Classic Books That Are Timeless, Relevant, And Not Cringe In 2023

June 1, 2023

A while ago, I had a Zoom meeting with some writer friends. Somehow the conversation turned to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Having read it only in the past few years, I was excited to share how much I disliked the book. How much do I care about Clarissa and her husband and her lovers and the paw-ty and the flowers? Although over-empathy is a bit of a personal issue I’m working through, I didn’t care one bit about any of the characters. Even the veteran’s PTSD story was so awkwardly, unnaturally fit in there, as if to lend moral gravitas.

But I soon realized I was the only one who thought it was self-indulgent and very “rich white people problems.” The others in the group—who were all white women—found that Mrs. Dalloway is a classic and that it informed their writing for life. I believe that reading experience is individually subjective but also culturally subjective. If any of these peers had been POC, I think they might share my alarm at some books that pass for uncontested classics.

As the years pass, I run into moral objections to these so-called classics at an increasing rate. These include the “ye olde” classics that you accept were written centuries ago under different moral standards. But they also comprise “modern classics” like Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (white gaze fetishization/sexual objectification of Asian, specifically Thai people). I fought through Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch until finally, the only Asian (Korean American) character in the book was described only with the fact that she smelled strongly of garlic. Are you kidding me? Many of my white peers don’t seem to notice the same things as I do, because when I tell them these things they seem mildly surprised more than outraged.

The fact is that “classics” are not born immediately after publication. Nor do lauded books stay that way over time. Books’ popularity and acclaim rise or decline according to trends and public opinion. In 2023, we have a need to reexamine what we consider worthwhile. I hope high schools strike out Ernest Hemingway from their curriculum, because his Snows of Kilimanjaro was the single most misogynist literary writing I’ve ever read. Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Cheever can join that club of forgotten writers. Also, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera for that horrific grooming/rape of a preteen girl. Instead, let’s read books that have stood the test of time, or even seem progressive and prescient for their age. Here are some of my suggestions.

Note: these are not my favorite classic books, nor the “best” classic books I’ve read. But they seem more relevant to modern mores. For example, I love Pride and Prejudice forever, and it’s a classic if ever there was one, but it’s not social / morally relevant today—just emotionally true.

Classic books that will not make you cringe in 2023

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale

This dystopian fantasy about the loss of reproductive rights has never felt more relevant.

Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club

Tan was one of very few Asian American authors who trail blazed the way for others. She wrote novels inspired by her Chinese roots, and showed that there was a huge market for it, as well. My favorite Amy Tan book is The Kitchen God’s Wife, which made me cry copiously at the end. But The Joy Luck Club gets the credit for being the bestseller and an enduring symbol of Asian American culture, to this day.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle

Vonnegut wrote with empathy, brilliance, and prescience about our worst—and best—instincts. Cat’s Cradle is about the inventor of a chemical that can freeze and destroy the planet. To find the chemical, the inventor’s children go on a heady journey around the globe. Sirens of the Titan is another Vonnegut classic that embodies his humanist vision through science fiction.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin’s short stories and novels seem decades ahead of their time. In this cult classic, a man born into a socialist “moon” travels to the capitalist planet from which his ancestors escaped.

Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

This is as classic as it gets, but I argue that it never ages. I’ll never not be surprised by Tolstoy’s extraordinary observation of his female characters. So although it was written in 19th century Russia, it feels deeply feminist and modern. The profound humanism that informed Tolstoy in his personal life defines this masterpiece.

Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

This is no ordinary social satire. Although The Master and Margarita lampoons Communist folly in early 20th century USSR, it’s also a literary fireworks that I prefer to describe simply as “stupendous.”

Jack London’s White Fang

I first read this as a child. Upon re-reading it as an adult, I’m struck by how extraordinarily sensitive London is to the idea of animal intelligence, sentience, and soul—perhaps more than a century ahead of his time. The prose is beautiful, far more so than anything I hear described as “children’s literature.” It’s emotionally true.

William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying

One of my favorite authors of all time, Faulkner wrote with great compassion and power about the disenfranchised, the mentally challenged, and POCs. I pretty much loved all of them, but As I Lay Dying has a special place in my heart.

Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark

Not the “best” book I’ve read—but worth mentioning here for its portrayal of a poor young girl who finds her path to success as an opera singer. It’s devilishly hard to find a good book about a woman coming into her own power especially as an artist. Among the so-called classics, I find many that are about marriage (“the marriage plot”) but almost none about artistic aspirations. This is an exception—and a good one among the so-called Great American Novels.

D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover

A novel about a woman’s sexual desires? Definitely ahead of its time and still relevant today.

James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room

A gorgeous book about an American man named David who is thrown by fate into Giovanni’s path. This sensuous, beautiful portrayal of male lovers is classic for a reason. Open the book and breathe the hot air of Paris in the summer.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

This lyrical book follows a Black woman’s journey of finding herself in 1930s Florida.

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Peaceful Dumpling is used for articles written by staff writers and freelance contributors who wish to remain unidentified.


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