The Classics

I think a good writer has read The Classics.

Now, that’s a term pregnant with ambiguity — and that’s a good thing. The Classics are not One Thing. They are not contained neatly in a cabinet, and when you’ve read the books contained within, you’re done. It doesn’t work like that. The Classics run the gamut. They are legion.

I do believe that some writers are not as well-read as they should be, and stick only to those books that immediately call to them — popular fiction, modern fiction, fiction that lives only in the genres they prefer. On the one hand, I get it. Our brains are pumped full of The Classics in high school, often by teachers who can muster little excitement themselves over the subjects, and so such works end up shoved in the creaky drawer labeled “T: Tedius Pablum” and forever wear that stigmatizing letter.

Thing is, those writers have created for themselves a literary monoculture, and what do know about monocultures? They’re boring, they die off, and they’re capable of choking out diversity.

Today, I want you to think about reading some Classics.

Which means, I want you to share with the rest the class some Classics you’ve read and liked. (Rick, stop throwing gum. Julie, stop sticking pencils in Rick’s asscrack. Maggie, speak up, it’s been too long.)

What’ve you read?

What’ve you liked?

Why did you like it?

Why should writers read it?

I’ll make my case here that any writer who hasn’t read James Joyce is doing himself a disservice.

Joyce is the writer’s writer, a gateway to modern literature. His career consists of books that get bigger and bigger, weirder and weirder, until you end up at Finnegan’s Wake (and any writer who thinks she understood that book right out of the gate is a lying liar who lies and whose pants are fiery pants on fiery fire). But Joyce is in tune with the struggle of the common man and the common writer, and he’s capable of ascribing mythic sensibilities to our daily lives — it’s why Campbell loved him and his work, because Joyce creates that bridge for us, that bridge between the mythic and the mundane, illuminating what myths and fiction were meant to do all along. Which is to say, they’re meant to speak to us about our lives.

Start with Dubliners.

Move up to Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.

Then the mamma-jamma tome that is Ulysses.

Go back, read his poetry. (I confess, I never read his play.)

Then if you really want — and you have easy access to illicit hallucinogens — get buck wild and read (or rather, try to read) Finnegan’s Wake.

That’s my entry.

Now, you.

Classics.

Give me and everybody else some Classics to read.

You know you want to.

Don’t make me drag my nails down this chalkboard.

Or, y’know, my balls.

45 comments

  • Mikhail Bulgakov. I have been pushing him in my comments for some time now, but I will not let go until each and everyone of you reads at least “The Master and Margarita”. It has everything: complex, multilayered characters, an engaging plot, a novel-within-a-novel (which is just as good as the regular novel), mystery, satire and a wonderful portrayal of life in Soviet Russia. I wish more fantasy books were like these.

    Also, I’m going to challenge you with a book that is hard to read even to native speakers: Władysław Reymont’s “The Peasants”. The structure is simple. The story is easy to follow. The character’s are complex. It’s a fantastic book, but very, very hard for the modern reader, because it takes its time and is more of a still picture of a Polish rural community in the early 20th century (which, for all intents and purposes, may have as well been the 18th century).

  • Um.

    Seriously?

    Ok. Dickens. I love Dickens. I HATED A Tale of Two Cities, hated it with a passion, but I love love love A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Bleak House. Those are my top three, in that order. I love that Dickens was an episodic writer of, well, serials, with a huge sledge hammer of social commentary slapped in. I love that he was essentially an optimist, despite the times in which he lived.

    I love that he enjoyed what he was doing and took public opinion to heart when he realized it was of importance.

    Dickens rocks, man. He can make a person empathize with what some folks considered the dreck of society, and although a reader can absolutely glean that his work isn’t exactly subjective, it’s an awful lot of fun to read.

    Yes, I’ve read bunches more of the classics, but in the interest of not hogging space I’m only going to pimp Ol’ Chaz.

  • Bit of a tough one, especially as all the easy ones (like anything by Dickens, and that Gatsby fellow) left a sour taste in my mouth when I read them. Not that they were bad per se, I just couldn’t get into the groove of them.

