May 18, 2004


When I went to visit Tim, we got started talking about literature. He said he's been trying to drag himself through the classics, but most of the time he doesn't really like the books.

I took a wonderful class in college: world literature from 1945-present. We read short stories from all over the world (that's where I found Yukio Mishima) and tried to put them in their historical context. In addition, everyone read one book and presented it to the class. On the last day, we had a frank discussion on the "canon", that list of books that we all instinctually know are classics. Our teacher asked us why none of the books we had read in our class would qualify; it was then that I realized that the canon was bogus. Sure, there are many classics out there that should be read, but sometimes they're just not relevant anymore. There are books that have affected me and my worldview far deeper than any classics I've ever read, but somehow they're not canon-worthy. Mark Twain was right: "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

Farm Accident Digest has a post today about being "the boy who does not get it." If I may apply his story to my thoughts, that's the problem with the classics: most of the time I just don't grok. Why is The Stranger a book everyone should read? He goes to his mom's funeral and then kills some guy on the beach; what's that? Or Bartleby the Scrivener, the guy who doesn't want to do anything? What is it exactly that The Experts want us to take from these books? What is the life lesson? I'm the girl who does not get it when it comes to the classics.

Both Joanne Jacobs and Debbye have posted the list of 101 "books you should read". I've seen the list before: it's the same list my Advanced Placement English class was based on. Anything we read for that class had to be off that list, which is ironic because in my free time that year I was reading books by Pirsig and Feynman that touched my life in a much more meaningful way than The Crucible did.

I haven't made much of a dent in this list. I don't much care, to be frank. I read a lot, but I'd rather spend my time reading Victor Davis Hanson or Carl Sagan than Boris Pasternak. Proust is crap in French and English, Ceremony and Things Fall Apart are just on the list so it's not all dead white men, and most of these books I would never recommend to an 18 year old. The canon ticks me off.

Those I've read in bold, those I thought should be on the list at the end...

Achebe, Chinua - Things Fall Apart
Agee, James - A Death in the Family
Austen, Jane - Pride and Prejudice
Baldwin, James - Go Tell It on the Mountain
Beckett, Samuel - Waiting for Godot
Bellow, Saul - The Adventures of Augie March
Bronte, Charlotte - Jane Eyre
Bronte, Emily - Wuthering Heights
Camus, Albert - The Stranger
Cather, Willa - Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chaucer, Geoffrey - The Canterbury Tales
Chekhov, Anton - The Cherry Orchard
Chopin, Kate - The Awakening
Conrad, Joseph - Heart of Darkness
Cooper, James Fenimore - The Last of the Mohicans
Crane, Stephen - The Red Badge of Courage
Dante - Inferno
Cervantes, Miguel - Don Quixote
Defoe, Daniel - Robinson Crusoe
Dickens, Charles - A Tale of Two Cities
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor - Crime and Punishment
Douglass, Frederick - Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dreiser, Theodore - An American Tragedy
Dumas, Alexandre - The Three Musketeers
Eliot, George - The Mill on the Floss
Ellison, Ralph - Invisible Man
Emerson, Ralph Waldo - Selected Essays
Faulkner, William - As I Lay Dying
Faulkner, William - The Sound and the Fury
Fielding, Henry - Tom Jones
Fitzgerald, F. Scott - The Great Gatsby
Flaubert, Gustave - Madame Bovary
Ford, Ford Madox - The Good Soldier
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang - Faust
Golding, William - Lord of the Flies
Hardy, Thomas - Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Hawthorne, Nathaniel - The Scarlet Letter
Heller, Joseph - Catch 22

Hemingway, Ernest - A Farewell to Arms
Homer - The Iliad
Homer - The Odyssey

Hugo, Victor - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Hurston, Zora Neale - Their Eyes Were Watching God
Huxley, Aldous - Brave New World
Ibsen, Henrik - A Doll's House
James, Henry - The Portrait of a Lady
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Joyce, James - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Kafka, Franz - The Metamorphosis
Kingston, Maxine Hong - The Woman Warrior
Lee, Harper - To Kill a Mockingbird
Lewis, Sinclair - Babbitt
London, Jack - The Call of the Wild
Mann, Thomas - The Magic Mountain
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia - One Hundred Years of Solitude
Melville, Herman - Bartleby the Scrivener
Melville, Herman - Moby Dick
Miller, Arthur - The Crucible
Morrison, Toni - Beloved
O'Connor, Flannery - A Good Man is Hard to Find
O'Neill, Eugene - Long Day's Journey into Night
Orwell, George - Animal Farm
Pasternak, Boris - Doctor Zhivago
Plath, Sylvia - The Bell Jar
Poe, Edgar Allan - Selected Tales
Proust, Marcel - Swann's Way
Pynchon, Thomas - The Crying of Lot 49
Remarque, Erich Maria - All Quiet on the Western Front
Rostand, Edmond - Cyrano de Bergerac
Roth, Henry - Call It Sleep
Salinger, J.D. - The Catcher in the Rye
Shakespeare, William - Hamlet
Shakespeare, William - Macbeth
Shakespeare, William - A Midsummer Night's Dream
Shakespeare, William - Romeo and Juliet
Shaw, George Bernard - Pygmalion
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Silko, Leslie Marmon - Ceremony
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander - One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Sophocles - Antigone
Sophocles - Oedipus Rex
Steinbeck, John - The Grapes of Wrath
Stevenson, Robert Louis - Treasure Island
Stowe, Harriet Beecher - Uncle Tom's Cabin
Swift, Jonathan - Gulliver's Travels
Thackeray, William - Vanity Fair
Thoreau, Henry David - Walden
Tolstoy, Leo - War and Peace
Turgenev, Ivan - Fathers and Sons
Twain, Mark - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Voltaire - Candide
Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. - Slaughterhouse-Five
Walker, Alice - The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith - The House of Mirth
Welty, Eudora - Collected Stories
Whitman, Walt - Leaves of Grass
Wilde, Oscar - The Picture of Dorian Gray
Williams, Tennessee - The Glass Menagerie
Woolf, Virginia - To the Lighthouse
Wright, Richard - Native Son

