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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.
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Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.
- Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
- Recent glacial melting, caused by climate change, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
- While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.
People die trying to reach the top of Mt. Everest. While about 5,000 people have gotten to the top and came back down to tell the tale, 300 have not and 200 bodies remain on the mountain. Many of these bodies have been covered by snow and ice over the years, but now with glaciers melting due to climate change some of the long-hidden bodies are reportedly becoming visible again.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association, told the BBC: "Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed. We have brought down dead bodies of some mountaineers who died in recent years, but the old ones that remained buried are now coming out."
The ice on Everest is melting fast, in 2016 the Nepalese Army had to be called in to drain lakes swollen with glacial-melt that threatened to flood. The Khumbu Glacier is melting so fast that ponds are forming and linking up to create small lakes. Not all the bodies that turn up are made visible by global warming though, glaciers move and snow drifts shift over time so previously hidden bodies are always at risk of coming back into view.
Why leave the bodies there at all? Why not bring people down as soon as they die?
It costs a lot of money to go get a body on the highest mountain in the world, up to $80,000 to be precise. Then there is the problem of actually doing it, since some attempts to retrieve bodies are forced by difficult conditions to abandon their efforts.
Some people, such as mountaineer Alan Arnette, argue that the bodies should be left there. He told the BBC, "Most climbers like to be left on the mountains if they died. So it would be deemed disrespectful to just remove them unless they need to be moved from the climbing route or their families want them."This doesn't stop people from wanting the bodies taken down or dealt with in other ways. David Sharp's body was moved out of sight in 2007. George Mallory's body took 75 years to find and was given an Anglican burial in 1999. Over time, the elements often move bodies away from the main routes up the mountain to more isolated areas where they remain undisturbed.
Everest’s chilling landmarks
The bodies that remain in view are often used as waypoints for the living. Some of them are well-known markers that have earned nicknames.
For instance, the image above is of "Green Boots," the unidentified corpse named for its neon footwear. Widely believed to be the body of Tsewang Paljor, the remains are well known as a guide point for passing mountaineers. Perhaps it is too well known, as the climber David Sharp died next to Green Boots while dozens of people walked past him — many presuming he was the famous corpse.
A large area below the summit has earned the discordant nickname "Rainbow Valley" for being filled with the bright and colorfully dressed corpses of maintainers who never made it back down. The sight of a frozen hand or foot sticking out of the snow is so common that Tshering Pandey Bhote, vice president of Nepal National Mountain Guides Association claimed: "Most climbers are mentally prepared to come across such a sight."
Other bodies are famous for not having been found yet. Andrew "Sandy" Irvine, the climbing partner of George Mallory, may have been one of the first two people to reach the summit of Everest a full 30 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did it. Since they never made it back down, nobody knows just how close to the top they made it.
Mallory's frozen body was found by chance in the '90s without the Kodak cameras he brought up to record the climb with. It has been speculated that Irvine might have them and Kodak says they could still develop the film if the cameras turn up. Circumstantial evidence suggests that they died on the way back down from the summit, Mallory had his goggles off and a photo of his wife he said he'd put at the peak wasn't in his coat. If Irvine is found with that camera, history books might need rewriting.
As Everest's glaciers melt its morbid history comes into clearer view. Will the melting cause old bodies to become new landmarks? Will Sandy Irvine be found? Only time will tell.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.