My reading list for the Classics Club – an update

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re having a good break.

Back in December 2015, I joined the Classics Club, a group of bloggers and readers who wish to share their views on the “classic” books they read. (If you’re not familiar with the Club, you can find out all about it here.)

In essence, new members of the Classics Club are invited to put together a list of at least 50 classics they intend to read and write about at some point in the future. The structure allows for some flexibility – each member can set their own end date provided it’s within five years. Also, the definition of what constitutes a “classic” is fairly relaxed – as long as the member feels the book meets the guidelines for their list, he or she is free to include it. All the books need to be old, i.e. first published at least twenty-years ago – apart from that, the definition is pretty flexible.

At the time of joining, I put together my selection of 50 books (playing rather fast and loose with the definition of a “classic”) with the aim of reading and writing about them by December 2018. Since then, I’ve been working my way through that list on a relatively steady basis, running the books alongside my other reading.

So, now we’ve reached the year-end, how have I been getting on? Well, I’ve read and written about 46 of the 50 books on my list – pretty good going, really, considering I took a break from blogging for the first three or four months of last year.

This was always going to be a three-year project for me, so I’ve decided to draw a line under it now as December 2018 feels like the natural end-point. While I could carry on, I don’t actually have physical copies of three of the four remaining books on my original list – and given that my current focus is to read the books in my existing TBR, I probably won’t get around to buying them any time soon. The three books in question are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Nella Larson’s Passing and Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy – all of which I may get at some point, just not in the foreseeable future.

The final book is The Leopard, which I own and tried to read a little while ago but couldn’t get into at the time. One for another day, perhaps, but not in the immediate future.

You can see my original list below, together with suitable replacements for the four books I didn’t read. In each case, I’ve substituted something relatively close to my original choice (also read in the last three years), e.g. Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy; James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk for Nella Larson’s Passing; and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Okay, I know I’m cheating a little by doing this, but hopefully you’ll cut me some slack here. Virtually every book I read these days could be considered a “classic” of some description, so a little swapping here and there doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  1. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
  2. They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy + an additional post on the politics and history
  3. A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
  4. The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
  5. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (replaced with Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze)
  6. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
  7. My Ántonia by Willa Cather
  8. The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
  9. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
  10. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  11. An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov
  12. The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
  13. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
  14. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
  15. Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
  16. Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
  17. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
  18. The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
  19. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
  20. Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
  21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  22. The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy
  23. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (replaced with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani)
  24. Passing by Nella Larsen (replaced with If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin)
  25. The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
  26. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
  27. The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
  28. Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
  29. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
  30. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
  31. Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
  32. Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth (replaced with Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum)
  33. A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
  34. Improper Stories by Saki
  35. The Widow by Georges Simenon
  36. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  37. The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  38. The Gate by Natsume Soseki
  39. Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb
  40. A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
  41. A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
  42. Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas
  43. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
  44. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
  45. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
  46. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  47. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
  48. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
  49. The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován
  50. Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig

As for what I’ve learned or gained by participating in the Club…well, I’ve met some new bookish friends who share an interest in older books, always a good thing. I’ve discovered some terrific *new* writers, some of whom have gone on to become firm favourites: Barbara Pym, Dorothy B. Hughes, Olivia Manning and Françoise Sagan to name but a few. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to delve into the backlist of some established favourites: writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Patrick Hamilton, Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith, all chosen for this very reason.

On the downside, my experience of the books in translation has been somewhat mixed leading to some winners and a few losers. Looking back at my list, I don’t think I made the best choices in this area as my tastes have shifted somewhat in recent years — towards books by British, Irish and American writers, mostly from the mid-20th century.

Books in translation I really enjoyed or appreciated include Béla Zombory-Moldován’s remarkable WW1 memoir, The Burning of the World Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy which began with They Were Counted, Natsume Soseki’s novel of urban angst, The Gate, and Françoise Sagan’s effortlessly cool A Certain Smile – all of these come highly recommended.

Less successful for me were The Invention of Morel (Bioy Casares), Spring Night (Tarjei Vesaas) and The Adventures of Sindbad (Gulya Krúdy). While the Krúdy worked well in small doses, the book as a whole just felt too samey and repetitive. A pity, really, as the writing was wonderfully evocative at times.

So, that’s pretty much it, a very rewarding experience all told. I’ve read some terrific books over the last three years, and I think it’s given me a better feel for the types of “classic” writers and books that are most likely to work for me in the future.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of these books in the comments below. I’m also interested to hear about your experiences of the Club if you’ve been involved with it. How has it been going for you? What have you gained from participating? I’d like to know. (Naturally, comments on my own experiences are also very welcome!)

33 thoughts on “My reading list for the Classics Club – an update

  1. tonymess12

    I joined a few years ago too with all translated titles and more than 50% by women. It ended up falling by the wayside as I shift in my tastes very dramatically when I’m on a roll with a theme.
    I don’t think I’ll complete the 50 within the three years, as per a lot of challenges they seem good at the time…
    Yours is a very balanced list & it’s been great following your journey.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Tony. It’s been an interesting activity to get involved with, but I totally get the changing tastes thing. My own preferences have also shifted in recent years, mostly driven by a growing fondness for fiction from the mid-20th century. There are times when I wonder if I’m falling into a rut, returning to the same authors time and time again – that said, I know I’m very likely to enjoy them!

