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.
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!