Do people read the literary works of these writers these days?
I going to give you a couple recommendations in Spanish since I know that is one of your stronger languages (you are stronger than me there— I have maybe 21,000 words on Lingq, you have 40,000+—)
In high school Spanish I made my way to the AP Spanish Literature class. Unfortunately my training up to that point really didn’t prepare me to read the books on the syllabus. At that time I had no sense of how to learn a language and just did work assigned in class. In previous classes I had done a lot of copying verb conjugations, but when I tried to read the literature I found that my vocabulary was extremely lacking. This was before the days of Lingq and online instant translations so it was extremely slow. Lingq has helped so much in this regard.
Recently I’ve read a bunch of books by Roberto Bolaño and want to read more. I’ve read Los detectives salvajes, Estrella distance and some of his short story collection Llamadas Telefonicas. I plan to read Nocturno en Chile, Amuleto and 2666. Some of these are very long (2666 and Detectives , which are 1000+ and 600+ pages) but others are short. I really recommend him. He’s a Chilean writer who lived in Mexico and Spain after Pinochet’s rise to power. He’s great and becoming a canonical author. Especially if you like stories of artists and poets on the margins who become drifters and vagabonds, and who also mixes in the genres of detective novel. The characters in Los Detectives Salvajes will give you a lot of literary recommendations as well since their lives revolve around literature :-P I found reading Los Detectives salvajes and Estrella Distante hair-raising. Very powerful works and they will stay with me for a long time. Great for my level in Spanish too. Bolaño sometimes has very long sentences, but they are easy to follow, and while he uses many metaphors, his syntax is fairly usual. It’s definitely not as fast as it would be in English for me, but I was able to read along with the audiobook, sometimes needing to pause and go back, but not too often. I definitely plan to read more. For me, it goes pretty fast and is engrossing.
Eventually I want to read the Spanish Lit texts I couldn’t read as a high schooler. The syllabus was Borges, Garcia Marquez, Ana Maria Matute, Unamuno, and Lorca. Unamuno may not be too bad for me now, judging from the Lingq percentages. His book Niebla could be pretty interesting: the main character realizes he is a character in a novel. Obviously it is an upsetting experience. He ends up meeting the author, Unamuno.
I remember trying in high school to read Cien Años de Soledad. I almost cried :-D It starts with a scene of a traveling salesman coming to the town of Macondo. The salesman sells all kinds of unusual trinkets and items, descriptions of which seemed to go for pages, and none of which I had the vocabulary for. I have no idea how some people start reading Spanish literature with that book!
I want to first read Bolaño’s 2666 which is a thousand pages. I think after that I’ll be more ready for others. The theme of the book seem interesting but also daunting: four academics search for a lost manuscript. But along the way the book becomes invested in the femicides in Mexico. I have heard it is quite harrowing in the way it describes the bodies of murdered women. So potentially difficult to read, because of its themes.
I also started reading Reinaldo Arenas’s autobiography, Antes de Anochezca and it is personally a good level for me, and really interesting. Arenas was a gay poet in Cuba. When Castro took power he ended up being put in Moro Prison (basically a concentration camp) because homosexuality was criminalized and demonized at that time. Eventually he went into exile in the US and becomes a dissent of Cuban communism. Eventually he realizes he has AIDS, which at the time was a new and incurable disease. He starts to write his autobiography as he realizes he has little time before he dies.
I stopped it but I intend to go back. As it’s nonfiction so it is probably easier than his novels or poetry— I can’t say for sure. This book has already been made into a movie starring Javier Bardem and an opera (which I saw in Miami.) I leafed around in the English and landed on a part where he bashes some Miami Cubans in it, saying that all their poets were horrible, which is amusing for me since I grew up in Miami. I look forward to reading it soon-ish. I also looked up Juan Rulfo and planning on reading him too. But I’ve heard his book Pedro Paramo has unrealiable narrators, etc and it’s easier to read on paper because the blank spaces will give you information as to changes in narrators, etc, which aren’t otherwise indicated.
Bolaño, Arenas, Rulfo, plus all the others are all on those Brown lists if that matters to you!
But even though I like these books, sometimes I need a break and read more “easy” books— like right now I am reading a contemporary novel translated from English, and I just read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in Spanish. Books translated from English seem easier for some reason. They seem to keep their English rhythms underneath the Spanish. But for that reason I feel like I’m “in” Spanish more reading people who originally wrote in Spanish.
I find your post helpful and amusing. Thank you for your recommendation, and it's such a splendid and intriguing account of your venture in Spanish.
