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Six Classic Novels Which Will Help You Learn Without Realizing

By Chloe Lane

Updated May 19, 2020 Updated May 19, 2020

If you’re looking to read some classics this summer, you might be wondering where on earth to start and how you can possibly relate to them in the 21st century. We’ve picked out a selection of our favorites to show you what they can teach you about student life in the modern-day.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice
For those who are unfamiliar with it, Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and is about headstrong Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennet, who meets the proud Mr Darcy and instantly takes a dislike to him. The novel follows the character development of Lizzie and Mr Darcy as they learn to conquer both their pride and their prejudice. 

What can you learn from it?

You’re likely to know at least something about Pride and Prejudice, whether this is mainly due to the BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth or if you had to read it in school. Either way the novel is definitely worth another read, as contains some excellent life lessons that are still relevant to student life in the 21st century.

The importance of standing up for what you believe in and trying not to worry so much about what people think of you. Lizzie Bennet always stood up for what she thought was right, even when that meant refusing to conform to society’s expectations of her; "I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me." At uni, take a leaf out of Lizzie Bennett’s book and voice your opinions – perhaps join a society with like-minded people or write for the university newspaper.

Don’t let prejudices cloud your judgment of someone and remember – first impressions are not always right. Both Mr Darcy and Elizabeth have to learn to overcome their prejudice against one another. If you’re starting university this year, remember to get to know someone before you judge them, or you might lose out on a great friendship.

1984 by George Orwell

1984- George Orwell
Orwell’s nightmarish dystopian novel was written in 1949 and set in the then near-future of 1984. In the novel, Britain ‘Airstrip One’ is under the strict dictatorship of ‘The Party’, led by the mysterious Big Brother and kept in check by the Thought Police, who persecute independent thinking. Everywhere and everything in the world is controlled by the state. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is a seemingly devoted worker who tries to rebel.

What can you learn from it?

There have been many articles written that compare Orwell’s 1984 to our present. The novel is scarily accurate in the way that it predicted the end of privacy – today data is collected from all aspects of our life, and social media makes it easier than ever for other people to see our every move. So what lessons can we take in 2019 from this chilling thriller?

Question everything you don’t understand and ask lots of questions. In the world of Orwell’s 1984, questioning the system isn’t an option, and you had to do exactly what the state told you. Luckily for us, this isn’t reality, and questions are generally encouraged (especially at uni) so make sure you ask them! Asking questions will help you learn faster and understand more, especially throughout your degree.

Politics is important and affects every aspect of your life, even if you don’t realize it. Orwell’s novel gives us a terrifying and extreme insight into what could happen if political power falls into the wrong hands. Luckily, today, we get a say in what happens in the government, so make sure you stay on top of what’s happening and vote when the time comes. Staying up to date with current affairs is also likely to help massively with your degree, especially if you take a social science subject such as Economics, International relations, etc.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde’s first and only novel is a great option if you love a bit of dark humor. This (frankly brilliant) novel is the story of a stunningly attractive young man who, after having his portrait painted, trades his soul for the chance to stay young and beautiful forever, while the painting of him grows old and gray.

What can you learn from it?

Deemed shocking at its time of publication, and shunned by many for its controversial ideas, The Picture of Dorian Grey is definitely worth a read. Filled with Wilde’s infamous wit, the novel is more relevant than ever today, in a time where social media has us all leading double lives.

Stop focusing so much on your appearance. Dorian Grey grew more and more bitter and unhappy as he focused more on his appearance and less on being a good person. In the 21st century we can translate this to the time we spend perfecting our lives on social media; whether it’s spending hours getting that perfect picture for Instagram or telling strangers every detail of our lives on Twitter – vanity is a topic that is more relevant than ever. It’s so easy to get swept up in all of this, so learn to take some time away from social media, and focus on your relationships with the people around you.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Great Gatsby is again a book you have probably heard of; the story of Jay Gatsby, and his lifelong quest to win back the affections of his (now married) first love, Daisy Buchanan, told through the eyes of Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway. Set in 1922 and written by the world-renowned F. Scott Fitzgerald in the mid-twenties, this novel gives a rare insight into the extravagant (and often tragic) lives of individuals in the Roaring Twenties. 

What can you learn from it?

‘But how can a novel set in 1922 still be relevant to me today?’ I hear you ask. Well, this book is not only incredibly enjoyable, with Fitzgerald’s flowery language transporting you right back in time, but it also gives an incredible insight into human nature.

Trying too hard to be someone you’re not to fit in most likely won’t make you happy in the long run, and it probably won’t make people like you more. The people who are around Gatsby visit only for his extravagant house parties and his free alcohol, and when the party is over, we soon learn that Gatsby doesn’t have anybody who really cares about him. Translating this to student life, it is important to be yourself, and not try to act like someone else to get people to like you – you won’t be able to keep it up forever and it might end up impacting your mental health.

Don’t rely solely on other people for your own happiness. In the novel Gatsby based his happiness around getting Daisy back, and his life revolved around it. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make him happy, and the same goes for real life. Relying too much on someone else for your happiness will only leave you feeling miserable in the long run.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Clockwork Orange- Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange is a satirical dystopian black comedy novel, set in the near future. The novel follows teenager Alex and his gang, who commit acts of extreme violence in a society trying to reform him. Alex narrates the novel and discusses the consequences that his decisions have had throughout his life.  The novel induces the reader to ask the challenging question as to whether it is better to choose to be bad than to be conditioned to be good.

What can you learn from it?

There is no such thing as all good or all bad. If there’s anything this book teaches us, it’s that morality is complex. At the start of the novel, the reader really dislikes Alex and the horrible things he does, and by the end we’re kind of rooting for him. Humans are weird and complicated and often hard to understand. It’s important to remember that, and to always try to see both sides of the story.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye is an incredibly funny book, stuffed full of very wry humor. It follows the life of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield from New York, who decides to leave his Pennsylvania prep school and explore New York City for a few days, meeting some very odd characters on the way. It’s a coming of age story of nostalgia for the past, fear of the unknown and accepting inevitable change.

What can you learn from it?

This one is like marmite: you either love it or you hate it. Either way, there are several lessons you can learn from this book.

Everyone’s going through problems, and complaining all the time won’t solve them. Salinger’s protagonist, Holden, loves complaining about everything and everyone in his life, and as a result, has been (rightfully) labeled one of the most irritating narrators to ever have existed in Literature. Don’t be that person.

Don’t be afraid of change. Holden tries to run away from adulthood and is terrified of change. He becomes attached to the museum as it is the only unchanging thing in his life, but he soon learns that change is inevitable, and it is good to acknowledge it as a positive thing. This is important to remember as you go through uni, as you will most likely experience a lot of change in all aspects of your life.

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Have you read any of these books, or are there any others you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below.  

This article was originally published in August 2019 . It was last updated in May 2020

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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