    I think anyone who hasn’t read Huck Finn (to go for another easy one) by Mark Twain should really go and read it, especially if you want to be a writer. The story may not grip you, and thats fine, but there are a lot of really wondrous examples of how to use an unreliable first person narrative to make things seem bigger than they are (like the circus scene). There are a lot of little things throughout the story where the craft of how it is done is worth just as much, if not more, than anything you’d get out of the story on a strictly narrative level.

    I’ll also always have fond memories for The Lottery (for the life of me, can’t remember the author) but that may be because the teacher who had us read it pulled off the most epic prank ever by doing a class lottery right before we did it, where the person who ‘won’ was going to be given a failing grade to make her class look fair and not easy.

  • Oh, may be too young to be a classic, but A House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is something else I think every writer (and reader) should read. That book is one hell of a wild ride, and a great example of how layout and presentation can make something much more than it first appears.

  • By the way, make that “objective,” not “subjective. The direction of my sentence changed while my kid was in my face yammering for watermelon.

  • Franz Kafka. There’s some hard honesty and introspection underneath the surrealistic surface of his work. He’s more than just odd tales, a fact that becomes more evident with each story.

    Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist are good starting points.

  • Actually, honorable mention-

    In this economic era and with what’s going on with the climate, I think everyone should grab a copy of The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. You can cheat and watch Henry Fonda if you want, but the story, man. Yowza.

  • My choices of classics all tend to have a political bent, and I think that’s an important lesson in what makes a book a classic: write for smart people, and write things that make those people uncomfortable. To that end, start with Orwell’s 1984, move on to Animal Farm, then see how he grounds similar ideas in The Road to Wigan Pier (I am a much bigger fan of Orwell-style leftist politics than George Bernard Shaw; Shaw described the problems of the working class from an ivory tower, while Orwell moved to Wigan and lived among the people he was describing).

    Move on. Verne’s The Time Machine remains one of the seminal works of science fiction because it was written without thought for genre tropes—it was written to be fiction, not SF (admittedly, because SF hadn’t been invented). This is the key when writing good genre fiction: only be as aware of your genre as you need to be, and write the story that needs to be told, not the story as it fits the expectations of your readers.

    Onward once more. G.K. Chesterton. The Man who was Thursday is a true classic, a turning point between the absurdist fantasies of Carroll and the nightmares of Kafka. The move on to The Napoleon of Notting Hill, one of the books that inspired 1984 and that should be compared and contrasted with Farenheit 451.

    • @Julie and Stew are talking topical –

      Then I must add to the mix: THE JUNGLE. Upton Sinclair. Excesses of industry. We need another JUNGLE in this day and age, you ask me.

      – c.

  • At the risk of not being obscure enough, I’m going to put Cormac McCarthy forward. I know that he draws some heat for his arguably self-indulgent disregard for grammar. But greatness in art is the ability to succeed despite ignoring the rules.

    I came to McCarthy very late, with a friend’s recommendation of “The Road.” At the time I first picked it up, I wasn’t ready. Not in the mood for it. Later, after seeing “No Country For Old Men” on screen, I gave McCarthy another shot, but chose “Blood Meridian”, instead.

    I was thunderstruck.

    Since reading “Meridian”, I automatically qualify any description of any other author’s work as “lyrical” by measuring it against “Meridian.” It demonstrates a command of language which I’ve rarely, if ever, seen equalled. “Meridian” is dramatic poetry, a rich Homeric epic of the Old West. It is freighted with terrible emotion, monstrous violence, and sharp beauty. It’s dream and nightmare combined.

    After reading “Meridian”, I lunged for my bookshelf and dove into “The Road.” And I’ve been working my way through McCarthy ever since. I normally read quickly, but I try and luxuriate in a McCarthy novel, paying careful attention to how he carefully adorns his stories with careful, striking details.

    McCarthy teaches the same lessons that a poet does: economy of words, precision, inventiveness, distilled beauty in form and meaning. Any novel or short story can benefit from these techniques. McCarthy is one of the best.

  • I actually thought about this some months ago and made myself a list.

    First up was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which I adored. It’s not exactly light reading, with her desire to give you the history of each character so that it feels like you’re right there in the city when the climax comes rolling through. It takes some patience to get through, though, but it’s definitely worth it.

    I’m currently reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. I don’t know why I’ve never read this before, or read anything by this author before, because it’s brilliant. I’ve only started it this week, reading on lunch breaks, making me half-way through, and I can see why it was named a classic.

