The Sorrows of Young Werther
As you get ready to sprint this literary marathon, it’s important to pick a starting book that’s going to keep you motivated. The truth is, classic literature is only interesting or important when it can relate to your personal circumstances. You’re in luck, because even though The Sorrows of Young Werther was written in the 1770s, it contains characters who are people, just like people today are people. The main character, Werther, is a lovesick young man who becomes suicidal through bitter anguish of unrequited love. Werther may be fictional and written a long time ago, but his life might look a lot like your life if you don’t get through this list of books.
The Importance of Being Earnest
You may think that The Picture of Dorian Gray is the perfect slim classic novel, but you’re wrong. Very wrong. Dorian Gray is a minimum of 140 pages. You’re not going to live forever. You don’t have time for those extra 40 pages, so, unless they bring out The Picture Book of Dorian Gray, you’re going to stick to The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s a play for serious people, it says so, right there in the title.
It also definitely tells you that lying and changing your personality for social situations is completely normal and acceptable and can have no awkward repercussions.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Reading Shakespeare is kind of unavoidable if you want to be considered well read, but it’s a tricky business and one that can take some time to get to grips with, time that you don’t have. The best solution to all this is to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The play is a convoluted tangle of storylines, there are plays within plays, disguises within disguises, as well as a handful of fairies and a half-man half-donkey. This fever-dream of a play will help you cover over the fact that you can’t tell your Bottom from your Snout.
Jane Austen’s books have the advantage here of being both classics and a great source of literary dating advice. Unfortunately, Austen’s romantic wisdom is often hidden in the lengthy descriptions of weather, ribbons, carriages, dances, and stiff upper lips.
Lady Susan avoids most of that by being written in epistolary form, as letters are usually shorter than books. Lady Susan is also the only one of Austen’s protagonists who isn’t bound by morals and conscience, so she’s probably the one you can relate to the most.
Heart of Darkness
The point of reading classics is so that you can say smart things. Heart of Darkness is an ideal book for this because it’s filled with the kind of talking points that make you look intelligent and sophisticated. In just 76 pages, Conrad manages to squeeze in lots of things that are very racist, as well as some things that aren’t. Just make sure you mention ‘The horror, the horror’ of colonialism and you’ll be all set for your intellectual literary musings.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
While it’s important to be able to say smart things about serious topics, being well read also means being able to pontificate on topics that seem like gibberish. Lewis Carroll made a name for himself writing literary nonsense, much of it now critically acclaimed literary nonsense, and so his books provide an excellent training ground in being able to extol the genius of what appears to you to be senseless text.
A Room of One's Own
Given all this effort you’re going through in order to live up to your date’s dictats on reading, it might be worth exploring why she thinks it important. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is an extended essay on the women’s role in the literary world, making it the ideal combination of classic literature and dating reconnaissance material. It’s also a handy shortcut as it means you don’t need to actually read women authors throughout history, you can just read one classic female author talking about women authors throughout history.
A Christmas Carol
Since you’ve established now that you don’t have time to read all the women, it’s time to get back to the men. Charles Dickens is one of the most famous male authors, and obligingly his most famous work is also one of his shortest.
It’s important to read Dickens’ original text though, because all the different movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol can lead you astray. You don’t want to find yourself arguing that there was definitely two Marleys just because The Muppets told you so.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Now that you’re about halfway through you might reflect on your activities. It may occur to you that it’s quite mercenary and shallow to crush a pile of books into your head in order to impress a girl, but reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde teaches you that, lurking inside all of us is a mercenary and shallow person, and that perhaps the best way to engage with this fact is to give that monster occasional free reign.
The Old Man and the Sea
Some people will tell you that Fitzgerald and Salinger are the must-read classic American authors, but these people are wrong. Hemingway is the only American author that matters. Mainly because he’s the only one with the guts to write a novel under a hundred pages.
Be warned however, Hemingway’s story of a man desperately trying to land a fish after 84 days without a catch may unfortunately put a darker perspective on your date, obliterating the reassurance that ‘there’s plenty more fish in the sea.’ On the bright-side there’s a chance she might get it confused with the other, much longer, Great American Fish Novel, Moby Dick* giving you well read bonus points and so a better chance at avoiding the madness and isolation Hemingway describes.
*Doubtless many of you are already writing a letter to my editor explaining that I should be fired because whales aren’t fish. Put down that pen, you don’t have time for pedantry. Keep reading.