The sixty years of my life have been consumed by books. Sometimes, to the point where they almost did me in. I once read enough that I ended up in a delusion spot where my world and the world inside books fused into a life-ending mess. But all was not lost. My new memoir, BOOKMARKED, tells the tale of how I got from under the spell of the great works of literature. These days, I teach eight-week literary seminars online and host tons of book discussion group with a global participation. I also hold down a long-term publishing career with almost forty titles in print. I’ve revisited (and retaught) a lot of classic novels lately, mostly to people around my age and beyond. I’ve seen them reconnect with books they haven’t even thought about since their sophomore year of college. Here are five that stand out that you should consider giving a reread:
1. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER.
Why do we set this novel for fifteen-year-olds? You have to have lived a good while, walked the battlefields of love, and trudged to the other side to understand this remarkable tale of a woman who dares it all to get the love she wants. You need battle scars to understand the cost and benefits of love and to realize that the social fabric of your world both constricts and warms you. What’s more, you have to have lived as long as I have to understand that we all live with regrets. Teenagers couldn’t possibly get this. But the thing is, you get to a point (late thirties, I’d say) when you realize those regrets don’t have to cripple your life. You can live a great life with the scars. That’s the whole point of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne. That’s a novel only someone my age can understand.
2. George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH.
About five years ago, there was a lot of buzz over rereading this doorstop of a novel. It’s worth reupping the title again. Eliot tells the tale of a small patch of England, the thick layers that make up the social contracts of our world, things that get written around and even on us the older we get. Plus, Dorothea’s poor choice for a first husband is a story most of us have lived by this point. But MIDDLEMARCH is about more than Dorothea Brooke. It’s also about Fred Vincy, a character you might not notice when you were twenty. His story is about learning to do with less—and even making a happy life out of it. Given that he gets the last words of the novel, his plot might be what MIDDLEMARCH is about all along. You just missed that bit when you were an undergrad and consumed with Dorothea’s bad decisions (which mirrored a lot of your own back then).
3. Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA.
This novel’s got a similar problem to MIDDLEMARCH. If you read Tolstoy’s tome when you were young, you were distracted by Anna. (Admittedly, Tolstoy’s title doesn’t help.) Sure, she’s tragic. But the novel belongs to Constantine Levin, its parallel plot. Anna doesn’t even show up for a hundred pages or so. Instead, Levin struggles with his home, his place in the world, the mid-life changes in this career, and even his faith. His story stands in sharp contrast to Anna’s doomed romance playing out on the other side of the stage. But you’re now old enough to understand that his plot carries just as much drama, just as much tension, even if it’s less operatic, more middle-aged than twenty-something.
4. Daniel Defoe’s ROXANA: THE FORTUNATE MISTRESS.
Bear with me. You may not have read this one back in the day. Maybe you should have. It’s way superior to MOLL FLANDERS or ROBINSON CRUSOE. But there’s still time to discover Defoe’s pitch-perfect voicing of a penniless, middle-aged, French woman, trying to make her way in a hostile London society. ROXANA is tour de force of imagination and social realism. It’s also a tale of feminine empowerment that seems super modern, despite its being written almost three hundred years ago. Roxana is a survivor, someone who realizes “the marriage contract is . . . nothing but giving up liberty, estate, authority, and everything.” But she also knows what has to be done to survive in a world without safety nets. Yes, Defoe has to add a coda that she’ll get her just desserts in due time. But for the course of the novel, she’s some wild mash-up of Betty Friedan and Jackie Onassis.
5. Charlotte Brontë’s JANE EYRE.
When Brontë published this novel (under a pen name, of course), she was accused of everything from lechery to atheism. But within a few years, she had become the toast of London society. And why not? Jane’s story is about social mobility, class consciousness, and moral reform, all bound up by the rage the little orphan feels at a world that can’t accept her full-throated independence. You might remember the Rochester bits with his mad wife in the attic. Now, I’ll bet you’ll find more resonance in the novel’s second half, when Jane escapes Rochester and finds herself courted by the hideously proper St John Rivers. He offers her purpose and financial security if she’ll just keep her mouth shut. Her first relationship may have been about passion but her second is about settling down at any cost. St John’s proposal is bone-chilling: “Know me to be what I am—a cold hard man.” You have to have lived a good while before you get the gravitational well of coldness that can also be a bond of security. And you have to have lived a good while to understand how to run away from it. Brontë may not fully realize the problems she sets, but she certainly outlines a grim version of the modern, middle-aged, second relationship. If nothing else, JANE EYRE is sure to make you sit up and take notice to the parts you may have missed.
I’ve watched countless groups of baby boomers respond to these and other classic novels, books they haven’t touched in years. Maybe it’s worth the time to revisit the classics. They once drove me to the brink of (and maybe over) insanity. But at sixty, I find them a different story: deeper, truer, closer to the heart. I hope you will, too.
Mark Scarbrough is the author of a recently published memoir, BOOKMARKED, about his struggle to form his identity first inside and then away from the great works of Western literature. He is also the co-author, with his husband, of over thirty-five cookbooks in the last twenty-something years. What’s more, he hosts the popular podcast WALKING WITH DANTE, the only podcast to slow-walk through Dante’s masterwork, THE DIVINE COMEDY.