African American Classics I Wish I’d Read In School

There’s a good chance I would have not gotten into a fight with my English teacher in my senior year of high school had we read any (and I mean any) people of color all year. And the year before that. The name of the class was International Baccalaureate, for goodness’s sake.

Anyway, when I got to college I sought out all the good literature I had straight-up missed because my high school curriculum was only interested in white authors. The classes that particularly struck me were the ones about African American literature. I read a lot of contemporary black writing, but these opened my eyes to a whole world of the past. I wonder how influential these writers could have been to the students of my school—would more black students enjoy their English classes? Would our white peers understand things better?

This is a list of just some of the African American classics I would love to see added to high school curriculums across the nation. (Staples of the genre like Beloved by Toni Morrison or The Autobiography of Malcolm X aren’t on this list because I’ve seen them taught in various high schools.)

african american classicsNative Son by Richard Wright

This is, hands down, one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. And for good reason. When Bigger Thomas starts working for a wealthy white family in Chicago, things don’t exactly go as planned. I won’t give away too much, but I’ll say this—Bigger does something terrible.

This was the first Book of the Month pick by a black author, and it stirred up so much controversy when it first came out in 1940. It angered everyone. Blacks, whites, elites, middle-class workers. But they couldn’t stop talking about it. This, along with the sheer quality of the book, made it a lasting part of the African American literary canon.

A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

For a book some consider young adult, A Lesson Before Dying is HEAVY. It follows a young black teen named Jefferson charged with the murder of a grocery store owner. Spoiler alert: he’s innocent. That doesn’t matter to the southern court system in 1948, however. The state sentences Jefferson to death by electric chair.

Distraught over her son’s fate, Jefferson’s family asks the local teacher to teach Jefferson “how to be a man” before he dies, as opposed to the animal that the state sees him as. You will need some tissues for this one, mark my words.

african american classicsGo Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

I’ve never been one for religious texts, but somehow Baldwin’s breathtaking novel never comes across as didactic or pushy. It elegantly delves into the institution of the Pentecostal church and its relationship with the black community in 1950s Harlem. Following the story of a variety of characters like the local fanatic preacher, a woman with a dark past, and a young boy struggling with faith and sexuality, this book is simply gorgeous. In addition, it is a semi-autobiographical work. Any glimpse into the fascinating life of gay black icon James Baldwin is worth a read.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

This debut novel centers a Barbadian immigrant community in Brooklyn as they mingle, fall in love, fight, and dream for a better life. Its main character is Seline Boyce, a 10-year-old with a contentious relationship with her mother and an adoring one with her father. Shackled by a lower class lifestyle, they want to own their brownstones and have some autonomy in a world that barely affords them any. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

african american classicsMoses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston

The Biblical myth of Moses has long appealed to enslaved populations for its strong sense of justice against the enslavers and for the exploited peoples. In this gorgeously written novel, Zora Neale Hurston rewrites the story of Moses and the Hebrews in black vernacular, making the Hebrews a stand in for black slaves and the Egyptians a stand in for white slave masters. Strange at times, magical at others, this is one of Hurston’s lesser known works but also one of her most outwardly political.

Imperium in Imperio By Sutton Griggs

This 1899 novel is endlessly intriguing. It follows two politically active black men as they try to live their lives in the 19th century. Eventually, their stories coalesce as as they both have a hand in creating a secret black utopia in the middle of Texas. Mirroring the ages long struggle between militant black politics and non-violent black politics through the two characters, Imperium in Imperio is a fast-paced thriller that packs a big punch.

african american classicsPassing by Nella Larson

Clare and Irene can “pass” as white (depending on the circles they’re in). They were childhood friends but lost contact after a tragedy. When Clare and Irene find each other after years apart, they become intertwined and seek to rekindle their relationship. As adults, Irene lives in Harlem as black, but Clare mostly lives in Europe with her white husband and daughter. She conceals her blackness from him and their peers. Trouble is, her husband is a loud-mouthed racist. Who knows what he would do if he found out who he really married?

Shocking, intimate, and one of the foremost novels about racial passing for decades, this is a must-read.

