Classic books are often seen as reflections of their contemporaries, but we should not forget that we can also learn from them simply how to be a better human being. I think every single human being must read these books because they tell us a lot about human nature, showing the best and the worst of it. They teach empathy and confidence, which are sometimes more valuable than the big issues of historical context. I would recommend them to everyone regardless of profession and taste, and even if you don’t read books at all. Yes, I will extend this list in the future.
George Eliot, Middlemarch
I had never heard of this book before I was assigned it in the Intro to the Novel class. It’s actually not very popular among Russian readers, which is surprising – in British literature, Middlemarch is considered to be one of the most fundamental novels. George Eliot, a female writer under a man’s name, begins the novel with the narrative about Dorothea Brooke and her family. You start thinking that Middlemarch is pretty similar to Pride and Prejudice; however, the next chapters introduce us to other families living nearby, which means more problems, more intrigues, and more interests involved in the web of human connections – fathers and sons, business partners, couples. The novel touches on many topics, but what I enjoy the most here is how Eliot describes people’s altruism vs. egoism, for example, in a married couple. A husband and a wife see their individual ambitions and desires but ignore each others’ perspectives, which is very much like what we do in everyday life. Read Middlemarch, start to see things through other people’s eyes.
Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage
This novel tells the story of Philip Carey from his childhood to – you will find out when you read. You will observe how Philip is trying to resign himself to his lameness, how he is shaping his viewpoint on religion, and how stupid he is while falling in love. When I read this book, I could relate to almost everything Philip was thinking of, especially about one’s place in the world. He changes many professions and deals with infidelity, misery, and a hundred other problems until he finds out what he really wants. I think everyone can recognize oneself at least in some of Philip’s experiences as he questions everything that humanity tries to understand since the dawn of time – religion, death, love, friendship, and, of course – what makes a human a human?
Anton Chekhov, "Ward No. 6"
Chekhov is the master of making sad things funny and turning fun into ugliness and despair. The famous Ward No. 6 is not an exception. The insane inhabitants of the ward are illustrated with funny precision, which adds even more to the craziness of the whole picture, but it doesn’t eliminate the fact that there are human beings kept in the cage by other human beings. A presumably healthy man comes to the ward, listens to an insane man’s arguing and finds it entertaining; you might guess where they both will end up. This text made me think what is closer to human nature – protesting or accepting things that make our life less enjoyable, less comfortable? Anyway, I’m sure everyone has his or her own interpretation of Ward No. 6. Isn’t it the essence of us all, too?