    Then there’s my favorite book of all time: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The social commentary from then still holds true today, and the concepts are completely timeless.

    Thanks to Stew for the parallel recommendation of G.K. Chesterton. I’ll tack it onto my list.

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t think that man’s written a book I didn’t instantly fall in love with. Plus it’s always good to break out of the neat little Euro-American box that seems to get put around ‘Classics’ in school.

    I don’t know what it is about South American literature, and Marquez in particular, where they can take dark sentiments and wicked plots and present it in a lyrical and even magical light. Take Love in the Time of Cholera. Ariza is one of the ickiest characters in literature. He’s a sad sack if there ever was one. But Marquez presents him and everything his does with just enough sense of wonder that you’re glad to go along for the ride. And that’s true even in translation – how this man gets the most wonderful translators, I’ll never guess.

    Really, the thing he’s taught me and hopefully others is that it’s all right for your readers not to take things at face value. You could lavish pages on the strange and leave it in a muddle, or you can state it plainly and have it appear crisp and leave whatever meaning there’s supposed to be up to the reader. And that’s it’s perfectly all right to approach otherwise “dark” subject matter with a wink.

  • One thing I love the most about being a mom is that I’m re-reading (or picking up for the first time) so many great books both in YA and typical “classics.” Last summer the three of us read “To Kill A Mocking bird.” (Side note: I had to explain racism to my kids, because the book didn’t make sense. Which is awesome. that they didn’t get why Tom is automatically thought of as guilty.)

    I think there are so many wonderful books in the “classic YA” genre that everyone should read again: Huck Finn for sure (anything by Mark Twain), A Wrinkle in Time,, The PIgman for starters. My daughter heard about “Catcher in the Rye,” so we’re picking that up at the end of the week. I plan on explaining that ol Red Cap is an indulgent teen that makes people like me crazy. :)

    And I want to second Holliday’s suggestions of Phillip K. Dick and Bradbury. (We did a bunch of Asimov last summer, but I can only take so much Asimov before I need to hold a plant, or something.)

    Oh, and of course, Twilight. *ducks*

    • More Stuff!

      Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS is one of my favorite short stories.

      I’ve never read Philip K. Dick, believe it or not.

      Some other classics to consider:

      Voltaire: CANDIDE.

      Charlotte Bronte: JANE EYRE.

      Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY.

      Virgin’s AENEID.

      The short stories of Flannery O’Connor.

      Daphne du Maurier: THE BIRDS.

      Truman Capote: IN COLD BLOOD (early true crime classic)

      And dang, this makes me think that next week we’re going to have to talk about poetry.

      – c.

      • Oh, and by the way, this post and commentary shouldn’t come across as, “You should read and enjoy all the classics.”

        No, no, no. Enjoyment isn’t critical. You just won’t respond to some pieces. And that’s perfectly normal. People always tell me about the great work of Jane Austen, and I gotta tell you? I’m just not into it. I’ve tried. Bronte sisters, okay. Austen, ehhh, not so much.

        Ahh, but I’ve read enough of it to have formed that opinion is the thing. You might read Conrad and say, “Man, hell with this.” And that’s okay. You might want to punch the walls trying to read ULYSSES.

        You’ll still find pleasure in reading some of the classics. You just won’t find it in all of them. Read widely, if not comprehensively, is what this is all about.

        I think.

        I’m also hot and tired from packing, so, there’s that.

        – c.

  • A few of my picks have been mentioned (OMFG, you really really really need to read Twain’s essays on the German language and his analysis of the hackery of “The Last of the Mohicans”), so I’ll move on to my favorites.

    * D.H. Lawrence. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” isn’t just titillating prose, it’s a very smartly aimed jab in the eye of social prudery that insists what happens in your bedroom must be laid out for society’s (dis)approval. For its time, it’s very socially progressive, which naturally is why it was so scandalous and had a history of trouble with publishers. (Not unlike Joyce’s troubles with Dubliners, really. And I dug “Portrait” and the Dubliners stories, but I don’t think I could wade through Finnegan’s Wake; I’m not up on my 19th century Dublin slang and Irish politics yet. :p) And if you get a copy of “Lover” that has any of Lawrence’s essays in the back, do read them; he pulls no punches as to what he thinks about society of his time (or ours, for that matter, because it’s pretty universally applicable).

    * Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” This is the sort of book I point to when I say, “Classics are classics FOR A REASON.” It’s fantastic and full of true Gothic horror, the sublime. I want to nail this book to Stephanie Meyer’s forehead with the epithet, “NO FUCKING SPARKLES.” The Irish know what gets your knickers in a twist, I tell you.

    * Poe and Lovecraft. Everything. Some say they can’t stand the language, that it’s a barrier to them, and I admit to jokingly calling something seemingly impossibly complex and horrifying (like Sarah Palin’s continued popularity) “non-Euclidean”, but it’s really their command of language and understanding how to reach into our basest natures to scare the fucking bejeezus out of you that I admire.

    * Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.” I’m an Arthurian nut, and it’s this work that really launched King Arthur into the chivalric and epic centers of literature. He laid the (popular) foundation for subsequent works of that type. (Bonus points if you can find a copy with Aubrey Beardsley illustrations!)

    * Alfred Lord Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson for classic poetry.

    * Yeats for his work with mythology; he helped popularize it in his work. (Funnily enough, he and Joyce didn’t think much of each other, though initially Yeats thought Joyce had promise. Joyce didn’t like Yeats’s romanticizing the Irish.)

    * The Shelleys. Yes, I know, I’m showing my Romantic colors. So while I’m at it, read Goethe; he’s kind of a Germanic precursor to the Romantic movement. I likes me some nature references and sturm und drang. Oh! And Oscar Wilde. I love his impertinence.

  • My Classics are pretty basic in nature but I find myself quoting them often or reading them for inspiration. My favorite short story of all time is “The Cask of Amontillado”. I find that I love pretty much anything that Poe wrote. If we’re looking for more modern writings I’ll submit “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “My Brother Sam is Dead”, “Hiroshima”, and “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (Anthony already submited this). I also agree with Julie for “The Grapes of Wrath”, and BL on “Fahrenheit 451″.

    I have a question, though. What is it that defines a “Classic”? Does it constitute a period of time before a certain date? I think there are some recent novels that would fall in the category of a “Classic”, especially for younger writers. Books like “The Stand”, or even the entire “Thrawn” trilogy I would have no problem occupying the same shelf space as my Poe collection.

    • @Paul:

      What defines a “Classic?” It’s subjective, but it usually means “something that has stood the test of time.” Or, something that embodies its genre or form.

      THE STAND would likely be considered a horror classic, though I don’t know that it’s proven enough to be a classic piece of literature in general — the horror genre is young, the literary form is not.

      – c.

  • Some great ones have already been put forward. My $0.02? Here are some authors that you couldn’t go wrong by picking up anything with their name on it:

    Poe
    Nathaniel Hawthorne
    Shirley Jackson
    H.P. Lovecraft
    Isaac Bashevis Singer
    Ray Bradbury
    Kurt Vonnegut
    Joyce Carol Oates
    Richard Matheson

    Yes, there’s a bit of a genre bias in the list. I definitely cross genres in my reading, I just had to limit my list here somehow or it would be the longest comment ever.

  • Every time I re-read Moby-Dick, there’s more there there. It’s an exhilarating, daunting, luminous, impossible book– Perhaps (with the possible exception of Huck Finn) the most American book, full of promise and threat.

    Melville’s prose glides and throbs and sings. Watch him engage all five senses in one sentence: “The warmly cool, clear, ringing, perfumed, overflowing, redundant days, were as crystal goblets of Persian sherbet, heaped up–flaked up, with rose-water snow.” Or, on a more somber this epithet “thou all-destroying but unconquering whale.” (Is there a better description of BP?)

    This hundred-fifty year old novel is a compendium of wisdom that couldn’t be more contemporary, more useful, more exemplary, more mysterious, more haunting. Or more necessary.

    • @Howard:

      Man, I haven’t read Moby-Dick in… egads, forever. I should rectify that again: your suggestion is well-received!

      To build somewhat to another sea-spirited, brine-soaked author (though not particularly American): Joseph Conrad.

      Obviously, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim are the ones people probably read in school, but I’m personally a fan of Nostromo (ALIEN connection being a geeky bonus). A great book about degradation and sin. Strong stuff, like the darkest coffee, or a brick of salt in your mouth.

