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10 must-read classic books for beginners
Your gateway to enjoying literature.
- Classical literature constitutes a notable piece of work that has enduring quality over the years.
- The ranks of classics encompasses a small number of works over many languages.
- These works are accessible and timeless.
Classic literature isn't usually on a leisure reader's list. Classics tend to evoke views of dusty tomes, unapproachable texts or mere ornaments in some ersatz library. Mention to someone that you're reading Moby Dick, Brave New World, or some other renowned classic and you're sure to get lamentations of their experience reading said book in school.
Largely wasted on high schoolers with no true life experience and in extended adolescence through college, the classics remain for many an untapped source for growth, knowledge and generally just a good read.
Many of these novels are genuinely hilarious, thought-provoking and have commentary you wouldn't expect coming out of time periods sometimes decades, centuries, or even millennia prior to our modern day world.
Why should we read the classics?
A lesson by Professor Jeffrey Brenzel
This is by no means a definitive list. Classics abound in many genres and eras. You could spend your whole life reading just the Latin and ancient Greek great works or tumbling through the golden age reservoir of seminal science fiction works for that matter. Merely picking up one of these books will get you started reading something of the classic variety. And the best part is, it's all on your own volition this time!
Here are 10 classic novels that will hopefully begin you on a never-ending journey into the heart-soul of literary excellence.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Ernest Hemingway once remarked on Huckleberry Finn that: "All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
Twain's tour de force and most famous novel delves into a number of issues. Exploring racism, war, religion and so much more, the book is Americana canon. It's no stretch to say Huckleberry Finn is synonymous with American literature. Following an orphan boy and runaway slave in the Southern United States, Twain delved into the heart of so many important moral issues. With many poetic descriptions and the allure of once being a banned and censored book, Huckleberry Finn is a foundational classic.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Published just a year after Emily Brontë's death, Wuthering Heights would go on to become the archetype of the doomed romance. Continuing and ascending past the dark prince himself, Lord Byron, Brontë weaved a tremendous classic in the Gothic strain of literature. The tormented love and grief between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw has become a model for many great works since.
Written during the Victorian era, the characters and authorship of this book explores behavior that would have certainly made a Victorian blush to say the least. Brontë created an eerie and obsessive love story that transcended its time and genre.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Written with hilarious wit, Moby Dick is a profound meditation on the human condition. Filled with 19th century whaling lore and other periodic cultural artifacts and customs, Herman Melville's epic is unmatched. The prose is dense, allusive and cunningly archaic. Moby Dick isn't a book to be read, it's an experience to be had. Don't let any detractors stop you from diving in because of the supposed tediousness of whaling chapters. Within the never-ending treatises on whaling lines, cetology rambles and minute observations, there are sparkling lines of philosophical observations and timeless humor.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Literary excellence seemed to run in the Brontë family. Jane Eyre was an incredible breakthrough for an English novel at the time. Right away, the reader is brought into a very personal account of the story. Many literary critics believe that it is a forerunner for novels that heavily invest us into the internal monologues and consciousness of the character as the main prose point. Jane Eyre has all the workings of a Victorian novel as the romance between Jane and Rochester is told through an enchanting Gothic element.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice centers around a family with five unmarried daughters and their familial estate has been promised over to a male line descendant of the family. When the appearance of a rich Mr. Darcy comes to town, the action commences and we're left with this wonderful tale.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."
Colin Firth and the many excellent and so-so adaptations of this book aside, Pride and Prejudice proves to be a literary masterpiece.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Just 18 years old at the time of writing this novel, Mary Shelley was in quite the literary posse at the time. As the infamous story goes, she wrote the book on a bet with a number of renowned literati greats. She most definitely won that bet. Both a Gothic thriller and cautionary tale on the unbounded powers of science, Frankenstein paved the way for generations of writers to come. Drawing on biblical references such as the 16th-century Jewish Golem, in Frankenstein, Shelley shows her writing prowess and historical knowledge.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
A book of impassioned fancy and fantasy, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, told quite the modern tale through Don Quixote. The real and illusory are blended and mixed to perfection. Don Quixote has had an enormous effect on many writers through the years. William Faulkner once remarked he would reread it once a year, quipping that he'd read it, "just as some people read the Bible."
Homer's The Odyssey
An outlier in our list of classics, The Odyssey deserves a special mention. Regarded by many to be the first novel of all time, this Greek oration withstood the test of thousands of years. It is the quintessential epic saga. All great works must pay their dues to the original. Lattimore's translation is what brought this book to a contemporary world audience. Technically spoken (or written) as a long-form poem, The Odyssey is a great and thrilling read after all of these years.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
An unforgettable novel that is an easy read for many just getting into the classics. By no means a light-hearted book, To Kill a Mockingbird deals with some heavy themes like racial inequality, rape and moral ethics. Harper Lee's inaugural novel was an instant bestseller and award winning book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 after being published in 1960. There was later a thrilling adaptation and equally compelling classic film made a few years later – a rarity when it comes to some of the classics.
1984 by George Orwell
One of the most important works of the 20th century, 1984 brought many words into the cultural vernacular. Big Brother, doublespeak and the infamous slogan of War is Peace. George Orwell's masterpiece only grows more haunting and relevant as we move into the future. Political satire was never meant to be this real.
As our main character Winston Smith loses himself in the bureaucratic nightmare of Ingsoc, we look on in horror and disdain. Yet, taking a look around our world today when despotic regimes are implementing social capital systems, and the politics of the English language degrades in so many ways, 1984 starts to take on a disconcerting prescience.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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