Did you know that the first listicle was written in the 11th century? Or that people from hundreds of years ago still found fart jokes amusing? Or that some of the most celebrated classics are just straight up fanfiction?
The great works of history can sometimes be a bit intimidating to the modern reader. And yes, there are many historical masterpieces that deserve their grand reputation. (I'm not about to tell you that War and Peace is a breezy summer read.) But there's also a reason that these great books of the past have stood the test of time: most of them are just plain great. They're not great because they're old and stuffy and use the word hence, they're great because they still hold up. There's still something engrossing about them, something that you can still identify with hundreds of years later. It's a rare feeling, to read an author from the distant past who just totally gets you.
Besides, these books have lasted until now, and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere anytime soon, so you might as well give them a chance. Because no matter how long ago they were written, each of them still has something to say today:
1. The Iliad by Homer
Publish date: c. 760 BCE
Just your classic tale of a grief-crazed warrior seeking sweet, bloody revenge for his boyfriend's death (if anyone tries to tell you that Achilles and Patroclus weren't an item, they probably didn't read the actual poem). If you've only ever seen the film Troy, you are missing out on a whole lot of nutty Greek gods and nauseating battle scenes — but what really makes The Iliad hold up today is that, at it's core, it's a story of war, love, and revenge that will be relevant as long as human beings still have things like war, love, and revenge.
2. The Aeneid by Virgil
Publish date: 29 - 19 BCE
If you've read The Iliad, then you might remember a minor character named Aeneas. One of the less interesting princes of Troy? Ring any bells? No? Well, about 700 years after the Greeks wrote The Iliad, the Romans decided it was ripe time for a spin-off, so they gave us The Aeneid. And it's one of the most ridiculous, cinematic, just plain epic pieces of over-blown fanfiction out there. Aeneas is off to found a New Troy, but along the way he's going to encounter tempests, battles, bitter break ups, and a jaunt into the underworld (he also unintentionally hits on his mother... like, more than once). It holds up because it reads like a high octane action movie full of nonsense and pouting Trojans.
3. Beowulf by Unknown
Publish date: c. 700
So. You've read Lord of the Rings. You've read A Song of Ice and Fire. Now you want something similar, but with much more of an emphasis on monsters and killing monsters. Meet Beowulf (especially the Seamus Heaney translation, if you're looking for accessibility). Beowulf is a big ol' viking-style action hero who fights a monster. Then he has to fight that monster's mother. Then, a dragon shows up and he has to fight a dragon. Having to fight two monsters and then a dragon will never, ever not be relevant.
4. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
Publish date: c. 1000 - 1010
I know what you're thinking: Dudes fighting monsters and each other is all well and good, but what if I just want a soap-opera-style novel about a sexy Japanese prince and his various girlfriends, and all the drama everyone causes by sleeping around? Well, Murasaki Shikibu has got you covered. The Tale of Genji is often called the "first modern novel," and it certainly does seem modern (there are even several manga adaptations out there). It's written by a woman, with actual female characters of substance, and it really does feel a lot more like several seasons of a campy tv show than an ancient novel of great importance.
5. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
Publish date: 1002
While Murasaki Shikibu was writing the first modern novel, her literary rival, Sei Shonagon, was writing the first blog. Seriously, The Pillow Book is a collection of snarky listicles about Sei Shonagon's life, her various romance dalliances, and her petty annoyances. It is, hands down, the funniest thing written before 1050 that you will ever read. In her list of Hateful Things, for instance, she includes: "a man you’ve had to conceal in some unsatisfactory hiding place, who then begins to snore." Sei keeps it real.
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Publish date: 1601
As long as there is one angsty teen left on this Earth, the play Hamlet will continue to be relevant. I don't think many people would argue that Hamlet doesn't hold up, but if you've never read it (or never read it outside of a high school classroom), it really does live up to the hype. Shakespeare's language is beautiful, sure, but it's also so incredibly incisive when it comes to the slings and arrows of the human condition and the torture of indecision. Also, he's got some pretty killer puns.
7. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Publish date: 1847
Speaking of angst, the Bronte sisters will never go out of style. If you're in the mood for a moody, Gothic love story full of secrets, mysteries, terrible boarding schools, arsonist ex-wives and deadpan governesses, then Jane Eyre is your girl. Although Jane as a character is dated in some ways (is "governess" still a job, even?), she's also amazingly modern in her ferocity and strength of character. Jane is one of those characters you'll miss the moment you've finished the book.
8. Ulysses by James Joyce
Publish date: 1922
Before you run screaming into the night, yes, Ulysses is a bit of a challenging read. You'll need the footnotes. But don't let that scare you, because James Joyce's magnum opus is not as incomprehensible as it's made out to be. At it's core, it's just the story of one man wandering around Dublin for a full day... and nothing much happens to him (but also, SO much happens to him). If you hunker down and read it, though, Ulysses is guaranteed to actually, genuinely change the way you look at your day-to-day life, even if you're not a Jewish Irishman from the 1920s. So I would say it's worth the extra effort.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Publish date: 1960
Just in case you somehow forgot why everyone's been making such a fuss about Go Set a Watchman, this is a classic that most definitely holds up. It may be from a different (albeit fairly recent) historical period, but To Kill a Mockingbird is still very much a relevant text. It's also the sort of book with more to say every time you return to it. No matter what you thought about Scout and Atticus in Watchman, the original book is still a stand-alone masterpiece.