Gleeson-White, Jane. Classics: 62 Great Books from the Iliad to Midnight’s Children.

NY: Knopf, 2005.

Since I read a lot (and because I’ve been a librarian for so many years), I tend to pick up any book that discusses other books and recommends what books to read. Of course, if it deals with the “classics,” a lot depends on the definition.

Gleeson-White, who has considerable experience with writing, editing, publishing, and even retail bookselling, is somewhat annoyed at the way the post-modernists killed off respect for the Western Canon — mostly because of the “Western” part. She disagrees with the fact that what had come to be regarded over the centuries as the Great Books are no longer taught in educational institutions — and so do I, frankly.

There are several highly regarded books that discuss the Canon, especially Clifton Fadiman’s The New Lifetime Plan (1997) and David Denby’s Great Books (1996). Most of the books that appear in those two excellent volumes were written no later than World War II — before my own lifetime, that is. And I suspect that’s how most of us would define “classic literature.” In part, it means “Before Me.” This author’s selections begin with works that no one could argue with: The Iliad, Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and so on. She adds a few somewhat idiosyncratic choices based on her own taste — The Awakening by Kate Chopin, Maurice Guest by Henry Handel Richardson, and Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, for instance. Fair enough; it’s her book. But then she goes on to discuss several that, even as a librarian, frankly, I know nothing about and have barely even heard of. Books like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, and The Words to Say It by Marie Cardinal. I have a very hard time including such relatively obscure works on any list of “classics.” A “classic” is a book that has had a disproportionate influence not just on subsequent literature but on society at large. Jane Austen certainly fits that definition, and so do Dickens and Joyce and Homer and Hemingway. But not Smart and not Cardinal.

Having said all that, the author does, in fact, have some perceptive things to say about both the traditional classics and also her modern personal additions. She provides historical context (since writers don’t create in a vacuum) and a capsule biography for each author, as well as comments on the opinions and reactions of other authors, both contemporary and later. I found myself nodding in agreement on people like Dickens, and disagreeing strongly on certain others, like James and Joyce. But those are my own opinions and I haven’t written a book like this yet. (I don’t know, maybe I should.) In any case, this volume is definitely worth the reading.

Published in: on 17 August 2013 at 9:37 am  Leave a Comment  

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