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So you want to read the classics

Great books you can read in quarantine, organized by level of difficulty.

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“Anna Maria Schutz, Lady Griffin,” circa 1758-circa 1764. Painting in Audley End House, Saffron Walden, Essex. Artist Benjamin West.
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If you are the kind of person who likes to embark upon a project in times of stress, there are worse choices during quarantine than trying to read your way through a bunch of the classic great books. Reading a book can take you out of yourself and your situation for a while, and nourish your mind in a way that more passive entertainment might not. Plus, finishing a book you’ve always meant to read but never quite got around to will give you a warm glow of virtue.

(It’s also absolutely fine to decide not to do anything productive right now. It’s a global emergency! Do whatever you have to do to get by! This article is just for people who respond to anxiety by giving themselves homework.)

But if your only plan is to read books you vaguely understand to be classics, the idea of starting can be overwhelming. Where to begin? How much work are you committing to? Do you even have the attention span to read right now? So I’m here to offer you a strategy.

I’ve organized some of the go-to great books into a few different categories, based on how much work they’re asking of you. Decide what level of concentration you’re ready to commit to right now, and then work from there.

Books for when you want something familiar and accessible

If you want a classic that you can probably finish in about a day and still be able to get plenty out of, turn to the high school reading list staples: They won’t be very long or very dense, and plenty of them are damn good books. 1984, The Red Badge of Courage, and Their Eyes Were Watching God are all decent options here, but for my money, your best bet in this category is The Great Gatsby.

Reading Gatsby is like drinking a mint julep (“A crazy idea!”) and feeling it brace and refresh you as you swallow it down in long, lazy gulps. In terms of the effort-to-payoff ratio, there’s a lot of bang for your buck with this one. If you got through high school without reading it, now’s your chance. If you haven’t read it since high school, now’s the time to refresh your memory.

“Girl with a Candle,” late 17th or early 18th century. Found in the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
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Books for when you want something a tiny bit less familiar but still plenty accessible

If you want a classic that’s straightforward enough to soothe your mind but won’t also give you flashbacks to 10th grade English, a reliable move is to turn to a canonical author, but choose one of the books that’s lighter than the one they’re famous for.

A Passage to India is how many of us first made acquaintance with E.M. Forster in the 11th grade, but maybe now is the time to read Maurice, the sweet and dreamy queer love story Forster wrote and never dared to publish within his own lifetime. (Bonus: This one got made into a very beautiful Merchant Ivory film in which a young Hugh Grant grows a villainous mustache as soon as he turns his back on his relationship with another man and gets married to a woman. But there’s a happy ending.)

Or try some Virginia Woolf! Woolf wrote plenty of challenging modernist fiction, some of which will show up later on this list, but she also wrote Orlando, which is a romp. Just go in knowing that the hero is immortal and will periodically change gender for no apparent reason, and you will be absolutely fine. Orlando reads like you’re eating a dish of raspberry sorbet.

If you’re out of practice reading denser books, the prose in these books might be challenging. That’s okay! You can practice!

There’s always a period of mental adjustment when you switch from 20th/21st-century mainstream American literary prose, with its clean, sparse lines, to a book where the language is thicker and more baroque. I have bookworm friends who don’t like picking up any books written before 1920 because they find that transition taxing, but personally, I like to leave contemporary good taste behind every now and then. I love a sentence so rich you can wrap yourself up in it like it’s a big velvet robe.

Still, if you are most used to reading books from a literary tradition that models itself after Hemingway’s voice, the mental adjustment that comes with reading other styles might take a while. Give it time. Schedule yourself an uninterrupted period where you will do nothing but read — it doesn’t have to be long, even 20 minutes or so will do the trick — and let yourself relax into the language. Don’t look at your phone. Some people tell you to keep a dictionary next to you, but I find it counterproductive to pick one up every time I come across a new word. Just keep reading. You’re smart; you’ll get the gist from context. And see how the language takes you once you’re used to it.

If you want to read back in time, to ease your way into the transition, start with Jane Austen. Her language is very precise and specific and unornamented in a way that will help you learn how to read her era, and it’s likely that you’re familiar with the beats of most of her stories already, which will help you keep track of what’s happening. Plus, it’s hard for anyone to resist the charm offensive of Pride and Prejudice.

Just keep reminding yourself as you read that Austen is writing social satires, not just love stories, and assume that if something strikes you as inexplicably offensive, it is probably Austen being funny. (That advice goes out to the multiple young men of my acquaintance who have long proclaimed they could not possibly read an author who believed that any man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Learn to take a joke, boys!)

Once you’ve got your feet under you enough to read Austen, you can make your way toward the rest of the 19th-century canon. Skip forward a few decades to the Victorians and try the Brontës or Mary Shelley or Thomas Hardy or Henry James, or move all the way into the early 20th century and try Edith Wharton or Evelyn Waugh.