The Street by Ann Petry

I’m willing to bet your average reader has never heard of The Street, yet it was the first book by an African American woman to sell a million copies. How did this seminal novel fall out of popularity with the general audience? (Tayari Jones, who recently wrote the bestselling novel An American Marriage, explores how Petry paved the road for black women authors in this article here.)

When you read The Street, you immediately get why it was a bestseller. It centers relatable, headstrong Lutie, a black mom in Harlem looking for a place to live for her and her son. As she knows all too well, however, the street (a metaphor for every street in America) just wants to push her down. Sexism, racism, and violence threaten to stop Lutie from making a living when all she wants to do is survive.


Do you have any African American classics you particularly enjoyed?

The Bells: Mourning A Literary and Historical Monument

I can’t believe it. Neither can most of the contributors on Book Riot. We are mourning a loss as fire has devastated Notre Dame, a historical church in Paris, on April 15. Renovations led to an electrical fire, which led to the roof coming down and several glass-stained windows blown out. Fortunately, the Parisian firefighters contained the blaze, saving the structure, and people had moved the relics earlier because of the renovation.

It’s very ironic that this church was saved by a book, only to burn from a minor accident. As Lindsay Ellis’s video discusses, regarding The Hunchback of Notre Dame and its adaptations, Victor Hugo wrote the book to save the church. Otherwise, due to its disrepair, it would have been torn down and replaced.

Note that for this article, I’m using the term “Gypsy” in quote because it is a racial slur. Romani is the proper term.

Notre Dame De Paris

If you are going to read the original book Notre Dame de Paris, keep in mind that Victor Hugo was kinda racist. It starts with “Gypsies” kidnapping a perfectly healthy baby and replacing it with another, who is abandoned at the bell tower. Clopin is also a murderous leader who lays siege to Notre Dame to protect Esmeralda from the troops. Not the most flattering representation.

Then we have Frollo and Quasimodo. Quasimodo is born with physical deformities, and the bell-ringing has made him deaf. Neither are portrayed that sympathetically in the books, though Quasimodo protects Esmeralda when she’s framed for murder.

Yeah. Even so, the book struck people’s hearts with how Notre Dame was more than a place. It had life, as much life as the people running amok in it demonstrated. And it struck a chord with people. Soon it would strike a musical chord as well.

“What Makes A Monster and What Makes A Man?”

I first learned of Notre Dame as a kid, from Disney. The film was released when I was a kid, and I asked my parents to take me to it. In hindsight, this is why the creators shouldn’t have aimed for a PG rating, because I was too little to understand.

Hunchback takes many liberties with the source material, but I argue they improve on it. Rather than have Frollo as a corrupted religious archdeacon that can’t keep it in his pants, he serves as a minister of justice who embarks on genocide to match his warped worldview. To emphasize this, he chases down a woman in cold blood and murders her for trying to save her baby’s life. The local Archdeacon has to tell him he must raise the child to atone for his sin. Frollo does, and Quasimodo, despite this traumatic upbringing, is kind to any living creature.

Esmeralda is also Romani, and not naive. Instead, she takes the approach that one must right wrongs, even when it puts her life in danger. Frollo hates that she defies him, and yet that she is an attractive, nubile teenager. Cue one of the best villain songs that is strangely prophetic about the news, about how Esmeralda will burn.

Obviously, I didn’t get any of this as a kid. Instead, I had to rewatch it in college to understand this was a movie about the difference between lust and love: when you lust after someone, you don’t care about their ability to consent. You only want them, and that feeling consumes you. To symbolize this, Esmeralda appears in the flames, not as a person to Frollo but as an ephemeral “witch.” Ironically he calls out to the Virgin Mary, who was also a refugee girl once, to help him.

Frollo swears to burn down all of Paris to find Esmeralda. Note that he doesn’t have to burn anyone; he makes the choice. Then he blames it on Quasimodo, and says Esmeralda being kind to his adoptive son was cunning, not kindness. By this point, Quasimodo doesn’t buy it, but his fear of Frollo conflicts with his courage. By the climax, all the Parisians are revolting when he finally lays siege to Notre Dame, after Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda and claims sanctuary for her. For the first time ever, Quasimodo fights against his adoptive father, defending the church with everything he has.

