A shelf in my living room with some well-loved classics

I was an English major in college and I’ve read a lot of books.  I keep a mostly updated list of what I’ve read recently here.  But still, there are so, so many books that I haven’t read and still want to read.  It’s not an overstatement to say that I feel actively anxious that I won’t have time, in my life, to read every book I want to read.  For some reason the classics still daunt me in a major way.  Do you know what I mean?  Are there classics that you still wish you’d read, perhaps, like me, wish you’d read in the context of a class, guided by someone smarter and more accomplished than you?  There’s one that stands above all others for me on this list, and that’s Frankenstein.  I’m fascinated by Mary Shelley, and I know I would love this book.  Maybe I will just finally go ahead and read it.  What’s holding me back?  I’m not sure.

But there are other books, too.  Books I wish I’d read when I regularly sat around a round mahogany table among smart, thoughtful, tired classmates, all of us being prompted to think about what we were reading.  Books I wish I’d had someone motivating me to read.  Books I even wish I had written papers on, even if I had to take a copy of that paper to a basement print lab on a hard disk to print it.  Oh, the 1990s.

The list of books I wish I’d read in college is endless.  But when I think, off the top of my head, of those volumes I most wish I had read, these are what comes to mind:

The Divine Comedy, Dante

Ulysses, Joyce

Moby Dick, Melville

The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit series, Tolkien

I was interested in what books were on the lists of others, and so I asked on Twitter and Facebook.  The answers were super interesting:

Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
Dickens – 4 votes
“all things Faulkner”- 2 votes
Jane Eyre, Bronte
the work of George Eliot
1984, Orwell
“words by Plato and Socrates”
Pride and Prejudice, Austen
Wuthering Heights, Bronte
Jules Verne
To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee
more Shakespeare – 2 votes
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey
Moby Dick, Melville
War and Peace, Tolstoy
Last of the Mohicans, Cooper

What books loom like this for you, in some should-have-could-have-wish-I-had land of regret and mystery?

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  1. Posted June 23, 2014 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Mine is definitely To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this book, and have had it on my bookshelf for more than a year now. Plain and simple, I buy too many books, burying the one I had planned to read. I’ll get to it. Eventually.


    admin Reply:

    I read To Kill a Mockingbird after college, and remember really liking it. xox

  2. Posted June 23, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Mine is 1984. I read other Orwell in various classes over the years, but for some reason never that one.

    The Divine Comedy is my all-time favorite of the books I read in school. In high school my senior year English teacher was a Dante scholar (I’m pretty sure she holds a masters degree in Dante) so we read all 3 volumes in her famous “100 Days of Dante,” and I loved it so much that I read it again my junior year of college in a class entirely devoted to Dante.

    admin Reply:

    I need to read it!!!

  3. Kirsten
    Posted June 23, 2014 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Middlemarch is mine. In my deep heart I don’t feel like a “real” English major because I never really got George Eliot.

    admin Reply:

    Middlemarch is so good!

  4. Posted June 23, 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Somehow I went through my English major without reading much James Joyce. I always have a huge list of books for “someday”- what was fun asy daughter went through high school was re-reading the classics alongside her. Maybe I should do that now that she’s in college, too! And yes- you should read Frankenstein. Absolutely an amazing book so full of symbolism and it will make you think about life and femininity in a whole new way- Mary Shelley = amazing. Maybe we should start an online book group to read classics only!

    admin Reply:

    I would love that! Though all the same issues with actually READING these things (there are SO MANY things I want to read!) apply. Joyce is a big one for me, too. I love reading alongside Grace and often do that now – I hadn’t considered that that can continue as she grows up and reads more of the classic books in high school.

  5. Posted June 23, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I am wondering how much my inability to read classics now is about age/season of life and how much is about the way reading has changed for me. I’m looking at the lists here and realize that many of these titles became favorites for me even before high school (Brontes, Lee, Orwell, Shakespeare, especially), but a few years ago when I picked up Jane Eyre again for the first time in years, it didn’t captivate me the way it once did. So much description. So little action. Such dense language. Is it just that I don’t have the kind of time I once had to lose myself in such ways with words? Or is it that I’ve become so used to reading different kinds of language (yes, I’m looking at you Internets) that my brain is no longer suited to the classics?

    admin Reply:

    I think you might be onto something major… both that we don’t have as much time and mental energy but also that we’ve grown accustomed to a certain kind of writing (and reading). xox

  6. Posted June 23, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Oh, what a great post Lindsey, and I love all the comments! As a former English major myself, I have a whole list of classic book guilt 🙂 that I wish I had read and/or plan to read in the future.

