Classic literature

2009 September 19
by Hedon

I’ve been reading the wonderful novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. You might recognize the name Dumas as he also wrote “The Three Musketeers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask” along with a whole heavy stack of other works. I was planning on writing a review of “The Count of Monte Cristo” later, but tonight I got to thinking that I have never really written much concerning Classic Literature in general.

Look at any list of the hundred greatest novels of all time, and you will likely note that some of the works listed have stood the test of time. I mean seriously stood the test of time… like they are several centuries old. It doesn’t seem likely that the vast majority of the books hitting book shelves this year will still be read and cherished in the year 2200.

But that’s not half as long as a book like “Don Quixote” by de Cervantes has been around. “Don Quixote Book One” was published in 1605. Just think about that. When you laugh about Sancho Panza being tossed in the air from a blanket you are laughing at the same silly jokes that someone laughed at who was reading the book before the first permanent English colony was even founded in America.

“Moll Flanders” by Daniel Defoe was published in 1722 shortly after the success of his novel “Robinson Crusoe” and I defy anyone to read Moll’s story and not laugh themselves into a fit at times. “Tom Jones” by Henry Fielding, published in 1749, is another novel not-to-be-missed if you enjoy a great tale. There are too many others to list.

I guess my point is that there is a reason that these classic books have stood the test of time. They are great works of art. They are the Sistine Chapels of the literary world and you cheat yourself if you ignore them. The characters are universal and the plot is often timeless. Many of the stories are ones that you have already enjoyed without being aware of it. I just realized today that the movie “The Shawshank Redemption” is loosely based on “The Count of Monte Cristo” of all things. Who knew?

I think one of the main reasons that people tend to shy away from the older classics is the language. There is no denying that the language can take a little practice before it becomes second nature. But it’s well worth the effort. In the interests of encouraging your interest in the classics, I thought I would post an example of the utterly different way of speaking that older novels often employ:

My friend, my dear friend, what can this moment issue forth? I know not what to judge from your visage. I tremble. I positively tremble when I look upon your stern countenance as that unhappy man entered upon the scene of our repast.

Which in today’s language translates into:

Dude! What’s with the weird expression? You’re freaking me out!

See that’s not so hard, huh? I promise that after you have read a couple of the older books the language will become much easier to deal with and after a while you will begin to enjoy the subtle word play that old-timey authors used so often.

All of this is not to say that you will universally love every classic. Stace and I both hated “The Scarlett Letter” for example, and I was convinced by the loud moans and sighs that Stace was secretly considering running us into an embankment to end the torture of “Moby Dick.” I think the secret is to keep looking if you start out with a book that doesn’t grab you. Then when you find a book you enjoy read more of that author’s major works.

I guess my feeling on literature is… well most modern books are like a Quarter Pounder Value Meal. And you all know that I am firmly of the opinion that there is nothing whatsoever wrong with a Quarter Pounder Value Meal… as a matter of fact I wish I were eating one right now. But the classics are like a four course meal at a five star restaurant. A little weird and intimidating at first but once you figure out when to use which fork something you will never want to do without.

Some personal favs I especially recommend:

“Don Quixote”  –  I LOVED this book. I laughed so hard I drove off on the shoulder several times. Stace was more luke-warm to it. She said she had trouble laughing at the poor mentally ill dude wandering around the countryside getting beat up by villagers. The language is a little tough at first, but worth the effort.

“Cousin Bette”  –  We both loved this one. Hard to put down and not what one might expect. Also quite funny.

“The Count of Monte Cristo”  –  Again, we both loved it. A rip-roaring adventure tale of love, betrayal, revenge and redemption. For some reason it made me think of the movie “Dangerous Liaisons” but I’m not sure exactly why.

“Moll Flanders”  –  Very funny and quite bawdy especially considering the time period in which it was published.

Any of Thomas Hardy’s books. Not funny, but extremely good reads. His books will always catch you off-guard and shock you at one point or another. Great author.

“Bleak House” or “Great Expectations” or “David Copperfield” by Dickens. I love Dickens. I will admit that he can ramble on a bit — it’s obvious that most of his books were originally published as serials and that he was paid by the word. But that aside he is a great author and has created some timeless characters that would entertain anyone. “David Copperfield” would probably be the easiest to start out with.

“Old Father Goriot”  –  Heartbreaking… simply heartbreaking.