If you want to veer away from English-language authors and work your way into reading foreign classics in translation, the move is probably to sample some Gabriel García Márquez. Pick up One Hundred Years of Solitude in the Gregory Rabassa translation, which Márquez declared to be better than his original text, and let yourself get tangled up in the sentences and all the different generations with the same names. Not knowing what’s happening at any given point is half the fun.

From there, may I suggest shaking things up with a little Clarice Lispector? She’s not widely read, and she should be.

“A Young Man Reading by Candlelight,” circa 1630. Found in the Collection of Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
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When you want something long but easy

People always talk about War and Peace as though it’s the pinnacle of difficulty, but honestly, it’s a pretty easy and fun read; it’s just long. Roll your eyes if you must, but I would never lie to you about something as serious as textual difficulty: War and Peace is absolutely approachable and absorbing and lovely, and for long stretches at a time, it is just about who this really pretty girl should marry, a.k.a. the best plot.

Also in the long-but-easy category are such notables as Bleak House, Middlemarch, and Vanity Fair. You might feel intimidated by the number of pages, but I promise you that if you can read other 19th-century literature, these books are all well within your capabilities as a reader.

The big difficulty with 1,000-page-plus books is finding ways to keep track of all of the characters, many of whom have multiple names just to keep things interesting. You might be tempted to have Wikipedia and one of its helpful character lists pulled up on your phone next to you as you read to help you keep everything straight, but I’d recommend against that — it’s too easy to open up a social media app and get sucked in every time you turn to the phone to look up a character name, and that way lies chaos. Books this long are only fun if you let yourself get fully lost in them every time you sit down to read.

If you find yourself getting frustrated and confused as you read, the best move is to create your own character list. If you’re the kind of reader who likes scribbling in the margins of your book, try drawing a square around the name of each character the very first time they’re introduced, and then maybe note in the margin if they go by other names. You’ll be able to flip back easily every time you lose track and see who’s who.

If you are the kind of reader who cannot abide marginalia, keep a notebook or a pad of paper next to you and jot down the names of each character as you go, with a note about nicknames and who is related to whom. It’s annoying at the beginning, but it will pay off later when you’re trying to remember whether or not Nikolai is related to Natasha (yes! he is her brother).

When you’re feeling ambitious

Unlike War and Peace, Moby-Dick is a long book and also kind of a hard read. It’s not a straightforward linear narrative; there are scenes that are written as play scripts and chapters that are just Ishmael telling you various properties of whales. This stuff is actually pretty fun once you get into it, but I’m not going to sit here like an asshole and tell you it’s easy and accessible.

At a similar level of difficulty are books like Mrs. Dalloway or The Tale of Genji. You can absolutely get through them, and they will reward the effort, but know going in that there will be a bit of effort required.

There’s no real secret to reading a book like this. Just block off a chunk of time long enough that you’ll be able to focus fully on the pages, and treat any confusion or disorientation as part of the process. Don’t put pressure on yourself to read too quickly; just linger and savor as you go. No one is grading you on your speed reading, I promise.

Books that might make you call for backup

If you want to really push your reading habits while you’re in quarantine, then, my friend, look no further than the high modernists.

Now is the time for The Waves! Now is the time for Ulysses! Now is the time for formal prose experiments that you’re not totally sure you’ll ever fully grasp but want to read anyway, just to see if you can!

These are tricky books, and there are a lot of resources out there to help you. You can find annotated editions of most of the modernist classics (Don Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses is the standard). Even if you don’t have an annotated edition, your copy should have an introduction that will give you a loose framework for reading: Make use of it. Moral support is also your friend here. Consider organizing a reading group so that you can at least feel that you are being confused with other people.

“Little Red Haired Girl.” Private Collection.
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Remember that the whole concept of “the classics” is made up

I’ve spent this whole article talking about “the classics” as though we all agree on what they are, but the truth is that there is no definitive and objective list of classics. Books don’t get canonized like saints do, after documented miracles — they get canonized by accident, after enough powerful people agree that they are good. And for a long time, those powerful people were exclusively white men.

It’s often useful to be familiar with those books because they are part of our shared culture, and they can help you make sense of the many other works that reference them. But they are not the only old good books in the world.

I like all the books I’ve talked about in this article. But because I’m drawing from a canon largely invented by old white men, these books are disproportionately written by old white men. So as you build your quarantine reading list, spend some time hunting down some of the many worthwhile books that never quite made the canon.

Browse through Persephone Books, which specializes in reprints of forgotten books, mostly by women. Read the Zora Canon, a list of the 100 greatest books by African American women writers. Penguin Classics of the iconic orange-and-black spine, which half-built the canon, has been working to diversify its selections for the past couple of years; check out one of their series, like Penguin Classics’ Asian American Masterpieces or Penguin Vitae.

There are so many books out there waiting for you to read them, and so many of them are good. Get to it.

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