18 Essential Classics to Read Before You Die

Remember all those books that you were supposed to read in your high school English classes and college lit courses, but never really got around to? It turns out, they really are worth a second look with the fresh eyes of adulthood. After all, there’s a reason certain works become influential classics and serve as the narrative DNA for so many of the novels currently sitting on the bestseller lists and your to-be-read pile. While it may feel daunting, working your way through a classic or two is a particularly rewarding experience. And, let’s be honest, adding a little intellectual vigor to 2018 certainly couldn’t hurt, right?

The cover of the book Little Black Classics Box SetLittle Black Classics Box Set

Various

If one-stop shopping for the classics appeals to you, look no further than this box set. It features eighty books celebrating a wide range of classic literature from drama to poetry, and fiction to history, and includes works from Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Joseph Conrad and many others.

 

The cover of the book The OdysseyThe Odyssey

Homer

Sometimes regarded as the first true novel and one of the all-time greatest adventures, this book is one of those classics you were supposed to read in high school, and is well worth revisiting. The Odyssey is a classic saga centering on a man’s fantastical and perilous journey to return to his wife and son.

 

 

The cover of the book Jane Austen: The Complete WorksJane Austen: The Complete Works

Jane Austen

Another piece of one-stop shopping, Jane Austen: The Complete Works is a perfect way to revisit one of the most engaging writers of the eighteenth century – one whose influence is still felt today. Austen was an incisive social critic with truly remarkable, razor-sharp wit and a core of feminism that was well ahead of her time.

 

The cover of the book Madame BovaryMadame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert

As a landmark of realist fiction, Madame Bovary long ago secured a spot as a literary masterpiece. Its portrayal of a housewife growing increasingly desperate to escape the day-to-day tedium of her life spoke deeply to many women of the era when first published in 1857. It is perhaps still far more relevant than it should be.

 

 

The cover of the book War and PeaceWar and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy’s epic and sprawling piece of historical fiction is undoubtedly – and infamously – a tremendous undertaking, but it is absolutely a journey worth taking. It is Leo Tolstoy’s magnum opus – it features some of the writer’s best work, along with literature’s most deeply human characters. There may also be a few lessons to be gleaned for the tumultuous times we find ourselves in today.

 

The cover of the book The Penguin Book of the UndeadThe Penguin Book of the Undead

Edited by Scott G. Bruce

Suspense and horror seem to be hardwired into our both our collective consciousness and our literary framework. What we think of as the modern ghost story did not really develop until the gothic period of the nineteenth century, but there were forerunners lurking in texts that spanned the Roman Empire, medieval Europe, and the Renaissance. This collection is a perfect introduction to those stories.

 

The cover of the book Les MiserablesLes Miserables

Victor Hugo; Translated with Notes by Christine Donougher

As the basis for perhaps the best musical in history, Les Miserables has long held a prominent footing in popular conception. The novel that underlies it also happens to be Victor Hugo’s best and one of the finest novels of the nineteenth century. Its decades-spanning narrative contemplates deep questions of morality, race, justice, and religion. It also made Jean Valjean one of the most beloved characters in literature.

 

The cover of the book The Complete FablesThe Complete Fables

Aesop

With his oft-witty and sometimes biting vignettes, Aesop created an extraordinary compendium of moral philosophy in a remarkably plain-spoken package. When one considers that characters like the tortoise and the hare have endured since the sixth century, Aesop’s literary achievement becomes all the more astonishing.

 

 

The cover of the book East of EdenEast of Eden

John Steinbeck

While Steinbeck is understandably best known for The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden may be his crowning literary achievement. Written in Steinbeck’s later years, it is a work of Biblical scope and echoes with a sort of timeless mythic power. It centers on two families whose intertwining destinies outline a story of love, loss, betrayal, and brutality.