Obviously anything by Jane Austen, but especially “Pride and Prejudice” (aka Bridgett Jone’s Diary), “Emma” (aka the movie Clueless), or “Persuasion”

Ok… I was reading back over this post and can’t help but draw the conclusion that I might sound like some hoity-toity dickhead. That’s really the last thing I was going for — all I was trying to say is that the classics are awesome and I know you would like at least some of them. Even if you hated them in High School lit class, try giving the old masters another chance. Because really… what did you know about life at 16 or 17? Now you have so much more knowledge of the world that at least some of them are sure to speak to you.

10 Responses
  1. 2009 September 19

    I read Don Quixote for the first time a couple summers ago. The new translation is excellent, and the second part is superior to the first, IMHO. A true classic . . .

    And no mention of Moby Dick? Unless I missed it. Yes, it reads a bit like an encyclopedia at times, but well worth the effort . . .

    • 2009 September 20

      Stace read Moby Dick recently and it did not go well at all. I think it was one of her most hated books of all time. :) But Stace is far more partial to dialogue than description. And probably even more importantly… she is a big old softy and can’t bear the thought of animals being made to suffer… I believe the descriptions of the whaling did her in more than anything else. All I know is the never-ending moans and groans and muttering while she was reading it made me afraid to even try it yet. Eventually I’ll get my nerve up.

      Glad to hear someone else loved Don Quixote!! I loved both parts, so I would be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.

      • 2009 September 20

        Yeah, the description of the attack on the whale pod nauseated me. But hey, I recognize that you must be open to time and cultural bias. What I really didn’t like about “Moby Dick” is … well … everything. Mostly, I found it boring. I wasn’t surprised, though. American authors of that period generally leave me cold. ::::shrug:::::

  2. 2009 September 19

    So totally agree. Whenever I hit a dry patch in books, I go back to a classic. Now you’ve made me want to read more Dumas (read ” 3 muskateers” a few years back), which is a good thing as I’m currently in a dry patch. I’ve just looked over my shoulder and checked that there’s one patiently waiting for me on the shelf, “Twenty years after”, the sequel (or how long agoI bought the book, take your pick). Thanks!

    • 2009 September 20

      Hey Denise!

      Loved the Musketeers but I don’t think I have read Twenty Years After either. I know Stace read it and really enjoyed it. I have to say that The Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best books I have read in ages. I love how Dumas captures the blase way the French soldier of the period looked at death. They were apparently always sending each other letters such as:

      ~~~~~~~~~~
      Dear Bubba,

      Just wanted to say hi and that I will probably die in two days if relief doesn’t come to me. However, I know you are meeting with the lovely Countess and after all it is a muddy and bumpy road between you and myself so don’t bother yourself to come to my aid. Just wanted to say ‘so long’ and have a good one. Best — Fred

      ~~~~~~~~~~

      Those French!

  3. 2009 September 19

    I really tried to get into Return of the Native, but that’s one book I never did finish. Les Miserables is definitely a heavyweight, but also enjoyable. Jack London is a bit more modern – but The Sea Wolf is one of my all time favs – right up there with The Count of Monte Cristo. The concept of Wolf Larsen’s speech about the bit of yeasty ferment fighting to eat more has stuck with me for years.

    • 2009 September 20

      Oh no! We have been saving Return of the Native as it is the last of Hardy’s major works that we haven’t read yet. I hope you just weren’t in the mood at the time. That happens to me sometimes. It took me three attempts to make it through Lonesome Dove but now it is one of my favorites. Don’t know why I had such trouble the first two times I started it.

      I have been saving Jack London, too. I remember I read one of his short stories in a High School lit class that has stuck with me all these years. The part I remember was this guy in mortal danger of freezing to death and he finally got a fire built, but he built it under a tree with snow on the limbs. It was haunting. I’m looking forward to exploring him.

      • 2009 September 20

        Oooohh, Lonesome Dove! I’ll predict (and it’s really going out on a limb – not!) that it will be a classic several hundred years from now. McMurtry’s later stuff – well, I get the feeling he’s coasting on his success. But, The Last Picture Show and Texasville were pretty good, too – he really captures rural Texas right down to the ever present Dairy Queens quite well.

        • 2009 September 20

          Yeah, I have to agree that Lonesome Dove will almost certainly stand the test of time. The sequels not so much maybe.

          We also really enjoyed his Berrybender series. I know it probably means I’m going to hell but I laughed an awful lot at those books. :) Sometimes I have a really sick sense of humor I guess.

  4. 2009 September 20

    I know one guy who loved science fiction during high school (still does). But, when he got bored with it-he’d buy the classic literature. The paperbacks were cheaper than current fiction-this was in the 70s-only 50 cents. He’s a science & math wiz who knows classic English lit better than some former English majors. Likes auto racing too. What a combo!

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