On the surface, it seems that Disney’s fictional Frollo got the last laugh. Notre Dame did burn. There are more cruel people that use their sanctimony to commit genocide. And the world seems to have become scarier.

But Notre Dame has burned before, and it has been rebuilt. We can’t replace the exact windows or the spire, but we can add something new to the something old that has remained. And we can remember why the old and new versions of the story work, why we remember them.

Victor Hugo once saved a church. Disney saved a story. We can save so much more. Notre Dame lives to serve Paris another day.

Best of the Best LES MISÉRABLES Covers

I’m a bit of a Les Mis junkie (look, I was raised on the musical, I can’t help it), so my excitement for the upcoming BBC adaptation can only be expressed in operatic musical numbers set against the backdrop of a precarious barricade. I’m joking—kind of. But seriously, it feels like the right time to spread some love for the book the musical and upcoming mini-series adaptation are based on. Because trust me, it deserves lots of love, too! And in honor of that, here are some of the best of the best Les Misérables covers (in my humble opinion).

Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

 

Signet Classics and 2012 Penguin Classics Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

1.Signet Classics Edition

2. 2012 Penguin Classics Edition

 

Everyman's Library and 2015 Penguin Classics Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

3. Everyman’s Library Edition

4. 2015 Penguin Classics Edition

 

Maplewood Books and 2016 Penguin Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

5. Maplewood Books Edition

6. 2016 Penguin Classics Edition

 

Fall River Press and Barnes and Noble Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

7. Fall River Press Edition

8. Barnes & Noble Edition

 

Koridor and Penguin Random House India Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

9. Koridor Turkish Edition

10. Penguin Random House India Edition

 

Modern Classics Library and Chinese Edition from Best of the Best Les Misérables Covers | bookriot.com

11. Modern Classics Library Edition

12. 野人文化股份有限公司 Chinese Edition

 

What are your favorite editions of  Les Misérables? Let us know in the comments!


If you want more Les Mis, check out this Les Miserables reading list for all ages. 

5 Overlooked Nonfiction New York Review of Books Classics

For 20 years, The New York Review of Books‘s publishing division, NYRB Classics being its most famous imprint, has offered a steady supply of under-read and almost-forgotten literary gems to curious readers. While novels like Stoner (perhaps the imprint’s biggest success) and The Invention of Morel have made the biggest splashes, the library’s nonfiction has been the biggest draw for yours truly.

Here are five overlooked (less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) nonfiction titles from the NYRB Classics’s catalog. For a lengthier list of great nonfiction, check out Rebecca Hussey’s from last October.

The World I Live In by Helen Keller

Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life is firmly lodged in the autobiographical canon, and even people who haven’t read it or seen its adaptations, usually under the title The Miracle Worker, are familiar with the details of Keller’s childhood. You would expect her followup book to be a sequel, but The World I Live In is a completely different beast. From the direct first page to the rapturous final chapter, Keller explains her condition, corrects misunderstanding and dispels the notion that she is incapable of living a full life. Ironically, through putting her experience on paper and bringing herself down to earth, Keller comes off as even more extraordinary. The term “life-changing” gets attached to books easier than to any other art form, but The World I Live In deserves the label. You can’t help but be transformed by it.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse

This 550-page work of history and cultural criticism will be a slog for some readers (it’s by far the driest, most dense read on this list) and catnip for others, particularly if you’re into the Harlem Renaissance. Cruse charts the path of black intellectual thought from the 1920s to 1967, the year of the book’s publication, and ends up being harsh on both integrationists and black nationalists. Make no mistake, Cruse was not pro-segregation, but he didn’t see integration as a panacea to racial problems. Highly recommended to those interested in American race relations; just have Wikipedia at the ready.

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

It was a routine trip to his town’s missionary bookstore when Tété-Michel Kpomassie, then 16, came across a book about Eskimos in Greenland. When he read it, he instantly fell in love with the country and became determined to go there. For over a decade, Kpomassie worked his way through Africa and Europe and finally sailed to the country of his dreams. The memoir that resulted from his travels rivals the best of the genre in terms of detail and scene-setting. Kpomassie’s good-naturedness and enthusiasm is simply infectious, and the tone of the book reminded me of the globe-trotting surfers from Bruce Brown’s classic documentary The Endless Summer. I knew I was in for an interesting book, but I wasn’t expecting a feel-good one.