 

 

The cover of the book The Penguin Book of French PoetryThe Penguin Book of French Poetry

Various

Covering the period of 1820 to 1950, The Penguin Book of French Poetry highlights an era of remarkable transition and evolution. Featuring works by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Breton, and a multitude of others, this collection charts a period of intense innovation and the converging and conflicting styles that underpinned such movements as Romanticism, Surrealism, and Cubism.

 

The cover of the book Wuthering HeightsWuthering Heights

Emily Bronte

Published merely a year before Emily Bronte’s untimely death, Wuthering Heights is a classic doomed love story. It is an amalgamation of many genres, although it arguably fits most neatly in the Gothic category. The tormented tale of bitter love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw – and its brutal consequences – is a haunting masterpiece.

 

The cover of the book Little WomenLittle Women

Louisa May Alcott

Little Women has been captivating readers for over a hundred years and stands as a landmark piece of children’s literature – one that transcends that designation and holds appeal for all ages. This tale of the lives of the March sisters and their triumphs and tragedies presented young readers with the world as it was, and as a result, spoke to them in a way few novels do.

 

The cover of the book 19841984

George Orwell

With apologies to Margaret Atwood, 1984 is perhaps the greatest piece of dystopian fiction ever written. Its relentlessly bleak narrative has proven alarmingly prescient since its publication in 1949 – is it really shock that it found itself once again atop the bestseller lists in January of 2017?  Regardless, Orwell’s tale of Newspeak, Big Brother, and Thought Police is a powerful, devastating, and seemingly ever-relevant read.

 

 

The cover of the book The Last of the MohicansThe Last of the Mohicans

James Fenimore Cooper

The Last of the Mohicans is one of literature’s great adventure stories. Told from the view of Hawkeye, a frontier scout and Native American, The Last of the Mohicans details the birth, intertwining, and eventual tragedy of Native American and colonial cultures.

 

 

 

6788719The Complete Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle

Perhaps the best known and most emulated literary sleuth of all time, Sherlock Holmes is truly in a class of his own. There’s nothing quite like reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original short stories and novels. This collection begins with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was Holmes first appearance following his presumed death in The Final Problem, and features a host of other favorites.

 

The cover of the book The Scarlet PimpernelThe Scarlet Pimpernel

Baroness Orczy

The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the most influential adventures of the early twentieth century and a landmark of young adult literature. It set the standard for a host of “masked avenger” stories that would come after it, including the likes of Zorro, The Green Hornet, and Batman, with its tales of an English fop who dons a mask and becomes a swashbuckling hero by night.

 

The cover of the book Where the Red Fern GrowsWhere the Red Fern Grows

Wilson Rawls

If you haven’t had a good cry in a while, it might be time to revisit Where the Red Fern Grows. This powerful children’s novel charts the relationship between a boy and his hounds. However, it’s the precise observation and emotional nuance that sets Where the Red Fern Grows apart from other books.

 

 

The cover of the book Lord of the FliesLord of the Flies

William Golding

What begins as a classic tale of boyhood adventure quickly devolves into a searing examination of cruelty and man’s inherent savagery. Whether viewed as a parable, satire, or political allegory, the power of William Golding’s story of a group of stranded boys struggling to survive and ultimately devolving to their baser instincts is as powerful today as it was on its initial publication, and may offer some unsettling insights into the rampant tribalism so prevalent in today’s political landscape.

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‘Ferdinand’ The Peaceful Bull Gets His First Full-Length Film

In the late 1930s, The Story of Ferdinand briefly out sold Gone With the Wind. Penguin Young Readers

Millions of people have read Munro Leaf’s The Story of Ferdinand since it was first published in 1936. Two years later, Disney turned it into it an Oscar-winning short film. Now, the peaceful bull who prefers sniffing flowers to bullfighting is getting an update from 20th Century Fox. And that bull has been on quite a journey to get here.

John Cena, the actor who voices Ferdinand in the new movie, recently read the original story to hundreds of DC public school kids at the Library of Congress. On a table next to him were two early editions of the book from the library’s collection. One was from 1938, the other from 1936.

