Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In Which I Assign You Homework

This blog post will contain, at the end, a homework assignment for all of you.  I want everyone to complete it immediately.  Whether you read this blog here on on Facebook.

So, you'll all remember I recently wrote a blog post about the Harvard Classics Library, the 52 volume set of books that supposedly contain a nearly Harvard level education for those who read them all.  I've discovered that they are, in fact, still in print.  My problem was that I was looking to the original publisher, Collier (who no longer exist) or their successor Macmillan.  Easton is a prestige publisher.  They publish fabulously beautiful books.

The price tag seems steep to me.  $70 per leather bound, gilt edged volume.  And I have a hard time imagining carrying such a thing around and reading it on a bus or in a break-room should I secure gainful employment in the near future (although, if there's a wealthy patron of the arts to whom $70 a month is nothing, I would emphasize that if I were given a subscription to the deluxe leather-bound editions I would employ my creative powers to figure out a way to make do with them.)  Earlier editions are bound a little more sensibly and, as I mentioned before, with some intrepid searching one could likely assemble a complete set for less than $200 (perhaps much less, more like $100.)  Also, if you have an e-book reader you can download the entire 52 volume set for free.  More likely for me, the Chico Library contains a full set of a basic hardcover edition for the lending for free.  No matter where you are, your local library should have a full set as well and if not, badger your librarian.

Why am I writing about this again?  Well, I think I'm dead set on having that be my next reading group after we finish with the Penguin Essential Classics.  Although the Penguin group will most likely take us up to around the beginning of 2011, I'm already toying with that idea.

However, another idea I've been toying with, which is the reason I'm posting this in the first place, is to do more Essential Classics, but no longer those dictated by the Penguin PR Department.  I thought it might be fun to list our own personal Essential Classics, so here's how we're going to do this assignment.  List your own personal 10 essential classics in the comments here or on Facebook.  Don't be swayed by what other people post and try to restrain yourself from overlapping with books in the list of Penguin's 10 Essential Classics.  You're thinking of the 10 classical literature texts which everyone should read and pretending that this will be the next 10 books we'll read in our series (although don't get too excited about that prospect as it probably won't happen, at least for several years.)  Also, you don't have to be involved in the current reading group to do this.  I want everyone to do it.

Here's mine:

1.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas- one of my favorite works of fiction.  I assume it was left off of the Penguin list because the 1400 pages might intimidate some. 

2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky- unfettered genius and one of the finest novels ever written.  If you haven't read it you have squandered the years God has given you thus far.

3. Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe- I was tempted to put another Shakespeare play on this list (Lear, Tempest, or maybe I'd be difficult and put Henry IV Parts I and II) but I was very happy and content that they picked Hamlet in the Penguin list.  I love Marlowe.  I used to say that if he hadn't died so early I think he would have overtaken history's place for Shakespeare, but I'm not so sure if I believe that anymore.  Marlowe was a ball of fire.  Shakespeare was a calm and skilled craftsman who grew and evolved as an artist.  But Faustus is a marvelous work and I really think everyone should read it.  The Faust legend is part of our collective unconscious and this is my favorite retelling of it.

4. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde- People who know me know how much I love Wilde.  It was hard to choose which of his works to list, but I think everyone should at least have read this.  It was this or Dorian Gray.

5. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain- I know my list is turning into largely Victorian/Edwardian but there is simply not a better novel in existence than Huckleberry Finn.

6.  Plato's Republic- We needed an ancient and a work of non-fiction (sort of.  Humor me.)  I haven't read this since high school, so the idea of re-reading it appeals to me tremendously.  My reasoning is, along with it being a great feat of human thought (although not always entirely agreeable), so much of the world we humans have created stem from this work that you really should have read this at some point in your life.  You'll identify so much of the fabric of society around you in it.

7.  Beowulf- Yeah, I said it.  If it ever came to this, I would highly recommend everyone get the Heaney translation.  But really, you should read this.

8. Candide by Voltaire- This slot was a toss up between this and Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan.  But I went with Candide!  Analyze that!

9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens- I had to have some Dickens on the list and I figured this and Christmas Carol are probably his two most saturated in the public consciousness.

10. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes- This slot was a toss up between this and Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (earlier I was considering all of Remembrance of Things Past but decided to be merciful.)  But I thought that Don Quixote was probably more of a basic essential than Proust.  Proust is a little down the road for a lot of readers and as far as I know Cervantes never wrote sixty pages about buying a hat.  Plus there's a newer translation I've been eager to check out.

So, there's the list.  I think I get a D- in Diversity.  There's a big list of dead, mainly white, mainly native English speaking, mainly straight men.  I'm a little surprised myself at that.  Although I don't repent of a single title I included on my list, I'm sorry to see what a bad reflection on the global citizenship of Western Civilization is our Pre-1920s Canon of Literature.

I will also say, this was a lot harder than it looks and my respect for the Penguin people just went up a bit.  All the more reason why I challenge all of you, People of the Internet, to post your own personal 10 Essential Classics!



