Wednesday, December 13, 2006

BOOKS: Introduction to Great Books

I just spent the last four hours wrapping Christmas presents, and man oh man, my back hurts. Also, if my family and friends had any idea how frequently my feet are employed in controlling wayward wrapping paper, they'd probably be a lot less eager to attack their gifts. So let's keep that between you and me.

While I was engaged thusly, I was wondering something:

Say you met someone who'd never read any of the "great" books, but this person expressed to you a keen interest in exploring the classics. Bear in mind that this person is intelligent and literate; they just also happen to be innocent in the ways of fine literature. You'd want your suggestions to be accessible and engaging and, of course, great. What would you recommend? What wouldn't you recommend? Why?


Anonymous said...

Depends on the person, doesn't it, and what they're interested in? I recommended Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, Crime and Punishment, and Catcher in the Rye to The (Ex) Boy, who, despite being one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, had a long hiatus from reading when he became a teenager. I thought for a while about what to recommend and decided on these ones because:
1. He could be a kind of stereotypical boy
2. He was interested in psychology and military history
3. I was rereading Salinger to see if I could still appreciate & relate as deeply at eighteen as I did at twelve and I thought it would be fun to get all Freudian about Holden Caulfield with someone

He read three out of the four (guess which one he declined)and enjoyed them in varying degrees, but he did finish them, and seemed to genuinely appreciate my constant nagging demands that he read things other than textbooks.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend any of these as good starters in general. It's easier to think of books I would suggest avoiding to people unfamiliar with "classics." Anything on high school reading lists should probably not be recommended, particularly Hawthorne and Shakespeare. Jane Austen and Dickens could possibly put someone off classics for eternity if they were the starters. French literature should probably be avoided at all costs unless there is some secret underground movement of cool French literature that I am unaware of -- apologies in advance to anyone who might weep a little at this comment, but Madame Bovary is only fun if you're into theory. No one too depressing, and probably no hardcore Russians, unless of course the person likes depressing, in which case all of those bleak Victorian novels about fallen women who eventually kill themselves might be options.

I would opt for someone bitingly clever and funny. Nabokov, Twain? Wodehouse, maybe? Damn, I read too much Serious Literature.

Actually, why not start with short stories to get a feel for what styles and eras most appeal to the person? Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," "The Yellow Wallpaper," one or three of Melville's excellent shorts, Borges, Gogol... so many possibilities! And theoretically not as intimidating as a several hundred pager.

Anonymous said...

I recommend Edith Wharton to a lot of people, for a variety of reasons. A lot of people have read one of her books in school, or at least heard about her at some point. Her books are on the short side and the language is reasonably current. And for the people who usually ask me what to read in "the classics," Wharton is approachable. Her characters don't go into long monologues about serfs (ahem, Tolstoy). They are hardened gossips or clueless rubes, and either way, they're interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think it really depends on your reader. What kinds of modern books do they like? If they are into sci-fi, go with H.G. Wells. Fantasy? Try Tolkein. Personally, I love Dickens and Austen. Wilkie Collins is by far the best proto-mystery writer. Long and sometimes complicated, but both authors create a world that is very accessible. Of course, starting with one of the very long Dickens novels is probably overwhelming. If length isn't going to be an issue, I love giving people Anna Karenina. It's long, but chapters are short and self-contained.

I agree with feather that anything off a high school reading list should be avoided.

GingerCat said...

I second Edith Wharton, particularly The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence. Slaughterhouse-Five might be good. Also, if the person you're buying for isn't too conservative, I'd recommend 1984 and A Room of One's Own, which, in addition to making a lot of good points, is short and witty.

Love your blog, by the way--found it through chicklit. :)

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker here...
The first book that came to mind was The Great Gatsby; most of us read it in school, but didn't have a chance to appreciate it. I think it's great to re-read stuff you read in school. I didn't get into Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre as a kid, but love them now. I agree about Edith Wharton,too. Lolita would also be a great choice.

Anonymous said...

As a former classics major, I have to plug Fagles's new translation of The Aeneid, and his Iliad and Odyssey are great too. If this person is a male, how about Alexandre Dumas and his Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Christo and/or Man in the Iron Mask? MV

Carrie said...

Thanks for these comments and the asking of the question. I am the person that Doppelganger describes. I mean, I read a lot of old books, but I have never read "the classics."

After reading The Left bank Gang by Jason, I think some Fitzgerald is soon to be on the plate.

Anonymous said...

I would say NO to Edith Wharton, but maybe Wodehouse or Dumas, or maybe Lolita.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. I agree with feather that what I'd recommend depends somewhat on the person asking. Nabokov, Hemingway, Twain would definitely make my list. Also Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and probably Gatsby.
I really like your blog, btw.

Anonymous said...

Jane Eyre. Engagingly and briskly written, not hard work at all, and recognisably one of the Big Names. Also a useful introduction to the Lame Victorian Ending.