      – c.

  • I’d like to say that while i agree mostly, I think you could replace the need to have ‘read’ the classics with the phrase ‘be aware of’ them. I’ve never read chaucher or Dickins but I know pretty much the tropes and the themes and what happens in the stories. I’ve no doubt lost the chance to learn from thier use of language (but I picked up valuable lessosn elsewhere with the classics i have read) but the basics teach us a lot as well.

    Now, with that said, the classics … After Poe, Blake, Milton and Lovecraft I’d have to yell the praises of a return to Rudyark Kipling!!! Seriously, he writes childrens books for inteligent children and poetry for the childish grown up. A lot of his stuff is inspired and inspiring without being twee and anyone who writes abouttalking animals while maintaining the realities of nature should be on every bookshelf if you ask me.

    Not a classic but a body of work that should be snuck in under the radar – James Herbert (yes every school boys introduction to pulpy horror!!). He wrote to a formula and yet still appealed to a certain (very large) audience, and writers can learn from that.

    • @Lee —

      I’m inclined to disagree that mere awareness is all that meaningful. I don’t mean to suggest that an author should have read every piece of classic literature that exists, but it pays to be well-read. Knowing the tropes and themes is not the same thing as having read it: otherwise, you’re only drawing from a shallow well. It’s essentially the Cliff’s Notes version, which is, like it was in school, a hair’s breadth from cheating. You fail to read Chaucer and Dickens (or Joyce or Faulkner or or or), and you miss the language, the lyricism, the story (separate from the plot). You miss the auteur nature, the look over an author’s work with perspective from start to finish.

      I’ll admit to having never read much Kipling, so your suggestion is a darn good one.

      – c.

  • Melville. Much maligned these days, Melville is the king of the chapter long parenthetical. His writing seems to be completely unconstrained by modern storytelling ideals and yet It works. It is sufficient demonstration that most of the “rules” are bollocks and that you don’t have to be pretentious to break them. You just need a story to tell.

    • @Brad –

      I… half-agree?

      Most of the rules aren’t bollocks. Rules are right and righteous.

      Thing is, like in most areas of life, one is allowed to break the rules if one is of sufficient ability: if you’re good enough to break the rules, and you’re smart enough to know why such rules need breaking, then do it.

      But let’s be clear: most writers, myself included, aren’t Melville. Maybe one day, but to begin, you have to have perspective.

      Also, it’s very bold to try to be Melville, yes. But this isn’t Melville’s era. He was not writing for a modern fiction market where practical considerations and competition are on the table. So, it’s all well and good to throw caution to the wind and try to write a deeply literary classic novel, but then it must also be all well and good to run the risk of never having that work see the light of day.

      – c.

  • @Chuck: Another question…what do you mean as the horror genre being “young”. Would not “Dracula” or “Frankenstein” be considered horror genre? What about a lot of Poe’s work “Pit and the Pendulum” and and ” The Tell tale Heart”? I would also consider “The Turn of the Screw” to be in the horror genre. I certainly understand where you would say that “The Stand” hasn’t lived long enough to be considered a classic from a literary standpoint, but I don’t know if I agree that the horror genre is young at all. You’re obviously more learned on this subject and I present this as a question…not an argument.

    • @Paul:

      Well, strictly speaking, those are Gothic novels (and/or stories) — the horror genre, if you were to really define its rules and nature, is a pretty modern convention. That said, I don’t think it’s weird to consider Poe’s work or Dracula or even some of Hawthorne’s work to be the foundations of horror. Some might dispute it in academic circles, but by casual definition is plays well.

      And with that in might you might define Poe or Shelley as having provided the true “classics” of the genre, while King has only offered “modern classics,” which is to say newer stories that are expected to stand the test of time. If when we die, King’s work is still widely read and held under the glass by academics (which I suspect will be the case), then I’d mark it as an official transition. :)

      – c.

  • Julie totally beat me to it but its all about Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath for me. I’m a huge fan of Twain, Poe, and Melville too but every couple of years I pull out my dog-eared copy of Grapes and wallow in it for a few days. The Wife hates it because I get depressed every single time, but it just feels like something I have to do. An entire chapter about a tortoise crossing the road? Yup, and its beautifully written to boot. You can get by with watching the movie and appreciate the story but the beauty in its simple language gets me. Nothing excessively flowery, only as descriptive as it needs to be. Just awesome.