  1. I'm waiting for Facebook to pick this up - I'll post a list there. However, I'm a little conflicted on what adequately defines "classical literature". My list currently tends toward books that have material that is still prevalent in pop culture, as I feel that in order for someone to "get" much of what is said and alluded to, they must have done the homework. Some of those books are as "modern" as the 60's, and if I could publish a list specifically aimed at pop culture, I wouldn't stop there - I'm sure I'd find something published in the mid eighties that could make that list.

    If "classical" is pre-20th century, then you can toss half my list. If it's pre-19th century, then I'm down to a couple books. The truth is, with only a very few exceptions, the books and writing styles from past epochs don't really hold up for me. We've also got the little matter of about two thousand years where nothing was written that wasn't religion or philosophy. Prior to that we don't have much of anything. It's not much different if we look for an asian or eastern canon, which I am sure exists, but mostly in poetry and philosophy - not to mention the difficulty with translating languages that are violently different that ours - writing meant something entirely different to the ancient Chinese, from what I understand.

    Now, according to About.com, there is a difference between Classical Literature (books from ancient civilizations) and Classic Literature. I'm assuming from your list you mean Classic Literature, and I think even my most modern books hold up as Classics under About.com's definition.


  2. I pretty much went with books that I could legally read on my podcast which means they are old enough to potentially be in the public domain (barring more recent translations.) This is by no means a definition I'm imposing on anyone else, just a fence I set for myself.

    In short, use whatever definition you'd like. I think Laurie's in the other room right now putting at least one book from within the last 25 years on her list. I find nothing wrong with that.

    But, yes, I think we're looking for Classics and not merely the Classical.

  3. Sheesh! Now everything on my list is going to sound stupid. Oh well, let's just say, everything on my list is something I'd love the excuse to read again, and which I think would make any person the richer for having read. Whether you would consider every one of them a classic, well, refer to our Iron Sharpens Iron post, "Watch Your Language!". But here goes...oh, and in no particular order...

    1) Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky - just a staggering work of genius.

    2) East of Eden - Steinbeck (This may be cheating, since I've read it at least four times. But I really love it that much, and would really love to read it again.)

    3) Freedom of the Will - Jonathan Edwards (Permanently revolutionized my philosophy of volition.)

    4) Pilgrim's Progress - Bunyan

    5) The House of the Seven Gables - Hawthorne (Now, it's really a toss-up with The Scarlett Letter. But I think I enjoyed this one more...maybe.)

    5) Great Expectations - Dickens (Painted moods and images I've never forgotten. I've never seen any of the film versions, by the way.)

    6) Gone With the Wind - Mitchell (I won't tell you I liked the after-market sequel, because I want you to respect me in the morning.)

    7) Les Miserables - Hugo

    8) Seraph on the Suwanee - Zora Neale Hurston (This is my favorite of her works - though her best known, Their Eyes Were Watching God, runs a tight second.)

    9) The Three Musketeers - Dumas (I was torn here between this, Dracula, and the Scarlet Pimpernel - not sure of the connection.)

    10) And, finally, though some may dispute whether Anne Rice has ever written anything which should be called a classic, I will insist that she has one work that, though all her other works slip into oblivion, deserves to be preserved for posterity - The Feast of All Saints.

  4. I don't know that I'd consider these all "essential classics" since everyone has different tastes and priorities, but here are 10 books that I've read that I think should be widely read (in no particular order)

    Faust - Goethe
    Alice in Wonderland - Carroll
    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - Lewis
    Lord of the Flies - Golding
    I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Angelou
    A Wrinkle in Time - L'Engle (or just about anything by her)
    Don Quixote - Cervantes
    Huckleberry Fin - Twain
    Red Badge of Courage - Crane
    The Scarlet Letter - Hawthorne

  5. I was really close to going with Goethe instead of Marlowe.

  6. Bekah,
    Have you heard Franz Liszt's Faust symphony? If not, I think you would enjoy it.

  7. 1. Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
    2. Fathers and Sons - Ivan Turgenev
    3. Heart Of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
    4. Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
    5. White Fang - Jack London
    6. To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
    7. Dracula - Bram Stoker
    8. Robinson Crusoe - Daniel Defoe
    9. The Grapes Of Wrath - John Steinbeck
    10. The Stranger - Albert Camus
    (alt) The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne
    (alt) Lord Of The Flies - William Golding
    (alt) On The Road - Jack Kerouac
    (alt) The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test - Tom Wolfe

  8. Pride and Prejudice
    Women in Love
    The Rainbow
    Beloved - Morrison
    The Scarlet Letter
    Shakespeare's Sonnets
    Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson
    Huckleberry Finn
    Leaves of Grass

    To Kill a Mockingbird
    His Dark Materials Trilogy - Pullman

  9. Another runner-up: Ariel By Sylvia Plath

  10. Ah! I forgot Animal Farm and Brave New World!

  11. Sedge,
    I should have thought of Gulliver's Travels! What an excellent book! Turgenev is one of those I'm constantly meaning to get to.

    Glad to see we have another D.H. Lawrence fan! I was so close to including something by Plath too.

    Likewise, Laurie, with Animal Farm.