I probably read at least 25 books a year. In this day and age, I would say that is a bit unusual. The closing of so many book stores, most recently the national chain Borders, tells me that people just do not buy books as much as they used to. There are those who claim the internet and electronic media are to blame. I am sure that is true in part, but I think technology is getting in the way of people feeling like they need to read anything at all.
That said, I want to offer up five books, all classics, that I consider must reads. These are books that I think have a timeless quality to them not to mention how well they are written compared with today’s pulp fiction. I read a lot of that pulp fiction and truly enjoy it. But the manner in which these old classics were written is beyond compare.
1. Silas Marner by George Eliot — The author George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Ann Evans. At the time of its publication, 1861, female writers were not taken as seriously as their male counterparts. Silas Marner is the story of an English peasant who one day finds a very young girl who has been abandoned by her mother. It tells of how Silas brings up the girl and his reception by the townspeople and the local nobility. At the time of its writing the novel was considered quite risqué because of its bluntness in dealing with human relationships of all sorts. It is also a love story, a murder mystery, and an editorial of English society of the day. Once started, I think this book is a real page turner by anyone who undertakes it.
2. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis — I remember hearing about this book way back when I was in high school and my attitude towards it was that it must be boring. But recently I decided to expand my mind a bit by reading accepted classics and this was one of my first. Main Street is the story of a doctor, Will Kennicott, who is one of three doctors who attended to the city of Gopher Prairie Minnesota. Lewis, himself a trained physician, takes on the social mores of the day and drapes them over the people of the metropolis of Gopher Prairie. The good doctor per chance meets Carol Milford, a librarian in St. Paul. What you get is a view of small town America as seen through the eyes of these two people, Carol, who longs for city life and all it offers, and Dr. Kennicott, who assures Carol that Gopher Prairie offers so much more than any city. What we get is an excellent view of early 20th century life in middle-America. Lewis places many moral and ethical questions in Dr. Kennicott’s path as he moves through his life. The style of writing is exemplary and makes you wonder if such well-written prose is taking shape today.
3. The Financier by Theodore Dreiser — Dreiser is one of my favorite authors and as such it was difficult for me to pick one of three of his books which I love, Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. The Financier is the story of Frank Algernon Cowperwood and based on the real-life story of C.T. Yerkes, a magnate of the late 19th century. This was to be the first of a trilogy Dreiser had planned but never completed. His second book, The Titan, finishes the life of the inimitable Cowperwood. The story starts with the teenaged Frank A. Cowperwood deciding he need to do something with his life that did not include any more formal schooling. He quickly discovers he has a talent for making money in the buying and selling of commodities in Philadelphia, his hometown and the setting for this first novel. Cowperwood’s genius for financial gain quickly lands him in the good favor of those trading on the local stock exchange. Cowperwood’s life takes off from there as he decides early on that he is going to be rich. Dreiser treats us to the shady inner workings of financial manuevers of the 1860s and 1870s and Cowperwood’s unscrupulous dealings. Once done with this book you will most likely want to tackle The Titan to find out what happens.
4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton — Wharton is reknown for her commentary on late 19th Century society. Ethan Frome is the story of a man, Frome, in the New England town of Starkfield. Frome’s wife, Zeena, is a cold and sickly character who Ethan attends to but moves through life as it were a heavy burden. One day, however, the home is visited by Zeena’s cousin Mattie. Mattie is everything Zeena is not. It is the story of how these three live together and their relationships to one another develops.
5. Space by James A. Michener — This is an historical fiction of the first magnitude. To understand how well it is written, the reader should first look to the rear of the book. Not to find out how it ends, but to take note of the many pages of footnotes Michener has made that shows a high degree of research that went into the writing of this book. That alone makes it stand out. Michener takes us from the Nazi German research facility at Peenemunde where the V-1, V-2, and V-3 rockets were developed and how, at war’s end, the Nazi scientists, Werner von Braun among them, came to arrive in the United States and champion the U.S. space effort. He also starts us at the battle of the Coral Sea giving a riveting account of how a glorious ship’s captain emerged victorious facing overwhelming odds, and came to be an astronaut after the war. What we get is an extremely inciteful account of the beginnings of NASA, the research scientists involved, the astronauts themselves, and all the politics that goes along with it. He takes us through the Apollo 18 space mission. Michener wrote the book after the actual final Apollo mission, number 17. In reality NASA had planned out 21 missions so Michener’s playing out an 18th mission is by no means a stretch.
I hope these are five books you may never have contemplated reading either because more well-known classics have shadowed them, or because you just have not considered them. Regardless, they are each worthy of reading and each is relevent to today. None is too dated to be considered.