“We’re going to look at the 1936 edition but not touch it,” Cena told the students. “It’s very delicate and very important, and the people from the Library of Congress were very thorough in saying like, ‘Hey, don’t touch the first book.'”

Precious Ferdinand, even when he grows to be bigger than all the other bulls, still doesn’t want to fight. He just wants to sit under the cork tree and smell flowers. But when he sits on a bumblebee, he goes berserk, puffing and kicking. The matadors watching are ecstatic.

The Story of Ferdinand is one of Time magazine’s “100 Best Children’s Books of All Time.” At one point in the late 1930s, it was outselling Gone With The Wind, which is pretty astonishing for something that was written in less than an hour.

NPR interviewed Munro Leaf’s widow, Margaret, in 1986, ten years after her husband’s death. “The depression was nearly over,” she recalled. “We were very poor.” One Sunday afternoon, she was reading a manuscript for a publisher to make some extra money.

“I was going to get $25 for reading it, so it was very important, and he kept bothering me, trying to interrupt me. So I finally said to him, ‘Get lost, go and amuse yourself. Do something.’ About 35 to 40 minutes later, he said ‘Listen to this,’ and he read me Ferdinand. And there it was in pencil on six sheets of yellow legal pad.”

Leaf gave the story to his friend, illustrator Robert Lawson, who brought it to life with detailed, whimsical, pen and ink drawings. The book took off.

There was the Disney short, Ferdinand merchandise, a balloon at the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, songs and author interviews.

In 1948, Leaf talked to the Chicago radio show, The Hobby Horse Presents. Children on the show asked him what books he read when he was ten and a half.

“Oh gee, I read everything I could get my hands on really,” he said. “Couple of them I know that I read about that time that stand out as vividly today, and that’s Treasure Island was one, and The Wizard Of Oz to me was one of the nicest books I ever found.”

In the late 1930s, The Story of Ferdinand briefly outsoldGone With The Wind.
Penguin Young Readers

The book’s popularity coincided with the Spanish Civil War. In 1937, Leaf told an audience he received letters complaining that “Ferdinand was red propaganda,” others that “it was fascist propaganda.” A woman’s club said it was “unworthy satire of the peace movement.” It was banned in Spain; Hitler burned it.

But Margaret Leaf told NPR that Munro wasn’t trying to be political. “He wasn’t a pacifist, but he was a peaceful man,” she said.

Director Carlos Saldanha is the latest to interpret Ferdinand, in the new feature film adaptation. “I think Ferdinand is this misinterpreted, misjudged character,” he says.

Munro Leaf’s story is only about 800 words, so with the Leaf family’s permission, Saldanha did some fleshing out. The director created new characters, like a goat who lives in Ferdinand’s stall, and he gave voices to the other bulls in Munro Leaf’s story. When they’re young, they make fun of Ferdinand’s refusal to butt heads. And then Ferdinand outgrows them.

“He is trying to show them a different side of life, a different understanding of life,” Saldanha says. “And for him, you don’t really need to fight to be a fighter.”

For the voice of Ferdinand, Saldanha picked someone who fights for a living, a 6’1, 251 pound wrestler with the WWE — John Cena.

“He almost represents, visually, Ferdinand,” Saldanha tells NPR. “Like he’s so big and massive and people interpret him as this massive guy that picks fights and all this stuff but actually he’s not at all. And he’s super gentle.”

Cena confirmed that he’s misjudged for his size. He says it’s a universal feeling. “There isn’t a human walking the earth that [can] say ‘Everybody gets me all the time.’ That’s why I think, another reason the book is timeless. We’re all misunderstood.”

Munro Leaf died in 1976. He wrote other books, but none that had the global success of Ferdinand. His son, Andy Leaf, says his father was amused by all of the different interpretations. “He was very smart that way. He just let people interpret it as they wished.”

In the end, Ferdinand stays true to himself, sitting under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers quietly. Ferdinand, the movie version, comes out later this week, but the book will likely be around forever.

