13 Overrated Literary Classics, and What to Read Instead

Covers | Courtesy of Vintage Classics, JollyGoodThen, and Penguin
JW McCormack

When it comes to reading, everybody’s got to start somewhere, but there’s a reason that the standard American high school reading curriculum is filled with books that age poorly: they’re for children. The books we’re brought up to view as classics often turn out to be flawed, staid or simply dated upon reconsideration. Of course, there’s nothing really wrong with Lord of the Flies or To Kill A Mockingbird, but to continue to venerate these books doesn’t just mean you’re beating a dead horse, it means you’re missing out on better.

Fortunately, there are classics that make for ideal alternatives — in fact, some of them are direct rejoinders to their overrated or narrowly focused counterparts. Below, find 13 books we’re just about done with, and the titles that could ably replace them in the affections of an audience looking for more dimension from literature.

Instead of Catch-22, read The Good Soldier Švejk

No doubt Catch-22 was revolutionary when it first appeared, satirizing war for a generation en route to Vietnam. But its proto-hippie charms haven’t aged all that well, now that its irreverent sense of humor and slapstick are so familiar culturally as to be superfluous. Fortunately, there is another, much funnier war novel that only gets more relevant with time, and that is Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, about the misadventures of a bumbling, larger-than-life Homer Simpson-esque soldier during the First World War.

Courtesy Penguin Classics

Instead of To Kill A Mockingbird, read Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are many books that improve on Harper Lee’s version of southern race relations in To Kill A Mockingbird, from Faulkner and Toni Morrison to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Set in a predominantly African-American town in rural Florida, Hurston’s novel shares many plot elements with To Kill A Mockingbird, including an unjust trial and a strong female protagonist, but is far more morally complex and at least as compelling.

Courtesy Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Instead of Lord of the Flies, read The Confusions of Young Törless

Ah, Lord of the Flies. With its fable-like narrative and painfully moralistic depiction of an island of schoolboys going feral, William Golding’s novel has had its day and now is more likely to be met with a collective eye-roll. For real adolescent darkness, it doesn’t get better than The Confusions of Young Törless, Austrian genius Robert Musil’s ghastly vision of boarding school students turning on one another as the specter of the coming Fascism hovers around them.

Courtesy Oxford University Press

Instead of The Stranger, read The Mersault Investigation

Albert Camus’ The Stranger has been many an angry young man’s introduction to existential malaise, but if you’ve finished the book with the feeling that something is missing, you’re not alone. Kamel Daous’s The Mersault Investigation effectively rewrites Camus’ novel from the perspective of the brother of the Arab murdered by The Stranger’s blissed-out protagonist, delivering a much fuller story that reveals what gets left out of colonial narratives and returning agency to its victims.

Courtesy Other Press

Instead of Things Fall Apart, read The Famished Road

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a perfectly viable entry point for Nigerian literature, but there’s no reason to stop there. Nigerian fiction is as rich now as Irish fiction was in the early 20th Century, with the same level of complexity and variety. Ben Okri’s 1991 masterpiece The Famished Road is a wonderful example of African and Western traditions combined to tell the epic story of a “spirit child” wandering between material and divine worlds.

Courtesy Anchor

Instead of Jane Eyre, read Wide Sargasso Sea

Many readers of Jane Eyre have been unnerved by the madwoman in the attic, a figure that practically gave rise to an entire subset of feminist criticism. But the best treatment has to be Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, where she tells the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, her Creole upbringing and descent into madness. The resulting novel gives Jane Eyre a run for its money in terms of the sheer beauty of the prose and the poignancy of its tragedy.

Courtesy W. W. Norton & Company

Instead of The Sun Also Rises, read Journey to the End of Night

Naturally, any list of overrated books is going to include Ernest Hemingway whose “muscular prose” and testosterone-fueled self-mythologizing has turned off quite a few modern readers. The Sun Also Rises is technically one of Hemingway’s best, but if you want a real portrait of wartime inertia and lost souls drifting through modernity, what you really want is Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, easily one of the bleakest — and best — novels ever written.

Courtesy New Directions

Instead of Tropic of Cancer, read A Sport and a Pastime

George Orwell criticized Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer for its apolitical, self-indulgent narrative in his essay “Inside the Whale,” and he’s got a point. For a Parisian novel that has much more on its mind than copulation — though there’s plenty of that — you want A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, a book unmatched in its sensuality and almost voyeuristic lucidity in its detailing of an affair in the City of Lights.

Courtesy Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Instead of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, read Kindred

Still the slavery narrative — along with Huckleberry Finn — that most casual readers are the most familiar with, Uncle’s Tom Cabin is more important for its historical impact than, strictly speaking, its prose or accuracy. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of curative texts that are unafraid to face the reality of slavery head-on, few as powerfully as Octavia Butler in Kindred, in which a contemporary black woman finds herself transported to the antebellum South to fulfill a mysterious destiny.

Courtesy Beacon Press

Instead of Ethan Frome, read The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

This one’s a special case, because if you mention “Edith Wharton” to your average person, they probably think of perennial reading list bore Ethan Frome. This is a tragedy, because Frome really is one of the great Wharton’s weakest entries — almost anything, from The House of Mirth to The Age of Innocence, does more to represent this great American writer at her best. So why not take on the collection The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, which is a wonderful introduction to the tragicomic novel of manners for which she is justly famous.

Courtesy NYRB Classics

Instead of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, read The Golden Compass

We almost all have rosy memories of discovering Narnia as children, but C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can come off as preachy for modern readers — which is why Philip Pullman wrote The Golden Compass, first in the His Dark Materials sequence of books. In the series, sexuality is celebrated, and the Church that C.S. Lewis saw as his principal concern is recast as the enemy of imagination.

Courtesy Yearling

Instead of Catcher In the Rye, read The Rule of the Bone

We likely all have coming-of-age novels we prefer to J.D. Salinger’s ubiquitous story of youthful rebellion. Catcher In the Rye has been improved upon countless times. One such novel is Russell Banks’ The Rule of the Bone, which details the personal odyssey of a young weed-dealing miscreant as he searches for something to believe in.

Courtesy HarperPerennial

Instead of The King James Bible, read The Nag Hammandi Scriptures

The Bible isn’t really overrated, it’s just not the full story, as the fascinating Nag Hammandi Scriptures make clear. The book details stories expunged from the more familiar New Testament, including the Gospel of Judas. For further reading, Elaine Pagels’ books, beginning with The Gnostic Gospels, provide context and critical insight on the “lost episodes” of the Bible.

Courtesy HarperOne
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