Tag Archives: classics

A Few Classics That Are Not Hard to Read

Classics are usually heavy reading. Even if they’re short, the language is unfamiliar enough that they take a long time to get through. But every once in a while you find one that surprises you, and here are three that surprised me.

Note: I’m not including any classics described as ‘children’s literature’ in this list.

'Around the World in Eighty Days' by Neuville and Benett 22
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

I just really enjoyed the very punctual and methodical Phileas Fogg racing around the world with his comic French servant, Passepartout. They get into preposterous adventures of all sorts, some of which strain believability but are incredibly fun to read. It gives a wonderful picture of travel before airplanes were invented, with railroads and steamboats. Verne is known as a science fiction author, but this was a contemporary novel for him—and so for us it’s a nice view in on the past. Also, I loved the sudden revelation of Fogg’s tender side in the end.

As a side note, Jules Verne’s novels have historically received poor English translations, which led him to have a higher reputation in his native France than in the English-speaking world. This is the only sample of his work I’ve read, but I quite enjoyed him. In addition, I’ve noticed publishers give this novel nonsensical cover pages – one edition had a hot air balloon, but hot air balloons failed to appear in the story. Another recent edition has a daredevil racing in an old-fashioned car, but this does not happen in the novel either.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

This remains the only Dickens novel I’ve read cover to cover. It’s short, so Dickens’ verbosity won’t put you off. The plot is easy enough to follow. I actually read it because I knew nothing about the plot and wanted to find out what this Christmas carol business everyone always went on about at Christmastime was all about, but I’ve reread it since without boredom. I’ve heard complaints about the opening paragraphs, where Dickens goes on about different types of nails and why the doornail should not be considered the ‘deadest’ type of nail out there, but personally I found it humorous. If you find it tedious, it’s a short novel, so it’s soon over and the rest of the plot begins!

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This was my introduction to Jane Austen, and I still believe it’s the easiest one to start with (though none of her novels are too difficult for the modern reader, aside from the formality of the language). This novel gets right into the action and humor, with Mr. Bingley arriving in town and Mrs. Bennett nagging her husband to go meet him. It does not start with family history, like Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park. The heroine is lively enough that it’s not a chore to follow her through the story, and the story is shorter than Emma. There’s a few lulls in action, but overall it’s a very satisfying romance and shows off Austen’s talent very well.

 

 

These are my recommendations—your mileage may vary! After all, I thought Lord of the Rings and The Iliad were surprisingly easy to get into, and I know many people who didn’t. And I just struggle with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, while others just love them. But if you’re meaning to read a few novels that have stood the test of time, these are a few places to start!

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When a Hurricane of Clichés Equals a Great Movie

Today, I’m going to talk about Casablanca. If you want to know more about why I care about Casablanca, check out my previous post, ‘Writing Reality – Or Escaping It‘.

quotables button“Thus Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology… And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making…Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”

Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, and “Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball”)

For years, filmmakers hungered to know what made Casablanca a classic. If they could just crack the formula – figure out what made people instantly love it so much – they could crank out sure-fire hits over and over. After all, on the surface, there’s not much to recommend Casablanca above your average movie. It’s a very clichéd plot – a love triangle, a sacrifice, a clear antagonist, a damsel in distress. The characters are walking stereotypes. The character arcs have all been done a thousand times before (even in 1942, when this movie was made).

If there was a key to filmmaking—or writing in general, which is what I care about most of all—wouldn’t that be nice? A magic key unlocking the secrets of what makes stories work? But there isn’t. There’s no magic key – only magic. The magic that happens when, in this case, the right combination of actors, characterization, plot and tired clichés combine.

I shouldn’t have enjoyed Casablanca. You’d think by now, seventy or so years after its release, the plot would’ve been spoiled for me. It should be like those people who watched the Lord of the Rings movies and wondered why it used every fantasy stereotype in the book, when it reality it’s merely because Lord of the Rings INVENTED those stereotypes (except in this case it’s romance stereotypes, and Casablanca didn’t invent them but merely inspired the continual recycling of these old tropes). I saw the end coming from a mile away. Also, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve picked up something everyone told me was a classic, and hated it (see Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights).

However, I did love it. Like I said, there was magic.

And I love the quote I pasted above, because it shows how conventional wisdom about stories falls short – how in this particular case not an avoidance of clichés but a hurricane of clichés is what makes the movie. Casablanca breaks an accepted, basic rule of stories. But then again, every piece of true art is flawed.

Will lightning strike again if you use a hurricane of clichés? Or is Casablanca merely lightning in a bottle? There’s no way to say, except that creating art involves risk-taking and bravery. Sometimes that means breaking new ground. And sometimes that means risking doing what everyone else tells you is overdone.

The genius comes in telling what situation calls for which.

And if your striving eventually comes up with a story that works – a story that speaks to something inside humanity, and satisfies something in our cores – well, then your work has been touched by that magic.

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Oh, Libraries!

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg {PD}

“Human beings can lose their lives in libraries. They ought to be warned.”

Saul Bellow, in “Him with His Foot in His Mouth”, from Him with His Foot in His Mouth and Other Stories (1984)

I once made an acquaintance with a man who had the most amazing library. It wasn’t the biggest library I had even seen – just several shelves lined up side-by-side, in fact – but it had every book I wanted to read or thought I should read someday. Every classic that ought to be in one’s library was there. It was as well-selected and tasteful as I dream my library should be, but isn’t (yet).

But time, unfortunately, was short. I found myself jumping from classic novel to classic novel, reading the first chapter of each before going on to the next. If I had had the time, I certainly could’ve lost my life in those shelves. Instead, I ended up cramming as many snatches of ‘great literature’ from as many different authors as possible. The first chapter of Brave New World, of Atlas Shrugged, of The Great Divorce, and on and on… I may never finish pick up any of these books again, and certainly have not read enough of them to decide if they should be counted as ‘great literature’ or not. But I discovered the thrill a great library can give you.

What about you – what is the most amazing library you have set foot in?

(This post contains affiliate links)

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How to Establish Your Fame Forever – Exemplified by Ovid

Ovid. {PD}

Wherever through the lands beneath her sway

The might of Rome extends, my words shall be

Upon the lips of men. If truth at all

Is stablished by poetic prophecy,

My fame shall live to all eternity.

– Ovid, Epilogue to the Metamorphoses

Well, Ovid, here I am reading your words two thousand or so years after you wrote them. And my Classics prof did describe you as perhaps one of the most important of the Latin poets (excluding Virgil). So is that the secret, then – declare your greatness loud enough until everyone else believes it? If that is, I should start ending off each blog post here with ‘by Harma-Mae Smit, her words shall be read for millennia.’

The Metamorphoses, in case you’re not a Latin scholar, is sort of a summary of all mythical tales of Greeks and Romans from the beginning of the world till Julius Caesar dies. I did enjoy reading it, especially when I came across a story I already knew because people told it to me as a kid (like Dadedalus and Icarus), though they never told kids Ovid was one who helped make the tale famous. It really helped me piece some of random Greek mythology together. So that much I enjoyed.

The one drawback is – did it really have to include women being kidnapped and assaulted by random gods and powerful men on every other page? I seriously spent a night dreaming of being kidnapped, and I don’t think that’s the emotion the poem was supposed to raise in me. It made me truly thank God, though, that I was not born a helpless woman in Ancient Greece.

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The Dangerous Business of Recommending Novels

And the Dangerous Business of Reading Recommendations

“Please read these books and tell me what you think”
(Library books, by CCAC North Library. Licensed under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Someone lends you a book, telling you it’s “fantastic,” “will change your life forever,” or that you “have to read it.” You take and swear you’ll read it. Then it sits on your bookshelf for the next twelve months, while you stare at it and promise yourself you will read it when you have time.

Why is it sometimes so hard to read books that people recommend to you?

I find this reaction very strange, but I do it myself. Someone can describe a book and it might sounds exactly what I’d be interested in, but I still put off reading it. Maybe I’m scared it can never measure up to my hopes. Maybe I’m not one hundred percent positive that whoever recommended it to me actually understands what I like. Or maybe I’d just prefer to have the thrill of discovery for myself. But still, it’s hard enough to find good books, so you’d think it would help to have books recommended to me. And it is nice. I do enjoy most of what people give me, once I convince myself to actually read it. I can think of three possible reasons for this reaction though:

1.) We’ve all had someone tell us we’ll “love” something, but then we don’t. It’s like when a joke is supposed to be “hysterical,” but once someone actually tells the joke, it just falls flat. By raising expectations beforehand, which is kind of part of recommending a book (after all, who says, “this book isn’t all that great, but you have to read it?”), you also risk that the book won’t live up to your description. And everyone’s reaction to books does tend to be personal. Sometimes you just aren’t in the mood for a happy book when you read it, so what came off as “sweet and charming” to your friends, comes off as “syrupy” to you.