Miami and the Siege of Chicago by Norman Mailer

This account of 1968’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions usually plays second banana to Mailer’s New Journalism classic The Armies of the Night, but I think Miami and the Siege of Chicago is every bit that book’s equal. The opening half, about the RNC, offers priceless snapshots of Republican higher-ups of the time (As with The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, have Wikipedia on hand to brush up on your history when you encounter an unfamiliar name), but it’s the ground- (and sometimes balcony-) level dispatch about the Chicago police riot, which broke out in response to anti-Vietnam war protests, that makes this essential reading for anyone interested in 20th-century American history.

Poison Penmanship by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford published two memoirs, Hons and Rebels and A Fine Old Conflict, before Poison Penmanship, and in a way this collection of magazine pieces works as a third: a memoir of the writing life. It’s also something of a journalism manual, beginning with a great introduction and following each piece with comments and criticism from Mitford, in which she often kicks herself for missing an opportunity here or there, or wishes she had structured her story differently. Above all, the articles are plain fun. “Maine Chance Diary,” “My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor” and the two Sign of the Dove pieces in particular are as funny as anything in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Any way you read it, and whatever you take from it, this book is a joy.

5 Overlooked New York Review Books Classics – Fiction

For over 50 years, The New York Review of Books has been a go-to source of in-depth criticism, opinion and news not just on literature but current affairs, science, and culture. The magazine also has a publishing division: New York Review Books, its most famous imprint perhaps being NYRB Classics. For 20 years now, it’s been the company’s mission to bring out-of-print and obscure books to mainstream attention. For foreign-language books, NYRB often commissions its own translations, and each edition they release is accompanied by an insightful introduction or afterword. It’s this sort of care that makes NYRB akin to, say, The Criterion Collection, a home video company specializing in releases of important classic and foreign films.

Here are a few overlooked (less than 1,000 Goodreads ratings) NYRB classics. For more under-read classics, check out Rebecca Hussey’s list on Book Riot.

Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz

This book is a bit of genre-bender, as it’s made up entirely of conversation transcript but formed into a novel through Rosenkrantz’s careful selection and placement. Friends Marsha, Emily and Vincent, well, talk their way through the summer of 1965, covering sex, psychology, friends, careers and more. Truth be told, long stretches of this book are about as interesting as hearing someone describe their dream to you, or listening in on someone who’s high and thinks they’re the smartest person in the world, but the book scratches well a very particular itch of mine: the countless stories, confrontations, conversations and speeches that are lost to history because no one was there to record them. Talk gives you a slice of that, and while little of it is gold, it’s a fascinating reminder of the enormity of life and the novelist’s difficult task of putting it down on paper. If you want to know what life in the 1960s was like for Marsha, Emily and Vincent, here’s a fraction of a fraction of the answer.

 

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

I worry that Young Man With a Horn’s “first jazz novel” label hurts more than it helps, perhaps relegating it to historical relic status. That would be a shame, because this tale of gifted trumpeter Rick Martin’s rise and fall is a surprisingly smart novel about not just music but race, showing how musicians both black and white navigated an awkward, tense social landscape in order to sit back and enjoy the pleasures of making art together. I imagine fans of beat literature will dig this one; there are shades of Kerouac in Martin’s single-mindedness, his drive for artistic greatness, even as the rest of his life falls by the wayside.

 

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

Said to be influenced by Franz Kafka’s work, Camara Laye’s second novel reads like a 300-page bender. European protagonist Clarence stumbles through fictional town Adrame in an unnamed African country, confident he can procure a position working for the region’s king. This is a book that so succeeds at putting you in the shoes of its bewildered protagonist that you will find yourself frequently pausing to wonder whether it’s you or Clarence who is confused. Stick with it and you’ll continually be reminded that Laye has things under control and is always one step ahead.

