I believe this originated at Dear diary…, but don’t quote me on that. Anyhow, I needed something fun to occupy my mind as I struggle to stay above the Charybdis of despair that advances closer with each passing day (“I’ll think on it tomorrow”). So, why not think about the pleasantness that is my love for classic literature?
An over-hyped classic you never really liked: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. I’ve really enjoyed some of Ray Bradbury’s stuff, but this is one of his most famous and, perhaps given the time in which it was published that makes sense. I really couldn’t get into it, though. I had a similar reaction to H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. Perhaps those original, pulp-esque sorts of science-fiction novels just aren’t for me. I might have too difficult a time suspending my present-day awareness of science to be so enthralled by texts which so predate our current understanding. That being said, I love Kurt Vonnegut & a lot of his stuff is science-fiction. Maybe it’s really about the style of writing. In fact, now that I think on it, that’s probably much more likely.
Favorite time period to read about: That’s a tough question. I really enjoy reading about the French Revolution, for some reason. There was a year not too long ago when I was absolutely obsessed with it and bought dozens of books (mostly histories, but some fiction) about it. I also enjoy reading about the Great Depression/Dust Bowl era of the United States. I suppose I’m inspired by stories about the power of humanity and our ability to come together in the worst of times, stare down adversity, and win. Right now, that sort of sentiment is both appealing and depressing, given the state of our politics. I wonder if we will be able to dig out of this hole we’ve gotten into. It seems the most precarious time in our nation’s short history, and that’s saying quite a bit given what we’ve been through (and put others through).
Favorite fairytale: I can’t say I’m necessarily a reader of fairytales. I guess I like a good fairytale movie, but do I actually ever read them? I can’t recall doing so, except for a collection of the Brothers Grimm. I do like adaptations, though, such as Robert Coover’s postmodernist take on Sleeping Beauty. In this case, Coover retells the classic story in a number of ways, including one in which it is a prince who becomes trapped in a briar patch. I think Briar Rose is a really fascinating piece of literary work and also a stimulating study of human desire. I don’t know (personally) anyone else who has read it, so I suppose this is a moment to encourage you all to do so.
Classic you’re most embarrassed not to have read: I don’t think I’m embarrassed not to have read anything. I know that my “to read” list is substantial, by which I mean, insanely large and ever-growing. I am annoyed, however, to have begun a few classics that I haven’t finished. These include Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth (which I’m working on). At least three of these (Radcliffe, Eliot & Wharton) are on my Classics Club list, so I must finish. I can’t think of any others that I began but did not finish, so I suppose that’s some kind of accomplishment. But, I’m a “finish what you start” kind of person, so these “failures” will continue to irk me until I’ve completed them.
Top 5 classics you want to read: This is always an impossible question, so please take this with a grain of salt and know that, on any given day, this list could be entirely different. At the moment, though, here are five that I really hope to read sometime soon. None of these are re-reads, but I should note that there are plenty of classics I want to re-read at some point, either because I read them a long time ago and can’t be sure that I remember them and/or would respond to them the same way, now, or because I adore them and want to read them again and again and again. That should be another list. Maybe I’ll make that list. Hm. Anyway! Here are five that are on my mind right now:
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
- Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
- So Big by Edna Ferber
- The Story of Avis by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Favorite modern book/series based on a classic: If I’m being honest, I think I have to go with any of the Rick Riordan children’s (middle grade) books based on classical mythologies (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse). If I had to rank them, I’d probably say: 1) Percy Jackson and the Olympians; 2) The Heroes of Olympus; 3) The Trials of Apollo; 4) The Kane Chronicles 5) Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard. I also really enjoyed some other modern re-tellings, such as Wide Sargasso Sea (“prequel” to Jane Eyre), Jack Maggs (retelling of Great Expectations from the perspective of the criminal, Magwitch), and Speakers of the Dead (which isn’t really a modern retelling; it’s a new mystery series which casts a young Walt Whitman as its protagonist. So much fun!).
Favorite movie/television adaptation of a classic: Don’t crucify me for this, but I think I have to go with some of the more free adaptations, such as The Lion King, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 10 Things I Hate About You, Get Over It, and Edward II directed by Derek Jarman. Huh. I just realized all of these are based on plays (mostly Shakespeare, plus one Marlowe) with a Jane Austen spin-off thrown in. I must like other classic-to-film adaptations, but I can’t think of any right now. (Was Ethan Frome good? I remember watching it, but I don’t remember whether or not I liked it. Of course, there’s Diary of Anne Frank, Call of the Wild, and some of the Great Gatsby films.) See. Best not to think too long about this. I’d be here forever.
Worst classic-to-movie adaptation: I hated Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina adaptation. That’s all I have to say about it.
Favorite editions you would like to collect more of: I absolutely love the Penguin Deluxe Classics editions with the beveled edges. I also like the Penguin Clothbound editions, but if I started collecting those it would be just to have them, not to read them. The Puffin editions are cute, but I don’t have any of them and I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to collect them. I do love Folio edition and editions from The Easton Press. These are the more high-priced, leather-bound, “look at my fancy and expensive library” sorts of editions that you would want to insure and keep in a climate controlled case. So, naturally, I don’t have very many (my parents did get me the complete Sherlock Holmes from The Easton Press, though, which was unbelievably generous of them.) As for favorite editions that I like to collect and actually read, I go with the Penguin Classics and the Norton Critical editions, all the way.
An under-hyped classic: There are three books that I always think of whenever someone mentions this category or something like it. The first is Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade and the second is Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordan Pym of Nantucket. Melville’s Confidence-Man was his last completed novel and the last to be published during his lifetime (the rest of his publications were poetry and Billy Budd, which was unfinished, was published posthumously). This book is essentially an American response to Milton’s Paradise Lost. I plan to read both Paradise Lost and The Confidence-Man sometime this summer, as I’ve never read them together (but it’s something I think will be highly illuminating). One gets a sense of Melville’s loneliness and despair in this last novel. It was released 6 years after his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, which was not well-received and which left him both financially spent and critically dismissed. We know better now, of course, but the brilliance and pathos of The Confidence-Man, read in context, is not to be missed.
I also think Poe’s sole narrative, Arthur Gordon Pym, is well worth reading, even if it isn’t the most well-written piece. It further demonstrates Poe’s talent and range, though, and reminds us that Poe was not just a short story writer and poet, but also a brilliant literary critic who knew a great deal about literature and the novel, too. It very much feels like Poe and, if one remembers that what he was doing was being done first by him, it encourages a deep appreciation for the poor man.
The third novel I usually recommend is Ernest Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden. I think this is my favorite Hemingway work, despite the fact that it was never finished. Hemingway worked on it for many, many years, always refusing to finish it or to publish it, likely because it revealed too much of himself. Anyone who has read a lot of Hemingway will be surprised by this one, I think, because it is intensely emotional, sexually explorative, and psychologically complex; in short, everything Hemingway always tried to suppress, or at least hide, in his other works. Garden of Eden left me breathless, so it’s hard not to recommend it, and yet I also kind of like keeping this one to myself.