Top Literary Reads
As a devoted student of literature and a passionate reader, I must confess my tendency to devour all manner of written work whenever I get the opportunity. Studying literature certainly forces you to rid yourself of all insularity and prejudice where reading is concerned, shoving you out of your comfort zone and confronting you with works in a various number of formats and genres and from diverse backgrounds and time periods, many of which you might never have considered pursuing. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that you’ll fall in love with all the works you read, it’s almost equally impossible to remain untouched by some of them. Here, in no particular order, is a selection of some of my favourite pieces of literature, all of which left a lasting impression and, to my mind, helped me to emerge as a more knowledgeable, more complete reader.
- The Great Gatsby: Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, this novel, with its sprawling depictions of wealth and opulence in New York, truly encapsulates the post-war, pre-Depression era of the Roaring Twenties. Revolving around the concept of the Great American Dream – the notion that anyone can earn results and build their own wealth through hard work and dedication – Fitzgerald endeavours to highlight the corruption and underlying class mentality of a people who harbour an insatiable yearning for wealth and status, converting the humble dream on which they pride themselves from hard work to greed and waste. It is this desire for prosperity through often illegal activities, including bootlegging, that has resulted in decayed moral and social values, reflected in the surrounding environment of ash, over which the haunting eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg, possibly a metaphor for God, watch. With the crumbling, corrupt American Dream paralleling Gatsby’s fixation on the rather hollow Daisy and the consequential dwindling of his own dream to reconnect with her, The Great Gatsby almost reads as a prediction of the Great Depression that was soon to hit the world, and emphasises the emptiness of the upper class, whilst simultaneously suggesting that the people from these classes, devoid of morality though they may be, usually come out on top.
- Hamlet: As much as I believe that any of Shakespeare’s plays could have made this list, Hamlet comes in as one of my absolute favourites and, with respect to the depth of critical analysis produced in an attempt to explain its enigmatic themes and ideas, earns a place out of pure reverence. Hamlet truly is unparalleled in terms of the symbols and quotes that it has contributed to the literary world, not to mention that famous soliloquy recognised by even the most unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works. With its infinite suggestions about religion, revenge, tragic heroism, poison, death, spying and surveillance, decay, conscience vs. consciousness, mental and physical duels, and madness vs. antic disposition, along with its depiction of complex, multi-faceted characters who commit crimes, yet simultaneously display a remorse that belies our immediate impressions, Hamlet goes much deeper than telling the story of the eponymous Danish prince bent on revenge following his father’s murder by his uncle. Stimulating and compelling in its complexity, Hamlet is a timeless piece of literature.
- Wuthering Heights: It may be Emily Brontë’s only novel, but it certainly does not suffer for being so. Often portrayed as a sweeping romance that typecasts Heathcliff as a typical Hollywood hero, Wuthering Heights actually chronicles the burning passion, resembling love just as much as it does hate, between Cathy and Heathcliff, before depicting the bitter revenge that the latter inflicts on the next generation. Set on the rugged moors of Yorkshire that appear to reflect the tumultuous dispositions of the characters, Brontë creates a world that is entirely isolated from the bustle of London, at a time when grand sweeping themes of city life, headed by Charles Dickens, dominated the literary scene. Lacking popularity when initially published precisely for its Gothic tones and isolated setting, Brontë throws the readers into a position from where they become utterly consumed with the politics of Thrushcross Grange, Wuthering Heights, and the rugged, no-man’s-land that connects them. The manner in which characters simply disappear from the novel when outside one of these three locations, melting away as if into nothing, offers the reader no chance of escape, leaving them vulnerable to Heathcliff’s torturous behaviour that seems set to destroy the lives of the largely innocent younger heirs of the two estates. Engrossing and powerful, one of my favourite novels of all time, I cannot recommend it more highly.
- Atonement: Ian McEwan’s study of writing, guilt, forgiveness, identity, and fictionalisation, tumble through the pages of his tale about Briony Tallis’ desperation to repent for a crime she committed at the age of thirteen, when her ignorance and powers of story telling tore apart her sister’s love and sent an innocent man to prison and ultimately to the battle grounds of the Second World War. With its shifting perspectives, fictionalised ending, and countless literary references, McEwan seems to be asking whether it is possible to give an accurate account of anything, as all authors are clouded by interpretation and judgement. Indeed, it is misperception and misunderstanding that results in Briony’s crime, just as her desire to protect her sister from the clutches of someone beneath her, highlights the discrepancy between the social classes. Injustice permeates throughout the entire novel not only in the idea of class division, but also in the horrors of the war, its cruelty particularly encapsulated by the necessity of the innocent Robbie Turner to free himself through participation. With its tangled identities, broad spectrum, and heart rendering narrative, Atonement is truly a story of tragic beauty.
It may be a short list, but these four reads contribute dramatically to my love of literature and to my determination to ultimately study the subject through to PhD level. Rewarding and stimulating, I would encourage all readers to give these four a go, and, most importantly, to continue reading.