Saturday, September 11, 2010

What I'm Reading

Dr. Eliot and grandchild. I am also resolving to wear that same style of shirt while reading.

My friend Christopher recently posted about a personal reading curriculum he's undertaking. I was struck by his post (I thought it was an excellent post) and thought I might take a moment to post about a few directions I'm taking as well. I've actually found a bit of focus for the life of my mind while gripped by the brevity of life and subsequent panic over neglecting nutrients for trifles.

I remember one day laying in bed after a long illness, half my lifetime ago, and realizing that I had not yet ever listened to any of Beethoven's symphonies all the way through. "I hear they're supposed to be pretty good." And yet I knew probably thousands of perfectly asinine pop songs and commercial jingles by heart without having tried. Indeed, that moment in that sickbed was one of my life-changing moments, albeit a quiet one. I would add, probably not a surprise to anyone who knows me, that this has been heavily inflamed by the recent, sudden, and, I'm willing to say, untimely death of my best friend.

On top of that, I had an experience last year with... well, I wasn't going to name it for the sake of those who may have liked it, but it was The Time Traveler's Wife, which everyone was raving about and quoting on their Tumblrs. I picked it up at the library and only made it about 20 pages in. I think the last straw in what I thought was a grossly overrated book was when the narrator gives evidence of how delightful said Time Traveler must be by listing the books he had on his bookshelf. I thought, "By golly, I would rather be reading any one of those books. And that very well may have been the end of me reading something "to see what all the buzz is about." I hope so anyway. But my point is, my time is limited. I would like to improve as a human, which I think glorifies God with the gift I've been given. I would like to seek virtue and truth and I would like to fill myself with that which is excellent and important. This may sound insufferably lofty to you, but I would hasten to point out that I am not telling you what you should do.

Another reason is an ongoing conversation I've had with Laurie about source texts. If I might be so bold as to dip into the theological for a moment, one of the focuses of this conversation is how often we've found that we read probably 5 or more commentaries or expositions by people in regards to our religion for every time we actually read our religion's source text for ourselves. We spend far more time listening to people tell us how we ought to look at the thing than we spend actually looking at it. This was especially driven home for me with my recent realization of how many doctrinal views of the afterlife stem more from Dante than the source text (and how much of Dante stems from the Ancient Greeks.)

Another reason is that I am already decidedly hooked on the series. I'm sure Laurie is sick of hearing me talk about Socrates.

So, my idea is this: I am going to take my stab at reading through the Harvard Classics Library Five Foot Shelf of Books. When I am finished, I am hoping to continue to seek what is excellent and important, eschewing the trivial, and seeking great reward in meatier challenges of life. Hopefully you can see that the decision extends beyond my reading matter, more toward the whole man.

I've mentioned my series on the Harvard Classics Library, which I expect to finish around the end of 2011. Here is the very long list of titles in the series.

Harvard Classics Complete Set 51 Volumes First Edition (The Five Foot Shelf Of Books)

