How To Read Classic Lit and Live To Tell About It

In November of 2016 an event took place that made me wonder whether the world was finally hurtling off its axis, or at least the world in the general vicinity of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (that’s the only hint you’re going to get). So, I decided to turn off the news, shut out the world for a while and devote myself to reading all those literary classics they used to force feed you back in school.

I did turn off the news for a couple of days, but quickly scrambled back like an addict after a fix (I’ve been reading newspapers since I was a kid, I got my start in journalism in high school and I spent decades writing for newspapers and magazines, so it’s hard to just walk away cold turkey…).

Despite falling short on the news part of the bargain, I have stuck to the literary classics part.

I’ve always been an avid reader, and I read many of the classics as an English major in college. I even remember the ones I actually enjoyed – “Pride and Prejudice,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Heart of Darkness,” “The Plague,” “Lucky Jim,” “Native Son,” “Catch 22,” a few others.

But most of my fiction reading as an adult has centered on crime novels from writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosely and James Ellroy. I’ve tended to shy away from many of the authors who always make those lists of “Greatest Novels of All Time” (Cervantes, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Bronte, Faulkner, Joyce).

But: I was determined to change all that. I vowed to read at least three literary classics a year, all the way through, from beginning to end, one at a time (no putting it down, going to another book, and returning to it later). When I was finished with a classic, I could then return to other books until it was time to gear up for another classic.

I’ve held true to that pledge. Since making the vow about two-and-a-half years ago, I’ve read eight classics in addition to my normal diet of books:

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Typhoon, Joseph Conrad

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

Ok, some of you might claim I cheated. “Typhoon” is more of a novella than a novel, and it’s not usually considered one of Conrad’s more classic works along the lines of “Heart of Darkness,” “Lord Jim” or “Nostromo.” So sue me. It’s still Joseph Conrad, it’s still a long work rather than a short story, and besides, “Heart of Darkness” is more of a novella than a novel, too.

The others on the list certainly qualify as classics, at least to literary types paid to know these things.

Anyway, after all this time dedicating myself to reading these books – and it ain’t always easy, folks – I feel like I should rate them. More for myself than anything else.

I’m rating each book on a scale of one to five stars, sorta like Yelp (except my keyboard has asterisks instead of actual stars). No half stars. Just one star (*) to five stars (*****). I’m probably too discerning, but a book really has to send me over the moon to get five stars. There are maybe a dozen that fall into that category — some classic, some contemporary, none that I’ve read since November 2016, at least in terms of classics. I read “The Nix” by Nathan Hill about a year ago, and I’d give it five stars, but I guess it hasn’t been around long enough to qualify as “classic literature.” Anyway, for these purposes four stars is excellent and five stars is otherworldly.

The ratings have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the place these books occupy in the Intergalactic Literarysphere. They’re just based on my enjoyment (or lack thereof) of what I read between the covers. I’m not saying the books are good or bad, and I’m not saying I’m an expert on their literary value. I’m sure I’ve got the wrong take on much of this. But whatever.  It’s just my opinion on their entertainment value to me personally. Take it however you wish.

So here goes:

Moby Dick  (*):  Look, I know this book is considered a giant in the literary canon. I know university lit professors get positively amorous raving about how “Moby Dick” is a landmark of the written word, an ingenious stroke of brilliance, or a brilliant stroke of genius, or a parable for Life Itself, or Death Itself, or Scurvy Itself, capturing the struggle we all face chasing our own white whales – at once subversive, highbrow, homoerotic and comical in a sneaky, non-comical kind of way. I won’t argue the point. But honestly, from where I was sitting? It’s just a dense, plodding snoozefest that meanders hither and yon for hundreds and hundreds of pages without a real plot or even a central narrative to tug you forward.

Ahab does this and then he does that and then this happens and that. I got lost about 30 pages in. I tried to like it. Hell, I wanted to like it. I actually looked forward to reading an adventure story about a mad captain’s quest to capture the elusive white whale, with waves crashing against my face and spraying me with a salty mist. But none of that happened.  I spent three or so months reading “Moby Dick” and I can’t remember a single day I looked forward to it.

OK, there was one brilliant thing. “Call me Ishmael.” Still one of the great opening lines.

Great Expectations (*): I thought it would be a good idea to follow up “Moby Dick” with “Great Expectations,” figuring that Dickens was a good storyteller and his books and characters translated well to modern times. I’d liked some of his work before, like “A Christmas Carol” and “Bleak House.” “Great Expectations” was probably much the same thing, right?

Wrong.

Wrong wrong wrong!