  • Since no one else has said it yet, I’ll throw on there 1984/Orwell. At the risk of not being old enough… Palahniuk’s Fight Club. And yeah, Philip K dick.

    I missed a lot of the “typical” classics in school. Was assigned to read Ender’s Game and I am the Cheese (best teacher ever.)

  • There are so many awesome recommendations on here: Chaucer to Melville to Lawrence to Márquez. It’s made me feel like I should be doing some damn reading! It’s years since I read Huckleberry Finn, and I love that book to bits.

    I’d add to this excellent list a book that’s arguably the greatest classic of African literature, THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD by the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola. It’s about a man whose ‘work’ and sole purpose in life is to drink palm-wine. An expert on the subject, he drinks 225 kegs of alcohol a day, which I think is a pretty great zombie hook to begin with… Our eponymous hero journeys to the land of the dead or Deads’ Town, to find the undead reincarnation of the tapster who supplies him with wine after the latter falls out of a tree and dies.

    In Deads’ Town, a bizarre and magical realm, the hero encounters ghosts, demons, and supernatural beings, including ‘The Invisible-Pawn’, ‘The Hungry-Creature’ and ‘The Faithful-Mother in the White Tree’. Throughout the book, places and things are named by their description – ‘The Red-People in the Red Town’; ‘The Skull as a Complete Gentleman’. The ‘Skull’ is exactly that – a skull who hires body parts and a nice suit and poses in the market place to snare young women.

    The book was controversial when it was published in 1952, especially in Africa, because of its drunken Nigerian narrator and use of Pidgin English. It has an enduring magic to it a little reminiscent of Petronius, Rabelais, Sterne, or Márquez but in many ways it is entirely unique.

  • I return repeatedly to the ancient Greeks. Medea by Euripides is still relevant today- just read the argument she has with Jason. He wants to trade up for a newer, younger, higher class model, but Medea won’t have any of it. Men are still leaving their wives behind and women are still killing their children. This is a play that could easily be adapted for and appeal to a contemporary audience.

    Antigone by Sophocles is another play that I love. It’s another play that I think could appeal to contemporary audience. The theme of holding religious values over man’s law is an early manifestation of the separation of church and state- something we wrangle with today. Antigone holds true to her beliefs to the bitter end.

  • One of the amazing things I have discovered about the Kindle (even though I read it on my iTouch) is that you can get a lot of these classics FOR FREE!!

    I’ve downloaded all the Scarlet Pimpernel stories (read the first, and it’s wonderful), a bunch of Rafael Sabatini, and a couple Dumas I haven’t read. I added a whole bunch of fairy tales. And a stack of Mark Twain (I love his later stuff, where he got super bitter and cynical).

    But you want classics? I give you the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aristophanes and Sophocles. Gilgamesh. The Eddas. Go back to where all this fantasy stuff really started.

    Also, I really, really love Richard Burton’s translation of the 1001 Arabian Nights. Fantastic stuff.

    I’m currently reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Much like Frankenstein, the original story is absolutely nothing like the various derivative works make it seem.

  • Shakespeare. Can’t imagine writing without having him in the back of my head. I don’t know, maybe that’s too old and too theatrical to count for this game.

    Okay, how about Italo Calvino? Start with Invisible Cities. Then read If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller. You can send me a gift later.

    And to the genius who suggested Vonnegut — bravo!

  • William Hope Hodgeson – How the hell do people forget the man who inspired Lovecraft. The House on The Borderlands is a favorite of mine. Lets not even get started with his other works.
    Ray Bradbury is also on my top list along with Conan Doyle’s horror tales. The man is a
    class act for a reason & its not just Holmes.
    M.R. James Rats & the rest of his tales
    Ambrose Bierce The man who wrote the Devil’s Dictionary also wrote some really solid tales
    Mark Twain – Anything
    Every year I reread Dante’s Divine Comedy just to scare the crap out of myself. The rest of the comedy besides the Inferno is strange & plan weird at times

  • Huzzah for Shakespeare and Dickens! People see “classics” and these guys’ names and their eyes glaze over and they forget how fucking funny and socially relevant they are. Also,

    I picked up The Great Gatsby for the first time in ages last night and was stunned at the insight and beauty contained in just the first two pages. Not all of Fitzgerald is so gem-like, but there’s a reason that book’s a “classic.” I can’t resist just one line from it that rings in my brain and that I tweeted yesterday: “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope.”

