Life is short, and books are many. How many great books have you read? How many more have you NOT read? How to choose? Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, joins Jacke for a discussion of overrated classics and the pleasures of shortening one’s list of must-reads.
What works of literature are essential? When we start reading literature, where do we begin? The College Board, an organization that prepares standardized tests for millions of American young people, has published list of 101 recommended books for college-bound readers. High schools and colleges across the country take their lead from this list, and students are encouraged to use it as a guide to a summer of literature. But is the list any good? Can it be improved? The President of the Literature Supporters Club joins Jacke for a discussion of the list’s most worthy selections…and its most egregious omissions.
Some things are so classy they just never go out of style. Like little black dresses, and little black classics from Penguin Books. Here’s another gift idea for this holiday season (along with Edward Gorey).
Eighty Penguin Classics, presented in bite-sized form (i.e., novellas, short essays, selections of poems, or excerpted passages from longer books).
Yes, it’s a bit of a commitment ($75 or so), but that’s cheap for what you’re getting, and think of the possibilities here. Close your eyes, grab one, tuck it into your pocket, and head out to face the day. Give yourself a little surprise: a bit of Chekhov, maybe, or a touch of Sappho. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,: Suetonius, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Montaigne.
Will it work? Can I make my year better through this strategy of randomizing my brain expansion? Stay tuned!
The Little Black Classics feature works by Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, John Milton, Nikolay Leskov, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Gustave Glaubert, Nikolai Gogol, Samuel Pepys, Washington Irving, Henry James, Christina Rossetti, Sophocles, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Boccaccio, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas de Quincey, Apollonius of Rhodes, Robert Louis Stevenson, Petronius, John Peter Hebel, Hans Christian Andersen, Rudyard Kipling, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant, Aesop, Joseph Conrad, Brothers Grimm, Katherine Mansfield, Ovid, Ivan Turgenev, H. G. Wells, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Nashe, Mary Kingsley, Honoré de Balzac, C. P. Cavafy, Wilfred Owen, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Plato, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Giorgio Vasari, Friederich Nietzsche, Suetonius, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, Dante, Henry Mayhew, Hafez, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Ruskin, Pu Songling, Jonathan Swift, Walt Whitman, Kenko, Baltasar Gracián, Marco Polo, Matsuo Basho, Emily Bronte, Richard Hakluyt, Omar Khayyam, Charles Darwin, Catullus, Homer, D. H. Lawrence, Sappho, Virgil, Herodotus, Shen Fu, and others.
Okay, the new podcast is off to a great start! Many thanks to all the listeners, wherever you are, and whoever you may be.
It seems that a lot of you have the same question I do:
Is literature dying?
I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a straw man! I get it, I get it. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred that kind of question results in a “No, it isn’t!” We all tune in for the fake drama, and in the end the host concludes what we all knew that he or she would. Literature’s not dying! It’s stronger than ever! Thank you for listening.
But…this might be that one hundredth time!
More to the point, I am not sure of the answer yet.
That’s right! I didn’t come up with this question as a clever way of attracting attention. This is not a disguised way of setting up a podcast about how great literature is, and let’s celebrate how wonderful it all is, and aren’t we all just spectacular beings for celebrating it all together, here in this celebration. This celebration of literature. And us. The lovers of literature.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought that literature is great. I’ve always thought it was powerful. A force for good. I believed in it.
Now I look around and…well, I’m not so sure we need it anymore.
What did we get from literature and great books that we can’t get elsewhere?
Reading is wonderful, of course…but so were handwritten letters. So was a morning newspaper.
We’ve moved on from those things. And maybe we’ve simply moved on from literature.
We don’t read as much as we used to–well, that’s not exactly true, is it? We probably read more than ever. And we probably write more than ever. We have a very literate society. It’s just that it’s all taking place on the internet.
Do we sit down and read big novels like Anna Karenina or Middlemarch? Maybe a few of us do, now and then. And some contemporary novels still sell copies, and some of those are weighty and important and cover serious topics and deserve their place on the shelf of Great Books. Some people still read them, just as some people still get their morning newspaper.
But are they essential?
It’s easy to blame ourselves for the declining sales and reduced position that literature has in today’s world. It’s all our fault! We’re easily distracted! We’re stupid! We prefer our phones or our videogames or social networking because we’re lazy and dumb. We used to be so much better.
I don’t think that’s the whole story.
I think we need to look harder at literature itself.
Why did we read before? For entertainment? Escapism? Moral instruction? Curiosity? Empathy? To better understand what it’s like to be another person in a world different from our own?
Isn’t all of that available now on Facebook? Blogs? Netflix?
Maybe it’s not our fault that literature has lost some of its relevance. Maybe literature just isn’t good enough at delivering what it’s supposed to deliver. Maybe it can’t compete.
So in that spirit, I have a podcast called The History of Literature. And yes, the title suggests that it’s a straightforward narrative. You know how those go. Book, book, book, author, author, author, period, period, period. We march from one phase to the next as easily as slipping out of our robe and into a warm bath.
But this isn’t a warm bath. It’s more of a quest. I feel like I’m out there battling monsters.
Yes, I’m going to cover as much great literature as I can. And yes, there will be times when I’ll be swept away with enthusiasm, because I’ll forget my concerns and embrace the power of literature. I know the feelings I get when I encounter the sublime. I recall the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion I’ve felt for novels and poems and stories and plays in the past.
In the past. Did you catch that? In the past.
Is it the same now? Or has something changed? Are we headed toward a sunset?
That’s what we’ll be exploring. Yes, these are undeniably great books. We can enjoy them, admire them, celebrate them–and we’ll be doing plenty of that, I’m not a zombie or a robot or a masochist.
But we’ll also be asking this more difficult question: What can these great books offer us today?
Join us on the quest!
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you read as much as you once did? If not, why not? Where do you turn instead for the things that literature used to provide? Let us know in the comments!
For podcast listeners (or those of you new to the idea), the easiest way to get the podcast automatically downloaded to your phone (or tablet or computer or whatever else you like to listen to) is probably to subscribe via iTunes. You can direct download the mp3s, stream episodes, and find more subscription options at the main site, historyofliterature.com.
Do you have another preferred delivery mechanism I’m not providing? Let me know!
The whole post is worth reading, but here’s a taste:
To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you.
Virginia made a cameo here on the Jacke blog once before, when she visited Stonehenge. Glad to have you back, Virginia!
Let’s try a little K.T. Tunstall for our onward and upward. With the legendary Daryl Hall. Can’t we all just go hang out there, at Daryl’s house?