To read or not to read: Exploring must-read literature

By Noah Newsome
Elm Staff Writer

Over hundreds of years, a vast number of novels have been written, published, and read by the literate masses. Out of these tens of thousands, only a fraction gained the notoriety to be considered truly classic works of literature, with the skill of their authors bleeding from the page. But which ones should you read if you had to choose?

Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”

One of the most iconic horror novels of all time is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Published in 1897, the novel is written in an epistolary form, meaning the story is conveyed to the reader via diary entries, letters, or news articles.

While there is no single main character, one of the primary characters is Johnathan Harker, who stays at the castle of a Transylvanian noble, the titular Count Dracula.

 Even over a century later, the story of “Dracula” has gone on to inspire a host of horror tropes and series that draw heavily from the groundwork laid by Stoker. If you are interested in gothic horror, or the broader horror genre, then “Dracula” is a must read.

“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

Originally published in 1958, “Things Fall Apart” is set in Nigeria during the late 1800s, near the end of the precolonial times and the start of the European colonization efforts.

The plot follows an Igbo man named Okonkwo, a wrestling champion from the fictional Umuofia clan, through three phases of life. The first phase describes Okonkwo’s personal and family history as well as the traditions of his clan wherein Okonkwo tries to uphold traditional masculine values after inheriting only debt and shame from his late father.

The subsequent sections explore the impact that colonization and the proliferation of Christianity had on his life and his community, with his son joining the missionaries after converting to Christianity.

The novel was originally published in English, as Achebe found his native Igbo language ill-suited to the novel format. “Things Fall Apart” has since gone on to inspire the works of many other African writers, with Achebe’s writing viewed as having paved the way for the numerous African authors who came after.

The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb

While not a traditional “classic” novel, The Farseer Trilogy is a set of first-person fantasy novels that follow the early life of a young man named FitzChivalry Farseer. Fitz is possessed of a mysterious and ancient magic known only as “The Wit,” which allows him to form bonds with animals and runs contrary to the more common magic known as “The Skill,” a broader magical school that has effects ranging from the conjuration of fire to the ability to heal.

 “The Wit” is viewed with distrust by the residents of The Six Duchies, the kingdom where a majority of the story takes place, and Fitz is thus encouraged to hide his abilities. The first work in the trilogy, “Assassin’s Apprentice,” follows the earliest moments of Fitz’s life, such as his finding out that he is the illegitimate son of the former monarch, as well as his early training as an assassin for the current king of the realm.

Published in 1995, “Assassin’s Apprentice” went on to garner critical acclaim and paved the way for subsequent entries in the trilogy as well as follow-up novels that take place in the same continuity.

“Hagar’s Daughter” by Pauline Hopkins

Published first during 1901-1902 in the Colored American Magazine, and then recovered and edited by Washington College’s own Professor of American Studies, Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion, and Senior Equity Officer Dr. Alisha Knight alongside Dr. John Gruesser of Kean University, “Hagar’s Daughter” is a narrative that is rich with personal conflict and historical authenticity.

The story follows Hagar Sargeant, a Maryland plantation heir who falls in love, marries, and has a daughter with Ellis Enson. When Ellis’s younger brother accuses Hagar of being mixed-race, she and her daughter’s lives are endangered. Danger only grows when Ellis is presumed dead, permitting St. Clair to sell Hagar and her daughter into slavery where they presumably die after Hagar leaps into the Potomac River.

And that’s just part one.

Hopkins’ work, originally released serially, is enhanced by her ability to move between several literary genres — part two dives into a high-profile murder trial, abduction plot, mystery solving as a young Black maid named Venus Johnson assumes male clothing — and great attention to historical detail in regard to gender roles and the political climate present in the 1860s.

The edits made by Dr. Knight and Dr. Gruesser, alongside additional information provided in appendices and other works written by Hopkins, further bolster the authenticity of the work and allow it to serve as a powerful example of Black female authorship.

“The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles Chestnut

Falling into the genre of historical fiction, “The Marrow of Tradition” is a fictional narrative based on the rise of white supremacy that occurred in the late 1800s, drawing inspiration from events such as the riots in Wilmington, N.C. in 1898. The story is set in the fictional town of Wellington and showcases a multi-threaded plot that follows several characters on both sides of the racial divide.

The two main flashpoints that tie the separate threads together are the murder of a white woman, with an African American servant being falsely accused, and the upcoming local election which ends in a bloody revolution that prevents African Americans from voting.

Published in 1901, the novel was not originally well received, though this can easily be attributed to racial prejudice instead of a rebuke of Chestnut’s writing abilities. This novel is a recommended read for anyone interested in America’s history of race relations.

If you are looking to branch out from your typical reads, or are bored of the classic novels on everyone’s To Be Read list, feel free to take any of these for a spin. But don’t hesitate to explore and experiment with your newest reads. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find the next classic.

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Featured Photo Caption: Despite its apparent omnipresence, what defines a classic piece of literature is not consistent or fully agreed-upon. Future classics may slip through the contemporary cracks.

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