The Classics Club: A Book a Month
But, somehow, when December rolls around, the only books you can check off your list are your child’s middle-school summer vacation reading and the trashy romance novel you found in a hotel lobby. So this year (starting at any point in the year), consider taking on the challenge of reading one classical literary work a month.
This guide will keep you focused, with a book each month suitable for the season. And depending on editions, each is in the range of 200–500 pages (with the exception of September/October), as opposed to some of the more massive tomes that are just too daunting to start. Soon, while sitting on the beach, it will be just as easy to reach for one of these novels as to grab People magazine.
Read on to begin your revived romance with the classics of English and American literature.
1. January: The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck.
Begin the year with Steinbeck’s last novel, a story of class struggle in working-class urban America in the 1960s. This novel is acclaimed as Steinbeck’s return to the social issues he so fervently addressed in his earliest works such as The Grapes of Wrath. In particular, it addresses a moral decay that Steinbeck finds in American culture in the mid twentieth century. The grimness of this subject matches the bleakness of winter, particularly January’s shortest days.
2. February: Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Curl up by the fireplace with this timeless memoir on solitude in nature. Cold winter days and long winter nights provide the perfect atmosphere for contemplating the wisdom gained from reading and the sensory experiences of solitude, self-reliance, and the progress of seasons and time, all themes that Thoreau addressed. The language of this book is archaic, technical, and complex, so take it a chapter at a time, perhaps digesting each one with an aperitif after dinner. But prepare to be rewarded by the philosophical inquiry it provides.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
The only novel Plath ever wrote, this is the grim, psychological, first-person story of the young Esther Greenwood battling depression in New York City. Often considered a roman à clef for its privileged view into Plath’s own struggles with mental illness, this story illuminates the isolated existence of one young woman living alone with the weight of her own mind. Perhaps mud season in March best mirrors the gloom Esther experiences by herself in the city; her feeling of trapped incapacitation may even put feelings of winter blues into perspective. No matter when or where you read this novel, prepare to be shaken by Plath’s uncanny and all too real portrayal of one woman’s numbness to the world and to her own emotions.
4. April: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.
If any month represents the age of innocence, it must be April, the gateway to spring. With this novel, Edith Wharton was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, earning that award in 1921. The story subtly critiques the elite of New York’s Gilded Age in the 1870s, with themes that focus on the tension between the old and the new in all arenas of American life. The novel is particularly suitable for April as the season nicely evokes the feeling of an interface between the decline of one era and the dawn of a new one. Edith Wharton’s work in this novel evokes feelings from her childhood, when the older structure of social class and tradition in New York City was being replaced by a new, self-made elite and patterns of technological innovation and globalization. Enjoy this work as an epitome of American springtime.
May: This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This it the
underrated precursor to The Great Gatsby and
also arguably the more profound in its conclusion. The early chapters of the
book may feel stiff in their delivery of context, but push through to the
rewarding subtleties of character and sociological dilemmas that Fitzgerald
delivers in later chapters. It is perhaps not as instantaneously gratifying as
the better-known Gatsby, but its
resolution (perhaps better termed its non-resolution) will hit you like a
truck. “I know myself, and that is all,” the disillusioned protagonist states on
the last page. Read the novel to find out what sort of learning (at Princeton)
and unlearning it took the character to arrive at such a state of
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
As the season flows
into longer days and more light, open your mind to enlightened thinking and
contemplative thought as found particularly in Woolf’s works. Let this
modernist novel guide you through a world of philosophical introspection. It is
a novel that places its subject—and its reader—on the brink between childhood
and adulthood. You might even think of its literary devices as a metaphor for
summer: The novel bids farewell to omniscient narration and opts for shifting
perspectives and a freer flow of ideas and narration. Especially if you are a
student, enjoy this model as the start to a summer free from authoritative
dictation, reveling instead in the freedom and liberality of one’s own mind. Although
the premise of the book is the Ramsay family’s holidays on the Isle of Skye in
Scotland, its psychology is more exciting than the plot.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William
This play is nearly as readable as a novel. It’s a comedy relating
the story of two pairs of distressed lovers tossed into a forest fairyland one
summer’s evening. The chaos, drama, and lust that ensue have delighted
audiences since the play was written and (likely) first performed in 1595 or
1596. It is a completely ridiculous story involving love potions and a
transfiguration into a donkey, yet simultaneously hits close to home with veins
of unrequited passion and petty arguments with loved ones. The play within the
play in the final act reminds us that all the world’s a stage, and we men and
women are mere players.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
emotional novella in the heat of summer, its proper setting. This story follows
two migrant workers, Lennie and George, as they trek across Dust Bowl America
in search of employment. Interestingly, the book’s themes of migration and the
“other,” rural populism, economic hardship, and compassion ring particularly
true now, 80 years after the work was first published. Of Mice and Men is short and poignant; expect an intense dose of
August heat, masculine tension, and gut-wrenching pity all bottled up in one
small volume. You’ll want to have tissues on hand for this book, whose lesson
is captured in the Robert Burns’ quotation that gives it its title: “The best
laid schemes of mice and men/ Go often awry.” Steinbeck’s story and prose will
leave you hungering for the justice he fails to deliver to so many of his
Cider House Rules by John Irving.
Since apple season and
fall foliage span at least two months, this is the exception to the one-a-month
list. You’ll want two months of long autumn days in New England to digest this
delicious work. Indeed, Irving has
said that a novel does better to grip the reader after 300 pages rather
than after 30. This is the story of Homer Wells, an orphan in Maine who finds
himself living and working in a New England apple orchard. Set in the clutches
of World War II, the climax of the story is fraught with issues of race,
misogyny, prejudice, incest, and blind loyalty. With the austere beauty of
traditional New England as the backdrop, the novel captures the friction
between the timelessness of love and an increasingly disordered modern world,
especially one stricken by an international “war to end all wars.”
Old School by Tobias Wolff.
This more contemporary novel, first published in
2003 after appearing serially in the New
Yorker as a series of short stories, has quickly become an American classic
for both its style and content. It runs in the vein of coming-of-age novels such
as To Kill a Mockingbird and particularly
Catcher in the Rye. The novel reveals
the dark underbelly of idyllic, prep-school life in the Northeastern United
States. It semi-autobiographically follows the experience of one teenage boy in
a boarding school, the cultural fabric of which is comprised of cutthroat competition,
stiff class hierarchy, and immovable structures of morality and honor. Enjoy
this book over Thanksgiving break; you’ll certainly be able to finish it in one
week, and its nostalgia for Old New England is well suited to the early
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
Strictly a novella, this lovely story is a good one to read aloud to the family around the fireplace during the holiday. Try reading a chapter each night; you might find that sharing this story or other holiday stories about the spirit of Christmas becomes a perennial tradition. At once a story about love, society, economy, individuality, charity, and family, Dickens is truly the writer of Victorian-era London. In fact, this book was critical to defining the Christmas holiday in Great Britain. Immediately popular even upon the date of its publication in December of 1843, A Christmas Carol has been a best seller for many generations.
What’s your favorite classic? Let us know in the comments!