back to you someday, George Eliot.
What are the classics that haunt you? What are the ones you just couldn’t force yourself to finish?