There are any number of reasonable reasons you might need to read the classics in a hurry:
Trying to fit classic literature into hectic modern lifestyle
Finding yourself out of your depth in polite conversation
Terrorists insist they’ll execute a hostage for every literary question you get wrong
Trying desperately to impress your romantic interest, who for some reason “cares” about “books”
It usually starts with the quintessential 21st century love story: boy joins Tinder, boy matches with girl of his dreams, boy arranges to meet girl for a date next week. Your happy-ever-after is just around the corner. There’s just one problem, her profile describes her ideal man as “well read” but your reading material is generally limited to some well-thumbed cereal boxes and a sudsy shampoo bottle. There’s only one course of action left to you, you’re going to become the well read man of her dreams before the big date.
This is a task of epic proportions, but you don’t have time for epics. In fact, you don’t have time for any books over 100 pages. You need to cover as many important authors as possible, in as short a time as possible. Quantity is key. Fortunately, we’ve prepared just such a list of books. This list of 15 shorter-than-you’d-think classics should be just enough to cover your (manifold) shortcomings and help you trick someone into loving you.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Wolfgang Von Johann Goethe
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 by Oscar Wilde
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 by William Shakespeare
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.
Lady Susan by Jane Austen
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 by Joseph Conrad
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 by Lewis Carroll
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 by Virginia Woolf
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 by Charles Dickens
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 by Robert Louis Stevenson
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 by Ernest Hemingway
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.
Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod
For really smart people, reading classic literature isn’t enough, you have to read classical literature too, because the more ancient is it, the more smug you can feel for having read it. Not only is Hesiod’s Theogony suitably ancient, but it’s also the perfect cheat sheet for Greek mythology. It tells the story of creation and gives you the whole Greek god family tree, and even better, because you don’t have all day to read the history of the universe, Hesiod squeezed it all into less than 50 pages. But strap in, Hesiod’s Greek god roll call is about 193 names long, and you don’t want to be the idiot mixing up your Persephones with your Prometheuses.
The Death Of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is absolutely necessary to your well-read persona. Luckily he is famed for his 1000 page novels, so once you can say you’ve read a Tolstoy book people just assume it’s a doorstopper. At under 100 pages, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is maximising your efficiency: 10% of the work for 100% of the results.
Ivan Ilyich even deals with many of the same themes as those found in Tolstoy’s more famous works War and Peace and Anna Karenina. In all of these works Tolstoy’s characters contemplate the facades of marriage, the need to live an authentic life, and the inevitability of death. The difference is, Ivan Ilyich has a terminal condition, so he has to reach his conclusions a lot faster.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
You’re coming near the end of literary bender, but if you’re running behind don’t get your hopes up that H.G. Well’s science fiction classic is going to tell you how to travel in time (presumably to buy yourself some more reading time before your date). Still if there’s something to be taken from The Time Machine it’s that we’ll all either be Morlocks or Morlock food, so there’s no point wasting months to half-finish a book, spend today reading one short book, use that book to get the girl of your dreams and enjoy life while you can.
The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges
There are some who will say that just reading the accepted canon of classic authors perpetuates a hegemonic perspective that is largely white, Western, and male. These people are correct, but that’s ok, because you’re going to read one South-American book. Boom. Diverse. You can also use this book’s premise to defend your limited reading. In The Library of Babel Borges imagines a library of books containing all possible permutations of the alphabet. This is a helpful reminder that all books are just the same letters over and over again, so if you’ve read one, you’ve actually read them all.
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
At this stage, you’re running out of time before your date. Luckily, at just 65 pages, Kafka’s Metamorphosis can easily slip into your back pocket as you head out the door. All you have to do is take a slightly protracted bathroom break at the start of the date, you can speed read it in the stalls. Then, inspired by Kafka’s insectile protagonist, you can emerge from your toilet cocoon, spewing with literary knowledge and transformed into her perfect date. Also, when it all goes wrong, you can scuttle back to the bathroom to live out the rest of your wretched life in your own filth. You disgusting vermin.
This article was originally written for Bookwitty.com and published on March 10, 2017.