Classic Reading Suggestions

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Here are my Classic Reading Suggestions for fans of JRR Tolkien’s writings. 

It has been said by many critics that Tolkien belongs (both in intent and in truth) on the bookshelf next to Tolstoy rather than Judith Tarr (and I’ve certainly nothing against the literary talents of Ms. Tarr).

Regardless of Tolkien’s place in the literary canon, Tolkien is the first exposure that many readers get to “serious” literature, and his novels can act as a springboard to other wonderful books that have stood the test of time.

The classics are simply books that, for one reason or another, have withstood the test of time and criticism. Their authors are often instantly recognizable – like Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Hemingway.

Other times it is the books themselves that are recognizable rather than the author – books such as A Catch Twenty-Two or To Kill a Mockingbird.

This is neither meant as an all-inclusive list of suggested classics, nor as a completely unbiased one. These are the classics that I (as an admirer of JRR Tolkien’s writings) have immensely enjoyed. A few (see Lolita below) may not appeal whatsoever to those who read Tolkien purely for its moral or humanistic viewpoints.

This list is necessarily limited, and I’ve attempted to narrow it to a mere ten or so suggestions. This list could go on infinitely if I allowed it, and I will never (even given the unlimited lifespan of an Elf) read all the “Classics”.

So, naturally, many many great books have been excluded. If you would like to submit a review of a Classic novel that you feel I’ve excluded, feel free to do so in the form at the bottom of this page.

Whatever its limitations, this list is a great place to start for those overwhelmed by the vast volume of “Classics” available.

A few other books, such as Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series of books and T.H. White’s Once and Future King, could have been placed either amidst the “Classics” or amongst the “Suggested Fantasy Reading”. I’ve chosen to place them amongst the Fantasy suggestions, for reasons of pure convenience and because they are likely to appeal immensely to readers of Fantasy literature.

Unlike my other pages of suggestions, I will give no “Star” ratings here. They are classics, and that knowledge should speak for itself. I leave the debate over the merits of Classics to those eminent critics more widely-read and knowledgeable than myself.

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I have had some difficulty picking out one favorite from the list of his writings.

David Copperfield was Dickens’ own favorite amongst his novels…and perhaps his most autobiographical. The breadth of Dickens’ imagination is staggering, as is the ridiculously prodigious and varied cast of characters.

Just as highly recommended on my Dickens reading list are Great Expectations and Bleak House

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

As I mentioned above with Dickens, I had considerable difficulty choosing just one from the extensive list of wonderful Tolstoy novels to include in this list. Anna Karenina has been hailed as Tolstoy’s masterpiece by a long line of writers and critics, and who am I to disagree? It recently topped several writer’s polls as the “Favorite Novel” of all-time.

I found it Tolstoy’s most enjoyable, poignant, and beautiful novel. You come to care deeply about Tolstoy’s believable, infuriating, flawed, and most importantly human characters.

Also highly suggested from amongst Tolstoy’s various works are The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories – which includes many of Tolstoy’s shorter masterpieces, such as the title story, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murád – and, of course, the massive doorstop War and Peace (well worth the time).

  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

This novel is lurid, controversial, and twisted. It is also one of the most gorgeously evoked, poignant, and revealing psychological novels of all time…and one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

The tale of Humbert Humbert and his sordid obsession with twelve year old Lolita shows us the absolute highs and lows of humanity, and takes us across the darkest gulfs of human obsession.

Humbert Humbert both lusts for and worships his pre-teen nymphet. Its famous first lines foreshadow the beauty of the book’s prose and its narrator’s duality of lust and worship: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

  • Beowulf trans. by Seamus Heaney

What collection of Classics for readers of JRR Tolkien would be complete without Beowulf, the classic piece of Anglo-Saxon literature that was of such high importance to Tolkien?

One of JRR Tolkien’s most important and well-known contributions to literary studies was his essay in defense of Beowulf called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics published in 1937.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney released a fantastic translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem several years ago, and it stands as the best Beowulf translation out there, showing the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) next to the translated modern English version.

Highly suggested, fascinating reading.

  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Many people first encounter this book as required school reading, and hence the novel automatically loses some of it intrinsic value. Everyone knows that “required reading” almost immediately loses its charm.

A Separate Peace, however, is a beautiful, dark modern masterpiece. Set in a New England boarding school during and following WWII, it explores friendship, allegiances, jealousies, competitiveness and the extremes that these take amongst young boys.

It is one of the most poignant and powerful novels I have ever read on human nature and its sometimes bleak and tragic flaws.

  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Hardy is one of the great English novelists, and Far from the Madding Crowd is, in my opinion, his most underrated novel.

Hardy wrote several darker and more poignant novels, notably Jude the Obscureand Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I found the most enjoyment in Far from the Madding Crowd and I wager that most other Tolkien fans will as well.

Far from the Madding Crowd is set amidst the great green swards of southern England, and is largely pastoral in its setting. The landscape may remind many Tolkien readers of the picturesque rolling Shire.

It involves a tangled web of passion amongst three men and the beautiful Bathsheba Everdene. It is a completely absorbing novel from a masterful storyteller.

  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sure, another suggestion for a 900 page novel by a Russian author. What can I say…those Russian novelists knew what they were doing.

This is Dostoyevsky’s master work, a rumination on the largest themes of Dostoyevsky’s writings– good and evil, religion, guilt, human imperfection, the unknown corners of the human mind. Very similar themes to those he explored in Crime & Punishment, but here he is more subtle and powerful.

It follows the lives, thoughts, and torments of three brothers, Alexei, Dmitri, and Ivan, during and after the murder of their overbearing and intolerant father.

A few other highly suggested works:

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Inheritors by William Golding

    Would you like to review more great Classics?

    The reviews above are only the tip of the iceberg and are not intended to be an all-inclusive list of the greatest classics.

    Do you know of other great Classic novels that you would like to share with Tolkien-Online.com visitors? Write your information and review in the boxes below and submit them to me. The best reviews will be published on the website (with full credit given to you, of course).

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