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5 Lessons You Can Learn From Classic Novels

“A great book should leave you with many experiences,” Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist William Styron once said. Here, five noted authors share the life-changing wisdom they discovered inside their favorite timeless reads.

By Kate Rockwood
Illustration of a woman looking through the keyhole of a book shaped doorShout

Embrace Individuality

I read The World According to Garp, by John Irving, the year I graduated from college, and I identified with Garp in so many ways: He wanted to be a writer, and he was trying to be an adult, but he messed everything up. However, the most memorable message from the novel was illustrated by outcasts, like the transsexual ex–football player and the woman without a tongue, who finally found a community to call home. These characters showed me that people can be accepting of each other’s eccentricities, which is a big lesson to take from a book that is, in many ways, a romp. You have to give people room to be who they are and to let their true colors show.

Sara Nelson is the author of So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading ($15, amazon.com). She lives in New York City.

Just Move Forward

Growing up, I lived this very small-town existence, so I adored the surreal fantasy series Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, with its walking oysters and tea-drinking hares. I remember the scene where Alice asks the Cheshire cat about which way to go. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” he says. “I don’t much care where—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice replies. And he tells her, “Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.” For a directionless kid who didn’t know what she wanted to do or where she wanted to go, those words were comforting. You’ve got to end up somewhere, so just go.

Mary Roach is the author of Stiff ($14, amazon.com), Bonk ($25, amazon.com), Spook ($25, amazon.com), and, most recently, Packing for Mars ($16, amazon.com). She lives in Oakland.

Fight Injustice

In eighth grade, I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. At the time, most of it sailed right over my head. But that last 25 percent was potent enough to knock me over. I had never read a book so deeply engaged with social injustice, and the abuses it depicted—by religious figures, civic authorities, and the mob—shocked me to the core. I wondered, How could such things be allowed to go on? It made me want to be a warrior against corrupt power and to give voice to the stories of outcasts and outsiders. It also made me appreciate how deep the human desire for connection is; Quasimodo’s yearning to love and be loved speaks for us all. The end left me weeping, but even more important, it left me thinking, and forever changed.

Madeline Miller is the author of The Song of Achilles ($15, amazon.com), which won the 2012 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 
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