9 Overrated Classics—and the Way Better Alternatives That Will Keep You Turning Pages
Toss that dusty doorstop of a book over your shoulder and pick up these great reads instead!
Overrated Classic: Swann’s Way
Some critics call this heavily autobiographical French novel based on Marcel Proust’s childhood at the turn of the 20th century “unquestionably the best novel ever,” but we draw the line at paragraphs that run on for more than a page. Not to mention sentences so complicated, you practically need a map to get from one end to the other. And how long are you willing to listen to anyone go on about a shell-shaped cookie dipped in tea? (Those are Proust’s famous madeleines.) For more readable books about France around the same time:
- Cheri. “Never once had her young lover caught her untidily dressed, or with her blouse undone, or in her bedroom slippers during the day. ‘Naked, if need be,’ she would say, ‘but squalid, never!'” French writer Colette’s masterpiece about a worldly wise professional mistress whose cougarish affair with a spoiled, much younger man is bound to end in heartbreak for someone…but whom? Colette herself led a fascinatingly free-spirited life that included divorce and a stage career at a time when both were considered scandalous.
- A Moveable Feast. If you’ve always hated Hemingway’s terse sentences and macho heroes, you’re in for an exquisite surprise with this tender memoir of his Paris years, circa 1920s. When spring came…there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.” Hemingway was so young here, he was still on his first marriage. (He had four.)
Overrated Classic: The Catcher in the Rye
Holden Caulfield’s been an icon for teen rebellion ever since this book was published in 1951, but J.D. Salinger’s sensitive young misfit who runs wild in New York City after being expelled from his millionth prep school seriously has First World problems. The great “Mad Men” era backdrop of the city doesn’t make up for Holden’s stilted, repetitive vocabulary or his dated attitude about girls as passive, essentially non-sexual creatures. (Someone get this kid a copy of “Girls Gone Wild—Spring Break Love Party”!) Young adult novels have evolved light years since then. Instead, try:
- The Fault in Our Stars. Be sure to have a box of Kleenex handy when you read John Green’s best-selling, critically acclaimed modern classic, but then you do expect to cry over a story of young lovers with terminal cancer. The best part is the vivid characters at the center of the book and their genuinely thoughtful insights about life, love, death, and just about everything else. For many young readers, this is the book that, as Green himself puts it, “fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” For adults the book provides a bittersweet jolt of memory to a time when one night was an eternity, and forever would never be long enough.
- Speak. Silence isn’t always golden. Just ask Melinda, a fourteen-year-old universally despised for calling the cops on a teen party that spiraled out of control the summer before freshman year. Even her oldest friends won’t speak to her. Melinda shuts down completely, hiding the trauma that prompted her actions but as she discovers: “When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time.” Laurie Halse Anderson’s moving young adult novel about the corrosive power of secrets and the pitfalls of judging others from the outside is one of those crossover books that grabs readers on both sides of the generational divide
Overrated classic: Finnegans Wake
How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. The made-up words, the run-on sentences, the incomprehensible plot—wait, there was a plot?—the sheer length of the book—James Joyce expects readers to wade through 628 pages of this? Need I continue? Though I admire the audacity of publishing such an avant garde novel in 1937, from my point of view reading Finnegans Wake is a little like running for pleasure: Why would you do it if no one was chasing you and you weren’t chasing anyone else? If you’re interested in experimental fiction that actually holds together, try:
- Slaughterhouse-Five. What if Billy Pilgrim never really came back from the notorious firebombing of Dresden in World War II to become a successful optometrist, devoted husband and father? What if he kept looping around in time between war-torn Germany, post-war America, and a human zoo on the friendly alien planet of Tralfamadore? Kurt Vonnegut’s wry, dry, anti-war novel about a former soldier with PTSD is back on the best-seller lists for good reason. Be prepared for the blinky, disjointed episodic structure of the book which illustrates Vonnegut’s premise: “It is just an illusion here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever.
- Mrs. Dalloway. It sounds simple, even simplistic: A wealthy, well-connected woman spends a day preparing for a party, interspersed with flashbacks of her beautiful youth and the impressions she’s made on the men in her life. But you could also reduce “Romeo and Juliet” to “boy meets girl.” In the masterful hands of Virginia Woolf, we enter Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life as she wrestles with the effects of aging, the romantic choices she has made, and the inevitability of death while simultaneously enjoying a lovely June day in London: “Nothing could be slow enough, nothing lasts too long. No pleasure could equal, she thought, straightening the chairs, pushing in one book on the shelf, this having done with the triumphs of youth, lost herself in the process of living, to find it with a shock of delight, as the sun rose, as the day sank.“
Overrated Classic: The Giving Tree
Shel Silverstein’s popular picture book about a poor downtrodden tree that gives and gives to an ungrateful child until it is literally nothing but a stump should be subtitled “The Ballad of Codependency.” Or maybe we could call it “The Giving Doormat.” Silverstein seems to be saying “You should do everything for everyone without any expectations of reciprocity or even an expression of simple gratitude until you have nothing left for anyone, especially yourself.” Is this really the ideal of giving we recommend to our children? We think not. Instead, we recommend:
- A Chair for My Mother. Is there anything more satisfying than giving something to someone you love? Rosa’s mama works long hours on her feet waiting tables at the Blue Tile Diner to support her daughter and her own mother. She used to relax in an easy chair at night, but an apartment fire has burned up almost everything they own. So Rosa, Mama and Grandma are saving up for a new one–“a wonderful, beautiful, fat, soft armchair.” You and your child will cheer as they pile up the coins in a special jar, rolling them up, and do seat-tests in five different stores, and finally Rosa and her mother curl up in their proud new possession to read together. As The New Yorker said, “It’s rare to find so much vitality, spontaneity, and depth of feeling in such a simple, young book.”
- Yoko. When all the other kindergarteners make fun of the sushi in Yoko’s lunch box, the teacher makes them all sing “The Friendly Song.” But the same thing happens the next day, so she realizes she’ll have to do better than that. “International Food Day” comes to Hilltop School, and all the children in the class bring in their own delicious ethnic specialties. But will any of them be willing to try Yoko’s seaweed and raw fish? As Publishers Weekly put it, “[Rosemary] Wells’s message is clear without being heavy-handed, making this brightly colored schoolroom charmer a perfect book for those American-melting-pot kindergartners who need to develop a genuine respect for one another’s differences.”
Overrated Classic: The Grapes of Wrath
If your high school English teacher didn’t force you to read John Steinbeck’s saga of a poor farm family fleeing Dust Bowl Oklahoma in the 1930s, do yourself a favor and give it a miss. The worst part is slogging through the Okie dialect used in every single piece of dialogue, which transforms “Rose of Sharon” (yes, actually a character’s name) into “Rosasharn.” Then there’s the heavy-handed Biblical imagery which is just plain embarrassing, as when Rosasharn herself, as the mother of a stillborn child, literally nurses a starving stranger at her bountiful breast. Also, not to sound hard-hearted, but the book’s Great Depression setting is, well, very depressing. If you want to read Steinbeck, may we suggest instead:
- Of Mice and Men. OK, there’s nothing cheerful about this novella about two migrant farm workers in the American West and their blighted dreams of owning their own farm. But John Steinbeck’s deceptively simple story has a tragic inevitability that will keep you turning pages, tearing up as you read, and remembering the two main characters long after you’re done: The brainless giant Lennie who literally loves rabbits to death because he doesn’t know his own strength, and his sour but caring keeper George who comes to realize he cannot control Lennie’s dangerous strength.
- Travels with Charley. First of all, let me assure you that although Charley is a dog and the book is by John Steinbeck who never pulls his punches, Charley does not die anywhere in this book. Not even at the end. Instead, the great writer and his canine companion drive through 40 states seeking the heart and spirit of America, which he feels he has forgotten in his twilight years. And though the country Steinbeck finds in his 1960s adventure is not exactly the one of today , some eternal verities that remain: “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation–a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any HERE. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every states I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move.” Steinbeck’s story is almost enough to make you buy an RV and a dog and get going down the road.
Overrated Classic: Don Quixote
Cervantes is supposed to be the Shakespeare of Spain; everything in Spanish literature gets measured against him, comes back to him, is defined in relation or opposition to him. But honestly, we could never get through more than a few chapters. We get the humor in the poor old Don believing his mule is a noble stallion, a prostitute is a fair lady, and the windmills are giants. But the punchline of every episode seems to be “and then they beat him so savagely he lost another tooth.” Which just doesn’t tickle our funny bone. But don’t take our word for it. British writer Martin Amis says “Reading ‘Don Quixote’ can be compared to an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies.” The following Hispanic writers may not be compared to Shakespeare but they’re undeniably great.
- The Aleph and Other Stories. You may know of the brilliant blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, but you’ll never be able to predict the twists and turns of his fantastical plots, or meet his characters in any other stories. These stories star “an unrepentant Nazi, an imprisoned Mayan priest, fanatical Christian theologians, a woman plotting vengeance on her father’s ‘killer,’ and a man awaiting his assassin in a Buenos Aires guest house,” but in the end they all wind up reflecting the writer. As Borges himself writes in the book: “A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
- One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even if you’re skeptical about experimental fiction, you’ll enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s justly celebrated saga about the rich, intertwining destinies of a town and a family in Colombia haunted by dreams and ghosts. For one thing, it’s frequently funny, and for another, the writing is so good that you’ll want to suspend disbelief just to enter the world of the author’s imagination: “Gaston was a pilot …. He wasn’t only a fierce lover, with endless wisdom and imagination, but he was also, perhaps, the first man in the history of species who had made an emergency landing and had come close to killing himself and his sweetheart simply to make love in a field of violets.” I defy you not to read more.
Overrated Classic: Silas Marner
No matter how much you love classic English literature, you’ll probably hate George Eliot’s 19th-century working class novel. The book is only 294 pages but seems longer, possibly because of the characters’ impenetrable Northern English dialect. Poor old Silas Marner is such a lightning rod for bad luck, he must have done something really horrible in a previous life. In the beginning of the book, his best friend frames him for stealing and marries his fiancé. He runs away and painfully accumulates a fortune only to have it stolen from him. He does get to enjoy a sweet relationship with his adopted daughter who has a happy ending of her own, but mostly the novel can be summed up in one long howl. If it had a theme song, it would be a dirge or a funeral march. For classic English alternatives, we recommend:
- Pride and Prejudice. It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is no better classic English novel than this one. (OK, maybe it’s not universal, but a lot of people do agree.) The screen versions, while wonderful, can never fully capture the magic here. If you’ve read it, try reading it again. You’re bound to find something in it you didn’t before in Jane Austen’s brilliant, ascerbic tale of the five Bennet sisters whose loud-mouthed mama is scheming to marry them off to practically anyone within reach. The two elder sisters, Elizabeth and Jane, have supremely limited choices; they can’t get a job as anything but governess or companion, they can’t meet anyone not introduced by their parents or friends, and yet they acquit themselves with grace, courage, and integrity. And they get the guys in the end. Toss in the wickedly funny caricatures of stuffy high society types and a scandalous elopement, and what’s not to like?
- Middlemarch. Apart from Silas Marner, George Eliot is actually great. And she’s at her very best in this story about a smart, ambitious heiress who marries a dried-up little stick of a clergyman because the Church was the only sphere of life where she could actually have any power or do anything. Even in his will, her husband writes all sorts of conditions trying to limit her choices and make her toe the line he sets from her. And yet our heroine grows and prevails and remarries happily, observing at one point: “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust?” George Eliot herself knew a thing or two about the contemporary social pressures on women; she was ostracized from polite society for living in sin with a man who couldn’t get a divorce.