The Shoemaker's Holiday by Thomas Dekker. If that play won't make you willing to start exploring Renaissance drama, nothing will. (It's a shame people are scared of Shakespeare - I blame bad teaching.) Written almost entirely in prose, and exuberantly pleasurable to read - and you learn all kinds of useful insults and oaths, notably 'Cecily Bumtrinket' and 'by the Lord of Ludgate!' and 'we'll have none of your pishery-pashery.' Everyone should read this damn play.

Anonymous said...

I'm a friend of the woman who writes this blog.
And this question has some relevance to me. I never read novels.
Despite being a writer myself, I always find myself on page 2 thinking "well, gosh, aren't you a try-hard, F.Scott."

So one day I admitted to Miss 50Books here, "Yeah, I haven't read a novel since the last day of English 100. But given that, if I was to read one book, what would it be?"

Her answer: "Considering the fact your attitude towards novels will have you burning in hell, you might try the Holy Bible. It'll give you an idea of what you can expect down the road. Kinda like a Lonely Planet Guide for your eternity."

We're still friends though.

Anonymous said...

Yeah well, anonymous, we can start our own Bible study group because I read this post and thought, "ooooh!" only to catch myself because, yeah, I haven't so much read many of the classics, either. I was assigned them, sure, which might have been half the problem. Oh, and I purportedly have a B.A. in English Lit. Nice!
That said, if Slaughterhouse 5 counts, I'm all over that one, because that was one of the few books I read without knowing it was part of the "canon." I might well take these comments to heart and do some investigative skimming this xmas.

Anonymous said...

Willa Cather - My Antonia
Willa Cather - Sapphira & the Slave Girl
William Faulkner - The Light in Augus
William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury
Steinbeck - Of Mice and Men

These for sure.


Anonymous said...

I've been trudging through the Modern Library's Fiction and Non-Fiction "100 Best" Lists and found that while I'm an extremely patient person when it comes to reading, most of my friends would have abandoned some of my reads after page 25. I would recommend Evelyn Waugh's "A Handful of Dust" and Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," as well as any of the biggies by Jane Austen and I second (or third) the Jane Eyre recommendation. Ooh and "The Bell Jar." (I think that puts me square in the "Girly" recommendation category... sorry.) And if they want to try some classics that aren't fiction, I would recommend "Black Boy," "Lives of a Cell" and "Out of Africa."

--Deb said...

Wodehouse for sure. "To Kill a Mockingbird." J.D. Salinger--but "Franny and Zooey" is my favorite.

And, the gift wrapping? I use and recommend my Mom's favorite location--the ironing board. It's a convenient height, sturdy enough for all but the biggest and/or heaviest presents and, well, it's got to be good for something, right?

Anonymous said...

i work at a used bookstore and i think i'd follow the person that bought anything by emerson, rumi or whitman right out of there...or at least i'd want to.

Tammy said...

Her answer: "Considering the fact your attitude towards novels will have you burning in hell, you might try the Holy Bible. It'll give you an idea of what you can expect down the road. Kinda like a Lonely Planet Guide for your eternity."

Did I really say that? Man, I'm funny.

I've been chasing around ol' "I Don't NEED a Nap Today" Sam all day, so I haven't had much chance to think about my answer to my own question, but it's percolating. I'll be back.

landismom said...

I don't think I have any great answers to this question, but I'd definitely NOT recommend Moby Dick. I think it's very interesting, what people have classified as 'the classics.'

katherine m. miller said...

Personally, the one 'classic' I could barely stand to look at, let alone read was The Good Earth. It's sad, we get it, thanks Pearl. Also, I thought The Three Musketeers belabored chivalry to the point of tears.

If I were recommending to the non-classic reader I'd go with:

-Austen, but only Pride & Prejudice with the added piece of information that it's so much better the second time around.

-East of Eden & All the King's Men: they're both long, but they're my absolute favorites, and are very identifiable in terms of characters (and politics for the latter), and really American lit at its best. To Kill a Mockingbird is the same idea, much easier to read.

-The Great Gatsby & to agree with ellen, on Edith Wharton: goes much better when it isn't required, doesn't feel like a struggle to read

-Salinger is easy and quick to read but very realistic, identifiable

-Marquez is tough to read, but if people are willing, it's definitely worth it.

Anonymous said...

Great topic! Mr. Sweetie doesn't read much fiction, but loved Gatsby. He also read one of the Jeeves and Wooster books--the one where Tuppy Glossup goes down to Aunt Dahlia's to bung out some school prizes--and literally stopped breathing from laughing so hard.

"Serious" classics? I'd start with ones that are short and brisk. I love Edith Wharton, and found "The Buccaneers" to be very readable. Totally endorse Jane Eyre, and Dubliners by James Joyce are excellent short stories. Twain is very funny, and classic and easy to read.

