Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Classic Literature

Another in my series of posts where I talk about the things I like and the things I don't. This time, I'm looking at some of my favorites of classic literature - those books they make you read in school. I read a fair number of 'adult' books when I was a kid, but I mostly read science fiction and fantasy adventures. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is what really got me started as a reader (I've already discussed that here, so I won't bother including it on this list), and I definitely gravitated towards stories that held action and quicker pacing. When I read slower, more thoughtful works, I found them to be rather boring. Sure, I got their point, but often it seemed like they took far too long to say far too little. So here are some specific titles that worked for me, and some that didn't.

The Good

My favorite classic, and perhaps my favorite all-time book, is Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I didn't want to read it. It was part of my AP English class, one of the books on the list for my independent project analyzing representations of greed in literature. I hadn't read any of the great Russian authors, and when I started Crime and Punishment I hated it. It was all in some guys head, talking and thinking about doing things with nothing really happening. It took real determination to keep reading, but at some point, perhaps a hundred pages in, it clicked for me. I got into Raskolnikov's character. I understood him. The writing burst to life and I finished the next seven hundred pages in two days.

That book led me to other great works by Dostoyevsky: The Double, Notes from Underground, The Prince. It also led me to other great Russian writers: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev. I loved their introspection, how they burrowed into the human psyche and revealed so many profound yet simple truths. I learned to appreciate action isn't always physical, and you can learn from characters that you would never want to emulate.

I do love Shakespeare though not all of his works equally. Hamlet is probably the greatest play, Much Ado About Nothing makes a better read, but most everything is enjoyable if only for the music in the words. For similar reasons, Nietzsche's works all number among my favorites though Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a work of philosophy/poetry/story-telling that is unequaled as far as I'm concerned.

Mostly I like good tales, interesting stories that transport me to a time and place, such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Cervantes' Don Quixote. A little more modern fave's with a speculative twist are Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, and Douglass Adam's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. And a special shout out to Iain M. Banks, whose prose inspires me more than any other.

The Bad

I have to start this list with Moby Dick. There are lots of classics that I've read and been unimpressed with, but I can still see the quality of the writing and understand why others think highly of it. Moby Dick isn't one of those. It bored the hell out of me. Sure, the story had potential, and Ahab is an interesting character, but the entire thing was weighted down with useless diversions into mundane details of whaling. The writing was overblown and the pace far from riveting. Ahab and his obsession felt wedged into an academic tome, and I never really cared much about him or any of the characters. Melville's writing didn't do anything for me so it was a good idea with bad execution.

Pride and Prejudice is another one that never connected with me. Perhaps it's because I read it at the same time as Crime & Punishment, but the writing felt weak and the characters shallow in comparison. The truths it explored, the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, held no interest for me. If these were real people I would leave their company and have nothing to learn from them.

And in spite of my love for the Russians, they also disappoint me on occasion. The Brother's Karamozov is a perfect example: I went in expecting to find another Dostoyevsky masterpiece but had no interest in the themes at play. And while I loved War and Peace, Anna Karenina was rather meh.

A few other 'classics' that left me uninspired: The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye (though I do love the title), The Scarlet Letter, The Grapes of Wrath, and most of Dicken's works. Atlas Shrugged impressed me in high school, but up re-reading it as an adult I found it's message and delivery rather unsophisticated. And Victor Hugo deserves a mention as someone who's held in a reverence I just don't understand.

So how about you all? Do you agree with my choices? Want to show me the error of my ways? I'd love to hear what resonates with others and why.

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