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Readable Classics

Arts & Lit, Guest Lists | December 15, 2009

Featured Guest List by Paul Shirley

In less than nine years since graduating from Iowa State, Paul Shirley has played for 13 different pro basketball teams around the globe, including three NBA teams. Along the way, Shirley has made a name for himself as a writer. In 2007, he published his first book, Can I Keep My Jersey?. He currently pens a weekly music column for, and, most recently, he launched FlipCollective, where a diverse group of writers contribute essays on a wide range of topics.

Before I was (vaguely) known for being a misanthropic basketball player, and long before I was (even more vaguely) known for being a music writer, I was a bookworm. The summers of my childhood were spent haunting the Topeka Public Library, searching for the biographies, adventure novels, and Hardy Boys books that made up my pre-teen reading menu.

Middle school bus rides brought with them the discovery of John Grisham and Tom Clancy, contributing to my belief that those authors are perfect, if one has the brain of a 13-year-old boy. In high school, I found James Michener, James Clavell and John Jakes. So, while I was a voracious reader, I certainly wasn't reading the classics, as it were.

When I got out of college with an engineering degree and almost no liberal arts experience, I resolved to give myself a literary education on my own. Part of that education, I thought, was an attempt at reading books by authors I'd long heard of, but who had always intimidated me: Dostoevsky, Dickens, Wolfe, and Roth.

Many of those I picked up were impossibly dense or irredeemably dry. I celebrated when I finished each page of Crime and Punishment. It took me weeks to plod through Anna Karenina. I gave up on Moby Dick halfway through. And I figured out that Ernest Hemingway bores me like a sorority girl on tranquilizers.

But I had more successes than failures. Surprisingly, those that deemed them "classics" were often right – these were arresting, universal stories that I was reading. And some of them were even fun. With that in mind, I present my Top 13 Readable Classics.

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Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities


Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities


I know. You're thinking, "Dammit, he's just trying to impress me. Dickens? Really?" I used to think the same thing when people would rave about Bleak House. But it turns out that Dickens's writing is surprisingly accessible, at times hilarious, and always beautiful. As for this novel, I happen to think A Tale of Two Cities might be the most heartbreaking story I've ever read.

Joseph Heller - Catch 22


Joseph Heller - Catch 22


Speaking of hilarious, this wartime story of pilots who are told they will get to go home if they reach a certain mission tally, only to have that tally raised each time they near it, should hit home with anyone who's ever questioned authority and been able to laugh about it later.

Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front


Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet on the Western Front


Told from the German perspective in World War I, this novel seemed as intimidating as a my first Calculus class when I picked it up. But I was pleasantly surprised by the approachability of its message: War sucks, no matter which side you're on.

Ayn Rand - The Fountainhead


Ayn Rand - The Fountainhead


People will say that Rand represents everything that is wrong with capitalistic culture. In The Fountainhead (as in Atlas Shrugged), she espouses the philosophy that one doesn't have to apologize for talent, which some on the right would have us think means we can oppress those without it. But at the core of her novels is the belief that each of us should measure ourselves against what we're capable of, not against what others think of us. Fortunately, she tells her parable in surprisingly entertaining form.

Upton Sinclair - The Jungle


Upton Sinclair - The Jungle


In my mind, The Jungle is the perfect companion piece to anything by Rand. It reminds us that capitalism, while all well and good without corruption, creates a mess when meatpackers in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century abuse workers of Lithuanian origin. At times, it's heartbreaking; at others, entertaining. But it's an easy read, especially for something written in 1906.

 Gabriel García Márquez - Love in the Time of Cholera


Gabriel García Márquez - Love in the Time of Cholera


Chalk up another eye roll. Sounds pretentious, doesn't it? But this story of lifelong pining for the one who got away should hit close to home for anyone with a pulse.

Charles Dickens - Great Expectations


Charles Dickens - Great Expectations


See above for my thoughts on Dickens. Curling up with Great Expectations is like a bearskin rug in front of a roaring fire on a cold January night. Rich, cozy, and rewarding - especially if there's a naked model on the bearskin rug.

Tom Wolfe - The Bonfire of the Vanities


Tom Wolfe - The Bonfire of the Vanities


Calling this a "classic" might be a stretch, as Wolfe is still the possessor of a pulse. But this is my list. Almost anything he's written could find its way on here; his writing is comfortable and easy, making his books accessible ones. This one in particular, though, mixes his great storytelling abilities with his best plot.

John Updike - Rabbit, Run


John Updike - Rabbit, Run


I was loaned Rabbit, Run by the 55-year-old woman who lives across the street from me, which only added to the nervous feeling I got whenever I looked at the novel. I assumed that, if she liked it, there was no way I would. As usual, I was wrong. There's existential despair, regret, and sex, and all of it is believable, thanks to Updike's talent with the pen.

Ken Kesey - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


Ken Kesey - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


I can't explain why, but I spent most of my life assuming that this book was vastly overrated, but I did so without actually reading it. It has become so much a part of our culture that I associated Kesey's first book with the Beatles and Andy Warhol. That is, things people claim to like because they're afraid they'll look stupid if they don't. I was wrong. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is funny and approachable, and one of the best books I've ever read. Andy Warhol though. . .

John Irving - The World According to Garp


John Irving - The World According to Garp


Irving is my second-favorite author, behind Richard Russo. Like Russo, he's still alive, but I think he's old enough to make it onto this list. Like the rest of Irving's books, The World According to Garp is zany and weird and funny - and great.

George Orwell - 1984


George Orwell - 1984


One of, I think, three books we read in my high school English class, 1984 seems more prescient with each passing day. Strange then, that it's actually fun to read.

John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath


John Steinbeck - The Grapes of Wrath


Hipsters would have you believe that East of Eden is the superior work by Steinbeck. Hipsters would also have you believe that The XX put out the best album of 2009. They're wrong on both accounts. In my life, four books have made me cry. This is one of them.

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Comments Leave a comment

stillathreat ★★

This is a pretty cool list. I don't particularly agree with his music taste, but I like his choices on the classics.

7:30 AM   Dec 15, 2009


What an interesting list. When I opened this, I expected to get a high school reading list of books, and while there is some of that, this is a much more thoughtful and intriguing selection. I think these books, for the most part, are readable in that both language-wise they are accessible to most readers, and subject matter-wise, as they offer compelling narratives while being relatively simple in narrative structure. Kudos for including Rabbit Run. I love the Rabbit novels, and Updike does not seem to be read as much anymore. So a good list for people hoping to tackle some classics.

7:54 AM   Dec 15, 2009


This is a good list of classic, yet accessible stuff. The Grapes of Wrath and 1984 are two of my favorite books ever. I somehow managed to avoid having any classes where they assigned A Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I had 3 college courses where they taught Heart of Darkness (which I didn't like all 3 times).

2:21 PM   Dec 15, 2009


bonfire of the vanities is written by tom wolfe, thomas wolfe is a different much better writer

1:17 PM   Dec 16, 2009



2:38 PM   Dec 16, 2009


No Vonnegut on this list?! For shame!

10:19 AM   Mar 07, 2010


Putting crap like "The Fountainhead" over "Slaughterhouse 5", "The Sun Also Rises", "A Farewell to Arms", "Great Gatsby", "Tender is the Night", and the greatest piece of literature of all time, "The Sound and the Fury", makes me a sad, sad panda.

1:50 PM   Mar 16, 2010

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