I recently came back to language learning as I have more time available. I had around 78.2k words on Lingq for Spanish back in 2018, and I have only done a little since then.
I took two years of Spanish during high school, and my Spanish level was relatively limited because I didn't do anything besides the homework assignments. I considered getting a minor in Spanish at the university, but I concentrated on undertaking endeavors in other directions. Pues, así es la vida. My experience with learning Spanish has been intermittent since then. I attribute my progress in Spanish primarily to Lingq.
Interestingly, you mentioned "Cien Años de Soledad," and I failed to immerse myself in the story back then. I had been reading the book "El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera" by the same author, and I found it to be a good read. Those fascinating books you mentioned are worth exploring, and I will probably start with the shorter ones.
I am more focused on enjoying the things to do in the language than the learning part. Thank you again for pointing out that Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed. Before diving into Shakespeare's plays, I was thinking of reading something modern like Alexander Hamilton. As someone else suggested, I should have listened to the cast first. It's a fantastic experience for me, and I might get to read the biography if I am interested in more background information.
Living the language is the key that I search for in my language learning journey.
I think there is a lot of overlap between the people who read old books and people who learn languages.
My recommandations for books from this list you could use to learn about British and American culture would be:
George Orwell's Animal Farm.
F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is another touchstone americans learn about in highschool. And Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad are both good. They travelled a lot so their books often have exotic and interesting settings.
Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are both good guides to 19th century Britain. Charles Dickens is boring though imo.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is another one that everyone reads or at least knows about.
For stuff that isn't English:
Jorge Louis Borges has excellent short stories. If you know spanish you might as well enjoy them en español.
For french Voltaire's Candide is pretty funny. Madame Bovary by Flaubert is also good.
And all those russian authors on that list are worth reading.
Thanks for the recommendation, and I could use the list as a helpful guide for my reading. Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad could be interesting for me to read in the first place. Jorge Louis Borges has always been one of my favorite authors. As for others in other languages, I may have to delay and put them on my future to-do list.
Tamarind has mentioned the problem of sounding odd with reading the classics if the reader has adopted a similar writing style. I think native speakers are more conscious of the language's natural use and flow and modern usage to adopt and assimilate elements from a literary work. Should we separate reading and writing strictly from each other when reading classics as language learners? I find the movie "Finding Forrester" inspirational in my language-learning journey.
Honestly, I don't think 'sounding odd' is too big of a deal, because the risk is quite low. In order to get to a level of actually being able to read literature, you have to do a lot of reading (and ideally listening!) to other content. If this content is everyday conversations and normal people talking, you've already got that vocabulary and those sentence structures in your subconscious. And especially if you both read literature while also listening to normal TV or YouTube videos or podcasts, etc. I don't think you're in much harm of sounding like Shakespeare. Maybe if you go for years of only reading exclusively literature and not actually speaking the language, but hopefully you're not doing that.
I have read some modern literature in English and there's some good stories in there. Reading it in a foreign language is another thing, because you need such a large vocabulary to be able to do it. I've never reached such a high level to be able to do that before. Sure, with something like LingQ or an eReader, you can look up words in the dictionary, but if your goal is to learn the language, you should really follow a progression of difficulty. And literature and poetry is at the highest level of difficulty. You would have to read lots of modern books before you venture into the domain of literature.
My internet service has been interrupted for unknown reasons, and I am glad the connection has been restored after the technician replaced the router at my house.
Thank you for sharing your thought. The choice of books to read primarily depends on the reader's language level, interest, and purpose at the time. I concur with you on the importance of following a progression of difficulty in the material we use to learn a language. Furthermore, as you have pointed out, it will be idealistic for us to develop all core language skills simultaneously as they complement each other. Indeed, I am not looking forward to becoming someone capable of doing research work in literature, and it is just one of my interests to pursue in English.
If I rate my skill in all languages I know, I would use the following as a rough reference. I use 100 for Chinese as a reference for books or publications I read. I would place English at 15 ~ 20, Spanish at 10 ~ 15, and Catalan and Korean at 3 ~ 5. The Spanish, Catalan, and Korean statistics reflect my level in the language as I have done most or all work on Lingq. As for English, it is more of reviewing or reviving a dormant skill instead of learning a language from scratch.