VOL. I. His Autobiography, by Benjamin Franklin
Journal, by John Woolman
Fruits of Solitude, by William Penn
II.The Apology, Phædo and Crito of Plato
The Golden Sayings of Epictetus
The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
III. Essays, Civil and Moral and The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon
Areopagitica and Tractate on Education, by John Milton
Religio Medici, by Sir Thomas Browne
IV. Complete Poems Written in English, by John Milton
V. Essays and English Traits, by Ralph Waldo Emerson
VI. Poems and Songs, by Robert Burns
VII. The Confessions of Saint Augustine
The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis
VIII. Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, The Furies and Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus
Oedipus the King and Antigone of Sophocles (depending on my mood, I may skip the ones that overlap from Penguin Essential Classics list that I am just now finishing.)
Hippolytus and The Bacchæ of Euripides
The Frogs of Aristophanes
IX. On Friendship, On Old Age and Letters, by Cicero
Letters, by Pliny the Younger
X. Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
XI. The Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin
XII. Lives, by Plutarch
XIII. Æneid, by Virgil
XIV. Don Quixote, Part 1, by Cervantes 
XV. The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan
The Lives of Donne and Herbert, by Izaak Walton
XVI. Stories from the Thousand and One Nights
XVII. Fables, by Æsop
Household Tales, by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen
XVIII. All for Love, by John Dryden
The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith
The Cenci, by Percy Bysshe Shelley
A Blot in the ’Scutcheon, by Robert Browning
Manfred, by Lord Byron
XIX. Faust, Part I, Egmont and Hermann and Dorothea, by J.W. von Goethe
Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe
XX. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri
XXI. I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni
XXII. The Odyssey of Homer
XXIII. Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
XXIV. On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution and A Letter to a Noble Lord, by Edmund Burke
XXV. Autobiography and On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill
Characteristics, Inaugural Address at Edinburgh and Sir Walter Scott, by Thomas Carlyle
XXVI. Life Is a Dream, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille
Phædra, by Jean Racine
Tartuffe, by Molière
Minna von Barnhelm, by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
Wilhelm Tell, by Friedrich von Schiller
XXVII. English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay
XXVIII. Essays: English and American
XXIX. The Voyage of the Beagle, by Charles Darwin
XXX. Scientific Papers
XXXI. The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
XXXII. Literary and Philosophical Essays
XXXIII. Voyages and Travels: Ancient and Modern
XXXIV. Discourse on Method, by René Descartes
Letters on the English, by Voltaire
On the Inequality among Mankind and Profession of Faith of a Savoyard Vicar, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Of Man, Being the First Part of Leviathan, by Thomas Hobbes
XXXV. The Chronicles of Jean Froissart
The Holy Grail, by Sir Thomas Malory
A Description of Elizabethan England, by William Harrison
XXXVI. The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli
The Life of Sir Thomas More, by William Roper, Utopia, by Sir Thomas More
The Ninety-Five Thesis, Address to the Christian Nobility and Concerning Christian Liberty, by Martin Luther
XXXVII. Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke
Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous in Opposition to Sceptics and Atheists, by George Berkeley
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, by David Hume
XXXVIII. The Oath of Hippocrates
Journeys in Diverse Places, by Ambroise Paré
On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals, by William Harvey
The Three Original Publications on Vaccination Against Smallpox, by Edward Jenner
The Contagiousness of Puerperal Fever, by Oliver Wendell Holmes
On the Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, by Joseph Lister
Scientific Papers, by Louis Pasteur
Scientific Papers, by Charles Lyell
XXXIX. Prefaces and Prologues
XL. English Poetry I: Chaucer to Gray
XLI. English Poetry II: Collins to Fitzgerald
XLII. English Poetry III: Tennyson to Whitman
XLIII. American Historical Documents: 1000–1904
XLIV. Confucian: The Sayings of Confucius
Hebrew: Job, Psalms and Ecclesiastes
Christian I: Luke and Acts
XLV. Christian II: Corinthians I and II and Hymns
Buddhist: Writings
Hindu: The Bhagavad-Gita
Mohammedan: Chapters from the Koran
XLVI. Edward the Second, by Christopher Marlowe
Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
XLVII. The Shoemaker’s Holiday, by Thomas Dekker
The Alchemist, by Ben Jonson
Philaster, by Beaumont and Fletcher
The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster
A New Way to Pay Old Debts, by Philip Massinger
XLVIII. Thoughts, Letters and Minor Works, by Blaise Pascal
XLIX. Epic and Saga: Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel and The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs
LI. Lectures on the Harvard Classics

The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction (which were a later addition, capitalizing on the success of the original series. I may very well still attempt this list as well although I've already noticed that our local library does not have this set in stock. Although I'm fairly certain it probably has all of these titles available in other editions.)

VOLS. I and II. The History of Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding
III. A Sentimental Journey, by Laurence Sterne
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
IV. Guy Mannering, by Sir Walter Scott
V and VI. Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
VII. and VIII. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
IX. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot
X. The Scarlet Letter and Rappaccini’s Daughter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving
Three Short Stories, by Edgar Allan Poe
Three Short Stories, by Francis Bret Harte
Jim Smily and His Jumping Frog, by Samuel L. Clemens
The Man without a Country, by Edward Everett Hale
XI. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
XII. Notre Dame de Paris, by Victor Hugo
XIII. Old Goriot, by Honoré de Balzac
The Devil’s Pool, by George Sand
The Story of a White Blackbird, by Alfred de Musset
Five Short Stories, by Alphonse Daudet
Two Short Stories, by Guy de Maupassant
XIV. and XV. Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and The Sorrows of Werther, by J. W. von Goethe
The Banner of the Upright Seven, by Gottfried Keller
The Rider on the White Horse, by Theodor Storm
Trials and Tribulations, by Theodor Fontane
XVI. and XVII. Anna Karenin and Ivan the Fool, by Leo Tolstoy
XVIII. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
XIX. A House of Gentlefolk and Fathers and Children, by Ivan Turgenev
Pepita Jimenez, by Juan Valera
A Happy Boy, by Björnstjerne Björnson
Skipper Worse, by Alexander L. Kielland

"Wait a minute!" I hear you cry, "You've recently done the first volume and a half!" You are correct. I got antsy and already started without announcing it. I do have a life outside of this blog, you know. Anyway, I thought that this would be impractical as a reading group although I would encourage anyone to join me who wants to (and, given that I've still got Moby Dick for the Penguin Essential Classics Reading Group to slow me down, this would be a fine time to catch up.)

