Contemporary literature is having an incredible moment right now—it’s evolving and redefining itself and inventing new methods of storytelling. But while new hardcovers coming to shelves lately have been compelling and rich and bizarre and so worthy of discussion, I feel I can’t review them head-on without first mentioning the classics.
So, here are classics you’ve definitely heard of but might not have read. More than anything, they’re what I consider holy-grail must-reads. They’ll change you and enrich every other book that follows.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
This one isn’t for the weak-hearted. The novel is set in a dystopian future after the fictional collapse of America’s government, but it feels horrifically real while you’re reading it. The main character, who remains unnamed throughout the entire novel, is a “handmaid.” Handmaids in the novel must have disassociated intercourse with an assigned man of higher class for the purpose of providing society with children. It’s disturbing, and that’s not even mentioning the painful, cruel details written plainly and in deadpan fashion within the novel. But the scariest part is that so much of the character’s world bears painstaking similarity with a lot of rhetoric in our communities today. While reading The Handmaid’s Tale, you might find yourself thinking, “Oh my gosh...this sounds a lot like our world.”
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961)
Revolutionary Road is my favorite novel of all time. Richard Yates never became that big of a household name, but he remains a “writer’s writer.”
The setting of Revolutionary Road isn’t that unique—young married couple Frank and April Wheeler in stifling 1950’s suburbia—but the writing is nothing short of astonishing. The novel is narrated in third person as the Wheelers’ struggle to stabilize their marriage, but the individual and intertwined voices of both characters are so in-depth and dead-on that it might as well be told in first person. The writing is quietly explosive, tame but intense as it covers gender, resentment, manipulation, and desperation.
The added bonus to this novel? The Academy Award-nominated movie adaptation is excellent. Another bonus? It stars Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, and they are both glorious and devastating in it.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This satirical war novel is nonlinear and tells the story of World War II soldier named Yossarian and the secondary stories of those around him. But it’s not just a war novel. Catch-22 is about mental health, trauma, the randomness of bureaucracy, obsession, time. It’s funny, distressing, energetic, and sad. Those of you who loved Slaughterhouse-Five —this one’s for you. You might even prefer it.
Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
There are two types of novelists. Novelists who are intellectuals (David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf), and novelists who are artists (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miranda July). But, there are certain novelists who are both—deeply perceptive about the ways that we’ve cultivated our own communities, and also effortlessly gifted with the written word in ways that go beyond the cerebral and reach the spiritual. They write in ways that make you feel so overcome with emotion and intensity it’s as though you haven’t merely read their words but inhaled them in great gulps, too. Toni Morrison is one of those novelists. She might even be their queen. I recommend Beloved, but any one of her works will do. Song of Solomon was written by Morrison before Beloved, and is also just as legendary. She is, hands-down, bar none, one of the best American writers of all time.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
People are always quick to reference Lolita as “that book about a pedophile.” And while, yes, it is a book about a pedophile, Lolita is also so much more than that.
Lolita truly contains some of the most stunning writing I have ever read. And that’s what makes the novel both compelling and uncomfortable.
It forces us to ask ourselves: What assumptions do we make about the people we consider to be real-world monsters? Where do we place ourselves, and our sense of good and evil, in relation to those monsters? How can thoughts we know are obscene, vile, and sick, come from such beautiful, alluring, convincing narration?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
Marquez chronicles one-hundred-years-worth of generations of one family, set in a fictional town in Latin America called Macondo. The novel is intricate in both text and sequence, famous for its long-winded prose, magical realism, and complex layering of subplots within subplots.
But One Hundred Years of Solitude is really about….well, everything. Just, everything. Life. Family. Sex. Tradition. Ideology. If I had to describe the novel in one word, it would be “epic.” And it has one of the best, richest, most legendary endings of all time. When I finished the last page, I literally whispered “wow” to myself. To hint at why it drew such a reaction would be a disservice to the reader — it is an ending so unique that you deserve to have the reading experience preserved. One Hundred Years of Solitude is in nearly every “Best Books of All Time” list I see, and this list is no exception.
While contemporary literature is what this column is about, it’s true that I’m a “classics girl” at heart. Ultimately, most books that have survived the test of time and earned the label of “classic” are worth reading. But hopefully, this list can offer a starting off point for those overwhelmed with the options in your bookstore’s classics section!