In literature, as in life, our expectations don’t always align with reality. We’re all a little wary of books that seem over-hyped and/or universally praised, and we’ve all found ourselves reeling with pleasure from a book we had every intention of loathing.
The 100 Greatest Books of All Time are full of surprises—at least, in my experience—despite their (mostly) familiar names and (often) widespread reputations. And even when so-called “Great” books leave me feeling disappointed, I’m thrilled that after all this time they’re still, in a sense, waiting to be discovered… by me, and by anyone else willing to try them out for ourselves.
98 books later, these are the classics that most took me by surprise.
Books I Thought I’d Love and Didn’t:
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
- Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
- Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne
- A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:
- Light in August, William Faulkner
- Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
- A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
- In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:
- Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
- The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
- Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
- The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:
- All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
- Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
- The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
- Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
- The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu
Miscellaneous Surprises The Challenge Had in Store for Me:
- The animal narrators were animal badasses.
Gone are the days when I presumed animal narrators were synonymous with schmaltzy maudlit. The Wind in the Willows is a hilarious romp, but there’s wisdom and wonder in the Wild Wood, too. The Call of the Wild is starkly gorgeous and startlingly provocative. Animal Farm is, I’m convinced, how all history should be told—briefly, and in allegory. And Charlotte’s Web is a quiet assault on the emotions, profound in its simplicity.
- The big, bad books used to terrify adolescents aren’t as tough as they’d like to think.
In Search of Lost Time is monstrously long, sure—but it’s more than readable if you’ve got the time. The same goes for Anna Karenina and Middlemarch. The scariest classics are the ones you’ve never heard of, lurking in the shadows of our literary closets: Tristram Shandy comes to mind, as does Absalom, Absalom! and Malone Dies.
- To a certain extent, the classics are more alike than they are different.
Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening all have essentially the same plot: Depressed woman has an affair and then kills herself. The suicide methods differ, at least. But if there’s a formula for “classic” status, I suspect it would look something like Social Criticism + Religious Criticism + Adultery + Suicide, with liberal references to other classics.
Gold, silver, and bronze medals for the Most Unique Classics go to Malone Dies, Things Fall Apart, and The Trial, respectively. Finnegans Wake wins first prize in Most WTF, a separate category in which Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is runner up.
And, finally, the Greatest surprise of all:
I didn’t think he had it in him.
If books this old and this well-known still manage to surprise me, I can’t wait to see what the rest of the lit world is waiting to reveal. Here’s to 98 books and many more surprises, for you and for me. Happy reading!