The Classics

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and read well beyond my grade level. When other kids were reading the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Half-Magic, and Pirates Promise, I picked up To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Sawyer, and believe it or not, The Dirty Dozen.

Because of my reading habits, I’d already blasted through such novels as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Farenheit 451, and Death of a Salesman well before some of those were assigned in English class. One I couldn’t stand was The Great Gatsby, and still didn’t like it upon re-reading the novel last year.

Not too long ago I started thinking of those classics I’d read as a kid and decided it was time to revisit those novels. Now that I’m pushing 70, I wanted to see how those novels apply these days after a lifetime of experiences, and it was fascinating.

I started with Steinbeck, and the first novel I ever read by this Nobel Prize winning author was Travels With Charley, and that was somewhere around age fourteen. It sparked an interest in U.S. travel that has continued to this day. Then I went back and read Of Mice and Men and by the time I was in high school, The Grapes of Wrath, all before my senior year.

The Bride and I were in Palm Springs a couple of months ago and I ran across that title in an antique store. See, there’s that travel thing and I coughed up five dollars for the well-thumbed paperback reprint circa 1969. Book deadlines left it in my travel bag until last week.

I just finished it yesterday, and was surprised how well it held up. Those who know me understand my fascination with the Dust Bowl, so much that my novel last year entitled The Texas Job was set in the Great Depression. Maybe it’s because of the stories I heard from my family members who survived on scratch farms during that time.

To me, Grapes of Wrath is haunting and somewhat of a minor horror novel, based on what the Joad family endured on their way out to the promised land that proved to be something entirely different. I’d forgotten Steinbeck’s writing style that I feel might have sparked my own, though I don’t always write in third person. He switches back from third, to social commentary in alternating chapters that is unique to this author.

He wrote of the people I grew up with, and his dialogue and descriptions are as comfortable as an old shoe. He used words like “strowed,” and “pone,” and “flour and lard,” and phrases like, “the men squatted on their hams,” and “we got to make miles,” and “she looked down at her hands tight-locked in her lap.” It felt like I was hearing the old folks talking again.

I’d also forgotten that his book was banned after its release back in 1939, because critics said it promoted organized labor, extramarital sex, and violence. Still, to this day, it continues to be a source of controversy for some of those reasons listed above. Reading it today, this novel about as harsh as watching an episode of Law and Order.

Next in line for me is Of Mice and Men, then on to either On The Road, or Lord of the Flies, all read over fifty years ago.

Which classics do you need to re-read, and which ones impacted you?



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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

26 thoughts on “The Classics

  1. I’m right there with you on Gatsby, Rev. I’ve long advocated the book should be replaced on high school reading lists by The Maltese Falcon.

    I need to read The Brothers Karamazov again. And I’ll take one more ill-fated cruise with Capt. Ahab before I go to the Great Library.

    • I never understood the Gatsby thing, or Wuthering Heights. Come to think of it, I really didn’t like Catcher in the Rye, either. All too angsty, I guess.

      The Maltese Falcon was great. Good idea!

      As for Ahab, I’m with you. Need to reread that one.

      My teachers and I were never on the same page anyway. Even when I got to college and studied residential architecture. I wanted to draw big, sprawling, open mid-century houses and my professor insisted on those closed in houses they’re now remodeling into open concept, and adding windows.

      Sigh. People should just listen to me.

  2. Both The Old Man and the Sea and Moby Dick impacted me. Hm, maybe I have a thing for water. The Old Man and the Sea taught me that even if you have only one person on the page, it can still be a gripping scene.

    I need to reread The Brothers Karamazov because I found it incredibly hard to understand and get through. Was I too young, or is it truly a difficult book?

    • For sure a book’s impact is dependent on age. I didn’t understand most of what I read when I was a teenager, in the social sense. Now with life experiences behind me, I get these plots and subtleties.

      Age equals experience.

      Might give Brothers another chance, but it was a slog the first time.

  3. Kindred spirits, Sir…

    Before finishing high school I’d read many of the same books you listed, before they were assigned- and many weren’t..