To me, “Great Expectations,” suffered from the same problem as “Moby Dick:” it spent a lot of time not getting anywhere, I didn’t really care about the characters that much, and I’m still not sure what it’s about. What was Pip aspiring to, really? Estella? What Estella represented? What are these great expectations of which you speak? What was great about them? Why doesn’t anyone DO something in this book, for the love of Christ? “Great Expectations” was slightly more enjoyable than “Moby Dick” in the sense that I didn’t want to stab my eye with a rusty nail every other page. But it’s still one star. Sorry, Dickens groupies. It was not the best of reads, it was often the worst of reads.

To Kill A Mockingbird (****): Do you believe I didn’t read this until I was already on the shady side of middle age? What American English major doesn’t read this book sooner than that? I’d seen the movie a few times, and always liked it. Is the book better? Maybe. I’d call it at least a tie. It’s really an enjoyable read. Well written, suspenseful, poignant, funny, with rich characters and a strong sense of time and place. I know there’s been some revisionism over a white Southern author writing a book about racial politics in the Deep South, especially since the prequel seems to paint Atticus Finch as maybe not so enlightened on racial matters. I get it. Duly noted. Revisionism is hot right now. I still don’t’ care. It’s a very good story.

Typhoon (***): Ok, so here’s a sea yarn that actually has a pulse. It follows the adventures of Captain MacWhirr, who helms a British steamer under the Siamese flag into a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean. It’s probably based on some of Joseph Conrad’s own adventures as a former sailor. Capt. McWhirr decides to plow right through the typhoon rather than take an alternate course, so there’s suspense built into the story trying to find out when, if and how he’ll get his comeuppance from Madre Naturaleza. It’s a pretty simple adventure story, with some interesting characters, and it keeps you turning the page. There’s nothing spectacular about it, but it’s a good enough read, and it’s over before you have a chance to get tired of it.

A Farewell to Arms (**): This was a real disappointment because I’m a Hemingway fan. As a person he lived a fascinating life, spending time in Paris with the literary intelligentsia during the Roaring Twenties, covering the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, drinking rum in Havana, fishing off Key West, seeing the world, acting like a heel sometimes. As a writer he has a simple, unfussy style that appeals to me as a news writer, and was probably influenced by his own journalism career. I like many of his books, and consider “The Sun Also Rises” one of my favorites. Buuuuut……”A Farewell to Arms” just didn’t really do it for me. Maybe because I never bought the love affair between Catherine and Frederic. That’s pretty key, since the love affair was such a central part of the story. They meet and all of a sudden they’re madly in love. I don’t know. I just didn’t see it. I did like some of the World War I passages, and the relationships between some of the other characters. I’m sure I’ll feel better about the next Hemingway book I read. I hope so, anyway.

Invisible Man (*****): Not to be confused with the H.G. Wells sci-fi classic of the same name, this “Invisible Man” details what it’s like to be an African American in the middle of the 20th Century, which is to be invisible to a large segment of society. That probably hasn’t changed much in the 60-odd years since this book was published, but that’s another tale for another day. The book follows the tale of the narrator, an unnamed black man, as he goes from a promising student at an all-black college in the South to a kind of half-serious militant in Harlem. This could have been one of those heavy handed, socially-conscious yawners they make you read in Sociology class in college. Instead, it’s very entertaining, often hilarious, and filled with great dialogue, memorable characters who strike the perfect note, and gripping scenes that leave you wanting more.

Frankenstein (***): We’re all familiar with the story. A scientist creates a humanoid creature out of dead body parts and things don’t turn out well. We’ve seen the movie(s) and maybe even laughed our asses off when the Frankenstein Monster got hot soup poured into his lap by a blind Gene Hackman in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.” The book isn’t as entertaining as all that, but it’s not bad. I got lost during the first third of it, waiting for Dr. Frankenstein and his magic creation to appear. Who is this Captain Walton in the beginning of the book? What’s with all these letters between him and his sister? What’s with the infatuation Dr. Frankenstein has with his adopted sister? Where’s the big guy with the flat head and the bolts in his neck? Things didn’t really turn interesting to me until the Creature takes over the narrator reins. Then it moves quickly. We get a glimpse into his tortured existence and his mad quest for revenge. That was cool, but it didn’t last long enough.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (***): I had some trepidation about this one because I’d heard so much about the difficulty of reading James Joyce, with his stream-of-consciousness and endless, exhausting paragraphs. I actually didn’t find this too difficult to read. It was enjoyable in places. There was some very good dialogue, some funny scenes, some troubling ones. It does a good job of capturing the confusion and dreariness of adolescence. It gives you a nice peek into Dublin around the turn of the 20th Century. It paints a pretty stark picture of how oppressive the Catholic Church could be. The middle passages that centered on a sermon and God and faith kind of lost me. I sped-read through much of that and absorbed very little of it. If I were handing out letter grades this would rate a C-minus. Maybe a D-plus. No, a C-minus. Maybe a C. No….

That’s the list so far. I’m already thinking about the next classic I should read. I’m looking forward to it. Sort of.

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