A version of this article also appeared on the Page Views page at the New York Daily News:
Let's be honest: There are far too many classics for anyone to realistically read them all. Many of them are long and depressing, or about subject matter that isn't the most appealing (like miserable people making each other miserable. Or Puritans. Or miserable Puritans making each other miserable).
However, the status of "classic" lends a books a certain gravity that makes it awkward to admit you haven't read it--much more awkward than it is for other books.
If you haven't read that one book everyone is talking about this year, there may be raised eyebrows in some circles, but generally that can be forgiven. But admitting that you haven't read a "classic" may threaten to destroy your credibility.
There comes a time in every reader's life when she is put on the spot and need to fake her book knowledge. Maybe she's at a job interview and they're trying to ask "fun" questions, so they ask, "What's the most recent book you read?" and all that comes to mind is the pulpy book she's too embarrassed to tell anyone she read. Or maybe she's meeting with a professor, or a future in-law, and the conversation takes a turn where she would seem like a numpty if she admitted her unfamiliarity with Jane Austen. Or maybe she has to dismantle a bomb, and the only way to do it is to type in a code that uses her knowledge of literary plots.
Here a guide so that you can fake your way through classics more easily. Warning: if there are any books ahead that you have not read but are genuinely planning to, there are some spoilers.
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The gist: Miserable people make each other miserable while brooding in the moors. (Moors as in the land. Not as in Othello).
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Healthcliff and Catherine grow up together, fall in love, but can't be together because of Reasons, so they spend the rest of their natural lives mentally torturing each other and everyone around them. Obviously this does not end with death. The cycle of miserable people making each other miserable continues down the line to future generations.
2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The gist: In the Old South, the Compson family falls apart. Events are narrated in nonlinear, disjointed fashion, often in stream-of-consciousness with no punctuation, capitalization, grammar or spelling. For readers attempting this book, all I can say is good luck. For anyone who has actually comprehended it in its entirety, all I can say is mazel tov, and can you now please explain Finnegan's Wake?
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Four siblings--Benjy (the mentally disabled one), Quentin (the disturbed Harvard student), Caddy (the promiscuous sister), and Jason (the morally bankrupt one) experience the deterioration of their family and the crumbling of their world and ideals. For bonus points, the title is a reference to Macbeth's famous "tomorrow" soliloquy, which should show you how cheerful this book is.
3. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The gist: Unlike most protagonists in classics--with their alases and their henceforths and indeeds--Holden uses a lot of goddamn cursing, which has endeared him to teens everywhere.
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Holden Caulfield is kicked out of boarding school, bemoans the current state of the world and all the phonies in it, and wanders around New York in a state of Angst while having various altercations with nuns, prostitutes, former teachers, former girlfriends, and his sister. These altercations range from funny to disturbing to heartbreaking.
4. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The gist: A "who is the father" mystery, like a Maury episode with Puritans.
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Hester gets pregnant by a mystery man who isn't her husband. Her puritanical village shuns her and forces her to wear a scarlet "A" for "adulteress." The pregnancy results in a daughter who straddles the line between "precocious" and "children-of-the-corn-levels of Creepy." The real father tortures himself to death over his guilt. The villagers eventually learn their lesson and regret their cruel judging ways....just kidding, that never happens. Misery and death ensue.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The gist: If you've seen a romantic comedy, you can fake your way through this one. Pride and Prejudice is the original version of the storyline that rom-coms love so much--you know the one--the technique of, "Their mutual hatred is secretly masking their attraction and sexual tension."
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy argue, pout, dance, write letters, and eventually find surly, pouty true love. There is also a subplot with Elizabeth's sister that Jane Austen herself doesn't care about. They live happily ever after, until their village is invaded by zombies. (I may have picked up the wrong copy of Pride and Prejudice).
6. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The gist: Like The Hunger Games, but instead of teens fighting to the death and a love triangle between a short amiable guy and a tall brooding guy, the society involves the subjugation of women, and the love triangle is between an ambiguous government official and an ambiguous driver.
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: In the dystopian future, America has turned into a totalitarian theocracy in which women are subservient to men. The protagonist is a concubine to a government official. She begins a secret relationship with his driver, who may or may not be either a government agent or a fighter for the resistance. Eventually, she is taken away by ambiguous secret police that either work for the government or the resistance. The story ends abruptly, right when things are getting interesting. In a shocking twist, the ending is ambiguous.
7. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
The gist: Miserable people make each other miserable--but on a smaller scale than Wuthering Heights, and in New England rather than England England.
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Ethan Frome's wife is old, mean, and sickly. Her cousin Mattie comes to help Ethan care for her. Ethan and Mattie fall into a tentative, repressed love, and eventually agree to a mutual suicide...through sledding. This does not go as planned, which goes to show that suicide via sledding is not the best method to off yourself. They survive, horribly injured and paralyzed. In a twist of irony, the bitter, sickly wife must now care for both of them. It almost makes Wuthering Heights seem warm and fuzzy.
8. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The gist: For this one you could also watch the movie, although the fact that the evil witch is played by Tilda Swinton, the most terrifying woman in the world, ruins any guessing games about whether or not she is evil (Sorry if you are reading this, Tilda. I'm sure you have a great personality).
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Four siblings stumble into a magical land with talking animals, a Jesus-lion, and a witch who has plunged the land into perpetual winter. The siblings work to restore Narnia, except for the one brother who's kind of a dick.
For bonus points: Watch the "Lazy Sunday" video with Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell--although maybe do not mention this to the person you are trying to impress when you pretend to have read this book.
9. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The gist: This one is easier to pretend to have read, because you can just watch the movie. However, I had to include it because I felt a moral obligation to prevent you from doing so. While the movie isn't as terrible as it could have been, it does ruin, among other things, Jay Gatsby's entire character. (I do realize that it would be impossible for the one man who could have captured Gatsby--Heath Ledger--to play him. But come on, guys, it could have at least been Ryan Gosling. Or an unknown. Leo and his smarmy smile are not Gatsby).
The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Jay Gatsby, a man who is in his late 20s/early 30s (an age that Leo can't pass for any more, no matter how nostalgic you are for the 90's. Sorry, I will stop hating on Leo now) pines after a woman named Daisy who certainly doesn't deserve it, while their mutual friend observes. Daisy is married to a man who makes Ernest Hemmingway seem like a soft-spoken feminist. Doom, gloom, and fabulous jazz-age parties entail.
For extra points: Mention the green light. Keep paddling against that current.
In all seriousness--revenge, murder, unrequited love, suicide, disgrace, mental instability, isolation, and insanity aside--most of these books are worth your time. On the whole, the writing itself makes up for the doom and gloom of the plots.
But if you don't have the time, then go forth and pretend to have read them. And if anyone seems suspicious of you, maybe they're just pretending too.