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The Classics Club: A Book a Month

Apr 26, 2017 12:31PM ● By Victoria Pipas
We all know the routine. In January, you declare that this will be the year you tackle War and Peace and finally get around to finishing East of Eden from high school English class. Or you’ll make yourself start the real Anna Karenina before watching the film version for the thirteenth time.

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.


3.      March: 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.

5.      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 self-knowledge.

6.      June: 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.

7.      July: A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.

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. 

8.      August: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.

Enjoy this 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 pitiable characters.

9.      September/October: 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.”  

10.  November: 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 American holiday.

11.  December: 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!

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