      Reply
  2. kimbofo

    What a great initiative and such an interesting list of books. I had such a mediocre reading year in 2018 but the books I loved were classics (or at least 20 years old) so I think I’ll spend 2019 focused more on books of that vintage and your list may be a good starting point. I do have about 50 Penguin Modern Classics in my TBR, so I won’t have to buy anything!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Kim. I think I could happily spend a year reading Penguin Modern Classics, maybe with a few Viragos thrown in too for good measure! They’re such reliable publishers with interesting and diverse lists, particularly in the case of Penguin. I’ll be interested to see how you get on in 2019, hopefully it’ll be a better year for you on the reading front.

      Reply
      1. kimbofo

        Thanks Jacqui… am mulling over how I approach this year in terms of reading. I’ve just chucked in my job and am travelling for 6 weeks so need to restrict my books to Kindle editions for the first bit of the year…

        Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    It is great that you read so many books on your list. This is also a very impressive list. I also think that it is neat how when you could not get into The Leopard you just substituted another book for it.

    Happy reading in 2019 and Happy New Year’s!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Happy New Year to you, too – wishing you all the very best for 2019. Well, the Bassini just seemed like the best ‘substitute’ for The Leopard even though I’d already read it by that time! Oddly enough, the Lampedusa is being read on Radio 4 this week, so I’ll probably listen along to the catch-up version during a walk one day. Hopefully I’ll fare better with it next time. :)

      Reply
  4. madamebibilophile

    Congratulations Jacqui! That is really good going. I think you’re right to cut yourself some slack – reading challenges are supposed to be fun, after all. I like The Leopard but I can definitely see that it needs to be read at the right time. As you say, maybe one for the future :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. There’s no point in forcing yourself to read something if you’re just not in the mood for it. I know it’s a great book, but the timing has to be right. I was just saying to Brian that it’s being serialised on Radio 4 starting today, so I’ll probably listed along via the app. Who knows, that might be the best way for me to experience Lampedusa right now. :)

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I was in the classic club a few years ago but when I completed about 120 books I too drew a line. My you have read some fabulous books there, I’m sure you know some of those are favourites of mine. I read more in translation in 2018 but although I enjoyed them none of them made my best of list. One of my favourite books in translation was Katalin Street by Magda Szabó. Happy reading in 2019.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think I’ve been very lucky with the vast majority of the books on my list, almost all of them were winners particularly those from the mid-20th century.

      It’s interesting to hear that none of the translations you read this year made your list of highlights even though you enjoyed them all. Sometimes it’s the difference between liking and loving a book, if you know what I mean? I think Irmgard Keun made my best of lists for 2017 and 2018, and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel was there in 2016. Oh, and Bonjour Tristesse, of course. I loved all of those, but most of the other translations were probably in the ‘like’ or ‘appreciate’ categories for me. I must give Magda Szabo a try at some point as she seems to be something of a favourite across the blogosphere. Katalin Street is a great recommendation, thank you – I’ll add it to my wishlist.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Congratulations! That’s quite an achievement, especially considering the very limited substitutions and the time out from blogging. I read The Leopard a few weeks ago and I still don’t know what I think about it. It is well-written, quite beautiful in a ‘saudade’ kind of way, melancholy and worn. Yet I struggled to push myself through it and in the end I wasn’t sure if it was great or tedious. I suspect it would benefit from a second read and a patient, relaxed mindset which I was most definitely not in at that time. Best to leave it until it grabs you, I think.
    A great selection of books there, Jacqui. If nothing else, it sounds like it has given you some clarity on your reading taste. All the very best for 2019 x

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Oh, that’s really interesting to hear about your experience with The Leopard! I was beginning to wonder if it was just me or if anyone else had struggled with it, particularly as it’s often held up as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature. In some ways, it’s reassuring to hear that I’m not alone. Maybe I’ll fare better with it another time when I’m in a different frame of mind. In the meantime, I’m going to try listening to it on Radio 4 as it’s being read this week.

      Wishing you all the best for 2019. I hope it turns out to be a good reading year for you too. :)

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Happy new year to you Jacqui! I think that’s a fascinating list, and as it’s *your* list I think you can sub books whenever you want. And anything a wee bit old counts as a classic, surely? ;) Interesting that you’re veering away from translated lit – our tastes *do* change as the years go by, don’t they?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Happy New Year to you too, Karen! I’m glad you approve of my subbing. I don’t feel too guilty about it – as you say, it is *my* list as opposed to a set syllabus or anything like that, so a little flexibility seems reasonable. As for the translations, I’d still like to read them in the future, but I probably need to get better at picking the ones that are likely to work for me. It isn’t always easy to get a feel for an author’s style until you actually read a sample of their work for yourself, especially if there’s a translator added to the mix…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Guy. I’m really glad I did it as it’s introduced me to some fantastic authors and books over the past three years. Plus it’s given me an added incentive to actually write something about them, not always easy in the case of a much-loved classic that’s been widely reviewed.

