The Best Classic Lit You've Never Heard Of
Nobody reads these in high school, and at Vintage Novels, that makes us sad.
Remember having to suffer through The Great Gatsby at school? Maybe you were scarred for life by Lord of the Flies. Or bored stiff by Wuthering Heights. Or maybe you developed an unexpected love for Romeo and Juliet, and before you knew it you were also scarfing Beowulf and Pride and Prejudice.
These books are not those books. Odds are you've never heard of them. But we think you'll like them. And, if you find that you've enjoyed this list, you may also enjoy my blog, Vintage Novels, in which I delve ever deeper into the lesser known depths of classic literature.
1. The Song of Roland
We actually did have to read this one in high school, and we didn't like it much. Lots of people getting cut messily in two. Since then, however, we've become fascinated with medieval history, and now we think this medieval chanson de geste, with its vivid battleground action, chivalric code of brotherhood, and complete lack of emotional inhibition, is the coolest thing ever.
Read it if... you like Beowulf, Norse sagas, or other bromance-filled military stories...and don't mind a bit of synchronised mass swooning. (No, really!)
2. Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme liberata)
Before the Novel, there was the Epic Poem, and Toquato Tasso's Renaissance-era extravaganza Jerusalem Delivered is one of the most irresistible. It's set during the First Crusade, but don't worry - you're pretty much bound not to learn any history here. Instead, there's forbidden love, spies, chivalrous knights, action girls, scantily-clad enchantresses, Stoic philosophy, and awesome battle sequences.
Read it if... you really love Indiana Jones, King Arthur, Pirates of the Caribbean, or Marvel movies, 'cause it's basically the same kind of thing.
3. Love's Labor's Lost
We understand why most people never really discover Love's Labor's Lost, since it's one of Shakespeare's fluffiest plays and half its jokes are in Latin. But even discounting those, you've still got a delightfully lightweight comedy about a king and his courtiers who take themselves way too seriously and immediately regret it.
Read it if... the words "Shakespeare writes a PG Wodehouse story" make you drool in anticipation.
4. The School for Scandal and Other Plays
In the 1700s, Richard Brinsley Sheridan must have had audiences rolling in the aisles with these satirical comedies, because all these years later and The Critic, The School for Scandal and The Rivals have us practically in tears.
Read them if... the idea of screwball comedies, eighteenth-century style, sounds appealing.
5. Barchester Towers
Victorian novelists are not quite our jam. Sentimental, melodramatic, and awash in purple prose - yes, even you, Dickens. And then there's this guy. Anthony Trollope's Chronicles of Barset are all about the doings of Church of England clergyman, but loaded with wit, irreverence, satire, and awesome female characters.
Read it if... you love Jane Austen and wish she'd written more than six books.
This seminal 1884 work of geometrical science fiction is quirky, satirical, and packed full of social and political commentary. Its protagonist is, literally, a square inhabiting a two-dimensional world - but what secret have the rulers of Flatland been hiding for years?
Read it if... you're the kind of person who looked at Alice in Wonderland and thought, "What this really needs is more maths."
7. Vice Versa
CS Lewis once said that F Anstey's Vice Versa was the only book ever written that was honest about the horribleness of Victorian boarding-schools. In this classic set-up, a schoolboy and his pompous father accidentally switch bodies and must each figure out how to survive in the other's world. If you're thinking Freaky Friday, you're absolutely correct - this is where it all started.
Read it if... you want a surprisingly honest and touching look at Victorian family life that will make you both laugh and cry.
8. The Prisoner of Zenda
At Vintage Novels we are connoisseurs of classic fun, and this is one of our favourites. An unabashedly straightforward tale of forbidden love, mistaken identity, dashing villains, intrigue, danger, swords and castles, The Prisoner of Zenda is one of those classic adventure yarns that you won't want to put down.
Read it if... you want to read something fast-paced and swoonworthy, possibly on the beach.
9. The Four Adventures of Richard Hannay
Spy fiction pretty much had its start here, in a series of novels about a stiff-upper-lipped British army officer during World War I being hunted across a variety of landscapes by various shadowy German conspiracies. John Buchan was a consummate writer of suspense and adventure, and we defy you to put these books down once you've picked them up.
Read them if... Jason Bourne or James Bond are your thing, because these books are the great-granddaddy of both of them.
10. Brideshead Revisited
It seems like every other book written about the 1920s and 30s was a depressing indictment of the emptiness of the Gilded Age. We're not mentioning any names, Gatsby, but we thought Brideshead Revisited, with its slow-moving tale of aching love and desire, culminating in a bittersweet, yet luminous revelation of grace, was far more enjoyable.
Read it if... you prefer a crushing sense of guilt to a crushing sense of futility.
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