"Now hold on!" You exclaim, "Who are these high and mighty people who decide what is great, excellent, important, and worthy of the laurel Of The Western Canon?" Well, there are several answers to that. One is: us! It's a conversation anyone can take part in as a global citizen (even if you're from The East. The ethnocentrism of the list is something we will be tackling as we sally forth as well.) Another is: Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard starting in the late 1800s. Which sounds at first like name dropping, but consider this: I am five pieces into the series and every single one of them, I feel I can say without indulging in hyperbole, have been life-changing for me. Just about everything we end up reading is by the suggestion of someone, be they in person or in writing. If someone came and gave me a list of "you've got to read" books and the first five were life-changing, I would very likely read the rest of the list as well. In this series, I have found that very thing.

Another answer is: people who have spent their lives sorting through the literature that has endured over long periods of human history. Even then, it's still a gutsy thing to do, although it's hard to be taken seriously in criticizing the list if you haven't read the material for yourself. So there's another reason for a project like this.
But this, of course, is not the real reason. I would do this if I were alone on a desert island, or immured, or in space, or in solitary confinement for the rest of my days with nothing else to do but attempt to use the knowledge gleaned from books to make explosives out of the gardening materials the foolish warden allowed me to order for the small planter in my barred window, so high and bright, and the serene austerity of the cinder-block walls, now so innocent, but soon to have "The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!" written on them with a blood smeared finger as I fly from the charnel house I've created to freedom.
I am, in the end, doing this for the man I wish to become.
Of course, this lifestyle of reading curriculum won't end there. One of the first things more intrepid readers will notice about Dr. Eliot's list of titles is the extreme dead-white-malehood of it. Another first glance gleaning might be the very few books that would not have been at the disposal of, say, Mark Twain. In fact, most of the books seem to predate the 19th century. There is a lot of modernity and diversity I am going to miss during this project, but, on the other hand, that's a bit like waffling on visiting Paris because you might have had the opportunity to visit Rome. If you live long enough, you might visit both! I don't know if I shall spend the rest of my days mining Western Canonical lists like these (although there are worse things one could do with one's life, and I must say I these are some fences that greatly appeal to me.) But there are many others with many more modern suggestions. Yale and Princeton have their own variations (although lack the kicky gimmick of a five foot shelf of books). As Christopher points out, there is the excellent list suggested by Harold Bloom which contains quite a few more modern suggestions. But, this is my project at hand. You can expect a few more trickles in this series while we, the Penguin Essential Classics Group, tackle Moby Dick through the remainder of this year. After that, I intend to dive head first into this project.


  1. When I was in my early 20s I wanted to read more classics because I admired those for whom they were important. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien among them, but dare I admit, also Robert Parker's Spenser?

    I also admittedly enjoyed the idea of people thinking I was lofty, deep, intellectual, etc. More often than not, no one noticed. It was when I spoke about ideas that I got the "oooh, you're so deep" responses and discovered how incredibly alienating it was. "You're so deep," wasn't a statement of admiration, but of difference, and the type of difference that the person commenting wasn't willing to approach.

    It didn't take much of that before I continued on my way with my intellectual development, but kept it more private. I'm not embarrassed of it. I enjoy intelligent discussions. But it's rarely I have an opportunity to, and asked my interests I remain vague, and I suppose aloof, but try to I'll admit to "reading" rather than "reading Dante," unless someone pursues it further.

    I read for pleasure. I read classics in order to gain deeper pleasure, and a longer lasting pleasure. Bloom talks about the sublime having to do with difficult pleasures, and that's something that really resonates with me.

    Reading an isolated book can bring great pleasure. Reading a book and recognizing how it reaches back through time and location to earlier writers, talking and arguing, attempting to supplant them, developing with them... this is a far greater pleasure, but it is not an easy one. And who would want it to be? We enjoy more what we work hard to gain.

    And I'm not disavowing light fiction. Wodehouse, Gaiman, Pratchett -- these are all great, enjoyable reads. Pulps, penny dreadfuls, and the like? Chesterton has a typically Chestertonian defense of them. Everything in its time and place.