 

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

Informal storytelling is at the heart of this painfully short but grand-in-scope novel. In fact, Blackwood’s unnamed protagonist does little else but listen to one family member gossip about another. The targets of the majority of the tales are the eponymous, miserable great-grandmother, who seems content to waste away in her mansion, and her daughter, who was put in an asylum after attempting to murder her grandson at his christening. What makes this book such great reading is that you feel like you’re eavesdropping, like you really, really shouldn’t be reading it; I think this is the mark of a great story about a family.

 

Negrophobia by Darius James

I’ve deliberately saved Darius James’s debut novel for last. Jeez, what to say about this downright filthy romp. The book, written as a screenplay, follows “blonde bombshell” Bubbles Brazil, a casually racist teenager constantly at odds with the black people in her life, particularly her maid and classmates. The former finally has enough one day and casts a voodoo spell on Bubbles that sends her on a surreal, relentlessly grotesque journey through her subconscious. “I hope Negrophobia gives you nightmares,” James writes to a new generation of readers in the book’s foreword. The book didn’t elicit that extreme of a reaction from me, but like Bubbles, I came out the experience changed, to say the least.

What Makes a Classic: On the Relevance and Status of Literary Classics

What makes a classic a classic? I have asked myself this question over and over again. We all, throughout our lives, come in contact with the Literary Canon. We are told how great the works it comprises of are. There is an expectation that we will read some—if not all—of them, at one point or another. I have already discussed elsewhere the issue of finding the right time in ones life to read that canon, so I will not get into that here. Rather, the question I want to ponder upon is: how are these works different than all the other works we encounter in our lives? Why should these particular ones survive throughout the centuries, while others fall into obscurity?

I should take a moment to point out that I am not a literary historian. Experts in the field of literature, I am certain, have dwelt upon this question and continue to do so. In the area of classical antiquity, where my specialty lies, the answer is more straightforward. The works that comprise that canon were deemed worthy of being taught. There is a reason why we know Homer and don’t have almost anything left of the other poems from the epic cycle that were written about the Trojan war (the sources mention several, in passing). The Iliad and Odyssey were copied numerous times.

From the ancient trash piles and at times within the mummy wrappings of Roman Egypt, scrap papyri, written by the hands of students and filled with mistakes, emerge. Monks in medieval monasteries created copies and translations of these and other works. Byzantine authors (such as Empress Eudocia) used lines from Homer or Virgil then to retell Biblical episodes. The list goes on. The point is, Homer, Ovid, Euripides, Virgil, Seneca, Sappho, and others escaped obscurity. They endured through time not only because their works were beautifully written (which, they were), but due to the fact they tapped into issues so universal to humanity that they transcend time and culture.

What is true about those works is also true about the works in the more recent literary canon as well. Long after their original publication, they nevertheless remain relevant and resonate. That is not to say that there aren’t problems with the canon. Nor do I think that every single work can (or should) resonate with everyone. There are authors that, no matter how hard I try, I cannot get through. Perhaps the right time has not arrived for those works in my life, but perhaps it never will.

There are other issues, as well. I think we can agree that there aren’t enough women, let alone authors of color, whose work has made it to canonical status. There is also the issue of the canon’s Eurocentricity. This conversation is becoming more and more prevalent, which is really important. Yet I would like to make the argument that many of the canonized works will remain so, because of their meditation on important issues.

Recently, the NYPL did a phenomenal podcast episode about Frankenstein, called Frankenstien, Our Dark Mirror. It struck me that more than 200 years after Mary Shelley wrote it, her work continues to find itself applicable to all kinds of topics, from science ethics, through race relations in the United States, to climate change. The question at its core is one about responsibility—both that of the creator and more broadly of society. Of course, it does not escape me that Frankenstein itself is a retelling of an even older tale. The Modern Prometheus, Shelley called it. Here we have an issue humanity has contended with for for millennia, and continues to.

Then, there is Shakespeare, the ultimate reteller. His plays vary between dramatizations of historical events and retellings of myths and fairy tales. The adaptation and applications of his works are numerous. I have enjoyed observing them and also learning about (The Folger Library’s podcast, Shakespeare Unlimited, is particularly useful for that). Across the world, over time, his verses have transcended time and culture, and have impacted people from all walks of life. (Though, to be fair, as with the ancient texts, there was a bit of luck involved too. If it had not been for Shakespeare’s friends assembling his works in the first Folio, he might have suffered Marlowe’s fate.)