    To your list I’ll add:
    Faulkner (who I didn’t care for)…
    Hemingway (it depends on the book)…
    as much Asimov and Bradbury and Brautigan and Clarke as I could find…
    all the Travis MaGee and James Bond novels…
    _1984_, _The Caine Mutiny_ – the first time on an overnight field trip the week of my 16th birthday, and then again two or three years later…
    MOST of what was assigned, though I tended to do so grudgingly since they weren’t MY idea of what to read…

    All of these continue to influence my writing and even my outlook at things in general – especially Bradbury’s _Something Wicked This Way Comes_ and _Dandelion Wine_…

    Some, on the other hand, have not “held up” for me over time – Brautigan most especially (disappointingly) so, though his particular (and peculiar) take on things has allowed me to consider, shall we say, alternate points of view…

    But the biggest influence has been to keep reading – widely…

    • I’m with you, but I did like Faulkner then and now.

      Hemingway impacted the way I write, and still does. I love his work.

      Bradbury is a hero and both of those you mention are classics, as is Richard Matheson’s work. And then I discovered Travis McGee, Spillane, and Donald Hamilston. Great stuff, all.

  4. I thought I was the only one who didn’t appreciate Gatsby, and you can throw Austen in there, too.

    Listened to Animal Farm recently, and got it on a whole ‘nother level.
    I too was walking to junior high classes, reading – Agony & the Ecstasy by Irving Stone.
    The one I loved and will never read again is The Red Pony. Tore. Me. Up.
    Going to get Of Mice & Men today, since you reminded me of it…

    • Went looking for Mice today, also. No luck, but I’ll find it. I have several copies of Animal Farm, illustrated, too.

      Ah, The Red Pony. That one is also on my shelf.

  5. I read and re-read Hemingway’s novels and his short stories as presented in the Finca Vigia edition. Wonderful, timeless stuff. But also works by others. One of my favorites is Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

  6. It sounds like I was the only one who liked The Great Gatsby–I read it for an American literature class in high school, and ended up doing a paper on Fitzgerald. As sixteen year old, the novel had a dream like quality that sucked me in. I read Tender Is the Night and several short stories by Fitzgerald. I need to go back and read Gatsby now and see how the novel holds up–I may be in a bit of shock by the sounds of it 🙂

    Steinbeck’s of Mice and Men hit me like a ton of bricks. That’s one I need to reread.

    For Whom The Bell Tolls and much of Hemingway’s writing made a big impression on me, also read for that class.

  7. I read Little Women in 3rd grade (only the first part – the second part was boring.) There’s a reason why the movies only make the first part.

    Gone With the Wind was my summer beach book for years.

    I didn’t like Gatsby either – whiny and boring.

  8. Another no vote for Gatsby.

    Travels with Charlie was the first Steinbeck I read (6th grade maybe) so when I read other Steinbeck books, the contrast really struck me b/c they were so much darker. Still admire his spare style which probably influenced mine.

    Saw Of Mice and Men performed in little theater. My then-boyfriend played Lennie and it brought me to tears, as well as an appreciation for the different impact from reading the book. Same with the movie version of Grapes of Wrath contrasted with the book.

  9. I was reading at 10th grade level in 5th, but adult themes didn’t interest me much. An exception was the copy of A. A. Brill’s book on psychoanalysis, which I found in my MD father’s library. It was fascinating. Educational, even, but clearly not intended for nine year olds. I’ll say no more.

    Books that impacted me growing up: Heinlein’s Space Cadet.. DeCamp’s Science Fiction Handbook. Orwell’s 1984. Huxley’s Brave New World. A lot of Bradbury, van Vogt, H. Allen Smith. C. W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves, & Scholars. Osa Johnson’s I Married Acventure.

    There was nothing great about Gatsby. It was more like The Dubious Gatsby. Moby Dick didn’t thrill me, nor did Don Quixote.

    Catcher in the Rye resonated with me, because I read it after my father had died. Its theme is extreme grief. Whoever put it on the HS curriculum was barmy in the crumpet. It’s unsuitable for HS students, goes way over their heads, mostly, because they’ve not experienced grief.

    Works I’d like to revisit include Space Cadet and a few of the early SciFi novels. I’m reliving Orwell and Huxley on a daily basis, now, so I can skip them.

  10. Not sure these could be classified as a “classics”, but my favorite authors growing up were Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet) and Agatha Christie (Everything).

  11. In the tenth grade I read Exodus by Leon Uris and I’ve never forgotten it. The summer of my ninth grade, I saw Gone With The Wind and had to read the book. Same with The Grapes of Wrath–watched it with my parents at a drive-in movie in the 50s, but I didn’t read the book for a few years, and then I read East of Eden. Steinbeck’s books were wasted on my youth…
    I’d like to read them all again.

