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Classic lit: a popularity contest

It's kind of interesting to view Amazon's list of best-selling "classics" and see where everything is ranked. It also brings me to an informal poll I've been meaning to do for a while:

1) Which classic do you think is truly great enough that everyone should read it?

2) Which classic do you think everyone may as well skip?

I'd be hard-pressed to answer those myself with just one title each. For #1 do I choose Jane Eyre, Les Miserables (abridged), Middlemarch, or what exactly? If Lord of the Rings counts, I might well choose that. And for #2...well, generally I've seen the merit in nearly all classics I've read, so I don't like to slam anything too hard. But I've found Faulkner very hard going (I think it was The Sound and the Fury; I don't even remember now), and Hemingway choppy and dull (he's better in short form), and I waited 200 pages for a plot to arrive in On the Road before giving up, and I've wanted to strangle the majority of Thomas Hardy's characters, and Stranger in a Strange Land plummeted from a very cool setup to a wanky free-love mess. So there are some possibilities, as to my own answers.

But I want yours instead. And I don't want this to turn into a catfight, so be nice. Every reader's tastes are what they are, and it doesn't make them an idiot. I, for instance, married a very lovely man who owns pretty much every book ever written by Hemingway and won't sell them despite my most sweetly phrased suggestions. (I think Hemingway may be a "guy thing."*) Yeah, so: go ahead, answer!

*Just know I'm going to catch it for that remark. From you folks, not from my husband.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 7th, 2005 10:20 pm (UTC)
1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It's my absolute favorite classic.

2. As I Lay Dying by Faulkner. Completely pointless waste of time. (However, I should note that Faulkner's short stories can be really good... I just don't like his novels either.)
Dec. 7th, 2005 10:33 pm (UTC)
1. The Lord of the Rings. If that doesn't count as "classic" enough, then To Kill a Mockingbird.

2. The Fountainhead. I don't enjoy Faulkner either, but I don't think he causes any harm. Ayn Rand's works, on the other hand, have been misused so much by wannabe libertarians that I tend to consider them dangerous. Like the Kabbalah, they should be read by no-one under the age of 40.
Dec. 7th, 2005 10:49 pm (UTC)
1) We by, Yvgeny Zamyatin. Perhaps this doesn't properly answer this question, as We may not be generally acknowledged as a classic, but in the study of Russian literature, We is an excellent example of post-Revolution, pre-Stalin discontent with the new Soviet State. It is also incredibly relevant to the everyday human conflict between independence and conformity. In my junior-year high-school literature class, it served as a bridge between Fathers and Sons and Brave New World.

2) Main Street by, Sinclair Lewis. While I agree with the general dislike of Hemmingway and Thomas Hardy (I hated the protagonist of A Farewell to Arms), Main Street was a book in which I simply could not interest myself -- a rare event.

Dec. 7th, 2005 11:13 pm (UTC)
Cool - finally an answer to #1 I haven't read yet. :) Will look it up.

Yeah, I read a couple of Lewis's. Not the most exciting things. Babbitt was a pretty good movie, which makes me wonder if the book is good, but I haven't felt like trying it yet.
Dec. 7th, 2005 10:53 pm (UTC)
1. The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. Lord Henry may have many delicious dependent clauses worth of epicurean sentiment, but the book itself teaches why materialism and sensuality, especially when taken to extremes and the the exclusion of all else, are not a good idea. (I was going to say LOTR here, too, but then I realized that if people were forced to read it, many would hate it for this fact alone, which would be sad. I don't mind if some people hate Wilde, as he is nowhere near as dear to me as Tolkien.)

2. Lord of the Flies. I get that people are mostly icky and evil. I don't need to watch little choir boys eat each other to drive the point home. Ick.
Dec. 7th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I should re-read Dorian. It's been at least a decade and the details are fuzzy. Have seen some films of Wilde's comedic plays, which are a delight; so it would be good to revisit his darker works.

Yes...with Lord of the Flies I saw the merit of the achievement in "what the author was trying to do," but found it too disturbing to want to read again.
Dec. 7th, 2005 11:39 pm (UTC)
Likewise. Actually, I don't think I ever finished the book for that reason. Stopped a little more than halfway through. I knew how it ended, so I decided life was too short. My sister recently had to read it for school, and I leafed through the end while waiting at her house. Like you said, I can appreciate what the author was trying to say, but it makes a miserable read.
Dec. 8th, 2005 06:47 pm (UTC)
I think that the reason why so many people read Lord of the Flies in school is because "what the author is trying to say" is presented in such clear symbolism. That is, it is a great book for teaching the literary uses of symbolism, metaphor, meaningful names (Piggy!), meta-meaning, denouement, and so forth.

But, yeah, depressing.
Dec. 7th, 2005 11:03 pm (UTC)
Oooo I wanna play.

1) I'm going to say Catcher in the Rye. After years of reading Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Austen and all those other "classic writers" in middle/high school, it was refreshing at 15 to read something that was written differently. I felt as if I could relate to everything Holden was going through. And even reading it 8 years later (wow I feel old), I still have that same feeling from the first time I read it.

2) Ethan Frome. My sincere apologies to anyone who loves this book, but I wanted to stick a pen in my eye. My brother tried torturing me by sitting on me and reading it one day.

Dec. 7th, 2005 11:16 pm (UTC)
Heheh. I've liked other books of Edith Wharton's reasonably well, but haven't tried that one. She does have a way of being depressing, on average.
Dec. 7th, 2005 11:43 pm (UTC)
1. The Lord of the Rings. I'm sorry, but to me that work will always be a classic.