    If I remember correctly, Frankenstein was surprisingly accessible. I say that as an English major who was sometimes (um, or a lot of times) intimidated by Great and Very Important Literature.

    I loved, loved 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird (both rather accessible, too, I think) but I never read Faulkner (!) despite my good friend proclaiming his genius for years (along with a bazillion other people), but for some reason I could not get past page one. Also, I haven’t read any of George Elliot’s novels yet (hilarious and embarrassing moment in my Women’s studies class when I secretly wondered why we were reading a man, ha!) but Middlemarch is also on my list.

    admin Reply:

    I think Faulkner is not at all accessible … no? (great word). I have found him impenetrable and consider him to loom large in the category of Books I Am Not Smart Enough to Understand. I love George Eliot, actually!

  7. Posted June 23, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    I love this idea. Please start an online book club for the classics. You can count me in. And thank you for making me anxious about not reading all the books I want to read in my lifetime.

    admin Reply:

    I would love that. Though I am far from equipped or qualified to do that!

  8. Posted June 23, 2014 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    I was not an English major so many of those are on my “should have read” list as well. I also never read 1984. How did that happen!? It’s referenced so often!

    admin Reply:

    What did you major in?
    1984 – wonderful! (and short!)

  9. Lindsay
    Posted June 23, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Somehow I made it through my English degree without reading much Milton. I wish I could take a class on “Paradise Lost.”

    I also really miss discussing books with a class. At the risk of sounding elitist, even if I read the same books as my non-English-major friends, I miss being able to discuss it at a more critical level.

    admin Reply:

    I remember writing a paper on how Eve is the true heroine of Paradise Lost. How college is that! But I hear you on missing a certain kind of critical discourse … loud and clear. xo

  10. Posted June 24, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

    I love your description of your bookshelf, Lindsey and looking at some of the titles with anxiety about not reading them. I don’t know what prompted me, but I finally read Moby Dick last year and found it more than worth the effort, even in my glacially slow reading pace. Nothing else like it, a story, a history, a catalog of knowledge and which time and time again provides existential shock, cuts deep. What strikes me more is what I know I haven’t read is probably tiny compared to what I don’t know I haven’t read. Thanks for a thoughtful and memory provoking post.

    admin Reply:

    Oh, I’m so glad that Moby Dick was so wonderful – I love when things we’ve held up as icons actually live up to that, you know? And you’re right … the huge universe of books we don’t even know we’re missing – incomprehensibly big.

  11. Posted June 24, 2014 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    My secret shame is that I have never read Proust.

    admin Reply:

    I share your shame.

  12. Posted June 24, 2014 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Fellow English major here with lots of book shame for the things I haven’t read and the not enough time anxiety. This list got me thinking of making a list of all the good books I read back in the day. It helps me feel better than thinking of the ones that got away.:)

    admin Reply:

    I think that is a GREAT way of flipping it around and I ought to do that!

  13. Mj
    Posted June 24, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    All my best reading seemed to come after college, Ivan Doig, Wallace Stegner, Ayn Rand, Joan Didion… (did I spell those right?, are any of those classic authors?) Or perhaps it was having more life experience that made me appreciate/relate to literature better..I was not an English major though..

  14. Posted July 17, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    I love that you admit this because I fall into the same exact position. I loved my literature classes in college so much. I loved how even the most daunting of texts could come alive in the context of a discussion. I loved the questions that helped me dig deeper into the text. I loved being guided.

    And now when I look at my shelves that are filled with classics that I hope to one day read, I get daunted. I don’t dig in to them because something fluffy and light seems more comforting.

    Sometimes the even scarier part is that I’m a high school English teacher. The gap in my knowledge of classics sometimes means I have to teach books I haven’t read. I’m never alone in this feat but it is still SO INCREDIBLY SCARY! And yet, I did it last year and I survived. I learned so much!

    If you’re interested, I would love to perhaps put together some sort of classics read along? Maybe we could help guid each other into a classic?

    Also, I have actually read Frankenstein a couple times. I even co-taught it when I was student teaching. It’s a beautiful and haunting book. You would absolutely love it!

    admin Reply:

    I would love to do that! Worried I can’t keep up though … but your recommendation of Frankenstein convinces me every further. How cool that you are a high school English teacher. That’s awesome. Lucky students!! xox