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What Classic Novels Should I Read in 2023?
I’m Adding More Fiction to the Mix Next Year and Want to Hear Your Picks
I started Miller’s Book Review 📚 almost a year ago to help me retain more of what I read. I wanted to archive at least some of my thinking about each book instead of trusting my gray matter alone. I’m like Siegfried Farnon missing James Herriot‘s arrival in All Creatures Great and Small and echo his confession: “I have a shocking memory and I just forgot.”1
My go-to solution has always been to write stuff down. A review would do that. But how to stay consistent? By conducting the project in public! I figured I’d engineer the accountability into the exercise itself. I’m happy to report, that’s worked brilliantly. That said, I’ve also noticed a possibly related and unanticipated tendency to mostly focus on recent books. After all, that’s what people want to see reviewed, right? And no worries; I want you to enjoy this project as much as I do.
Still, I was noodling on this realization when Erik Rostad at Books of Titans announced he was embarking on a Great Books challenge. Erik’s ambitions are greater than mine, but I appreciate the project and his commitment to older literature. Now link that train of thought with another: I’d like to read more fiction this coming year. I only read a handful of novels each year, and I want to expand that.
So, why not get these two cars rolling down the same track?
My Goal for 2023
Classic novels have the virtue of being both old and (arguably) still relevant. With that in mind, I’m planning on reading more classic fiction in 2023. But how many? And which books? I’ll come to that in a moment, and I’d love your input to build my list.
First, let’s establish the goal. I don’t usually set reading goals, but I’m doing so this coming year. And, as the chief product officer at Full Focus, I’m naturally going to do it following the SMARTER framework. Here’s the goal:
Read 12 classic novels in 2023 and share one review each month through year end.
What do I mean by SMARTER? To qualify, a goal must be specific, measurable, actionable, risky, timebound, exciting, and relevant.2 Let’s look at each in turn.
Specific. I’m not talking about fiction in general. I’m talking about classic fiction, and I’ll narrow that even more; for the purposes of this goal, I’m defining classic as being both from a preeminent author and published before my birth. (That’s in 1975, which you’ll need to know in a moment.) Along with that, here’s one additional criterion: I can’t have read it before.
Measurable. Pretty straightforward; I’m reading 12 classic novels per the above definition. Not 10, not 11. And I’ll file these reviews monthly (more on timing below).
Actionable. I’m clear on the action—to read—which I baked into the initiating verb. What’s more, it’s actually doable. There’s nothing beyond my power preventing me from taking action.
Risky. How do I know what’s beyond my powers? Sometimes you don’t know until you put it to the test. Here’s the good news: Research shows that challenging goals are more likely to be completed than unchallenging goals for the simple reason that we disengage if a goal’s too easy. We phone in our efforts, never get creative, and eventually find something more interesting to do. Since I’m not much of a fiction reader, this goal will take me a bit outside my comfort zone. Also, I’m committing to share my reviews with you so there’s accountability baked in—and that means the risk of embarrassment if I fail to deliver. Beyond that, I’ve already got a full schedule. I’m going to have plan well and stay flexible.
Timebound. I’ve included three time keys in the goal. The first (“2023”) indicates the timespan of the goal; the scope encompasses a full year. The second (“each month”) defines the delivery points for the deliverable; I’ll share one review per month. And, while not strictly necessary, the third and final (“through year end”) reemphasizes the outer limit of the goal; by January 2024 I must have shared one review of a classic novel each month in the prior year or I will have failed.
Exciting. Goals prove more attainable when we’re intrinsically motivated. When pursuing risky, challenging goals, we regularly reach points when opting out feels attractive. Quitting might be justifiable, but having a rationale to which we’re emotionally connected helps us stay the course. Personally, reading 12 classic novels in 2023 sounds both challenging and energizing. I’m excited.
Relevant. This goal is not only relevant to my overall Miller’s Book Review 📚 project, it aligns with my interests more broadly and may even pay some dividends for an ancillary publishing project I’m working on. Further, it’s risky for the reasons mentioned above, but it’s not an overly big ask, considering my family and work commitments. It aligns with the rest of my life.
So that’s the goal and my thinking behind it. But what about the selection of novels? That’s where you come in.
Help Me Pick My List
I’d love your suggestions on what you think would be worth reading. Here are several titles that come to mind for me when I think about my criteria. I’m not committed to any of these and, depending on what you suggest, I’ll swap out titles to arrive at the final twelve.
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain
Willa Cather, My Àntonia
Jospeh Heller, Catch-22
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
J. D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Cervantes, Don Quixote
Shusaku Endo, Silence
Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
There’s neither rhyme nor reason to the above list except they meet my definition for classic fiction and they intrigue me (back to the exciting in SMARTER). What the list might reveal is the general tenor of my taste and interests. Some other authors that almost made my first pass: Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, and Dostoevsky.
If you like these suggestions, please say so in the comments. And if you don’t, please say so in the comments! I’m willing to entertain any novels by any of the above authors. So, let’s say you agree Zora Neale Hurston belongs on the list but want to suggest another novel. Excellent! Say so in the comments.
I’m also willing to replace any on the list with other selections—and probably need to. After reviewing it again just now, for instance, I notice there are only three women on the list and three writers of color. Please help me remedy that, too.
Along those lines, most of the writers and novels mentioned are fairly modern; feel free to suggest older novels if it suits you. I may be a chronological snob, as C. S. Lewis might accuse, but it’s not intentional.
I reserve the final vote. Why? I want to ensure at least most the selections strike me as relatively interesting (again, back to exciting). Relative to what? Probably my mood. But here’s my commitment. I will take suggestions until Wednesday, December 7, and publish the final, month-by-month list by Friday, December 9. Once it’s published I will resist any changes to the plan, barring acts of war, God, and the kind of stuff that sits at the bottoms of contracts that people don’t read closely.
This isn’t a contract. It’s a plan. Plans change. But I’m pretty serious about my goals once I set them, so you can expect to find one review of a classic novel riding an electron rollercoaster to your inbox each month for the entire year of 2023.
All that’s left is deciding what those 12 books are. Chime in: In your wonderfully idiosyncratic opinion, tell me what classic novels should I read next year.
And if you want to ensure you get those marvelous reviews each month, make sure you subscribe to Miller’s Book Review 📚 if you haven’t already.
Finally, if you known anyone with great taste in books—or maybe just insufferably strong opinions—please forward them this newsletter so they can weigh in, too. I’m looking for both the wisdom of crowds and the amusements of fools. Thanks!
James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014), 17.