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Book recommendations: The Classics (1 Viewer)

Howard Williams

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I don't mean to be a rip off of Anthony Gomez's post, but I too would like some recommendations for a few great books to read but I am looking more along the lines of "The Great American Novel" instead of the fantasy theme so many are suggesting in Anthony's thread.

I was thinking "Moby Dick" or "The Adventure of Tom Sawyer". (Is that that same as Huckleberry Finn?)

Thanxxx for any input.
 

andrew markworthy

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Far be it from a Brit to recommend US novels, but I'd suggest starting with the more approachable classics, like

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. If you start with the really heavyweight (in more than one sense) things like Moby Dick, you can be put off 'serious' literature in a heartbeat. This isn't meant to sound patronising, but if you started weight training, you wouldn't expect to lift the really heavy weights in the first day: you'd build up to it. Personally I'd avoid Mark Twain for the moment - his writing is extremely good, but you will have encountered so many pale imitations of it through low grade pieces of Americana that you may find it rather twee.
 

Jeff Blair

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I have read The Count of Monty Criso about 3 times now. Sometimes it is kind of hard reading, as it was writttn in the 1800's. I am now starting Le Mis I have seen the musical, so it should be intersting to see how it differs.
 

andrew markworthy

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Jeff, Les Miserables is hugely different from the musical! Apart from anything else, Victor Hugo could never resist lenghty ramblings about various topics. Thus, there's a huge section on nunneries in Les Mis which doesn't advance the plot one iota (and which some editions relegate to an appendix). I normally wouldn't recommend skipping whole sections of a book, but Les Mis is one occasion where at least at the first reading it's probably worth doing.
 

Darren H

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Quote:



"The Great American Novel"




Here's a starting list (in rough chronological order). I've read all but two or three of these, and think that they represent the best of our diverse traditions. I've bolded my votes for a Top 10. These aren't necessarily my personal favorites, but I think they're the best we (Americans) have to offer.

Nathanial Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
Henry David Thoreau: Walden (technically, not a novel)
Herman Melville: Moby Dick, The Piazza Tales, Billy Budd
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin
Mark Twain: The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn
William Dean Howells: The Rise of Silas Lapham
Frank Norris: McTeague
Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie
Kate Chopin: The Awakening
Henry James: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove
Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth
Gertrude Stein: Three Lives
Willa Cather: O Pioneers!
John Dos Passos: The U.S.A. Trilogy
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night
Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises
Jean Toomer: Cane
William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom, A Light in August
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Ralph Ellison: The Invisible Man
Richard Wright: Native Son
James Baldwin: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Alice Walker: The Color Purple
Toni Morrison: Beloved
Joseph Heller: Catch-22
William Gaddis: The Recognitions
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49
Ishmael Reed: Mumbo Jumbo
Phillip Roth: American Pastoral
John Updike: The Rabbit novels
 

Michael Fennessy

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Harper Lee- To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not Sure if it qualifies as a classic yet, but I gotta throw in Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Mike
 

Hugh Jackes

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"The Adventure of Tom Sawyer". (Is that that same as Huckleberry Finn?)
Nope, different stories. Huck is in Tom's book and Tom is in Huck's book. Huck Finn is not exactly a sequel, more like a different story featuring an secondary character from Tom Sawyer. IMO, Huck Finn is far superior to Tom Sawyer. That being said, you needn't read Tom to "get" Huck, but Tom is an enjoyable book in its own right.
 

Mark Pfeiffer

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You can't go wrong with Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway as far as I'm concerned. An obvious choice is J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, although his other stuff is worth reading too.

A recent novel that I think will probably obtain "classic" status years from now is Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay.
 

Darren H

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Good call, Mark. I interviewed Chabon four years ago when I was writing about his early short stories in my Master's thesis. During our correspondence, he made a few vague references to "this big book" he was working on. It really is an amazing novel. Highly recommended.
 

