10 Literary Classics That Are Way Too Relevant Right Now
When we think of the "classics," we probably think of high school reading lists. We remember slogging through Moby Dick, or falling asleep during The Scarlet Letter, or hating on Holden Caulfield. There's a reason that these books have lasted through the decades, though (some of them, anyway, I'm not going to defend Melville as highly readable). While we certainly shouldn't limit the scope of our reading to the so-called Western Canon, we also shouldn't write off every lauded classic as fusty and irrelevant. Here are a few literary classics that are way, way too relevant right now.
Most classics, after all, are deemed "classic" because their themes are universal. We may not be living in sixteenth century Venice, for example, but we can still understand the racism that Othello faces in Othello. We're not early American Puritans (not all of us, anyway), but Hester's struggles in The Scarlet Letter are not a far cry from the ways in which women's sexuality is policed today. And even if we're not unmarried Regency ladies, we can recognize the basic Pride and Prejudice plot-line in just about every rom-com in existence.
Classics shouldn't be the only books we read, but they do help us understand our contemporary problems through the lens of history. Here are a few classics that feel almost a little too relevant when it comes to culture and politics today:
'1984' by George Orwell
George Orwell paints a frightening picture of the future: an authoritarian surveillance state in which the government can alter language, facts, and even history. The government doesn't just control its citizens, it controls reality. The story is chilling, creepy, and a little too familiar. Between the Trump administration's open lies and America's enthusiasm for rewriting its own history, it's no surprise that 1984 is back on the bestseller's list.
'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe
In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents twin dramas: that of the individual vs society, and that of the complex, destructive force of colonialism. In a world of increased globalization, with countries like Britain and the U.S. trying to return to isolationist policies after spending the last several centuries pillaging pretty much every other country on Earth, Achebe's exploration of the early days of colonialism is all too relevant if we want to understand how we got into this huge, global mess. (Also, "Things Fall Apart" would be a pretty apt name for the year 2017 in general.)
'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley
I know what you're thinking—isn't Brave New World basically just 1984 but also everyone is on drugs or something? Well, no, not quite. Brave New World is more of a critique of capitalist consumer culture than anything else. It envisions a future in which capitalism has degraded the cost of human life, society has become blatantly anti-intellectual, and indigenous peoples are treated as sub-human... and it's all a little too close to home.
'Beloved' by Toni Morrison
Between debates over Civil War statues and white supremacist rallies, a novel that explores the intense psychological legacy of slavery is feeling extremely relevant right about now. Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a woman born into slavery, who has escaped to freedom at a terrible cost. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, only called Beloved, who will not release Sethe from the traumas of her past.
'Les Misérables' by Victor Hugo
For an incredibly long, incredibly specific novel about a French revolution (no, not that French revolution), Les Misérables could easily be written about 21st century America. It deals with police brutality, profiling, unjust prison sentences, income inequality, lack of respect for sex workers, prejudice against ex-convicts, the need for social protections for factory workers, and so much more. Victor Hugo's magnum opus is still very much a call to protect the most vulnerable members of society, and his politics are as relevant now as they ever were.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee
Our justice system does not always guarantee justice for all! Surprise! To Kill a Mockingbird continues to be a masterpiece of American literature. A young woman was killed by white supremacists in the American South just a few weeks ago, so it's hard to think of anyone arguing that To Kill a Mockingbird is not relevant right now. Its portrait of bigotry and injustice still stands today, as does Go Set a Watchman's complication of the character of "cool dad" Atticus Finch.
'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator is not "invisible" through any sort of science fictional means, but because no one can see him. When people look at him they see, instead, their own projected fears and fantasies. Invisible Man takes us from the Deep South to Northern Harlem on an odyssey of self-discovery and disillusionment. Some of the references might be dated, but Ellison's conception of "visibility" versus "invisibility" is still present in every conversation about race in America.
'The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank
In 1942, Anne Frank and her family fled from their home in Amsterdam. They spent the next two years in hiding, unable to leave a small hidden annex in an old office building, lest they be captured and killed by the Nazis. Anne's diary records her thoughts, hopes, ambitions, and fears as she lived in hiding for those two years, before she was eventually captured and killed in a concentration camp. For anyone who wants to get into a debate about how silencing Nazis is just as bad as being a Nazi... just hand them this book.
'Slaughterhouse-Five' by Kurt Vonnegut
If you find yourself tempted to shrug and say "So it goes" every time you hear about another global atrocity, it's time to read Slaughterhouse-Five. Yes, there are aliens and time travel and yes, Kurt Vonnegut is one of the greatest humorists of all time. But I promise you that this is still a war novel. Vonnegut's wry sci-fi classic bears witness to the brutality of war, and the absurdity of human life, and the danger of accepting violence as inevitable.
'The Great Gatsby' by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby is all about making America great again. Well, he's about making Gatsby great again, at least. It's strange that a novel with the moral "you can not ever go back to a better, shinier version of things in the past" has spawned so many Great Gatsby themed parties. Guys... you understand that the parties weren't the point, right? Regardless of how much fun it is to dress up as a flapper, The Great Gatsby reminds us that there is no "greater" past America to recapture and, even if there was, there is no way to recapture it. Can someone please pass that message along to the president?