  12. I found much of the assigned reading in high school to be a bore. I didn’t like Gatsby either, but I’d read it five more times in a row–with my eyelids sewn open Clockwork Orange-style–before I’d read Moby Dick again. I thought that book would never end. We were also forced to read Updike’s Rabbit series, which, in retrospect, was a stupid assignment for high schoolers. None of our lives were *there* yet.

    On the other hand, (thank you, Mrs. Walsh) I devoured Dickens and Twain. Mrs. Stafford taught Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and “The First Circle” opened my eyes and stirred my political juices.

    While I haven’t read a lot of Steinbeck, I liked everything I have. Less so with Hemingway, who tells a good story, but in narrative voices I often don’t bond with. Ditto Michener, who, in my opinion, grew to love to hear himself write. His later books would have been so much better if anything had happened in the first hundred pages.

    “Lord of the Flies” changed my reading sensibilities. I read it in junior high, and that was the first time that I understood how stories can work on several levels at the same time. I’d heard about “symbolism” but I never understood the concept until that book. (To this day, however, the link between the hog slaughter and the Oedipal wedding night eludes me.)

    “To Kill A Mockingbird” is just a perfect book. ‘Nuff said.

    Then there are the forgotten authors of my youth. Remember Trevanian, the one-name author who wrote terrific thrillers? Thomas Tryon’s creepy thrillers kept me up nights. James Clavell’s Shogun series was fantastic. John Jakes only recently left us, but his historical series were wonderful.

  13. I remember loving all the books I read. It was the movies that made the impact on me. Especially Catch 22, Chinatown, and LA Confidential. It was the gritty side of life. Reruns on television brought me The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and the Postman Always Rings Twice.
    Then came reruns of Shadow of a Doubt, North By Northwest, and Vertigo.
    If I had to pick out a book it would b anything by Mickey Spillane.

  14. Last year I read Don Quixote for the first time and it haunts me. Greatest novel I’ve ever read. I couldn’t believe how funny and engaging a 400-year-old book still is. I recommend the Edith Grossman translation.

  15. Recent re-read “The Three Musketeers” and now deep into “Twenty Years After”. My opinion of d’Artagnan has certainly changed as he is quite the self-absorbed individual in the first novel. However this could be that he supposed to be 19 years old at the time, and matures in the next novels. In the Sci-fi genre I read Niven’s “Ringworld” in my 20’s and found it fascinating. Re-read in my 40’s and found it good, but lacking in characterization.
    The Steinbeck book that I recall vividly to this day is “Pastures of Heaven”. He shows you the core of everyday people and it is engrossing.

  16. I am a Dickens-phile, if there is (or isn’t) such a word. Have read almost every novel of his.
    Read some of Faulkner, especially liked the Snopes trilogy. Read War and Peace, then Anna Karenina. shouldn’t read Karenina first, because it was a letdown after WAP. Like Charlotte Bronte but not Emily — too maudlin, etc. Garcia Marquez, liked 100 years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. Love Ann Patchett, Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet is brilliant. Loved Demon Copperhead — especially since it was a take-off on Copperfield.
    More: Dan Simmons,Agatha Christie, The Vienna Blood series (Tallis?), Kiego Higashino, Thomas Kennealy’s The Dickens Boy, Thomas Hardy (learned about him in high school.
    Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, James Farrell. And many, many more. ps didn’t like Gatsby, did like Lawrence.

  17. I grew up reading stuff like Swiss Family Robinson, All the Mowgli Stories, Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth was a favorite, but Mysterious Island bored me to tears). I recently read my kids Around the World in 80 Days and they voted it an excellent book.

    I’ve also dipped into Gene Stratton Porter and read the kids Freckles, but I find that her books get more and more angry and less coherent the older she got. My mom told me how a Girl of the Limberlost impacted her, and when I read it, I realized what kind of abusive childhood she had. Yikes.

    Anyway, I always thought books like Bob, Son of Battle should have been school reading, because the psychological stuff with M’Adam transferring the love he should have given his son to the murdering Red Wull was a fascinating study. Recently reread A Little Princess and it’s an excellent book in which the adults and the children are all equally important characters. When I read it as a kid, I understood Sarah. When I read it as an adult, I understood all the adults, and I sat and bawled. My kids made fun of me. 😀

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