      Yes, I definitely think my tastes have shifted/are still shifting. Barbara Pym wasn’t even on my radar 4 or 5 years ago, and now I can’t get enough of her! Ditto Elizabeth Taylor and Olivia Manning. I feel a little sad about some of the translations that didn’t hit the spot, but the ones that worked really impressed me – The Burning of the World was remarkable. Many thanks for writing about it as I’m pretty sure it was you that put me onto it in the first place…

      Reply
  8. Lory

    What have I gotten out of the Classics Club? This mild, self-structured goal got me to read classics I’d been neglecting over the years … even though I could have read all these books without such a “challenge,” I somehow didn’t. It also spurred me to revisit books I’d read, and often poorly understood, in school, and see them afresh from a more mature perspective. Some favorites from my list: East of Eden, The Makioka Sisters, Frankenstein, Mrs Dalloway, Invisible Man, The Return of the Native, Excellent Women.

    I also appreciate the community and the conversation that can take place. Even when I disliked a book (hello, Lucky Jim) it was enriching to share my thoughts and hear from other readers.

    I’ve been wanting to read more books in translation and more international literature. As I near my 50-book target, that’s where I want to go next.

    Hope your year is off to a good start!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think it encouraged me to read and write about various classics that I’d been unconsciously sidelining for a few years, novels like The Age of Innocence and The End of the Affair for example. How do you find something interesting to say about a book that has been discussed and analysed ad infinitum? In the end, I stopped worrying about what I might have to say about these texts which freed me up to enjoy them for what they are: just great books.

      That’s a good point about the discussion around books, particularly when you have a somewhat disappointing experience with something. I found that useful when I read The Invention of Morel.

      Good luck with your plans for the future – reading more books in translation sounds like the logical next step for you.

      Reply
  9. Maureen Murphy

    Good on you, Jacqui for your excellent follow-through….I think setting a cut-off point over a reasonable length of time is a great structure.

    IMHO, the experience would have been worth it just for the discovery of Barbara Pym, and dissemination of your sharp reviews to your readers!

    Happy New Year 2019!

    Maureen Murphy (“Moe”)

    Reply
  10. Maureen Murphy

    P.S. Jacqui, “Numero Cinq,” Douglas Glover’s wonderful on-line journal is now mostly moribund (sadly) but the archives will stay up on his cite. There is an entire section specializing in Translation, mostly excerpts, but I thought you might find it interesting, even if to collect the names of some of the top llterary translators and keep an eye out for their stuff coming out.

    http://numerocinqmagazine.com/front-page/back-issues1/translation/

    Cheers!

    Maureen

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, discovering Barbara Pym was a highlight for sure – what a joy she has proved to be, particularly in the current times.

      Many thanks for that link to the Numero Cinq archive, that’s great. I do need to get better at picking the books in translation that will suit my changing tastes, so a resource like this is definitely worth exploring.

      Happy New Year to you too, Maureen! Wishing you all the very best for the year ahead.

      Reply
  11. juliana brina

    This is an impressive list, Jacqui, congratulations! My reading for the Club fell by the wayside in 2018, but one of my goals for this year is to concentrate on my list. :) Happy New Year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Juliana – and a Happy New Year to you, too! It can be hard to keep everything going, especially when new reading events keep cropping up all the time. (I know how easy it can be to get sidetracked by the latest thing!) Anyway, I hope you get a chance to go back to your list this year. It’s always interesting to see your reviews of the classics. :)

      Reply
  12. Grier

    Well done, Jacqui! I read quite a few classics as part of ACOB in 2018 and would like to do this challenge as much of my reading is from the 19th and 20th centuries. I may just do this informally, make a list and see how I do over the next three years. There are a few on your list that I’d like to read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grier. That sounds like a great idea, nice and relaxing without the pressure of committing to another big challenge! I’m sure I’ll carry on reading various modern classics too, particularly books from the mid-20th century. There are still so many others I’d like to get to.

      Reply
  13. Caroline

    It’s a great list. I had no idea you were following a reading project. It’s too bad about the books in translation though. And about the Gattopardo. I do so love that book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. It’s been quite low-key really, as I’ve just been getting on with it quietly in the background! I do feel a little sad about some of the translations though, especially The Leopard as it’s clearly a much-loved book. It’s actually on Radio 4 this week, so I’m going to give it a listen to see how I get on.

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    What is most impressive about this is that you made a list and, by and large, stuck to it. I’m sure if I made a list of ten books to read I’d be lucky if I made it to five! It did encourage me to read more classics though, albeit in my usual haphazard way. Perhaps in trying to read some of the translated classics in Boyd Tonkin’s book I will be more focused! There is definitely something to be said for seeking out older books though.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I do feel as though I’ve achieved something with this even though I didn’t quite make it to the full fifty. There’s no point in forcing things just for the sake of it. Boyd Tonkin’s list is a good source of inspiration, for sure. Yes, we could probably argue all day about the various inclusions and omissions (I’m sure others have been doing that already), but it does contain some very fine classics. I look forward to seeing which ones you decide to read in the future!

      Reply

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