Almost five years ago, I committed to reading 50 classic works of literature in 5 years. I’m starting to worry I won’t actually finish my Classics Club list by the August 18 deadline, despite the fact that I’ve already read more than 50 books this year alone. They just haven’t been the right books for the list (even with swapping out some of the titles for ones I’m more interested in now).
I’m not out of time yet, though, so I’m going to keep trying. Part of the agreement includes blogging about each title, but since this isn’t really a book blog I’m not going to write a whole post about each book I’ve read. Instead, here are a collection of my thoughts on six of the twelve books that were still on my list.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been on my list since the beginning. I’d read some of her mother’s work and had seen an on-stage version of Frankenstein as well as a modernized YouTube series, but this was my first time reading the original novel. It wasn’t entirely what I’d expected, though the format is familiar from reading other books from this time period. The story is told as if Victor Frankenstein is sharing his research (along with a cautionary tale) to the explorer who found him pursuing his created creature toward the North Pole.
Probably the thing that fascinated me most was the role Frankinstein’s psychology played in the story. Published in 1818 — 38 years before Sigmund Freud was even born — Mary Shelley explores the idea that Frankinstein’s path was shaped by his environment and his childhood as much as by the conscious choices he made. Did he make himself into the monster that created this creature? Or did was he a tragic product of his past? The story seems unsure and leaves us to answer that question for ourselves.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The last time I read Tom Sawyer it wasn’t actually me reading it. My mother read it aloud to my sister and I when we were kids. Since then, I’ve grown to love Mark Twain’s writings and I wanted to revisit this story. While it’s not my favorite of Twain’s work (I like the ones with more social commentary and cutting wit), it’s definitely a fun read. I’m not sure I’d want to raise a kid like tom Sawyer, but at least you’d never be bored.
I don’t really have a whole lot to say about this book. I enjoyed it and it’s a stand-out among classic American fiction, but I don’t feel like it has as much to tell modern readers as some other classics (like Frankenstein, for example). Tom Sawyer is interesting for its slice-of-life picture of a boy growing up in Missouri in the mid-1800s. I think that’s the best way to read it. This is not a timeless tale that speaks to the universal human condition and will endure with equal popularity for the next couple hundred years. I don’t think it’d be one of the classics that I’d encourage my kids to read (if/when I have any), and if they wanted to on their own we’d have to have some pretty serious conversations about the racial stereotypes. The story treats these as normal because they were normal when it was written, but it’s not something you want anyone internalizing today.
I’d already read The Iliad for this Classics Club list and I was very tempted to swap The Odyssey out for a shorter book. But then I ran across a journal currently accepting submissions of “literary fan fiction” for their The Odyssey issue, and I’m sitting here like, “Fiction inspired by classic literature? Um, yes please.”
Of course, I can’t write literary fan fiction for The Odyssey without reading it, so I dove in whipped through the first half of the book like I was back in college taking 15+ credit-hours of upper-level English classes at the same time (which is a crazy thing to do, by the way). I ended up writing from Calypso’s perspective (or Kalypso, to keep a little closer to the original Greek) and then reading the rest just for fun.
Confession time: I actually haven’t studied Greek mythology. I devour other folk tales and fairy tales, but the Greek (and by extension Roman) myths aren’t something I ever read. They’re referenced all the time in Western canon but I got through high school and college (as an English major, no less) with only a cursory knowledge of the legends. Since then, I’ve read several versions of Hades and Persephone (my favorite so far) and a few others as they came up in relation to something else I was studying. I’m planing to fix that, though, and reading The Odyssey is one step toward that goal.
The Handmaid’s Tale
This wasn’t on my original list because I’d planned to stick with older classics, but when part of the reading challenge my library hosted over the summer included “read a banned book,” I decided to add The Handmaid’s Tale to my list. It’s one of those stories that I’ve seen cited in politically charged discussions quite often, especially since the Hulu series. You’ve got one side saying our society is on the fast-track for this horrifying future if a certain brand of conservatives takes control, while the other side describes it at alarmist fiction bent on twisting the truth for their own “feminazi” agenda.
When people get this worked up over a story it tends to attract my curiosity. If one hallmark of truly great fiction is that it makes people think, then this certainly seems to qualify. Now that I’ve finished it, I think that assessment was true. It’s not a comfortable book to read but it’s not meant to be. It forces you to think, not just about the possibility of our world decaying into something like the Republic of Gilead, but about complex questions that we face even today.
How do you adapt to a world that takes away your group’s power? Are any of the things we think of as normal something that should horrify us? What criteria do we use to evaluate the stories of people who live in groups that hold different values than us? The Handmaid’s Tale forces us to face those sorts of questions.
The Invisible Man
I’ve enjoyed other H.G. Wells books I’ve read, though I prefer Jules Verne’s scientific romances to the more science-oriented and socially critical novels Wells wrote a couple decades later. The Invisible Man was first published in 1897. It is the story of a scientist named Griffin who finds a way to change the refractive index of his body so he neither reflects nor absorbs light. Since Griffin is such a volatile man with a penchant for random and excessive violence, this book frequently strays into horror territory.
I read this one quickly, partly because I needed to get it done last night so I could publish this post and partly because it just wasn’t a story I wanted to linger on. The violence was too senseless. I think I’d have rather seen a man a bit more stable to begin with wrestle with the question, “What would you do if no one could see you?” But I suppose, as with Frankenstein, the sort of man who would get this far in a scientific experiment pushing the bounds of morality must be a bit unstable even before he unleashes his own particular monster.
Le Morte d’Arthur
I actually started this book before compiling my classics club list and only just finished it. That means it took me more than 5 YEARS to read. Le Morte d’Arthur is divided into 21 books, so I’d read a few and then take a break (sometimes a very long break) before coming back and reading another, then going back to reading something else.
I wanted so much to like this book. Myths and folktales are among my greatest loves, including the Arthurian legends. I’m fairly comfortable reading early English books, too, so the outdated prose didn’t bother me. But when I tried to read it straight through the stories and names started to blur together. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening and in what order. Also, while it’s normal for something written in the 1400s to not spend much time on character development, later versions of the legends tend to flesh-out the characters more and I missed that.
It’s interesting to read some of the earliest version of these tales that we have (this volume was published in 1485 and written 14 years before that), but at least for me it wasn’t an enjoyable read by itself. I only enjoyed it in the context of knowing this is a foundation for the later versions, which I love.