Paperback Thrills: 16 Best Thrillers of the Last 100 Years

by Keith Rice, appearing first on Signature Reads

Thrillers

The perfect thriller is a difficult beast – a complex mix of pacing, plotting, and tension all doing a high-wire act to keep readers on the edge of their seats and glued to the page. The thriller is also one of the literary world’s broader genres ranging from intricacies of espionage to the supernatural, tension-filled courtrooms to haunted houses, howcatchems and whodunits to grisly murders. The one thing all of these tales have in common? An unparalleled ability to draw readers in for that can’t-put-it-down reading experience. Looking back over the last 100 or so years, we’ve pulled together our list of sixteen of the most essential thrillers. Find a comfy spot and settle in; once you start one of these great reads, odds are you won’t be able to step away until you hit that final page.

Click for the complete list of thrillers.

Fantastic Voyages – “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” (Part 3 of 3)

So far we’ve traveled the blue expanse of the sea and the great nothingness of space. What else could there be?

How about time travel?

Yankee

June 19 was not turning out to be a good day for Hank Morgan. He was an intelligent, successful engineer with thousands of people working for him, but, it turns out, not all of them were happy with him. In fact, one went so far as to bash him in the head with a crowbar, and, as if that weren’t enough, Hank woke up in middle-ages England of all places. This was beyond a little perplexing since Hank had been in 19th century Connecticut when he was last conscious.

Hank, who would soon become known as “The Boss,” didn’t have much time to consider this odd change in scenery though, as he was accosted by a lance-wielding knight on horseback soon after his arrival. Things only got more complicated from there.

Without giving too much away; Hank, using his knowledge of engineering and science, quickly rose to a position of power posing as a great magician and spent the next three or four years trying to turn medieval England into an industrialized (and Americanized) utopia. Also, King Arthur and Merlin were involved. All did not go well.

Still, A for effort, Hank.

Want to learn more? Check out A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.

Want your shot at building your own utopia? That’s a bit more difficult (we would like to take this opportunity to advise against the “angry employee with crowbar” path to changing history) but it is possible and there is no time like the present. It’s summer, the sun is shining, people are out and about and there are things to do everywhere, so let’s get to it. First things first, find a problem, any problem – small, big, medium-sized, whatever – and fix it, or at least make it better. Then repeat. It’s going to take a while, but then Rome (or an industrialized Camelot with a modern standard of living) wasn’t built in a day.

Fantastic Voyages – It’s All a Matter of Perspective (Part 1 of 3)

Summer is a time of wonder, of adventure, of going to see what there is to see. So what are we all sitting around for? Here are some literary examples of fantastic summer travels to help inspire you to get out there and experience June.

Note: Pay no attention to the fact that all of the examples are of adventures that were unintended/completely involuntary. You should still go outside. Just, maybe start small…

I know! You could go to the library! Safe, close by and air-conditioned but still full of things to see and to learn. It’s perfect!

In the meantime, here is your first fantastic voyage.

By the summer of 1703, Lemuel Gulliver already knew that the world was a much larger (or smaller, as the case may be) and stranger place than most people ever imagined. It had been about a year since he had finally returned home after his first lengthy sea journey; a journey that had resulted in him being shipwrecked and stranded in the nation of Lilliput, being a nation populated entirely by people who were less than 6 inches tall. His experiences there (including his eventual fall from imperial favor and subsequent arrest and escape) are probably the best known and most retold of his adventures but they were far from his only. In fact, another one was to begin soon for, having been at home for 12 whole months, he was starting to get antsy.

Gulliver

Gulliver Exhibited to the Brobdingnag Farmer (painting by Richard Redgrave)

On June 17, 1703, Mr. Gulliver and his most recent crewmates put ashore on an uncharted coastline to explore and forage. This ended pretty abruptly when 70 foot tall giants chased the entire shore party back to their row boats, all of them except Gulliver that is. After spending time as a giant among the Lilliputians poor Gulliver now found the situation completely reversed. The intrepid ship’s surgeon remained stranded on the island of giants (he would find out soon enough that the place was called Brobdingnag) until he “escaped” when a giant eagle snatched him (and the room/cage he was in – he had become the human equivalent of a purse dog for the Brobdingnagian queen) and flew him out to sea.