Does Sherlock Holmes count? Or, if said reader is willing to commit a bit more time, Vanity Fair by Thackery is actually a hoot--v.v. modern and amoral.

"Lonely Planet guide to eternity"--this is exactly why I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

...Now I feel bad. You didn't literally say the thing about the Holey Bible being a Lonely Planet guide to the eternity I'd spend in Hell. I made that up. But the look you gave me certainly implied you were thinking that.
But speaking of eternal horror... considering you look after a baby, thirty pounds of cats, a recalcitrant partner AND a blog (or three), how the heck do you even have time to read? I wonder if you even do read. I wonder if this whole blog is a sham! (a scam even!)... and you just have a bookshelf full of Cole's Notes! (probably borrowed and never returned from some poor, small-town library) For shame, Doppleganger. For shame.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, great question!

Since it's in keeping with the season, I'd recommend "A Christmas Carol" by Dickens. It's short, so a great way to get into his books. And it's also awesome.

My two all time favourite books have to be "Pride & Prejudice" and "Jane Eyre", so I'd recommend those as well.

"Don Quixote" is also a relatively easy read, as I recall. Oh, and Mark Twain would be good. And I second (or third) the recommendation for "The Great Gatsby", which oddly enough I just finished re-reading yesterday.

I would avoid any and all Joseph Conrad - but that's a personal preference.

Carrie Ann said...

Hemingway - easy to read and so beautiful. Start with The Sun Also Rises, then maybe A Farewell to Arms. I've gotten a few people started on classics this way. It really does depend on what other writers or genres they like, of course.

Anonymous said...

Just to be a little obnoxious, our modern conception of hell appears nowehere in the bible. It's almost entirely based on the Inferno and Paradise Lost. So, I recomend those, DoppleFriend.

Anonymous said...

The Counte of Monte Cristo, because it's AWESOME and totally engrossing... they can start with the pussy abridged version if it looks too daunting...

Anonymous said...

I'm with doris day: The Count of Monte Cristo is the first classic I remember enjoying (I was just a little thing, maybe 10), and the abridged versions actually don't cut that much out. I adore that book.

For a very easy slide into the pit of classics, Animal Farm couldn't be easier to read, and if you read it with a character guide (Napoleon = Stalin, etc.), you sort of get a little bit of history snuck in with your fun prose.

And I'll put in a good word for Jane, even though a lot of people have said she's not a good starter. For a first-timer, believe it or not, I'd recommend Persuasion, which I think is one of the most underrated books of all time.

lazy cow said...

Three men in a boat - Jerome K. Jerome.
The Razor's edge - Somerset Maugham.
Alice in wonderlad - Lewis Carroll.

Anonymous said...

Tom Jones, yo! It's dauntingly old and long, but if you can get the person to agree to actually open the book ("It's full of dirty jokes! One character is basically Stifler's mom!"), they will laugh their head off. That is, if they have a soul.

(Sorry if this posted twice -- stupid Blogger beta.)

Anonymous said...

The Catcher in the Rye.
The Catcher in the Rye.
The Catcher in the Rye.

Anonymous said...

I agree with The Count of Monte Cristo -- completely engrossing and the hero has a lovely "Fuck you, fuckers!" attitude that would appeal to the modern reader.

I also recommend D.H. Lawrence (esp. Sons & Lovers) and Thomas Hardy (I found Tess of
the Durbervilles very resonant).

Anonymous said...

Not actually a recommendation but a story...

My first year English class - new professor - ask each of us the last book we read.

First person says "The Wars" by Timothy Findlay. Prof eagerly asks what the person enjoyed about it, and is told it was the last book read in English 12.

Slightly deflated, he goes on, and each person in the room says "The Wars."

Finally gets to me (last name of W) and I tell him I'd had a John Irving summer and my fav was "A Prayer for Owen Meany" - should be a deemed a classic in my mind.

We proceed to discuss Irving for 20 min before he remembers he must teach the class.

I will never forget how sad it made me that NO ONE ELSE had chosen to read all summer! How would one get through even a single day?

Anonymous said...

What a fun thing to think about and wow, those are some suggestions. But I'd go with "Jude the Obscure," and for anyone, male or female...

Anonymous said...

I see all these recommendations, and it's fairly obvious that my tastes are outside the norm (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Salinger... all terribly, terribly dull in my mind--except Salinger, who is not only dull, but painfully whiny), so I'll recommend some maybe less usual books (and some Canadian classics too!).

1. The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse

2. The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles

3. The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad

4. The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies

5. Silas Marner, George Eliot

6. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

7. Wild Geese, Martha Ostenso

8. Barometer Rising, Hugh MacLennan

9. A Jest of God, Margaret Laurence

10. East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Anonymous said...

Here is a great book by Mark Twain you can read online for free:
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc