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Summer of Classics 2009 - The Recap

It's August 31st, and another Summer of Classics has ended. This year I read five undeniable classics which spanned more than a hundred years, from before the Civil War to after World War II, when the world and especially literature changed completely. Though I admired all five, some I liked much more than others, as I hope to adequately impart below.

Henry David Thoreau: Walden, or Life in the Woods
Thoreau writes magnificently of the natural environment around his cottage at Walden Pond, observing everything in sharp, patient detail and yet still conveying the ecstacy he felt every day. However, his philosophy - basically, that everyone should renounce the materialistic excesses of civilization and retreat to the simplicity of nature - is naive and leaves much to be desired. For one thing, not everyone has the luxury of doing so, and Thoreau wouldn't have either were it not for the landowner who let the writer live on his woodlot, or his generous Concord friends. And if everyone did have that luxury, Thoreau's beloved woods would have been overrun with neophtye naturalists from town, destroying the serene solitude that he cherished so much.

George Orwell, 1984
A truly great and terrifying story of a faceless, bureaucratic, ultra-controlling society, where individuals are powerless and history itself is regularly erased and rewritten to serve the government's needs. The book is every bit as relevant to contemporary times as when it was written, nearly sixty years ago. Read read read this book if you haven't already, and if you have, then read it again.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
In sharp contrast to Orwell, Huxley's opus is comic in tone, a narrative mode I certainly didn't expect from subject matter such as this, and one that certainly lightens the mood. But the book suffers from two drawbacks: first, a lack of focus in terms of a central character, which shifts from Lenina to Bernard Marx and finally to John the Savage, and prevented me from fully engaging with the narrative; and second, the fact that Huxley's dystopia (which prominently features copius quantities of sex and sedatives) sounds infinitely more pleasant than Orwell's, which blunts much of the author's cautionary message. If you are forced to live in a dystopia, you could do a lot worse than Huxley's.

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
After the weighty dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, I gratefully turned to Twain's comic masterpiece of Mississippi River adventuring. And in that sense the book did not disappoint - Huck is one of the greatest characters in American fiction, and the book is never less than thoroughly entertaining. But, odd as it might sound, I would have liked the book to be more about Huck, and less about the characters (particularly "the king" and "the duke") around him. I was touched by Huck's moral quandry over his responsibility to the runaway slave Jim versus societal norms, but would have preferred to see more of his inner psychology.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
After a momentary literary infatuation with Emma Bovary, I quickly soured on her, as the instances of her deceit, greed, infidelity, shallowness, and brattiness rapidly piled up. The book itself didn't work for me either, as it lacked even a single sympathetic character to identify with - certainly not Emma, of course, but not the clueless cuckold Charles, the naive wooer Leon, the conniving lothario Rodolphe nor the pompous blowhard Homais either. And the book was much too long, running far beyond my point of caring any longer and yet still not long enough to see Emma suffer the karmic comeuppance that she so thoroughly deserved. That comeuppance might have redeemed the book for me, and when it didn't arrive the book was irretrievably lost. And the overwhelmingly sad final pages didn't help matters either.

August 31, 2009 in Books | Permalink


You've inspired me to head Twain-ward soon!

And now that you've soured on Emma (thank goodness), and knowing that you're more broadly musically versed than I, I'd like to challenge you to a quest!

Your mission: select the song you find most fitting to be the bonus track on the Madame Bovary Playlist: http://shrubbery.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/emmas-ipod-the-madame-bovary-playlist/

Posted by: beth at Aug 31, 2009 11:26:41 AM

I'm willing to give Thoreau a little space. He was, after all, conducting an experiment more than advocating a lifestyle. Nor, I think, would he have not known that not everyone can live as he did. He might argue that everyone can and should find at least a little nature in their lives to provide renewal and thoughtfulness.

I was much the same way (enthralled) about Madame Bovary in high school, but when I read it again recently, I found the character thoroughly unsympathetic and the book, perhaps, overrated.

If Huck Finn can be taken to represent the American character of the time (and now?) then maybe it isn't surprising that he didn't seem to have a lot of psychological depth.

Posted by: Paul Lamb at Sep 1, 2009 6:19:29 AM

Beth, great idea - I had forgotten you compiled that list.

Posted by: Pete at Sep 1, 2009 11:49:23 AM

I have sour memories of "Walden," mostly because that book was responsible for the one and only D I ever received in a literature class. I had a professor who felt that "Walden" was pretty much the height of American literary achievement. I felt differently, and tore the book apart in an essay. I wasn't shy about it, either. Oops. The F I got on that essay sank my grade, and I never recovered. I still stand by that essay, though.

"1984" changed the course of my reading life. Before, I was reading besteller stuff, Patterson and such. Then I read "1984," and while I still think it's a very slow-moving novel, it got me reading more serious literature. And it's a chilling one. For comparison, you should read "Darkness at Noon." It's similar to "1984" in many respects, but Koestler lived and wrote during Soviet times. I *highly* recommend it.

Like you, I was less than impressed with "Brave New World," for the exact reasons you outlined. The themes were interesting; the execution was lacking.

I'm disappointed that "Madame Bovary" is so, well, disappointing. (Even Beth thinks so!) I own it and would like to get to it sometime this year. In any case, even a bad review can get me to read a book, just to see what people are talking about.

Posted by: Brandon at Sep 1, 2009 1:22:19 PM

Oh, one more thing: Have you read "Finn" by Jon Clinch? It's about Huck's pap, and it's a good one. I think Clinch does go overboard with the writing sometimes--he seems to be trying too hard to write dazzling prose--but overlooking that, it's worth your time. There's also a very interesting twist that will change how you view Huck. Naturally, I don't want to spoil it.

Posted by: Brandon at Sep 1, 2009 1:26:53 PM

Brandon: Let that be a lesson to all you youngsters - never, ever, denigrate one of the professor's sacred cows. Even the most meticulous and eloquent essay that convincingly defends your position won't save you. (Also: Darkness at Noon is already on my shelf, and I hope to get to it soon; and I'll add Finn to my mental reading pile, but I'm sure I won't get to it for at least several years.)

Paul: Yes, Thoreau *might* have argued for "a little nature" for everyone - but didn't, and went typically overboard in his romantic ecstasies. Still, I loved his descriptions of the natural environment, which alone make the book a classic.

Beth: Check your Bovary post. I came up with a bonus track which I think is a great fit in terms of both lyrics and artist.

Posted by: Pete at Sep 1, 2009 4:31:47 PM