2013年2月23日 星期六

Thoughts on Literature

I like the Classics.  That's Classics with a capital "C."  The Classics, I suppose, would be Literature that has stood the test of time.  I don't know how professors of English Lit would define the Classics, but I would define them as more serious/intellectual/"important" books written before World War II.  These are the books that many people find frustrating and/or boring.

Which isn't to say that I like all of the Classics.  I couldn't get through the Marquis de Sade.  I have a low tolerance for Tolstoy.  Henry James just bores me.  For all the good Classics out there, one could point out some truly excruciating books, but I like to think that the good outweigh the bad.

And I also feel obliged to say that I do read stupid books on occasion, and occasionally I even enjoy them.  I liked "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell," I like Dave Barry, and I even found Dan Brown tolerable.  I don't enjoy swimming in deep water all the time.  Sometimes I like to just wade in; I'm not looking for deep thoughts, and heartfelt commentary on the state of Western civilization.

As of now I'm reading "Hard Times" by Charles Dickens.  I like Dickens quite a bit.  The coincidences in his books are sometimes hard to take, but he wrote with a command of the English language and a feel for plot that few other authors can even approach.  I've also read "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," "The Christmas Books," "Oliver Twist," and "A Tale of Two Cities."  Oliver Twist was probably my favorite.

My copy of "Hard Times" was published by Penguin, and is part of the "Penguin Popular Classics" series.  I own many of the books in this series.  I buy them because I usually like them, but I also buy them because they're cheap.  In the back of my book are listed all the other books in this series, about 1/4 of which I've already read.

"Aesop's Fables" is the first entry on the list.  This is a book full of strange stories that don't go anywhere, all hearkening back to the Greco-Roman world.  The mythical Aesop draws a lot of weird morals from his stories.

There are a few books by Jane Austen.  I read "Pride and Prejudice" a while back, and I also read quite a bit of "Mansfield Park."  I like the way in which Austen's characters banter, but they are often hard to sympathize with.  I realize that my being a dude is part of the reason I have trouble with Jane Austen.

Charlotte and Emily Bronte come next.  I've read both "Jane Eyre" and "Wuthering Heights."  I liked "Jane Eyre," but I found the characters in "Wuthering Heights" extremely annoying.  Again, part of the reason for this is my being a dude - I think.

Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" is OK, but I think it suffers from the treatments given to it by Disney and Tim Burton.  It's hard to filter out our modern perceptions of this book and what it should be.  It's an easy read, but the silliness of it seems kind of dated.

I can remember struggling through Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" in college.  I'd probably like it more now, but at the time it was a burden.

John Cleland's "Fanny Hill" was an entertaining read.  It's basically porn, but it's not explicit enough to be off-putting.  The descriptions of penises as "terrible machines" has stuck with me.  Unlike the Marquis de Sade, I really can't find anything offensive in "Fanny Hill."

Arthur Conan Doyle's "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" is sitting on a shelf in my house.  I haven't read it yet.  I can remember reading "Hound of the Baskervilles" in high school, however, so I imagine "Adventures" is just more of the same.  The movie with Robert Downey Jr. is surprisingly good, though I'm not sure how much it has to do with any of Doyle's books.

Many of Joseph Conrad's books are to be found in the Popular Classics series.  I have read "Heart of Darkness," "Lord Jim," "Nostromo," "The Secret Agent," and "Victory."  "Nostromo" would have to be my favorite.  I found "Lord Jim" difficult to get through, and "Victory" is strangely philosophical.  Conrad is one of my favorite authors, and he led a fascinating life.  he also had (and continues to have) a big influence over Central and South American authors such as Borges and Gabriel Marcia Marquez.

"The Last of the Mohicans" is a straight ahead adventure novel, but it's a good read.  Compared to anything by Conrad it's light reading, but that's not always a bad thing.  The movie with Daniel Day-Lewis is also good.

Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage?"  I know I've read it, but I can't remember anything about it.

Defoe's "Moll Flanders" and "Robinson Crusoe" come next.  I had a hard time with Robinson Crusoe, despite the fact that I'd been wanting to read it for a long time.  It gets very religious near the end.  I liked "Moll Flanders" much more, even though that book requires patience.  I would imagine that "Moll Flanders," written in the 1700s, scandalized a great number of people.

Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" is a famously difficult book.  I started this one three or four times before finally finishing it a couple of years ago.  I'd have to say that yes, it is a boring book, but it is also the kind of book that makes you think.  The "punishment" undergone by the protagonist is more mental/internal than anything forced upon him by society, and in the end the punishment enacted by his government serves to release him from feelings of guilt.  An inventive book, to be sure, and worthy of its reputation.

I believe F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in the 20s and 30s, though I might be off by a decade.  It's been a while.  I've read all of Fitzgerald's books, and he is one of my favorite authors.  "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" has to be one of the strangest short stories ever, and I'm surprised no one has ever tried to make a movie out of it.  Much is made of his rivalry with Hemingway, but in my opinion Hemingway is highly overrated macho bullshit.

"King Solomon's Mines" was written by H. Rider Haggard.  It was stories like this one that inspired Indiana Jones.  The main character in this novel, Allan Quatermain, is often mispelled as "Allan Quartermain."  Anyone who likes more pulpy sorts of fiction should like Haggard.

I've read two of Thomas Hardy's books: "Jude the Obscure" and "The Return of the Native."  "Jude" is the story of a man who wants to live an unconventional lifestyle, but finds himself thwarted at every turn.  I enjoyed it a lot.  "The Return of the Native" wasn't as interesting to me, though it touches on similar themes of infidelity and individualism.

"The Scarlet Letter" is a good novel.  Nathaniel Hawthorne was a big influence on Herman Melville, who is also one of my favorites.  Many would point to Hawthorne as the beginning of "mature" American fiction, and I would not disagree with that assertion.

Henry James, as said above, bores me.  I had a hell of a time getting through "The Turn of the Screw."

James Joyce is fantastic, one of the truly revolutionary writers.  His first three books ("Dubliners, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," and of course "Ulysses") are must-reads.  I couldn't get anywhere with "Finnegan's Wake," however.  That has to be the most obscure novel ever.

As much as I like Joyce, I might like Rudyard Kipling just as much.  Kipling was a lot earlier than Joyce, and many of his books chronicled the British Empire at its height.  "The Jungle Books" offer a fascinating alternative to the creation myth, and "Kim" is a book of unquestionable depth.  "Kim" is also one of the most "Eastern" Western books I have ever read, right up there with Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha."

I can recall reading Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera," but that was a LONG time ago.  There is a cool bit at the end where the protagonist is placed inside a "mirror prison."  Ever since I read that book I've wanted to make a mirror room in my house.

Jack London is The Man.  He was a lot more socialist than most of the other writers mentioned here, and he was also more concerned with nature and man's relation to it.  "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" take the concept of civilization in opposite directions.

Herman Melville is THE MAN.  Probably the greatest American writer ever, and no, I don't say that lightly.  "Moby Dick" expanded my mind, and got me reading fiction again after a multi-year gap.  I've read everything he wrote except "Pierre," which I've never been able to track down.  One of the more surprising facts about Melville is that "Moby Dick" was a huge failure for him.

A long time before Melville, John Milton wrote "Paradise Lost" (and "Paradise Regained"), his epic poem about the fall of Satan.  This poem is great if you just throw the commentary it out the window.  I really enjoyed Milton's descriptions of Hell.  Critics often point out that Satan is a more sympathetic character than God in "Paradise Lost," and Blake contended that this was because Milton was a poet, and thus "of the devil's camp."

I loved Edgar Allen Poe when I was in high school, but I can't say that I like him as much now.  He definitely had a fantastic vocabulary, but many of his stories leave me a bit flat.  He was a big influence on H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories I enjoy much more.

"Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy" were written by Sir Walter Scott.  I loved the former, and found the latter overlong.  Aside from his questionable historical origins, the real source of the Robin Hood legend is Scott's "Ivanhoe."  It's not a heavy book by any means.  It is concise, full of action, and to the point.

Shakespeare?  Well, just about anyone from an English-speaking country has had to sweat their way through "Romeo and Juliet," "Julius Caesar," or "Hamlet."  "Othello" is probably my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, primarily because it's not as overexposed.

Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" was my favorite book for YEARS, though I have to admit that it is somewhat overwrought.  Movie adaptations always fail to capture the obsessive, revengeful nature of Shelley's creation.

I read "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson not so long ago.  It is a classic adventure story if there ever was one.  His "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a more adult-oriented work, with perhaps a more wide-ranging influence.

I didn't like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" at all.  In my opinion it is a terrible book.

Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" is, however, a thoroughly absorbing work of fiction.  A lot of people get fixated on the Lilliputians, but the "giant Gulliver" is only one part out of three in this book.  The second part describes another island of intelligent horses, and the third part describes a race of beings that live in the clouds.  His metaphors might be a bit too obvious, but he was a great writer.

"Vanity Fair," by W.M. Thackeray, is well worth seeking out.  In some ways it resembles Defoe's "Moll Flanders," but it has a much wider scope than Defoe's novel.  The protagonist, Becky Sharp, is one of the truly memorable characters in English literature.

By comparison, Tolstoy is a lot heavier.  I fought my way through "War and Peace," and while I can't agree with his views on predestination, I did like the book.  I've also read his short stories.  "The Death of Ivan Ilych" is possibly the most depressing thing I have ever read.

"Barchester Towers" was written by Anthony Trollope.  His books are somewhat comedic, and very, very British.  I found this book difficult to get into at first, but by the end I had decided that I liked it.

Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" are both interesting, and it's hard to say which of the two I like better.  I've also read "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," which offered the kind of satire common to both Twain and Swift.

"The Kama Sutra" by Vatsyayana is not nearly as sexual as the American publishing industry would have you believe.  Neither is it an especially enlightening book.  Much of the Kama Sutra discusses women as if they are just a step above cattle, and after finishing the book I felt very glad that I don't live in medieval India.  No worse than many Western books written at the same time, but not helpful for those seeking sexual or spiritual improvement.

Jules Verne is far superior, and he was far smarter than the semi-mythical Vatsyayana.  I've read all the books published as part of the Popular Classics series, from "Around the World in Eighty Days" to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" to "Journey to the Center of the Earth" to others that aren't included, such as "From Earth to the Moon."  Verne has the best claim to being the first science fiction author ever.

I read Voltaire's Candide, but for the life of me I can't remember what it's about.

Edith Wharton, like Henry James, is just boring.  I wanted all of the characters in Ethan Frome to die in the end, if for no other reason than to stop their whining and pining for one another.

Lastly, there is Virginia Woolf, who has three books in the Penguin series.  Of these three, I have only read "Orlando," which I enjoyed a lot.  The film they made of this movie was also quite good.

All of the above covers what I've read of the Classics... at least as far as the Penguin Popular Classics are concerned.  There are really only two or three books above that I wouldn't recommend.  The rest were both good and influential.

And what about you?  Do you like the Classics?  What would you recommend?  Below are my top ten, in no particular order:

1. "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville
2. "Vanity Fair" by W.M. Thackeray
3. "Gulliver's Travels" by Jonathan Swift
4. "Ivanhoe" by Sir Walter Scott
5. "Call of the Wild" by Jack London
6. "Kim" by Rudyard Kipling
7. "Ulysses" by James Joyce
8. "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. "Nostromo" by Joseph Conrad
10. "Oliver Twist" by Charles Dickens