Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sampling the Classics

Doppelganger over at 50 Books has issued a challenge:

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?

Great question. I posted a comment, but of course, I have more to say. (Do I ever not have more to say? More than would be appropriate in the comments of someone else's blog? "Oh, excuse me, but I'm commandeering this here website. You'll get it back when I'm done.")

What is fine literature, anyway? I find I approach this question with writers from The Canon: the people whose names are familiar, but maybe you've never read. Because there's a reason a lot of these books are still around. Seriously--go take a look at a remaindered table, or a used book store, and look at how many authors you've never even heard of. Spooky!) I mean, as long as one is embarking on "Fine Literature," one might as well get some points for scholarly activity.

That said, there are plenty of ways to get introduced to famous authors without launching into huge and boring books that kill the joy of reading. So, for your perusal, my list of books to recommend to someone looking for "Good Literature." In no particular order:

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is a slim book, but packs quite a punch. Some of the prose is absolutely beautiful: there is a description of Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Marsh wearing gauzy dresses and lying on a sofa, while the breeze ruffles their skirts--absolutely beautiful. Gatsby rewards casual reading, while a quick Google trip to SparkNotes gives all sorts of depth to the text.

Alternatively, read Fitzgerald's short stories: Some of these are irresistably beautiful, full of sadness and nostalgia for the world--despite being written in the 1920s, they feel relentlessly modern. Winter Dreams will break your heart, and sums up Fitzgerald's talent as succintly as you could wish.

Billy Budd, by Herman Melville--nowhere nearly as daunting as Moby Dick, this novella captures the sea setting, the discipline and hardship of sailors' lives, the questions of fate and mercy with a poignant tale that explains just why Melville is so revered as a writer.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. This story about an unloved orphan who grows up to find her place in the world contains many typical "Victorian" elements--the appalling school, the maudlin death of an unbelievably good character, a madwoman in the attic, a marriage that is foiled at the altar, fire and blood, and lectures on the inequalities of society. Jane Eyre remains fresh due to the dry wit and sharp observations of Jane herself, who refuses to accept the platitudes of her time.

Sherlock Holmes stories, by Arthur Conan Doyle. Again, start with the short stories before tackling the novels--the slower pace of the writing takes some getting used to. The stories themselves are well constructed, and some of them are downright scary. The Adventure of the Speckled Band is a good place to start; I'm particularly fond of The Musgrave Ritual as well. Both are ripping yarns with enough mystery and death to satisfy modern tastes.

Another easy to read Victorian is Edgar Allen Poe--The poems are memorable and eerie, the short stories were deliberately written to be only so long as to be finished in one sitting. The Cask of Amantillado, and The Tell-Tale Heart are deliciously creepy.

I could go on, but I've discovered to my delight how many of these are available online. Check out the Gutenberg Project for A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, or anything by P.G. Wodehouse. Find some famous names you've never read, and dip in to check them out.

(Cate wanders away from the blog into the labyrinth of Project Gutenberg, never to be seen again...)

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