Overrated classic: Lady Chatterley’s Lover
It’s hard to believe anyone liked this book enough to smuggle it back from France in their suitcase, but they did. It was first published in Europe in 1928, but for 32 years English and American judges banned D.H. Lawrence’s story of a married English noblewoman who finds bliss in the arms of her husband’s gamekeeper (the guy who made sure there were foxes for the English lords to chase after on horseback). But not every book ages well. Nowadays the most shocking part is no longer the four-letter words or candid descriptions of sex, it’s the author’s often-stated belief that women can only find true fulfillment in mental, physical, and emotional submission to a man. And the scene where the gamekeeper guy decorates her lady-parts with daisies is both kind of gross and unintentionally hilarious. If you’re looking for a bodice ripper, I recommend:
- Outlander. If you’ve seen the hit Starz TV series, you have some idea of the tilting in the kilting going on here. Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling nurse Claire Beauchamp has a great compensation for getting stuck in 18th-century Scotland: Jamie Frasier is tall, brawny, redheaded, and apparently doesn’t wear much under his tartans. There’s a strange S&M dynamic between Clare’s laddy love and the evil English captain who looks exactly like (and who may be the distant ancestor of) Claire’s husband, the one whom she left back in modern times. But the love affair between Claire and Jamie is awfully sweet despite being so saucy: “I had one last try. ‘Does it bother you that I’m not a virgin?’ He hesitated a moment before answering. ‘Well, no,’ he said slowly, ‘so long as it doesna bother you that I am.’ He grinned at my drop-jawed expression, and backed toward the door. ‘Reckon one of us should know what they’re doing,’ he said.”
- Wuthering Heights. What? You’re not partial to dark brooding types who will marry another girl and kill her little dog just to annoy you? Funny thing about that. And yet you might still fall in love with Emily Bronte’s dark Gothic romance between the wild adopted Heathcliff and his cruel beauty, Catherine. The crazed, boundary-less bond between them is more passionate and impassioned than any explicit sex scene. When Healthcliff cries after her death, “‘Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest, as long as I am living! You said I killed you—haunt me, then! …Be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I cannot live without my life! I cannot live without my soul!'” he makes 50 Shades of Grey seem like fifty shades of nothing. You may shudder at these angry lovers but you won’t stop turning pages and you’ll never forget them.
Overrated classic: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
This book really ought to be titled “Uncle Tom’s Torture.” It’s just plain excruciating to watch Harriet Beecher Stowe’s saintly enslaved hero forgive his supposedly Christian persecutors in the name of Christianity—all in the broadest, most difficult-to-follow dialect too. While you can’t take away the book’s crucially important historic role of inspiring abolitionists around the world, and Stowe does show how even the kindest of masters let down their slaves by not freeing them, the reader can’t help wishing old Tom would give the legendarily evil overseer Simon Legree a good whack with the axe. Which he never does, of course. For African-American literature, we recommend instead:
- Kindred. Octavia Butler was the first black woman to publish science fiction in the U.S., and her genre-busting novel of time travel and slavery remains as fresh and thought-provoking as it was in 1979. Why does Dana, an African-American woman in Los Angeles, keep finding herself on an 18th-century Maryland plantation rescuing the slave owner’s young son? In an interracial marriage herself, Dana quickly realizes that Rufus is her distant ancestor; if she doesn’t keep saving his life she herself will never be born. Over the course of a few weeks in Dana’s time, Rufus is growing to adulthood. She can’t control her traveling through time but maybe she can befriend and humanize Rufus a little bit. Or is Dana unwittingly encouraging him to force her great-great-grandmother into an unwanted relationship?
- Go Tell It On the Mountain. Even a great writer often has to finish that one painful, almost confessional, autobiographical novel about his own life before he can go onto any other subject. For James Baldwin, often hailed as the most eloquent voice in black American literature, Go Tell It On the Mountain is that novel. John Grimes is a sensitive, brilliant boy born out of wedlock who realizes he’ll never be able to please his stepfather, a stern, narrow-minded pastor in 1930s Harlem: “John’s heart was hardened against the Lord. His father was God’s minister, the ambassador of the King of Heaven, and John could not bow before the throne of grace without first kneeling to his father.” The book is often assigned to teens because of John’s age, but its themes are easily challenging enough for an adult. The plot of spiritual inheritance and paternity has its own universal, almost Biblical quality, and combined Baldwin’s beautiful writing, it’s a truly unforgettable read.