Ultimately, to me, the power of the classic is its relevance. It can speak to anyone, resonate with many, and address questions and truths that are relevant and universal. That is what makes a classic a classic. That, and some luck.

A LES MISERABLES Reading List for All Ages

In the fan worlds of Deadheads, RENTheads, and Hamilheads, if I were going to be classified as a something head, I would be a Lesmishead. It doesn’t sound awesome, but still seems like an appropriate moniker for a Les Miserables superfan. I’ve watched the musical whenever possible, memorized the Original French Concept Album, and have major opinions about the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert in the 2012 film version of the musical.

Very briefly, Les Miserables is the story of French convict Jean Valjean. Valjean breaks his parole, is pursued by police inspector Javert, adopts a little girl, and eventually finds himself involved in the student uprising of 1832 in Paris. It is a story that takes place over multiple generations with many characters. They explore the relationships between good and evil and forgiveness versus obsessive punishment. There are love stories, political commentaries, songs, and history all in one large novel.

After obsessing over the musical for much of my middle school and high school years, I read the almost–1,500 page novel by Victor Hugo when I was in college. Other Lesmisheads will probably want to storm the barricade after hearing the following advice, but I have some tips if you are intimidated by a book that makes Moby Dick look like a quick read. First of all, you can skim the first 200 pages about the Bishop of Digne. He is a great guy, but does not add much to the plot. If it is your first read through, you can also skip much of the chapters on the Battle of Waterloo. I also recommend either buying the book in two or three volumes or cutting the massive paperback in smaller sections. It is much easier to read three smaller books, than one massive tome.

Whether you love the novel, the musical, or the many movie versions, here is a Les Miserables reading list to further your love for Les Miz.

Love LES MISERABLES? Here are some other books you might enjoy, too. Les Miserables | Books like Les Miserables | book lists

A Les Miserables Reading List

The Complete Book of Les MiserablesThe Complete Book of Les Miserables by Edward Berh

The title of this book could not be more literal. In this book, Berh writes about everything Les Miserables. The book begins with a history of the novel itself and then delves into the development and creation of the musical. Many photos from the stage show, interviews, and a full libretto are included.

A Little in Love book coverA Little in Love by Susan Fletcher

This is a YA novel about Eponine, the tragic street urchin who loves a man she cannot have. As a child, Eponine remembers the day the angelic Cosette came into her family’s life and worked as a servant in their inn. She also remembers how her parents taught her to hate Cosette while instilling in her a life of crime and vice. When Eponine and Cosette have a chance meeting many years later, Eponine must decide whether she can salvage the relationship. Fletcher fleshes out many characters from the novel, including Eponine’s siblings Azelma and Gavroche, and provides a back story for a beloved, tragic heroine.

Manga Classics: Les Miserables book coverManga Classics: Les Miserables by Stacy King, SunNeko Lee, and Crystal S. Chan, based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s story rewritten as a Manga Classic. Beautiful artwork against impressive backgrounds tell this beloved story in a new way. This is an excellent alternative for those who love graphic novels or who wish to read the story in a shorter period of time. I found myself playing music from the musical while reading this one and it greatly enhanced the reading experience.

Cozy Classics: Les Miserables book coverCozy Classics: Les Miserables by Jack Wang and Holman Wang

This little board book tells the story of Les Miserables using adorable needle felted figures. In only twelve words, the creators of this book manage to introduce the characters and major plot points to the smallest Lesmisheads.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables book coverThe Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables by David Bellos

This is a book about a book. David Bellos writes about how Victor Hugo managed to write an epic novel amidst political turmoil, revolutions, and even exile. Reading about writing a book before computers and even typewriters were invented is fascinating. Add to this the fact that Hugo lived on an island away from his editors and publishers and it makes you realize how miraculous it is that this novel was ever completed. Bellos also spends time discussing why people should continue to read this novel and how Hugo’s social and moral ideas are still relevant today.

 

Before tackling Les Miserables, build your reading stamina with another book over 500 pages from this list entitled 50 Must-read Books of More than 500 pages. Skip the novel entirely and tune into a new adaptation of the novel on PBS on April 14.