Classic literature sometimes gets a bad rap. Perhaps because so many of us first encountered the great novels in uninspired high school classes, we assume they’re going to be dense and boring. But the label “classic literature” actually encompasses a hugely diverse group of masterpieces, many of which are far more approachable than they seem. Here are five classic novels that are hilarious, weird, roving, tender, and well worth reading if you haven’t yet.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
I can hear you laughing already, but stay with me. Yes, War and Peace is well over a thousand pages long, and yes, there are those who think that Tolstoy could have skimmed over a good bit of detail. Respectfully, those people are wrong. Tolstoy’s details are like brushstrokes, allowing him to paint rich, deep worlds that encompass all the nuance and complexity of daily life. War and Peace is, on one level, about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but it’s really about people—what Pierre Brezukhov remembers about Natasha Rostova’s eyes, or how he reacts when he learns that his friend is in love with her. It’s an epic page-turner.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
There’s a reason this book has inspired so many retellings and spinoffs, in film and in print: Pride and Prejudice is both a love story and a thriller. (What more do you need?!) From the first paragraph, Austen wastes no time getting into the plot: Mrs. Bennet has five unmarried daughters, and a single man has moved into the neighborhood. Things move quickly from there, though the path isn’t always clear. Austen’s story is full of switchbacks and dead ends, and unforeseen circumstances that frequently get in the way of tidy resolutions. All these intricacies make the book fun to read even if you think you know what happens—there are many small dramas you’re bound to have forgotten.
The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
First things first: no one says you have to read The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. (Unless you’re well-versed in Middle English, in which case, what are you waiting for?). But once you have a Modern English version and no longer need to struggle through unfamiliar terms and spellings, you’ll find that Chaucer is laugh-out-loud funny. The book is a series of linked stories centered on a group of travelers, who, when they make camp each evening, take turns telling tales. Chaucer isn’t afraid to crack raunchy, weird jokes, and he populates the book with an absurd mix of people, animals, and spirits that’s continually unexpected.
The Odyssey of Homer, by Homer (translated by Richmond Lattimore)
Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey is credited with reintroducing the work to a contemporary audience; his rendering of Homer’s Greek verse is truly fun to read. The book—which is actually a poem of more than 12,000 lines—follows Odysseus’ ten years of wandering as he attempts to make his way home after fighting in the Trojan War. The fact that The Odyssey is a poem means that the meter pulls readers forward from one line to the next, making the going easy. And the wandering ensures that Odysseus encounters all manner of strange people and places along the way—all the more opportunity for Homer to tell us wonderful tales of adventure, longing, near-death, and temptation.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Wuthering Heights is one of the wildest novels in the English canon. It was written in Victorian England, but its characters constantly push the boundaries of what was then considered proper behavior (some of them are even brash by today’s standards!). Brontë played with gendered power dynamics and social acceptability throughout the book, which is an often raw, at times violent, and entirely obsessive love story.
What’s your favorite classic novel?