So, basically, you’re afraid the book can’t possibly be as good as you were told, so you put off reading it rather than tell your friend your real opinion of it.

2.) Or, possibly, you’re afraid your friends don’t know you as well as they think they do. Maybe you’ve got a friend that gushes over any work with a boy and girl falling in love as “soooooooooo romantic!” or “soooooooooooo suspenseful!” But to you, the books are just mushy or terribly cliché. Someone will tell you there’s no way you could not love Twilight. You like romance novels, right, and Twilight is a full of romance! So you’re pretty hesitant to believe every book people tell you is perfect for you, actually is.

3.) Or maybe you just feel contrary. I don’t know if it’s just me who does this, but if someone tells me I’ll love something, I always wonder how do you know? No one likes to feel like their reactions are predictable and obvious (though maybe mine are). Or if someone tells me a book will change my life, I get nervous and wonder if I want my life to change (or I get cynical and think every book gets called life-changing, when very few actually are). It’s probably a similar reaction to being told you have to read a book for English class – it might be the greatest novel ever, but because it’s assigned you just know you’ll hate it. Case in point, I didn’t take the opportunity to re-read Persuasion when it was assigned in university, relying instead on my very hazy memory of the plot, despite the fact the book is Jane Austen. I still dislike Lord of the Flies and The Chrysalids, because I was made to read them in school. And when someone tells you a book is a “classic” – the word “classic” can mean so many different things! It could be a potboiler, like Dracula, or a depressing assessment of humanity, like Lord of the Flies. I always stubbornly think, “classic doesn’t necessarily mean good.”

By no means does this post mean to stop recommending me books! I love books, always will. I just want to analyze my reluctance to start new books for a moment, when I usually enjoy almost anything once I start reading. But I have had a mixed bag with some recommendations, from the library trying to convince me every fantasy book was “Hotter than Potter” when very few were (though I did stumble upon Artemis Fowl this way), to the one elementary teacher who kept throwing these ancient, ugly books at me that I enjoyed almost every time I read them (“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said, and he was right). I guess I just need to spend a bit of time in anticipation and nervousness before I really plunge into something. And so my stack of books-to-read might grow ever higher, but at least I do slowly read them.

Do you have the same problem when people recommend books to you? Why do you think people would be reluctant to start reading a book recommended to them?

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Those Pesky Phoenicians! – A Thought From Herodotus

Apparently Herodotus looked like this

According to the learned Persians, it was the Phoenicians who caused the conflict.

Herodotus, The Histories

That is the beginning of Herodotus’ explanation for the war between the Greeks and the Persians (you know, the war that movie 300 was sort of, supposedly, set during). Pretty typical how the blame gets passed on to someone else – it wasn’t the Persians’ fault, honest! Or the Greeks’ either! Poor Phoenicians.

Anyway, I quoted it because Herodotus is pretty entertaining for an ancient “historian” – he’s hardly a historian by modern standards, because he inserts all sorts of folk tales and mythical creatures into his history – but apparently he was the first to come up with integrating all the stories of the various peoples living around the Mediterranean in one chronological tale. And I’m pretty glad I was forced to read some of it in my Classics class. So much of our culture is based on ancient Greek and Roman stuff, that these names (Pericles, Athens, Croesus, etc.) keep coming up. I really should read the whole thing when I get a chance. 🙂

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That’s Not Shakespeare! Or Maybe It Is

“Alas, poor Yorick!”

– Howl, from Howl’s Moving Castle, quoting Shakespeare

When I first read Howl’s Moving Castle, I didn’t realize this was a quote from Shakespeare until I read Hamlet a year later. Funny how we tend to attribute things to the last person that we remember said them, whether or not they actually came up with the quote themselves. Might be a whole other reason behind the misquotes I wrote about before.

I love catching on when an author is alluding to another author’s work. But I wonder how often these allusions fly over my head.

Oh well, as long as I don’t misquote anyone…

There’s another reason for reading classic literature.

PS: Yes, I used a Wikipedia link on the day Wikipedia shut down. I never realized how much I rely on it. All the same, I hope their bid is successful.

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A Thought From C.S. Lewis – On Reading the Classics

C.S. Lewis, by Paulina D. All rights reserved.

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

         – C.S. Lewis (full text found here)

Very useful rule, C.S. Lewis, but I fail miserably at it. I comfort myself with the idea that “when I have more time” I will improve my reading habits.

 Lewis’s argument is:

– Classics are classics for a reason. Who knows if anyone will be reading Twilight in two hundred years?

– Old books help correct the blind spots we modern people don’t realize we have.

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