These books may be a century old, but they still feel relevant and fresh.

Not all books stand the test of time. Which is good news for contemporary writers striving to publish new work, but sadly means that, at some point, many books from decades (and centuries) past will simply cease to be read.

That’s unlikely to ever be the case with the 7 books we’re discussing today, though, for these books have reached the centennial mark and are still going strong. Each of the books we’ll discuss today shares the trait of being 100 years old but, more to the point, each remains a compelling read; one that will still inspire, teach, and move the modern reader just as it moved readers 10 decades ago.

Now, for the record, we’re not calling these books “timeless.” That’s a word we reserve for novels like “Anna Karenina” or “The Count of Montecristo” or “A Tale of Two Cities.” Yes, those are great books that are enjoyable to read, and they are timeless because their stories and characters will always be compelling. But they work so well because they transport us to their time, not because they still feel fresh.

The books featured here have something different going on; beyond compelling stories and fully realized characters, they retain the ability to surprise, inspire, and inform their reader every bit as much today as they did in the 1920s. They may be old books, objectively speaking, but they still resonate – or, in the parlance of our times, these old books still smack.

Why Some Books Stay Fresh, While Others Go Stale

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(Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash)

Why do some older books not resonate in the same way? There can be many factors. First and foremost, sometimes a book just feels outdated. Perhaps the language the author uses – especially in dialogue – is so unlike the manner of speaking to which you are accustomed that you can’t fully connect with the book, a good story aside. (Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” suffers thus.)

At other times, the subject matter and story of an older book may simply not grab your attention; the goings on in Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” may have captivated Georgian era attention, but might just not move a 21st Century reader.

And then there is the fact that, based on social mores and actual censorship, writers were limited in what they could say in centuries past. You can feel Flaubert pushing up against the boundaries of accepted sensuality and sexuality in his many fine novels, and one can only imagine what he might have written had he been born in 1921 instead of 1821.

Now, none of that’s to say you can’t enjoy any older book, but it can be harder to identify with books that feel dated. That’s not going to happen with these, though.

Ulysses by James Joyce – Published 1922

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Ulysses” is considered by many people to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century; indeed, many hail it as one of the best novels of all modern novels, meaning – though loosely – books of fiction written in the latter half of the 1800s and thereafter. Published in serial form between 1918 and 1920 and as a complete novel in 1922, this book has been thrilling and frustrating people ever since.

In its protagonist, Leopold Bloom, you can see much of yourself no matter where you are in life, your hopes and fears, or even your particular mood that day; Joyce managed to create a universality in Bloom that was no accident; indeed, it was a great feat he pulled off in modeling Leopold Bloom off that other universal hero, Odysseus, AKA Ulysses.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Published 1925

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Yes, you likely read this book in high school, but no, you probably didn’t fully “get it.” So, give it another go. Fitzgerald’s book is generally considered to be a perfect snapshot of upper-class society life in the 1920s – this narrow interpretation misses the point.

The Great Gatsby” is actually a perfect snapshot of human frailty, yearning, connection, and fallings out. As you observe the world of “Gatsby” through Nick Carraway’s eyes, you will experience the unmasking of human artifice along with him, and you’ll find yourself bringing his keen perspective to everyday life beyond the book.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – Published 1926

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Hemingway’s breakout book is about a group of young people whose lives are largely defined by the recent horrors of World War I, but it could just as well be about a group of friends and romantic partners who had been afflicted by by Iraq or Afghanistan.

Its protagonist, Jake Barnes, suffered a physical injury that defines his life, but anyone carrying any burden, be it of the body or the mind, will feel along with him.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf – Published 1927

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Anyone who has ever been a part of a family will identify with this book, which only reads better and better as your life evolves.

You can read it from the perspective of a child (an adult son or daughter included) judging a parent, as a parent exasperated over the kids, or as a spouse who’s not quite sure what to make of their partner. 

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes – Published 1926

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You can literally hear the jazz as you read Langston Hughes’ sublime poetry in this, his first and arguably his finest collection of poems, “The Weary Blues.” His mastery of the English language allowed Hughes to lay out the Black experience in America in a way at once beautiful and raw, and from which the reader cannot turn away.

He manages to be at once warm and welcoming yet to point the finger. Sadly, the poems still resonate so well only partially because of how well they are written, but also because there is still so much progress yet to be made in American society even a century later.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence – Published 1928

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In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” D.H. Lawrence blew the lid off “polite” society. The book is packed with raw sexuality, coarse language, and a breaking down of barriers that was so shocking in its day that the unabridged, uncensored text was not published in the author’s native UK until 1960.

Today, in a society fully accustomed to the lewd, bawdy, and coarse, the book reads as simply what it is: a masterfully written story with moving, relatable characters.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner – Published 1929

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The Sound and the Fury” is, like most of Faulkner’s rich, dense, flowing novels, a hard read. But it is also as rewarding a read now as it was in the 1920s. It is one story told four ways, with different details – not all of which are reliable – revealed in each recounting.

The best way to read this book is to finish it and then immediately re-read the whole thing. In so doing, you will get the full picture of the sorrows and travails of the Compson family and, in so doing, you will spend a good amount of time as close as possible to being inside another person’s mind. That’s an experience that will move you in the 2020s or the 2120s or beyond.

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