The List’s Biggest Surprises

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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:

Books I Thought I’d Hate and Didn’t:

Books I Assumed Would Be as Great as They Are Famous, and Weren’t:

Books I’d Never Heard of but Ended Up Loving:

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 MiddlemarchThe 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.

On the other hand, The Sound and the Fury, Ulysses, and Moby-Dick have earned their infamy (and then some).

  • 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!

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6 thoughts on “The List’s Biggest Surprises

  1. Brave New World was a mixed response for me. I loved it my senior year of high school, but when I tried re-reading many years later, I got bored and put it down. I wonder if what made me like it in high school was it was the first assigned reading I’d had that took place in a futuristic world AND was written after 1900, so it was refreshingly unusual. Plus it was my first dystopia, so 17-year-old me was all fired up to get thought-provoked. Reading it in my late 20s, though… I don’t know… I’d read other dystopias since then, plus a lot more reading in general, so maybe I was pickier about my tastes and what I wanted from a narrative… Or maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood that day! Mood’s a big factor with me. Either way, I got bored midway through and stopped. I will probably try again someday.

    What books have you loved and then later disliked after re-reading later? Have I asked you that before? Apologies if I forgot!

    (Oh wait. Just remembered BNW wasn’t my first dystopia – The Giver was. But still, it was an uncommon genre for me early in life.)

    • Brave New World is a funny one for me, because I’m ALMOST sure I read it in high school — meaning I shouldn’t have had to reread it for my classics challenge. But my rule from the beginning was that if I couldn’t remember, or wasn’t 100% sure I’d fully read a book, I had to read/reread it. This category mostly included the children’s books on the list, like Charlotte’s Web, because normally I’d have no trouble remembering whether I read a novel as late as high school… with the sole exception of BNW. I honestly don’t remember. I think I did read it, and it made almost no impression on me. When I reread it for the challenge, the same thing happened again — I sat down to write the review and couldn’t recall anything about it! I had to look up a plot summary to relearn the basics. It turns out BNW, for me, is utterly forgettable.

      That’s a great question, re: books I liked the first time around, but not the second. I do feel like I’ve outgrown certain books I loved as a teenager, and/or tend to notice problematic (often antifeminist) aspects of books in subsequent reads that I overlooked the first time. Especially chick lit/romantic novels. Has the same happened to you? And do you do much rereading?

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