Best Classic: The 2021 Karissa Reads Books Literary Awards

Today’s category is Best Classic. Classics can be hard to define and it isn’t uncommon for books to be labelled as “modern classics”. Personally, I tend to think of books as classics if they are 1) widely known even by people who have never read them (ie: most people have heard of Pride and Prejudice, even if they’ve never read it) and 2) first published before most of us were alive. (That categorization is a little more tenuous because something like Lord of the Flies is probably a classic but was published in 1954.) For my own purposes and for today’s category, all of the books up for consideration were published before 1900 and therefore can firmly be defined as Classics. (I didn’t include any books that I re-read so something like The Great Gatsby wasn’t eligible even though I read it this year.)

At the beginning of 2021, I assigned myself a new reading challenge, one I dubbed A Virtuous Reading Challenge. The goal is to read all of the books that Karen Swallow Prior used to explore virtues in her book On Reading Well. So far I’ve read 5 out of the 12 titles. Three of them were re-reads (The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, and Pilgrim’s Progress. If I were to include those three in this award category, A Tale of Two Cities would be the winner here but I think it’s more interesting to look at the books I read for the first time in 2021.)

Honourable Mention:

The Awakening – Kate Chopin

First published in 1897, this short novel reads as a surprisingly modern story. We have a young woman bored and tired of her life as a wife and mother, stifled by the expectations of society and how little freedom of choice she has. Even though I am someone who loves being a wife and mother, reading about life for women in the not-too-distant past reminds me of how thankful I am to have the ability to choose the life I lead.

Villette – Charlotte Bronte

While this is a book I didn’t entirely love while I was reading it, it is one that has stuck in my brain in the months since. I didn’t find Lucy Snowe as easy to root for as I did Jane Eyre but I did enjoy her independence and her strong inner moral code.

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

In contrast to the two previous mentioned novels, this one is heavily focused on men. All kinds of bad behaviour is forgiven of Tom Jones because he essentially has a good heart and our heroine, Sophia, is a model of perfection and flat characterization. The book is loooong but it had its funny moments and was more readable than I had expected.

And the Winner is….

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

If I had to tell you to read one of these classics, it would be Huckleberry Finn. I figured I was in for a boyish adventure novel. Instead, this is a thoughtful, compassionate, funny story about morality, courage, and friendship. The language and depiction of Black people is hard to read in the modern day but at its heart this book is about friendship that is not bound by the colour of one’s skin and personal morals that outweigh legalism.

7 thoughts on “Best Classic: The 2021 Karissa Reads Books Literary Awards”

  1. I remember your review of Huckleberry Finn, and it’s definitely put it on my TBR – like you I’d assumed it was a boys’ own adventure-type story, and even though I like those I always have more than enough to be getting on with! I love books about friendship though and it really sounds excellent.

  2. The interesting thing about Huck Finn is that his father is an alcoholic and there’s no mother in the picture. Thus, he’s essentially a neglected kid who is trying to survive by dodging his dad’s rage. Have you read Tom Sawyer? I believe that one actually came first, and they go together.

    1. It’s partly what makes him such an interesting character – that he’s really navigating his own morality without any real outside guidance. He’s grown up in abuse and neglect and then gets some social teaching from the widow but Jim is the first person who really cares about Huck as an individual. I’ve read Tom Sawyer years ago and I remember it more as a classic adventure story but maybe I need to reread it now. It does go first and Huck picks up soon after.

    2. I think Tom’s book is about him and Huck and being friends, and something about a lost treasure, which of course involves them breaking every societal norm and proving that children need adults.

    3. It’s referenced a bit at the beginning of Huck Finn and the end result of it seems to have been that they found a treasure and now Huck lives with the widow. Tom shows up at the end of this one and is funny and goofy and gets in the way. At least here he doesn’t display any of the moral questioning that Huck does. Tom’s all about fun.

  3. Your definition of classics made me laugh, because I use basically the exact same definition. Is it published before I was born and does everyone know what it is, even if they haven’t read it? Then it must be a classic!
    I would have assumed the same about Huckleberry Finn – an adventure novel. I’m impressed to hear that it’s so much more than that. Too bad that its banned in so many places still…

    1. I was going to say books published before the 20th century but that eliminates tons of classics. It’s a hard thing to classify, especially since for many of us our default examples are very Eurocentric.

      It’s easy to see why Huck Finn would be hard to teach in schools. The n-word is used so much, you could never read it aloud. Banning it though shows, I think, a fundamental misunderstanding of what the story is about and what Twain is saying about race and morality.

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