The last time I studied actively and intensely in English was cramming a few hundred words for SAT in a relatively short time. I was a frequent visitor to several New York libraries. My most frequent inquiry was asking for "today's Time." My favorite publications were "Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and National Geography at the time. Interestingly, I wasn't into reading the ones like Reader's Digest, New York Post, and Time magazine back then. That has much to do with personal preferences with reading like everyone else. I read more nonfiction than fiction, and nonfiction is primarily for information-seeking purposes instead of reading for pleasure. I guess the "Chicken soup for the soul" series, "Who moved my cheese, "What color is my parachute," and many others I have read are just too typical to be worth mentioning. Building a solid foundation with modern books is undoubtedly a sound idea before tackling literary works. Language learning is full of surprises, and I might even read the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series in another language other than English, although I haven't read any in English.
It's a wonderful list of classics! Many of them are on "my list" too... but it will take my whole life and I probably won't be able to read as many of the classics as I'd like to...
It reminds me of the (longer) list by Alexander Arguelles:
Many have advised not to read these books to avoid sounding odd. It's a logical advise, that's for sure. However, I would not care too much about that. If you read Don Quixote in Spanish you will gain an incredible command of the language, you will be able to notice what sounds odd afterwards and discard it. After all I learnt English reading Lord of the Rings and nobody has told me I sound like Gandalf (so far) :P
However some of these books are difficult to enjoy without footnotes explaining the context IMHO
It all boils down to the personal choice of each reader. As a rule of thumb, I always steer clear of those obscure and unfathomable books if an average native has trouble reading them. Reading the classics is a hobby for me to pursue and enjoy, and by no means will I even be able to finish the most common and popular ones. I do want to be somewhat selective to have a better reading experience based on what I did with the following books in my possession.
I got to about 300 pages in "La Sombra Del Viento" before I decided to quit; as for "Bajo La Misma Estrella" I found it to be a good read and enjoyed it tremendously. Lastly, I just fingered through the first few chapters in "Francisco de Asís." One of the main reasons I quit reading a book could be when I found myself struggling to immerse in the book. Most of the time, it's not due to my language level, but rather once exciting elements such as intriguing plots I deem essential from books fail to impress me as a reader.
Thank you for your insight. Reading a newspaper comfortably without consulting a dictionary is always a good demonstration of one's reading comprehension level in the language. I do not find reading New York Times and La Vanguardia challenging. This ability is a benchmark for me to consider reading any literary works by these great writers in the original language.
I should have said that some of these references in the book are nonsensical to me because I am terrible at remembering historical figures and events with their respective timeline. It certainly presents a challenge for me as an unknowledgeable and under-informed reader. As for reading Shakespearean plays, I might use a book like "The Shakespeare Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained" for reference because it's readily available at the local library.
I am looking for a general guideline or roadmap to start with the very first step. Which books or authors might be easier to read in the first place with the following list or the book mentioned above?
I am interested in English, Spanish, and French literature. Should I start with the Norton Anthology series because it offers a good collection of representative works of a particular period or genre?
I am reading "Don Quixote" in Spanish, but I am distracted by my obsession with learning Korean. I read "Les Miserables" in Spanish a few years ago. Although I enjoyed very much in reading it, the thought of the easiness of reading books in the native language or a language that I am comfortable with instead of the original is rather disheartening. That's the greatest demotivator in my language-learning journey.
Hmm.. My particular advice would be to go on pleasure or interest. You could start with an anthology but it might make you feel like you are doing homework. Norton Anthologies are good though in that they give helpful biographical information and good notes. I think if you get an anthology, you should skip around until you see something that catches your eye, and then use that as your starting point— reading things in conversation with what you like. Or you could read it in order, which would surely be interesting, but more like homework!
Something to keep in mind is that a Norton anthology will probably have poetry or short stories, because including many novels it would make it extremely long.
I wrote out some recommendations. But first I’ll give some general advice that maybe be more useful (or not!) and then a comment on Shakespeare.
It seems one of your issues is that you get discouraged, because reading in a foreign language is slower and you could just read the translation. Another issue is getting distracted by other languages.
One way to approach these challenges is to read shorter works. For example, some famous writers on these lists wrote very long novels, especially in the 19th century. But some of these same writers also wrote shorter novels, novellas, short stories, poems and plays. You could choose a shorter novel or short story, or a novella. That way, you could get the satisfaction of finishing, and improve your language fluency at the same time. Of course, long novels have the advantage of getting lost in a world for longer, and the writers have a bigger canvas. But you can get distracted and not finish, which is discouraging. So it's one solution.
Another tack is to read literary essays/nonfiction, which are some of the easier things to read. You could try some of the nonfiction on Brown’s list: Emerson’s essays, Frederick Douglass’s autobiographies, Thoreau (although the latter is harder IMO.)
