Books With No Shelf Life: Back to the Classics

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By Carole Reedy

As you compile your 2013 reading list, don’t forget the classics. Some, ironically, seem more timely today than for the era in which they were written. All touch on the art of being human, probably the reason they live on. Some of these famous works have been adapted to the big screen or theater. 

Sixty million people in 43 countries have seen the stage production of Les Miserables (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) and the movie is due on the big screen soon.  Why read the book?  We all know the answer.  No matter how superb the production, the stage or movie theater is a thing apart from your being. Reading is intimate, not someone else’s voice reciting the words. Reading is your own inner voice interpreting each precious word.  And this is the reason books have the power to give us a profound understanding of this strange world and the humanity that populates it.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

This tops my list of favorite books. After reading Proust’s million words, I felt that in my life I never needed to read another book. I actually sensed that if I died at that moment I’d be content and my life complete, as if I’d discovered the secrets of humanity.

Teacher and translator of seven languages Bassia, from Israel, enhances my own thoughts with this: ‘Proust brought my whole life and purpose for living it into focus. The minutiae of his mind and memories allowed me my own personal obsession.’

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862)  

Hugo takes you deeply and personally into the inner workings of French society and the Revolution through unforgettable characters. It’s this insight that has contributed to the success of the musical, the emotions of the characters reflected in an ingenious score. Hugo gives us storytelling at its best.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Ruflo (1955)

This, Ruflo’s first novel, ‘is the forerunner of the magic realism that afterward was made so popular by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The work is like a poem.  Each thought synthesized perfectly, not one wasted phrase or word.  It should be read in Spanish for maximum appreciation.’ (Fernando, journalist, Mexico City)

Fernando actually cites Remembrance of Things Past as his favorite book, but thinks the mere thought of the million words might be off-putting to most readers.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

‘I loved this book because of the evolution of Jane’s independence as a woman and the fabulous description of the English countryside. Charlotte Bronte was a writer who seemed to truly capture the essence of the English language in relating a story of intrigue and romance. She also brought pro-feminism to the forefront in this novel at an early time in history for this controversial topic.’  (Nancy K, Chicago)

Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985) 

‘This book explores the deceptions of love–young crazy love, careless love, socially sanctioned marital love, and late-life love. Garcia Marquez is a puppet master, showing us the human heart and longing from every angle. He himself said of the book “you have to be careful not to fall into my trap.” Is it possible to be literally lovesick? Read either as a love story or with a more cynical eye, the arc of the intertwining lives and loves makes perfect sense.’ (Heidi, editor and writer, Chicago)

And, this from writer Thomas Pynchon: “Suppose, then, it were possible, not only to swear love ‘forever,’ but actually to follow through on it–to live a long, full and authentic life based on such a vow, to put one’s allotted stake of precious time where one’s heart is?”

The Wind That Swept Mexico by Anita Brenner (1943)

‘A Mexican classic about the Cárdenas years.  Brenner was a witness to these years and was a friend of Revolutionary artists Rivera, Siqueiros, Orozco, and many others. The book is a sympathetic account of the Cárdenas years and gives much insight into the Mexico of that time. Most Mexican historians consider this a classic.’ (Nancy G, Professor of History and International Relations at Universidad Iberoamericano, Mexico City)

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

‘The first time I read this book I was 13 and I knew, even then, that I would never look at things the same way again. It truly made a lifelong impact on me.’ (Erin, teacher and mother of three, San Francisco)

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)  

‘Woolf talks to me through her books as if she were still here, or was here just yesterday, as if the weather of that moment was still hovering over the lighthouse, the memories in Mrs. Dalloway’s head as real as mine.’  (Barbara, former teacher of young students Mexico City)

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)

Many of Dickens’ works are classics and, fortunately for us, he was prolific.  His characters are unforgettable. A critic of poverty and the social stratum of Victorian society, Dickens was dedicated to writing social commentary.

‘This is a story of revolution in one country, France, and the fear of a similar event happening on the other side of the channel in England.  While sympathetic to a population wanting to rid themselves of a corrupt monarchy, the social cost is very high: unjust imprisonment, distrust, spies, revenge, terror, and murder.  Intertwined in this major social upheaval are the humans involved in the drama. Finally, this novel is about the gift of life and the ultimate sacrifice for love.’ (Jenny, former headmistress and founder of the Lancaster School in Mexico City)

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (first published as a series from Dec 1, 1860, to Aug, 1861)

‘It has it all! Coming of age, mysterious benefactors, crazy old shut-ins, love, life’s disappointments, the timeless struggle of the heart and the human condition. Plus, I think one day I may be Miss Haversham if I’m lucky.’ (Cecelia, Corporate Financial Analyst, Chicago)


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