As those who grew up listening to vinyl know, before the introduction of the cassette tape, compact disc, and eventual mp3/digital media file, song singles (45’s) had two sides. The A-side was the featured song being released and played on the radio, and on the other side was either another track from the same album, not in wide release, or a song from another album, or a live version of a song…that was the B-side.
It wasn’t necessarily the artist’s best effort, or something bound for instant glory and heavy rotation on the radio….but sometimes, it was just as good as the A-side song. Sometimes it was…dare I say it…even better?
In high school I was introduced to classic authors like Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Orwell, and many others. As a freshman in high school I read ‘David Copperfield’, and later ‘Great Expectations’ (which eventually became my favorite Dickens book). As a sophomore I read ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (okay, I didn’t read it, I read the Cliff’s Notes, sorry Mr. Marquis!). I, like many other students, was introduced to some of the most well-known works by some of the most well-known ‘classic’ authors of all time.
Fortunately, I didn’t stop there.
Over time I’ve picked up lesser-known works by some of these same classic authors, and enjoyed them immensely. Some of them are easier to get into and get a feel for the author’s style, voice, and tone than immediately delving into their ‘magnum opus’. I’d like to share a few of my favorites here:
‘Resurrection’ – by Leo Tolstoy
I’m starting with one of my favorites. I’ve not yet read War and Peace, nor Anna Karenina, although I have copies of both in my collection waiting for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not put off by a sizable book, and both fit this description. But I chose to read this one a few years ago, which is admittedly shorter than the more well-known offerings of Tolstoy, to get a feel for him as an author. I must say I was not disappointed. To sum up the plot very briefly – an aristocrat has a brief liaison with a servant – she winds up getting fired – she becomes a prostitute – he feels badly for her and eventually tries to help her. This does not give away any plot twists or surprises. What I took away from this book is that you can’t help someone that doesn’t want to be helped. What others might take away from it may be very different. Irrespective of that, it’s a great read, and a good way to introduce yourself to Tolstoy.
‘The Lighthouse At The End Of The World’ – Jules Verne
Jules Verne is not a difficult author to read. His books are fast-paced and engaging. His adventures, while written long before certain technological advancements he used as plot devices became reality, are timely and enjoyable. This book (which I read earlier this year) has a less device-dependent plot – it’s about pirates and survival. I made my way through this story in about three days, and found it every bit as enjoyable as some of the other Verne novels I’ve read, such as Journey To The Center Of The Earth and Around The World In Eighty Days. Verne is, in ways, like the ‘Steve Berry’ ‘Clive Cussler’ and ‘James Rollins’ of the 19th century. His books are, without cell phones and GPS and attack drones, just as action packed as some of today’s most popular adventure and thriller novels.
‘The Chevalier Of Maison-Rouge’ (also known as The Knight Of Maison Rouge) – Alexandre Dumas
I have read ‘The Three Musketeers’, as well as ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’, ‘The Black Tulip’, and ‘The Whites and the Blues’. Monte Cristo is my favorite Dumas (thus far), and is a wonderful, wonderful read. I’ve very much enjoyed every Dumas I’ve read, but the reason I chose this story in particular to make my point is that the ending, while I won’t give it away, struck me as very abrupt….but when you look at what ‘happens’ at the end of the book…it’s just as it should be. One thing I’ve long enjoyed about classic authors is that many of their books don’t have a pat, loose-end tying up, Hollywood ending. Some of them just end the way they end…and it’s very appropriate to the story overall. Sometimes the boy doesn’t get the girl…sometimes the bomb isn’t diffused, and sometimes justice isn’t served. If you can live with books ending like that – give this one a try.
‘The Dead Secret’ – Wilkie Collins
How many Wilkie Collins novels can you name other than ‘The Woman In White’ and ‘The Moonstone’ without looking up his bibliography? If the answer is ‘none’….you’re really missing out on some great stuff. I read ‘Woman In White’ and yes, it is a great tale….but Collins did not peak at that book, nor at the Moonstone, in terms of writing great, atmospheric stories. My friend Spencer used to say that in Victorian literature, the ‘secret’ was ALWAYS the same thing (I won’t say what, as in terms of this book that is true), but if you’ve ever toyed with starting a Collins book and want to ease into reading his stuff, this is a great place to start.
‘Bleak House’ – Charles Dickens
Lastly, my favorite author…Charles Dickens. I have a very difficult time picking out something to call it a really good example of a lesser-known work by Dickens, because everything…and I mean EVERYthing, by him that I have now read had been wonderful. Sure, they are lengthy….yes, they have a TON of characters to keep track of….but every one of his novels that I’ve made my way through has been a gem. People who like Dickens but stop with the ones you are ‘made’ to read in school don’t know what they are missing. Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Dombey and Son, The Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickelby….all great stuff. Even if you look back at reading Dickens and groan at the thought of what it was like as a teen…give him another look. You survived it before….and you just might find, like me, that as an adult…Dickens had (and still has) a lot to offer to readers.
There you have it….five examples of ‘B-side’ literature from well-known authors. There are a lot more from each of these authors to look into. Short stories and novelas, essays, non-fiction, etc. No matter how well-known their well-known works are, a lot of the rest of what they wrote is just as enjoyable and worth looking into.