    You talk about how you have begun to focus on reading better books because time is limited. That's something I'm increasingly aware of, too. I have always been aware of mortality. I've often enough gravitated towards the morbid, though through irony and artifice. But it's becoming an increasingly central awareness -- not that death is, but that I am ever closer to my last day. At 36, I may very well have already lived half of my life.

    Reading the books that inherently communicate with other books that came before them, books and films that make me slow down and experience lives and perspectives I've never before experienced, art that evokes a sense of the sublime -- this makes the experience I take from the time I'm given denser, if not longer.

  2. Yes, I had the "heady book as accessory" in my early 20s too. It reminds me very much of one of my Shakespeare teachers in college sort of scolding the class one day. The class of young people became very impressed with and full of themselves over their new-found ability to emotionally connect with the text, specifically proud when one of us could manage to produce real tears at the appropriate moment. The teacher said, "Please remember, this is what you're supposed to do. It's not some great feat."

    As for the penny dreadful thing, I am also not eschewing them for life (I listen to Wodehouse stories in my car all the time.) Just attempting to plan my diet a little better, having looked over at my bookshelf and saw the great number of "penny dreadfuls."

  3. It's funny -- literature is the art I'm closest to, at least in practice, but I've never been moved to tears by it. Film, yes. Music, yes. Poetry... maybe close... at least a deep sense of longing. Literature overhauls my thought life. It enlivens me, but the sorrows in it rarely reach me at the same gut level.

    And I'd never lump Wodehouse into the penny dreadful category... comic books, yes. Conan stories, them too. Lovecraft, too. Wodehouse was a fine writer, though, with a gift for humor. Pratchet falls into that category, too. I think the thing with penny dreadfuls isn't so much their lack of uniqueness in the story, but the lack of artistry in the prose.

  4. Out of curiosity, where would you put Neil Gaiman?

  5. Gaiman's novels are consistently at least good, and often very good. I thought American Gods and Graveyard Book were both very good. And Sandman and his other comics, of course. Gaiman is a very mainstream writer -- in terms of appeal, difficulty, and the quality of the prose he's a high quality mainstream writer. His ideas, and his gentle but yet very British sense of ironic humor are his strongest assets. The thing about Gaiman is that, while he has a very mainstream appeal, and is very approachable, he's read everything. There are writers one comes across and depending on the reader they'll either go away seeking more of the same or they'll possibly go on to explore the influences of the writer. Gaiman is one of those writers that can play the role of literary gateway drug. From Gaiman, one can move in any number of directions -- Shakespeare, Ovid, the Eddas... he provides a start to any of them. Or one can move towards R.A. Lafferty (excellent short story writer, impossible to pigeon hole), Gene Wolfe, and all the best in Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Gaiman is a writer who never leaves someone worse off than when they began, and hopefully far better.

    As dark as he can get, I think he's primarily a humorist storyteller. He's entertaining, and that in a positively good sense. His strength isn't the aesthetic. He and Pratchett are two sides of a coin -- Pratchett favoring the humor over the story, and Gaiman favoring the story over the humor... which is why Good Omens was such a great book.

    In the great scheme of things literary he is an easy pleasure, but he's one of the best easy pleasures. The classics we're reading -- those are difficult pleasures. Both are life enriching. But the difficult pleasures suggest -- and sometimes reveal -- the sublime in a way that the easier pleasures do not.

    Did I succeed in expressing this without some shoddy high art vs. low art or art versus craft dichotomy? Ideologically I think those dichotomies are useless and hurtful. Classics are haute cuisine to Gaiman/Pratchett/Wodehouse's comfort food. I personally don't want to live without either.

  6. Yes, very well. In fact, the last line of your comment summed up my feelings far better than I was able to. In my case, I got the feeling recently, to extend the metaphor, that while I've tried both, I've merely tasted some haute cuisine while I've eaten liberally of comfort food. Very good comfort food, mind you, but comfort food all the same.

    Also the ticking clock thing.

    Also, I've found that having the foundations of the greats can deepen one's enjoyment of the better "comfort" fare. Gaiman is a perfect example. I read the Sandman series when it first came out and I was a stupid kid. I loved it. I've read it again recently and find that I get the billion allusions he threw in there.

  7. Chesterton said something that can extend our metaphor, as well. Or maybe he didn't and I dreamed it, or am so distorting it that it's unrecognizable from the actual quote. Whatever the case, I can't find it. At any rate, what echoes in my mind is something like, "We can live without literature, but we cannot live without story."