2. This is especially heinous seeing as I'm from California and the man is revered as a god here...but anything by John Steinbeck should be skipped. His works never fail to depress me, and I see few redeeming qualities in his stories. I don't think they're "classic" at all. I'm going to get shot, I know! But I can't stand his work.
Dec. 7th, 2005 11:55 pm (UTC)
I remember being engrossed in Of Mice and Men, but, yeah, depressing much? And just this year I finally read East of Eden since everyone raves about it, and...well, I didn't hate it, but it was rather disturbing, and there are much more effective and memorable Western States stories out there, and in short I doubt it will be making my list of "favorite books this year." :)
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:21 am (UTC)
1) Atlas Shrugged

2) Farewell To Arms

And I'm female and I like Hemingway, just not this one.
Dec. 8th, 2005 06:17 am (UTC)
1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. And then her various short stories, but especially "A Pair of Silk Stockings", which I recently read out loud to my husband. Chopin was a master of description. and capturing dialect.

2. Moby Dick. There should be, at least, a warning label that says "This book is a history of whaling masquerading as a novel. Please be advised that reading while operating heavy machinery or while waiting for an appointment will result in grievous injury or the loss of the appointment to the reader."

In other words, Moby Dick is the Nyquil of novels.
Dec. 8th, 2005 03:11 pm (UTC)
I have not attempted 'Moby Dick,' largely because I suspected as much...although I feel bad because it's also supposedly The Greatest American Novel and so forth. At least to some people.
Dec. 8th, 2005 01:51 pm (UTC)
Yes, Stranger in a Strange Land is disappointing, isn't it? Starts so well, but then becomes weird hippy crap. Bleh.

1 is tricky, because really, some books just won't move some people, and other books will grab them that I wouldn't be interested in. As for 2, I was really not interested in The Catcher in the Rye. Blah blah angst blah. Get over it, Holden.
Dec. 8th, 2005 03:12 pm (UTC)
Hehe...I didn't mind 'Catcher in the Rye,' but I do have to wonder how much unnecessary angsty writing Holden inspired others to spin off, there. :)
Dec. 8th, 2005 02:50 pm (UTC)
#1: ooh, tough to choose, isn't it? My instinctive response as a Southerner is To Kill a Mockingbird. Running close in the contest are A Tale of Two Cities and The Once and Future King. I felt like a good friend had died when I came to the end of each of those and there wasn't any more to read.

#2: Anything at all by James Joyce. I know people who like his work, but I absolutely cannot fathom it. I had to *force* myself through every word of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and upon finishing it, I still had no idea what had just happened. Maybe I'm just not sufficiently enlightened or something...

Dec. 8th, 2005 03:14 pm (UTC)
Cool...I need to re-read 'Mockingbird' & '2 Cities,' as those were high-school reads that I dimly remember liking. And clearly I need to get around to 'The Once and Future King.' I rather liked Mary Stewart's Arthur books, or at least as far as I read them...they started to ramble a bit...

Heh, figured someone would mention Joyce. :) I have barely attempted enough of him to have an opinion; but the difficulty level is why.
Dec. 8th, 2005 04:02 pm (UTC)
I read Mary Stewart's Merlin books at a rather young age, and so see them as the definitive interpretation of the Arthur legend...probably not the best idea to have. But I agree -- somewhere between the second and third book, she seems to have lost her focus.

Dec. 9th, 2005 03:56 am (UTC)
My first instinct for number one was to say "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath, but I think if I made people read it they would see it as depressing and dull. I read it for the first time when I was fifteen and read it every so often when I'm in the mood. Anyway, I would say it's a tie between "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the Rye."

For number two I would have to say "1984" by George Orwell. Maybe I need to read it again, but when I started reading it a few years ago I only got through a couple chapters before I had to put it down. It was too bizarre for me.
Dec. 12th, 2005 12:18 am (UTC)
1) How about The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck? She's an excellent writer and her work never gets enough attention. I would also recommend Peony and The Pavillion of Women by her.

2) I second Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce. I'd rather gouge my eyes out than read that book again!
Dec. 13th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC)
I have not read Buck. I shall look her up sometime. I do have this notion of reading all the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels someday...but I don't know if that will actually happen...
Dec. 12th, 2005 03:26 am (UTC)
1) The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Her books tout individualism even in the face of oppression by the masses. In other words, don't be a sheep!

2) Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I can relate to the misery. I just can't see why I would want to read about it.
Dec. 13th, 2005 01:41 am (UTC)
I much liked Atlas Shrugged, but still haven't read The Fountainhead. I've been told they're about the same, except A.S. has a happier ending. :) Yes...I read Grapes of Wrath, but have no desire to do it again. I'm glad I can make Dust Bowl jokes now whenever I see a heavily loaded old pickup truck, though.
Dec. 13th, 2005 05:46 am (UTC)
They probably have the same theme. The one idea that I have always kept from reading Rand's books is the idea that everyone should do their best no matter the situation. The most menial job, if not done properly, can have a huge effect. In one case, it was a railroad spike not hammered in well. That's really a small idea that could spark a lot of change if every person took it to heart.

Karen Hesse wrote a more current Dust Bowl book for young adults if you like those thirst-inducing stories. It's called Out of the Dust and was the Newbery Medal winner in 1998. I haven't read it, but a reader friend who has great taste in books loved it.

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )