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)
Most frequently cited authors (male)
F. Scott Fitzgerald
William Carlos Williams
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?