Poems are harder. But on the other hand, you can get something from poetry in the original that you can’t in the translation, because it’s hard to translate the language’s music and meter, things like rhyme (internal and external), alliteration, plays with sound. So possibly it could be motivating to think you are getting something you can’t get by reading a translation. It depends on what motivates you though!
If you are interested in poetry, I like this podcast, Poem Talk, where they discuss different poems in detail. They have a lot of episodes on writers you might be interested in, including some on these lists: (a list of all the episodes is on the right): , a lot of more modern ones too.
Shakespeare seems like one of the hardest things you could choose. On the other hand, if it’s fun and interesting to you, that’s motivating in itself. When I was young and in high school, there were always several people extremely into Shakespeare (I also liked it.) That’s because the plots are compelling and dramatic, sometimes they are silly and obscene, they show great psychological insight, and the language is fun to say out loud, and often beautiful. You could try to memorize or to recite a speech or a sonnet out loud. We used to do that in school.
I would recommend a good edition with notes, maybe the Penguin or Oxford edition, because the language is quite different from modern English and the notes are useful for understanding it.
Personally, I would avoid the translations to “modern” English because you lose some beauty of the language. The "translations" would make it easier though. If you didn’t know, Shakespearan poetry is written in iambic pentameter. That means each line goes, da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM . (An iamb is two syllables with the accent on the second one. There are 5 iambs in a line, thus pentameter— penta=5) In a “modern English” translation you might lose this rhythm, and you would probably lose it in translation as well. So it might motivate you to know that you could appreciate this aspect of the poetry and plays only in the original.
The book you linked could be useful for background info and to help orient you!
Another thing to keep in mind about Shakespeare is that the plays are generally divided into three categories— tragedies, comedies and histories.
I think the histories would need the most background info, as they deal with complicated lines of succession of the English monarchy (but your book would help.)
For comedies and tragedies, you could probably dive right in, if you had some notes helping you with the language. They don’t need as much historical background. For example, A Midsummer Night’s Dream takes place within a fantasy world, where people turn into animals, etc. Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew take place in Italy, but it’s kind of a fantasy Italy from the perspective of Shakespeare’s England, not a factual historical Italy. The Tempest also takes place in a kind of fairy/ mythical space (a main character, Prospero, is a magician, etc.) Thus, accurate historical information is not as important, although of course Shakespeare’s own situation shapes how he treats his subjects and some allusions of the language. Good notes would help you there though.
We often read tragedies like Macbeth and King Lear in high school and to be honest didn’t spend very much time on historical background at all. (Except we always talked about things like what theater was like in his time, etc.) Again, they take work to understand, the language is far from today’s, so it won’t be easy beach reading. But it depends on you. I know people (native English speakers) who couldn’t read them at all and gave up. On the other hand, I also knew people in school (often young people) who got super into them and read many of them for fun.
Another thing to remember is that Shakespeare’s plays were written to be performed, not read. So you could watch some of the many adaptations.
I appreciate your taking the time to share your thoughts on the subject and valuable advice on the first step for me to undertake. Indeed, I have been enlightened and released from my perplexing confusion.
I read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar back in high school. All I remember is the line "Et tu, Brute?". I could have blamed myself for the bad memory, but it was a lack of interest back then. I used to immerse myself fully in English fiction books for young readers for hours and hours when I was a teenager. It might be a good idea to revive my reading habit by pursuing English literature, as I have always been passionate about literary works.
I will follow your advice on picking up some shorter writing in the form of an essay, short stories, etc. I read a dozen biographies or autobiographies of business magnates and other historical figures in American history back in high school. I was shocked to see four bookcases dedicated to these types of books on a recent visit to the library.
Poetry is a real gem on the crown of the literary realm, mystic and enchanting. It's meant to be read in the original for the greatest savor, where readers may resonate with more figurative language through their experience. The rhyme of words as an essential element in poetry is also commonly presented in other languages. One thing that fascinates me is that linguists would use that to reconstruct spoken Chinese corresponding to different historical eras. I enjoy reading poems by Pablo Neruda in Spanish. It will be an amusement for me to compare poems by poets in other languages.
I would reread the two plays mentioned above with the auxiliary book and pay more attention to the details in the books. It's fascinating to know a little snippet of facts you provide about a particular Shakespeare play. It takes time to be a keen reader like you who studies English literature. Hopefully, I will enjoy reading these books like many literature aficionados as I embrace this reading habit in my daily life.
