Occasionally I write lists of five things (see Five Plays I Love and Five Poems I Love) because I like writing numbered lists, and five is a good number. Now, seeing that I’m a big fan of the classics, I thought I would do a list devoted to literature of centuries past, so, in sort of chronological order, here it is.
1. The Iliad – Homer
Depending on your translation (mine is by Richard Lattimore), the phrasing of the first line of this epic differs, but it’s a good one, as far as first lines go: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus.” Yes, an epic poem about Achilles and his anger issues. Among other things, like the Trojan War. It’s been several years since I’ve read this, but I enjoyed it a lot, because it’s a classical literature version of an action movie, and I’ll admit that I sometimes really like action movies, so you can start calling me a rube now.
2. Beowulf – Anonymous
Who wrote Beowulf? I don’t know and you don’t either, but even though it’s really old and it was once assigned to me for a class, I sat down and read it pretty much in one sitting. Among other things, a badass named Beowulf kills some monsters. What more can I say about it? It’s a good time. No, really.
3. Paradise Lost – John Milton
I know, I know, I am all about the epic poetry. Many people think this is the most boring thing they have ever been forced to read by an educator in their lives, but because I am a big weirdo nerd, I actually like this poem a lot. An epic created from the Bible (which is a source ripe with material for epic poetry), with a sneaky, devious Satan who is a villain (or, if you’re Byron, a hero) who makes the whole thing worth reading. Milton is considered one of the big daddies of English letters for many reasons, but this is most definitely the greatest of them.
4. Emma – Jane Austen
I’m skipping over some famous work from the 18th century, like Robinson Crusoe (because I hate that book) and Gulliver’s Travels (which I don’t hate, but don’t love either) to get to the 19th century, which contains some of my all-time favorite literature. You may or may not be aware of the fact that I am a big fan of Jane Austen, and this novel, about meddling Emma Woodhouse, is easily my favorite. Funny and occasionally dramatic (as far as Jane Austen gets dramatic) with a heroine I alternate between loving and wanting to strangle, I love this book in a deep and lasting way. And even though I’m no longer a teenager, I also love Amy Heckerling’s film adaptation, Clueless, which I maintain that I like because it is a clever retelling of Austen’s classic, and not just because I have a long-standing schoolgirlish crush on Paul Rudd.
5. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
I’m just barely squeaking by with this one, which was originally published in 1899. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher loaned me a copy of this book because she thought I’d like it. I thought it was okay — I didn’t quite get it then — but when I returned to it a few years later, the power of the book hit me full-on and I adored it. It’s a book about a woman realizing herself as an intellectual, sexual being and about power and making choices. When it was published, it was considered shocking and outrageous, and it is still strong and fresh more than 100 years later. It’s a great book, and perhaps my favorite one on this list.