He did not go straight home. There were many more highly improbable islands and people to meet. He, in fact, did not make it home once and for all for another 12 years. Take that Odysseus.

Intrigued? You can check out the rest of the story, and the bits I glossed over, in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. You know where you can pick it up.

So, even if it doesn’t exactly make you want to take up sailing anytime soon, I hope that Gulliver inspires you to at least make your way to the library. Maybe take the scenic route on the way here – you never know what you might find.

And you thought your business trip was bad…

Ah, Transylvania in the springtime. According to the dates of his journal entry, Jonathan Harker arrived, after a brief layover in a slightly unsettling little village filled with slightly unsettling little villagers, at a certain Castle Dracula on the evening of May 5th, sometime in the late 1890s.Castle Dracula

It did not go well.

Intrigued? You can learn more about his trip and how it ended at the library. There is also a ton of stuff dealing with Count Dracula’s spiritual descendants – even the sparkly ones.

Don’t know or care about what I’m talking about? Then at least your day can seem a little brighter and your steps a little lighter with the certain knowledge that it will go better than Jon’s… Unless you too are currently working your way ever closer to the creepy abode of an ancient, nearly indestructible creature of the night; in which case you are on your own. We can help with a lot of stuff but that’s a bit outside of the library’s wheelhouse.

 

Author Birthdays – Busy week

William Sydney Porter (aka O. Henry) (b. September 11, 1862, Greensboro, NC; d. June 5, 1910, New York, NY)

The littlest Earp brother?“Love and business and family and religion and art and patriotism are nothing but shadows of words when a man’s starving!” Find more quotes here.

What you should read: The Gifts of the Magi and his other short fiction

For more information on O. Henry, click here.

 

David Herbert Richards Lawrence (aka D.H. Lawrence) (b. September 11, 1885, Eastwood, UK; d. March 2, 1930, Vence, France)

Before the beard got out of control“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot.” You can find more quotes here.

What you should read: Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Sons and Lovers

For more information on D.H. Lawrence, click here.

 

Sherwood Anderson (b. September 13, 1876, Camden, OH; d. March 8, 1941, Colón, Panama)

Off center picture... does it bother you too?“If people did not want their stories told, it would be better for them to keep away from me.” Find more quotes here.

What you should read: Winesburg, Ohio

For more information on Sherwood Anderson, click here.

 

Roald Dahl (b. September 13, 1916, Cardiff, United Kingdom; d. November 23, 1990, Oxford, United Kingdom)

Why did I picture him with a beard?“I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel. If they are ugly, you make them extremely ugly. That, I think, is fun and makes an impact.” Read more quotes here.

What you should read: Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG

For more on Roald Dahl, his life and his work, click here.

 

John Knowles (b. September 16, 1926, Fairmont, WV; d. November 29, 2001, Fort Lauderdale, FL)

Megamind?“There are simply more young people than there ever were. You get this feeling of strength. Also, large numbers can be a drawback, making it difficult to lose one’s anonymity.” Find more quotes here.

What you should read: A Separate Peace

For more information on John Knowles, click here.

 

Robert B. Parker (b. September 17, 1932, Springfield, MA; d. January 18, 2010, Cambridge, MA)

Crime author“College had little effect on me. I’d have been the same writer if I’d gone to MIT, except I’d have flunked out sooner.” You can find more quotes here.

What you should read: Night Passage, The Godwulf Manuscript, Family Honor and Appaloosa

For more information on Robert B. Parker and his books, click here.

 

Ken Kesey (b. September 17, 1935, La Junta, CO; d. November 10, 2001, Eugene, OR)

Doesn't normally look this normal“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” Find more quotes here.

What you should read: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

For more information on Ken Kesey, click here.