    How economical, insightful, and relevant to the narrating character’s – erm – character that line is!

    I didn’t get Austen in college, Chuck. I don’t blame you for not being a huge fan. I love her now but she is utterly female in her approach. Her humor is subtle, often buried in antique verbiage. She does really well when read aloud. I imagine an audio book of hers would be awesome.

    The Blood of the Lamb by Peter De Vries changed my life in high school. Damn, I need to reread that one now too. Hilarious, humanist, sad, and wonderful.

  • Classics? Shit, I don’t know where to begin. I’ll go with two books that found their way off my shelf for another reason today.

    Ender’s Game is a perennial fave in our house. As is Starship Troopers. Both of those stand out for me as perfect examples of the notion that all sci-fi is political.

    On the one hand, Starship Troopers is sort of a cudgel, crude but effective. It’s not subtle, but given the original intended audience, that’s hardly surprising. It’s also not terribly surprising that it’s required reading for a large number of military academies.

    On the other, Ender’s Game is a story of many layers. While I didn’t like the other books in the original four books, the Shadow series centered around Bean was terribly engrossing because it was about political intrigue and actual conflict rather than the bullshit internal conflict that Ender faced regarding his unnaturally long life and his grappling with his need for spiritual meaning, but I’m getting off on a tangent here. Ender’s Game is both visceral and cerebral and stands up well to multiple readings. I first read it when I was 11. I don’t think I fully grasped the entirety of Card’s message until I was in my early 20′s having read it a dozen times.

  • How about a little Dostoevsky? Crime and Punishment is some good stuff — might be one of those things that was better when it came out, though. There’ve been a lot of similar books written since then that are probably more resonant with people who didn’t live in 19th Century Russia. It’s almost better as a picture of another place and time than as a whole novel.

  • Ender’s Game scared the pants off me when I read it. It was the early 90s, and having children used in that fashion was just this horrible, ghastly idea for me. Probably because I could totally see something like that coming to pass.

    For Twain I want to jump up and yell Eve’s Diary and Adam’s Diary. Seriously. Get these. Read these. Thank me later. The man was a freaking hoot. He’s on my short list of “Dead Folks I Want to Dine With.”

    I go back again and again to Doyle’s Complete Annotated Sherlock Holmes. I’ll go a few years and then haul out the ginormous book again and just fall in.

    And I love Austen. She had a very sharp wit, and I’m generally not a reader of the classics written by chicks. The Brontes make me want to dig out my eyes with a fork, for instance.

  • Faulkner – The master, literary genius

    Mann – Dark and masterful

    Can’t stand Dickens, Brontes, Fitzgerald.

    I’d like to think that David Foster Wallace would’ve joined the ranks of the great ones if he’d been more prolific. I reserve the right to dub Infinite Jest a modern classic. So there.

  • July 20, 2010 at 4:20 PM // Reply

    JD Salinger — I’m surprised he hasn’t turned up, yet. I love Steinbeck, but Salinger really swims in his words.

    Read Shakespeare for how he uses language and symbol and develops character with them — just ignore the stolen or broken plots.

    Chaucer is magnificent — you have to read him aloud with a smirk on your face.

    For poetry, I am Gerard Manley Hopkin’s bitch. What he does with rhythm and imagery is pure heaven.

  • Oh bad bad bad Stew.. HG Wells wrote The Time Machine, not Jules Verne.

    Classics that make me jump and gibber with excitement include:
    Melville’s Moby Dick
    Woolf’s Orlando (for example)
    Homer’s Iliad
    Anything whatsoever by Arthur Conan Doyle
    Anything whatsoever by HG Wells
    Boswell’s Life Of Johnson
    Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel
    Oh, does Hammett’s Maltese Falcon count?
    … and Winnie-the-Pooh, of course

    Incidentally, for tons of free classics, go here:
    http://www.digitalbookindex.org/index.cgi

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