Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

8 Really Old Texts That Are Surprisingly Fun to Read

While it’s probably a good idea that readers stay up to date on new releases, the perk of being a book lover is that literature has been around for a while. A really long while. Even after thousands of years, some cultures have texts that we can pull out and read on a lonely Friday night when all of your friends are all of a sudden gone or have significant others, which, good for them, but still.

 

The issue some find is that these old stories are hard to get through. Language has changed so much that the contents of the story, while exciting or funny or emotional, are all but illegible. Not these. Here are eight really old texts that you’ll probably have little trouble getting through and will, in all likelihood, enjoy in lieu of actual human contact.

 

1. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

 

Tristram Shandy cover

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Published between 1759 and 1767, Sterne’s humorous, fictional semi-autobiography is still pretty hilarious. The point of the book is essentially that there’s this character Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and prone to digressions, trying to tell his life story. He is so profoundly opinionated about the most mundane things that he can only manage to tell five relatively straightforward (albeit hilarious) anecdotes from his life. A couple of the anecdotes he’s not even involved in. If you’re looking for a good, very old, laugh, then I recommend you pick up Tristram Shandy.

 

2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

 

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Probably the most famous Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain holds up. It’s a great yarn with a relatively complicated lead (relative to other mythical stories), and some wonderful twists and turns late in the story. The prose is fairly easy to follow too. Plus, as long as you read Sir Gawain, you have every right to complain about every rotten adaptation Hollywood concocts regarding King Arthur.

 

3. Egil’s Saga

 

Egil's Saga

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This might surprise the uninitiated, but the Vikings were huge into storytelling. Viking Age skalds would tail kings and essentially act as reporters. A lot of what we know about Vikings today comes from poets who verbally passed down their tales from generation to generation. Egil’s Saga is one of those legends, and it essentially reads like a farcical action movie. Egil Skallagrimsson is a (literally) hard-headed Icelander who basically just causes a ruckus wherever he goes. Whether that means getting into a blood feud with his father (who is a werewolf) when he’s not yet a teenager, or later feuding with the wicked king of Norway, Eirik Bloodyaxe. Egil is a badass for the ages, and his extremely readable saga assures his further legendary status.

 

4. Njal’s Saga

 

Njal's Saga

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Okay, I admit it—I’m into Viking literature. Sue me. Actually, if you’re into litigation, you should really give Njal’s Saga a try. Because a lot of this saga has to do with the Viking Age justice system, at least in Iceland. It reads less action-y than Egil’s Saga, and more like an extended episode of SVU. You really get a taste for the legal drama that defined medieval Icelandic life. It’s a good read.

 

5. Poetics by Aristotle

 

Poetics

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One of the most essential reads for anybody interested in writing, Aristotle’s Poetics reads less like it was written two thousand years ago, and more like a particularly insightful reddit post. Seriously, it’s that readable. There’s actually no excuse not to read this book if you’re reading this list. I give you permission to turn off your phone or computer and head to your library to take out a copy of Poetics. Go ahead. I’ll be here when you’re done.

 

6. The Odyssey by Homer

 

The Odyssey cover

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I won’t say this epic has in it all you need to know about Ancient Greece (because I am neither qualified to make that assertion, nor do I have any confidence in its accuracy), but I will say it’s good. It’s action-packed, emotional, and, next time you watch O Brother, Where Art Thou? with your friends, you’ll have bragging rights, as you’ll know every reference.

 

7. The Art of War by Sun Tzu

 

The Art of War

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As confirmed by that intense person you spoke to at the bar that one time, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is always relevant. It may ostensibly breakdown the complexities of military strategy into easily manageable snippets, but it provides insight into various other parts of life as well. If you’re looking to improve your trivia strategy or ensure that you are never again beaten in a game of Civilization V, then Sun Tzu is for you.

 

8. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

 

Tale of Genji

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It’s often called the first novel, and, written in the 11th century, it kind of makes sense. It’s a romance that goes into surprisingly deep interiority, considering the literature that was being written in other parts of the world at that time. It’s essentially the royal-falling-for-a-commoner romance you’ll be familiar with if you’ve seen any Disney movie. While it’s debatable how much influence Genji actually had on Western literature, it’s obviously a timeless tale, since we’re still telling the same sort of story today.

 

Feature Image Via Alan Jacobs