No matter how avid of a reader you are, it'd be impossible to read everything. As NPR culture blogger Linda Holmes says, "The vast majority of the world's books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It's just numbers."
So if you can't read it all, you might as well read what you like, right? Oftentimes, that doesn't include the most revered authors. As Mark Twain once said, "a classic is a book which people praise and don't read."
Still, not having read Hemingway or Faulkner could be difficult to explain to teachers, significant other's parents, interviewers, or fancy-schmancy dinner party guests. So we suggest doing what insecure book lovers have done for ages: fake it.
Why not analyze Hemingway's ability to craft concise dialogue, or Faulkner's ability to pen poetic interior monologues without having read their work? Sure, it's not the same as actually reading it, but life is short and books are often long.
So check out our tips for how to bluff seven classic novels, as well as what actually happens in their plots (CONTAINS SPOILERS!), and then get back to reading what you really enjoy.
Which classics have you never read? Which other classics can you help us summarize? Let us know in the comments!
Key themes: Shrews (ie. difficult women), and taming them. Also, education, clothing, and puppy love. Dinner party explanation: While the language hints at Shakespeare's brilliance, the characters are limp and problematic - does Kate actually wish to be tamed, or are Petruchio's tactics embarrassing and sexist? What REALLY happens: Kate is a huge headache, but magically transforms into a pleasant, obedient bride after meeting a rowdy guy who starves her and wears weird costumes.
Key themes: Whales, the existence of God, social class, whales. Dinner party explanation: While the Pequod may have been an eloquent extended metaphor for America in Melville's day, it's a shame that the novel did not garner acclaim until its plot was outdated. What REALLY happens: Ishmael tells you to call him Ishmael. Then he accompanies an insane ship captain hunting for a whale. Then they don't find the whale. Then they do find the whale. Then everybody dies. Except Ishmael.
Key themes: Family, selfishness, The Great Depression Dinner party explanation: Could you pass the grapes, or are you hoarding them as a means of increasing their value, thereby benefitting the wealthy but suppressing the needs of the hungry? What REALLY happens: Tom Joad and his family lose their farm due to the country's financial woes, so they go to California, which seemed like a great idea at the time, but doesn't pan out so well.
Key themes: War, time, death Dinner party explanation: It's fascinating how utilizing fantastical elements enables Vonnegut to tell a "truer" tale of war than if the work were a realist one. What REALLY happens: Billy is captured by Germans during WWII. He is also captured by an alien species called the Tralfamadorians who do not believe in linear time. Billy adopts their beliefs, and is killed while talking about them.
Key themes: The transience of life, motherhood, verbal communication, fish Dinner party explanation: The dissonance between the characters' inner and outer dialogue may be greater due to their recent tragedy, but is still a poignant means of examining communication. What REALLY happens: Addie Burden dies, and her family buries her.
Key themes: Wine, liquor, bulls, war, masculinity Dinner party explanation: Hemingway's token spare prose is effective in portraying the hollowness of those living in post-World War I Europe - In fact, it's more effective here than when he attempts to write of the war itself. What REALLY happens: Jake, Mike and Robert all love Brett, an outspoken and beautiful woman, but, surprise! Brett is in love with a young Pamplonan bullfighter (for now).
Key themes: Marriage, social expectations Dinner party explanation: Eliot's observations on women and matrimony are decidedly modern - she does not idealize romantic partnerships in the same manner as many of her contemporaries. What REALLY happens: Dorothea falls in love with Edward. They get married. They become miserable. Tertius falls in love with Rosamond. They get married. They become miserable.