Thanks again for your help.
I've been writing on a response to your most interesting inquiry now for quite some time, but to justify the time I spend on the forum, I try to turn it into a a bit of a writing exercise. I hope you can find some value in it nevertheless and look past the tortured prose.
The love for literature has been a driving force behind my desire to learn multiple languages, as the ability to read works in the original language has always been a personal ambition of mine. My journey towards this goal began in earnest when Amazon released its Kindle, I had to import it from the United States as it was not yet available in Germany. At the time, the device came equipped with only a monolingual English dictionary. It is no exaggeration to say that practically all of my knowledge of the English language has been acquired through my obsessive reading on this device.
Initially, my reading habits were guided by my personal interests, but soon I found myself searching for guidance, specifically, seeking out books that I believed an educated native speaker should have read. This led me to the discovery of the twin concepts of a literary canon and the Great books tradition. It was at this juncture that I acquired some of the most formative books I have ever read, those are "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and "The Western Canon" by Harold Bloom. Adler's book taught me how to, well... read a book, and the list appended to Bloom's work served as a compass for my literary journey.
In regards to the Norton Anthologies, they are printed books which can make dictionary lookups somewhat tedious. I have found that I prefer reading on digital devices, particularly when high-quality monolingual dictionaries are readily available. For instance, modern Amazon Kindles allow for the downloading of such dictionaries in many major languages.
As for book recommendations, I highly suggest Paul Poplawski's "English Literature in Context." It is a standard college textbook but is well-written and provides valuable historical context. Another great book, particularly on Shakespeare, is "Shakespeare" by Mark van Doren, a collection of personal essays rather than a textbook. Lastly, Harold Bloom's "The best poems of the English Language" served as my introduction to poetry and I highly recommend it.
You can find Bloom's canonical list and many others on this site: http://www.interleaves.org/~rteeter/grtbloom.html
In regards to 'polyglottery', certainly the amount of time and effort required to become proficient enough to effectively read literature in a foreign language is substantial, and given the limited time we have in life, it could be argued that other pursuits are more worthwhile. While reading literature is undoubtedly a valuable pursuit, the availability of translations should be considered, and one must question whether the time and effort invested in language learning is truly necessary. Furthermore, I have found that this hobby can serve as a form of avoidance behavior, a distraction from tackling challenging books, as one may find solace in working with a language manual, or endlessly re-reading Harry Potter in slews of languages. Language learning can also be addictive, as the more one does, the easier it becomes to acquire the basics. You can ask Steve Kaufmann or any one of the other YouTube polyglots. However, this can be dangerous as it can prevent one from engaging in meaningful and productive activities in life, including the reading of actual books. Again, I hope this isn't discouraging, but I believe focus is powerful.
Thanks for chiming in. It's also a writing exercise for me as someone who barely writes anything lengthy except for drafting a few legal documents in real life. I appreciate you for sharing your personal story of embarking on an enriching and fulfilling journey into the literary world, which I eagerly look forward to exploring and discovering.
Self-motivation and well-defined goals play a significant role in language learning or acquiring a habit such as reading literature in a foreign language. It is a self-discovery journey in which I associate myself with the great minds of history and allow them to shape my thoughts so I can better understand how the world works. When I peruse and search for something deeper within the context, I find personal and communal experiences not only shared by people who use different languages but also a link that connects to the past in the value we cherish as a part of humanity. It has served as the greatest inspiration for me in reading literature. I love the quote from Tom Giaquinto as it constantly reminds me of the importance of the power of perspective acquired from reading the literature.
"Humanity has more in common than the differences that separate us."
I am glad you discovered these valuable concepts of a literary canon and the Great Books tradition at the time. It can point me in the right direction where I need to undertake a journey similar to yours. I would probably start with "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler and Paul Poplawski's "English Literature in Context," they are the most essential and informative in providing me with a good foundation. I will undoubtedly find "The Western Cannon" by Harold Bloom helpful guidance since I must be somewhat selective on the first few books to read, and many others ensue.
