“Emma” by Jane Austen
Carrie: For all of you who’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” and nothing else by Jane Austen, you’re really missing out. Yes, “Pride and Prejudice” is an amazing book, but it is also the most over-processed of Austen’s works. Everyone knows how the story goes. But “Emma” is a much more adept and entertaining foray into Austen’s playful and humorous style. The character of Emma Woodhouse is hysterical. Mr. Knightley is the kind of flawed leading man romantic comedies have been trying – and failing – to replicate for years. The glimpse into nineteenth-century gossip is juicy, slightly scandalous and shows us how far we really haven’t come. Yes, “Clueless” is based loosely on this book, but please. Get it straight from the source. This is Austen’s best book, and even though it’s long, it is definitely worth it.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jess: A classic in the truest sense of the word. Fitzgerald’s iconic interpretation of life in the 1920s had the capability of becoming quickly outdated, but its popularity has only increased over the decades since it was published. Unlike most classics we’ve been forced to read, “Gatsby” is one of the rare few that is both easy and enjoyable to read. Fitzgerald walks a fine line and manages to make his writing clear yet full of symbolism and deeper meaning. He weaves a compelling, albeit tragic, story of one man’s simultaneous success and sorrow and how his actions impact those around him. The American Dream is wonderfully detailed in this classic, proving that money can’t actually buy everything. Had we been introduced to Fitzgerald at a younger age, maybe fewer people would detest classics today.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde
Jess: The multiple cases of mistaken identity and the hijinks that ensue because of them rest at the heart of this comedic play. Two men claim to be named Ernest, when in fact neither is. There is no triumph of the human spirit, no protagonist overcoming adversity. All “Earnest” provides is a light, enjoyable read. At the very least, it can be considered a classic for the simple reason that it proves that people in the 1800s could, in fact, be funny. Shocking, I know.
Carrie: Oscar Wilde is kind of really funny. He’s also kind of amazing. And, yes, this is his most well known work, but there’s a reason for that. The pure nonsensicalness of the plot and the interplay between characters makes this one of the best “plays of manners” out there.
“The Inferno” by Dante Alighieri
Carrie: Many are daunted by this classic. Merely because it’s by a 14th century Italian poet? Who knows. But all I know is that it’s really fun to read about the nine circles of Hell. Maybe I’m weird. But one of my favorite passages of all time – what’s written on the gates of hell when Dante and Virgil arrive there – is in this epic poem: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” That may or may not be the sign on my bedroom door. Reading through this, pay attention to the description of each circle. Dante has a way with describing brutality and violence while still making it poetic and almost pretty. Now that’s skill. I don’t recommend “Pugatorio” or “Paradisio” simply because perfection – and near perfection – are boring.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
Jess: A 12-year-old girl is continuously raped by a 40-year-old man, referred to as Humbert, in the 1940s. Sounds like an absolutely horrible topic for a book, right? Well, somehow Nabokov turns this taboo subject into a freaking awesome exploration of the human psyche. It’s not so much the storyline that draws the reader in as it is the style used to convey it. Written from Humbert’s perspective, Nabokov’s persuasive language convinces the reader that Lolita is a cruel temptress and that Humbert is a helpless victim. Reading this book proved to me that classics don’t have to be dry and boring but can in fact be quite shocking. Some perceive it as a story of perverted lust. Others see it as one of all-consuming love. It is Nabokov’s duplicitous language, which illicits such wide-ranging interpretations, that has made this novel a classic, as well as one of my all-time favorite books.
Join Carrie and Jess next week when they talk about TV’s most underrated shows. Caroline Russomanno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.