Why I Read... (Modern) Classics (Part 2)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, I explained why I love to read classics. However, noticeably missing from that list were the 20th century "modern classics," books that fulfill all the requirements of my definition of a classic except for the "stands-the-test-of-time" requirement. I do realize that the 20th century is over and that some of these books have now been around for more than one hundred years. However, the books from that time period, regardless of whether or not they can officially be called classics, has a very distinct literary flavor different from contemporary literary books or classics of an earlier date. I realize that my definitions are in no way official. However, to me there is a distinction, which is why I am making this a separate post from the previous Why I Read Classics post and the future Why I Read Literary Fiction post. 

I think I really began to read modern classics in high school, when I was exposed to Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. Although my first reactions were negative  (both The Pearl and A Farewell to Arms were "too depressing" for my tastes), after my AP English teacher suggested East of Eden as my senior classics project, I was hooked. Since then, I have slowly uncovered other modern classics either on a whim (The House of Mirth), the suggestion of friends (Atlas Shrugged, Of Human Bondage) or, in the last year or so, the suggestion of other bloggers (The Age of Innocence). I'm not sure what it is, exactly, but as a whole, this group of books has been the most influential and moving for me. I think it is a combination of the fact that they are powerful, strongly written masterpieces that weren't written in the far distant past, making them more relatable for me. They make up the majority of my top ten list. 

Why I Read (Modern) Classics

* Beautiful writing. Especially Edith Wharton and John Steinbeck. Their words just make me ache. There is certainly more to a good book than a great plot or strong characters. I think I could just read page after page of their words even if they were meaningless rambles. 
* Relatability. Like I mentioned above, the time periods and experiences in these classics are a little closer to home. While I still haven't experienced many of the things described in books written in the 20th century, they are things I've heard of, paradigms that if I don't hold, I at least know some older adults who hold or have held them. 
* Soul-searching. I feel like many of the modern classics are directed inward, rather than outward. The focus is strongly on character development and what the characters are learning about their inner selves. I know that this doesn't apply to all modern classics, but it tends to apply to the ones that I enjoy. 
* Paris. Okay, this is a more whimsical reason to be reading. But have you noticed how often this beautiful city shows up in modern classics? Especially those by the Lost Generation, of course. I love Paris - the short months I lived there are still some of my favorite memories. Any book that can take me back is probably going to be pretty enjoyable for me. 


* Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is loosely based on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's experience with Zelda's mental illness. It is dreamy and rambling at times, and raw and heartbreaking at others. Definitely not for the faint of heart, but beautiful writing.
The movie East of Eden deviates significantly from the book... but James Dean is in the movie. 
* East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I've met very few Steinbecks that I didn't like, but this one is the masterpiece in my opinion. Steinbeck's ability to peer straight into the human soul is dead on with his unique and insightful characters. He also manages to invent both the most horrifically evil and and the most pure and good characters and put them in the same book.
* The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. This is another book where Steinbeck peers right into the heart of an issue and renders it with heart-breaking accuracy. Added bonus: This one reads like a thriller - it is very intense. 
* The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. This is the first Wharton I read, and it knocked me off my feet because of the beautiful language and the tragic characters.
* The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. And then this one hit me even harder, because Paris is in it. This is the type of book that I can't read too often because it is too intense an experience for me. The sadness and tragedy in the book can affect my own emotions if I'm not careful.
* Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham. Phillip is my literary soul-mate, in some ways. As someone who changed her major 7 times and is back getting a second bachelor's degree, I can appreciate his difficulty in finding what he really wants from life. I can also appreciate the difficulty in getting over a toxic relationship. 

For Further Recommendations, Visit...

* Literary Musings. Brenna does a great job of exploring modern literary masterpieces, both contemporary and more classic.
* Bookworm Meets Bookworm. Beth has great insightful reviews of similar books to the ones Brenna reviews. 


  1. I've heard so much about East of Eden lately... makes me think I need to read it. :-)

  2. oh man oh man oh man. Sometimes we are the same person.

    East of Eden changed my life. And does every time I read it.

    The House of Mirth was gorgeous, but the only Edith Wharton I've ever read. I really need to revisit her.

    And F. Scott Fitzgerald. Goodness. Did I ever tell you about the book Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda? It's a collection of all the letters they ever wrote to each other. Beautiful, but heartbreaking. I had to stop reading them when she went to live in an institution because I couldn't handle it emotionally at the time. But goodness, while they were courting and first married... absolutely lovely.

    Also, Ayn Rand. I'm so glad she got a mention, I LOVE The Fountainhead. Certainly don't agree with her philosophy, but boy can she write well.

  3. Great posts on the "modern" classics. I've been looking for a copy of East of Eden for ages since I saw the movie, and I completely agree with you on The Age of Innocence. I loved it, but I'm not itching to reread it anytime soon. It had this visceral effect on me, especially the ending.

  4. @ Jillian - Yes!! Do it!!

    @A Mitton - You have told me about Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. Once I have an Amazon card I am totally getting it, because I think it would be amazing. Have you seen Midnight in Paris? I think you would like it. You should read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. On a day when you want to read and don't mind feeling a little depressed, of course. I love Ayn Rand as well. She's kind of psychotic, but I love her characters.

    @Darlyn - That is exactly how I would describe it. It was like I'd been punched in the stomach. But it was beautiful at the same time! I loved the movie of East of Eden, but the book is even better - the movie cut out my favorite character, Lee. Hope you get your hands on it soon!

  5. What a great post! I've loved everything I read by Steinbeck, Maugham and Fitzgerald. I mean, The Razor's Edge and East of Eden pretty much changed my life.

    I'm loving your "Why I read..." posts by the way.

  6. @Justabookworm - Both of those are so amazing! I forgot to mention The Razor's Edge. And thank you! They are very fun to write. :)


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