Regarding dictionary lookups for paper books, I usually derive the meaning from the context and only look up minimum words if it impedes my understanding of the content to the extent I do not tolerate it. Reading physical books as an alternative is a good practice for acquiring the language without heavily relying on references from a dictionary or at Lingq. However, a monolingual dictionary is always preferred by me once I attain a certain language level. Thanks to your suggestion with Amazon Kindles, I can pull my idle Kindles out of hibernation to good use. :-)
In regards to 'polyglottery' and 'language learning in general, I could not have agreed more that it is genuinely a time and effort-demanding task that one must consider and prioritize goals. Having well-defined goals in language learning is a crucial step toward the desired result. I set up goals like watching TV or movie series or Youtube channels in the original audio without English subtitles, conversing with others with decent fluency, and developing an appreciation for literary works in the language. I can do and enjoy much more at a more advanced level, and it is more of an enjoyable hobby to be incorporated into my daily life than learning. The greatest gratification is not measured by the total number of contents in various forms we consume; each engagement with language comes with a unique experience that enriches and broadens our horizons and perspectives. Language learning as a hobby or addiction is the lowest cost to maintain. Yet, it gives tremendous satisfaction once we acquire the ability to do enjoyable activities in the language and incorporate them into our balanced lifestyle. The beauty and strength lie in our ability to do and enjoy things as we wish in the language.
Thank you all for the reply and recommendation. It will undoubtedly sound odd, if not totally out of place, for someone to speak and write like a character from a Shakespearean play nowadays. I'm always fond of literature, whether classic or contemporary. It's more of a hobby to pursue than language learning for me.
It's interesting to see the preference of these authors by the different generations due to other norms like the education requirement and social prevalence at the time. I would say these literary works are much out of favor, with the omnipresence of social media grabbing people's attention constantly.
Besides unknown and less familiar words or expressions in the book, the greatest obstacle lies in the social and historical context authors allude to, which might be nonsensical. Will it be easier if I acquire a better understanding of the social and historical background of the author before reading the book? Is previewing Clifford's note a good idea? What other hurdles might I expect to overcome as a learner with high proficiency in the language?
It really depends what book you want to read. People are reading these books all the time. These are all very well known authors, people write popular biographies, which are bought, or if they are current people write reviews, even in a social media age. Then again I study literature so I’m biased…. the authors on these lists originally wrote in English, French, Russian, German, Italian, Spanish, Bengali, Chinese…. Who are you thinking of reading and in which language? What’s your level in each?
I think the answer to your questions depends on your degree of proficiency. If you are truly high level, no need to consult cliff notes, and sure the historical context might present some trouble, but you can pick it up via context clues, and read what you need to later. For me this would change if you read something maybe more than ~400 years old in English. For example, Shakespearean and Chaucerean vocabulary is quite different from today’s— the words may be the same but sometimes their meaning is completely different—so you might need a critical edition to help you out with meanings that have changed over time. If you are intermediate level, some of the works may present a challenge because of vocabulary and syntax. But nothing impossible. I think Paul Nation has made some graded readers in English of some classic works that I wish someone would do in another language! Lots of good books here.
As to what works you would like…. English is my native language so I have only really read these authors in English. (I do know some French and Spanish will read the French & Spanish classics one day and hopefully German as well.) All these writers are quite different. What have you read recently and what do you like?
As for historical context, I doubt the books will be nonsensical. You will still be able to appreciate them even if knowing more context would make your experience richer. You will also gain knowledge about the context by reading.
Like Tamarind said, I think if you read classic novels to learn a language (at the beginning - intermediate state), you'll probably sound odd when you try to have conversations based on the things you learned. I think it would be a great tool if you already have a somewhat confident grasp on your target language tho. Then you could use them to compare how the language evolved and changed over time.
For language learning I'd recommend more recent novels. Either non-fiction or fiction set in more modern times (high fantasy would probably also have some out-dated expression for example).
When you get to the advanced level of a language and want to read those novels, then it depends on the language and the age of the book how hard it'll be to understand. For example, I'm a native German speaker; I still don't understand Goethe's Faust without looking some words up every now and then. So it'll depend on that if a Glossary will be enough or if you're better off with a bilingual version.
I have read many of these at University, but for pleasure reading, I have only read books by authors in the 2nd and 3rd chapters. I would recommend Jane Austen, Mark Twain, or Rudyard Kipling to start. Start with Pride and Prejudice. Watch the 1995 BBC version. It is very, very similar to the book. You can watch it first and then read the novel, and then watch it again. :)
In the past 20 years, I have read authors listed under chapters 5 and 6, usually because someone I knew raved about a book: Arundhati Roy, Peter Carey, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Maya Angelou, Milan Kundera. Some of the authors from chapters 1 through 4 I read in school years ago.
I recommend reading non-fiction, or perhaps something from a recent best-seller's list for language learning. You will sound odd if you write emails, text, or post on forums in a style similar to these literary authors.