A Re-education in literature

Before I get to talking about the subject of my post title (my re-education in literature), I thought I’d share something from My Ideal Bookshelf, which I had posted about last week. My Ideal Bookshelf is a collection of short essays by writers and others who discuss the books that have impacted them most. As the book doesn’t include a summary of the titles that appear, I took the liberty of doing my own informal calculations. The following are rough counts of the titles and authors that appear most frequently as books that have touched the contributors:

Most frequently cited books

Moby Dick (Herman Melville)

Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

Ulysses (James Joyce)

The Complete Stories: Flannery O’Connor (Flannery O’Connor)

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)

Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson)

Most frequently cited authors (female)

Flannery O’Connor

Virginia Woolf

Doris Lessing

George Eliot

Toni Morrison

Joan Didion

Most frequently cited authors (male)

Anton Chekhov

F. Scott Fitzgerald

William Carlos Williams

T.S. Eliot

J.D. Salinger

Vladimir Nabokov

Ernest Hemingway

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have read the majority of the authors cited here and half of the titles. Unfortunately, I don’t remember much about most of them. I suppose time is an issue, since I read these all during high school and college and I’ve been out for some time. I also read the classics during an age at which I wasn’t able to absorb or appreciate literature as much as I would have liked to. The distractions, the youth – I’ve often wished that I could have gone to college when I was 30! So now I am trying to play catch up, to not only read books I haven’t yet gotten to but to re-read those that I have.

Yesterday while organizing my bookshelves (I am trying to now also rearrange my surroundings to support my reading life) I came across this hefty book that I had picked up a few years ago at a library bag sale:


Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama is a compilation of stories, poems and plays complete with literary analysis. By the time I get through this 2,251 page tome I will have had a pretty good refresher course on English literature, I think. What I’m most excited about is that I get to have a taste of nearly 60 fiction writers from Chinua Achebe to Chuang Tzu to Ernest Hemingway to Alice Munro to John Steinbeck to Alice Walker. The poets who are included are even more numerous, and there is a good collection of plays as well (Ibsen, Shakespeare, Sophocles, etc.).

Of course, I’m working on a classics to-read list as well as I hope to actually conquer the books in addition to the short stories and essays in the compilation. I love that it’s never too late to “major” in English Literature again.

What are your favorite classics and do you have any must-reads to recommend? What’s on your to-read list? And how do you define a “classic” – does it have to be old?

14 thoughts on “A Re-education in literature

    • Thanks Carolyn! My last memory of Moby Dick is that I was utterly bored reading it, but clearly many think it is a must-read. I will likely have a different perspective now. I would love to re-read Hamlet!

  1. I actually enjoyed reading Moby Dick. When I think of a classic I think of books that are your go to’s when it comes to reading (Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, The Tale of Two Cities, etc.). I am a mystery fan as well as read a mix of genres and authors too. John Green has a new book out called Paper Towns and just picked up The Apple Orchard by Susan Wiggs at the Library. Happy Day – Happy Reading:)

    • Thank you for mentioning some of these books that I am not familiar with. I will check them out. And I think I will definitely take another swing at Moby Dick! It will be interesting to see how differently I see things, all these years later.

      • You have a great idea in checking out books read years ago. I wonder what my 30 something self would think of some of the books I read as a teen or 20 something year old. John Green wrote the Fault in Our Stars too. A family member introduced me to Susan Wiggs and love her writing and it makes for good easy reading too – love that!

  2. Another vote for Middlemarch – it’s on my ideal bookshelf. And an Austen book – Sense and Sensibility perhaps? As well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Is that considered a classic?

    I also loved Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I’m so excited for you for embarking on this journey. I loved majoring in Lit because of all these great works, but I have to admit I don’t remember them all very well. I need to do this too someday.

  3. Thanks for the vote for Middlemarch, Justine – now I definitely have to read it! I have Life in the Time of Cholera by Marquez, but I have heard more compelling recommendations for One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am curious about them both. I have never been a fan of Jane Austen but I wonder if maybe I should re-read one of her novels just to see if I feel differently today. And I’m comforted to know that I’m not the only Lit major who doesn’t remember much 😉 Hope you are feeling OK, by the way…

  4. My vote is for Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham and The End of The Affair by Graham Greene. I love love love Flannery O’Connor. Everytime I ready anything by her, I learn something new.

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Rudri! I enjoyed The End of the Affair too and I have a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories that I need to get started. I’m happy to hear your rave review! I have yet to read Somerset Maugham though became interested ever since seeing the film version of The Painted Veil.

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