OK, here's what I actually enjoyed reading from this list:

To Kill a Mockingbird
Oedipus Rex
Jane Eyre
Crime and Punishment
The Great Gatsby
Brave New World
Animal Farm

What I think is missing:

Bauby, Jean-Dominique - The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Bryson, Bill - Mother Tongue
Courtenay, Bryce - The Power of One
Davies, Robertson - The Cornish Trilogy
D'Souza, Dinesh - Illiberal Education
Feynman, Richard - Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman
Frank, Pat - Alas, Babylon
Gilovich, Thomas - How We Know What Isn't So
Gould, Stephen J. - The Mismeasure of Man
Heinlein, Robert - Stranger in a Strange Land
Huff, Darrell - How to Lie With Statistics
Jennings, Gary - Aztec
Nabokov, Vladimir - Lolita
Orwell, George - 1984
Pirsig, Robert - Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Pirsig, Robert - Lila
Quinn, Daniel - Ishmael
Quinn, Daniel - The Story of B
Rand, Ayn - The Fountainhead
Read, Piers Paul - Alive
Robbins, Tim - Another Roadside Attraction
Robbins, Tim - Skinny Legs and All
Sagan, Carl - Contact
Sagan, Carl - Cosmos
Solzhenitsyn, A - The Gulag Archipelago
Tolkien, J.R.R. - Lord of the Rings
Vonnegut, Kurt - Timequake

Ah, what do I know though...I'm the girl who does not get it.

Posted by: Sarah at 02:56 AM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
Post contains 1318 words, total size 8 kb.

1 I agree with Tim. I've decided I need to read some of those "classics" I never got around to before. I find most of them boring. Unfortunately, this kind of list is developed by some PhD in English Literature who has an exagerrated opinion of old timers simply because they are old. A prof I had in college many years ago was completely enamored of Flannery O'Connor. Or, perhaps, because the book was the first in some category. I managed 23 on the list. Dante was tedious because the translator had to provide footnotes to explain things, and Don Quixote was fine for about 100 pages, then fizzled. Uncle Tom's Cabin is actually quite good, and not what I expected. Catch 22 is a favorite of mine, but I would never call it a classic. And when it comes to Mark Twain, I have to say he wrote several books far better than Huckleberry Finn. It was timely, though, so it's popularity carried along with the years. Personally, I don't like to think of Shakespeare as literature to be read. Every list of this kind has old Will on it, but the plays are meant to be performed and watched.

Posted by: Mike at May 18, 2004 07:54 AM (cFRpq)

2 I agree that the "Canon" is a highly subjective list which suffers from political correctness and would suggest that you read selectively from it. I have read most of the books on the list and was awed by some and bored by many. The point is really why to read the books on the list. If, for example you want to read ancient Greek plays, why not Aristophanes, who had a low sense of humor but is still funny today, as a former Greek historian he is just as good as the tragedians but lots more fun. My rule of thumb is if I can't become engaged in the book in 50 pages it is not worth my time to read. Chaucer is worth reading but the language is archaic at best and baffling at worst. The best of the Canon should speak to you in terms you immediately comprehend, if they don't, move on, there is more where they came from. YMMV

Posted by: James Fehr at May 18, 2004 11:30 PM (d66j2)

3 I've read some on the Canon and some on your list. Liked some on each. Hated some on each. For instance - I would replace Ayn Rand's 'The Fountainhead' with her 'We the Living'. The key is, lots of variety because everybody is different. But then, "What Do You Care What Other People Think"?

Posted by: Glenmore at May 19, 2004 12:27 AM (icU1Y)

4 Here are some thoughts on why the canon is important. 1) It creates a shared intellectual environment; there are books that everyone is expected to have read. This informs the quotations we see sprinkled throughout our lives. Read the Bible, and Shakespeare ... you'll know where the things we say come from. 2) These are books that have withstood the test of time. Over the centuries, the cream will rise to the top, regardless of any one decade's notions of political (in-)correctness, and the canon is an acknowledgement of this. 3) There is world enough, and time. Read the canon, then you'll have plenty of time left over for other stuff. Er, unless you plunge into the Russians. Then all bets are off.

Posted by: Terry at May 19, 2004 02:30 PM (zbCd3)

5 I wish I had your confidence on this list. I see each "not-getting" as a failure on my part (as obvious from my post), whereas others see it as just a matter of taste and interest. Being an idiot sucks.

Posted by: fad at May 21, 2004 02:17 AM (waceM)

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