Ah, the holidays: that season of cheer, giving, and proving to your relatives that you do, in fact, have your life together. One of the joys of the season is proving yourself smarter than the rest of your family, but how can you cement your position as the family intellectual?
Simple: read some of the classics. Here’s a mixture of short stories, essays, plays, poetry, and literature that span from satire to tragedy. Best of all, you can find all of these and more on Owl Eyes. With these under your belt, you’re set to claim your place as the smartest of your siblings and cousins. Drop a quote into conversation at your leisure and wait for a flare of recognition in the eye of the nearest English major (or, possibly, a spark of alarm on the face of someone more plebeian). Whether you come away from the holidays with a reputation for a superior knowledge of literature or as the eccentric cousin, you’ve won.
The Prince, Machiavelli
This is the classic work on ways to acquire and maintain power. A fascinating treatise on cunning unchecked by moral scruples—Machiavelli’s means of manipulation are perhaps not ideal for, say, getting out of washing the dishes after dinner, but now you can sit patiently during Aunt Judy’s well-meaning monologue about how you should live your life while silently pondering your plans for world domination.
“Since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.”
Use it when: Great Aunt Lynn asks, for the fifth time that weekend, why you’re single. Watch the look of alarm on your cousin’s face as he overhears. Smile innocently, offer him a cookie, and watch him wonder if it’s safe to eat.
“A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift
In this classic example of satire, which was published during Ireland’s food shortage in 1729, Swift argued that eating babies was the perfect solution. It might not be a good idea to bring this one up to your cousins with children.
“A most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragoust.”
Use it when: Someone discusses meal prep. Slice one of Swift’s most famous lines in half and serve with a dark note of irony, disquieting your relatives for a reason they can’t quite place.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” T.S. Eliot
A melancholy monologue, Eliot’s poem explores the inner life of a deeply self-conscious man. Notable for its immersive sensory details and striking metaphors, the poem also contains lines guaranteed both to inspire and confuse relatives.
“There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate.”
Use it when: Anyone mentions the future or how quickly time flies. A brief mention of murder ought to redirect the conversation nicely.
Bonus: “I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
Use it: In response to overenthusiastic third cousins twice-removed who haven’t seen you since you were a baby and are now exclaiming at how much you’ve grown.
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
A disquieting story of irony and tragedy, essential to any lover of the classics. Name-drop Sophocles during any conversation to make yourself look impressive.
“Fear? What has a man to do with fear? Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.”
Use it when: Giving a toast at dinner. Watch as tears are discreetly patted away with napkins.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
A masterpiece of satire, Oscar Wilde’s best-known play is a gold mine of sarcasm and absurdity. Pull a random quote out of this book, toss it at your relatives, and watch their faces contort as they try to decide if you’re kidding.
“If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”
Use it when: You suddenly realize that no one dresses up for family dinners and that, therefore, your formal clothing is a bit overkill.
Bonus: “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time.”
“Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
A transcendentalist manifesto, “Self-Reliance” argues in favor of independence and self-sufficiency. Quote it to disprove those tired Millennial stereotypes.
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Use it when: Arguing philosophy and politics at the dinner table. If those in the know scoff because of the quote’s fame, throw the following suitably-obscure quote at them.
Bonus for hipsters: “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
Use it when: You fall on the losing side of an argument. Keep your head held high—they only need to get away from society’s convictions.
Additional quote: “The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
Use it when: Grandpa nags you about being on your phone during appetizers and not socializing. Social media is the sweetest form of solitude, after all.
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
Absurd and surreal, The Metamorphosis begins with Gregor Samsa awakening to discover that he has become a giant insect. Mention it and witness the accompanying shudder of revulsion: whether at the ambiguity of the text or the notion of transforming into an insect, you’ll soon find out.
“Could I be less sensitive now?”
Use it when: Someone inevitably turns on an episode of Friends while dinner is cooking. Stress the words just like Chander does (“Could I be less sensitive now?”) and laugh along with everybody as they congratulate you on your impression of him. Catch the eye of someone who knows better and weep internally.