Stacie

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Darren's list is an excellent one. And I second those who suggest that Fitzgerald might be a good place to start. The Great Gatsby is nearly perfect (and also not too long), but my personal favorite Fitzgerald novel is Tender Is the Night. I think you might do fine with either. Moby Dick is extraordinary, but it's perhaps something you want to work your way up to. I would say the same goes for Henry James (possibly my favorite American author) and most Faulkner.

Another one of my most beloved books that's on Darren's list is Wharton's The House of Mirth. Some of the themes are similar to James, but IMO it's much easier going in terms of the difficulty of the prose.

To Darren's list of more contemporary American novels and novelists, I would add John Irving. Of his works, I recommend The World According To Garp, The Cider House Rules (quite different from the recent film version), and A Widow For One Year (in that order). I know that Irving has his detractors among fans of serious literary fiction, but I don't think there's another living writer who can better handle multiple points of view and large casts of characters.

I also really like Michael Chabon's work. Good recommendation!
 

andrew markworthy

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Darren, an excellent list, to be sure, but with respect, are they books to *introduce* someone to American literature? Personally, I'd sooner have my teeth drilled than read Henry James. I put him next to Thomas Hardy in my personal 'how the **** did they ever get a book contract in the first place?' league. However, horses for courses - I still have a soft spot for Robertson Davies, so I've no room to talk, I suppose.

If you want to read something that's really perceptive about the future, try Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (all about genetic engineering some 50 years before genetic engineering even started). IMHO, a lot better than 1984, which is effectively an extended whine about the state of Britain in 1948, the year the book was first published (swap '48' round and you get '84'). Almost all of Orwell's 'insights' are in fact lifted straight from what was already going on in the USSR.
 
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I was looking for books along similar lines a year or two ago. I guess I was feeling cheapened out of a classical University education by my Computer Science degree. I found a book by a journalist who went back and took freshmen English classes at his alma mater. I found the book and his experiences reading the western canon again fascinating. Also, I gave me a large list of books to read that I think would interest me based on his experiences. The book is call "Great Books : My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World" by David Denby.
Amazon link:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/AS...191436-5545443
 

Darren H

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Darren, an excellent list, to be sure, but with respect, are they books to *introduce* someone to American literature?
Yes and no. I took a survey approach to the list -- if you read those 30 or 40 novels, you will be exposed, I think, to the best examples of each development in the American novel from Romanticism to Postmodernism. (I'm with you, by the way, on James. I'll take Hardy over him anyday.) For introductions to great American lit, I would suggest:
House of the Seven Gables -- Not as good as The Scarlet Letter, but more approachable. In his introduction, Hawthorne calls it a "Romance," which translates into a novel that is more like Poe than Melville.
The Piazza Tales -- Exposure to Melville's brilliant language (the real reason Moby Dick is our best novel), but in more easily digestible chunks. "Benito Cereno" is probably my all-time favorite story; "Bartleby, The Scriver" is also a classic.
"The American Scholar" -- everyone who is interested in American lit should read this essay by Emerson. http://www.emersoncentral.com/amscholar.htm
The Rise of Silas Lapham -- I actually prefer William Dean Howells's novels to Twain's. I guess he could be called the American equivalent of Dickens. Important figure in shift toward Realism. A Modern Instance is also great.
Life in the Iron Mills -- Rebecca Harding Davis's novella is a great introduction to Naturalism, and features some of the most beautiful prose I've read. A good primer before digging into Crane, Norris, Wharton, and Dreiser.
The Great Gatsby -- of course.
As I Lay Dying -- Strangely, I think that this is Faulkner's most experimental and most approachable novel. It's an absurd story about a family trying to bury their mother, told from 10 or 12 different perspectives. A good introduction to high Modernism of the Woolf and Joyce variety.
Their Eyes Were Watching God -- Zora Neale Hurston's beautiful, beautiful novel about an African-American woman's coming-of-age.
Catch-22 -- If you don't laugh out loud in the first five pages, then just put it down and start something else. If you do laugh, then you're about to begin one of the most enjoyable reads of your life.
To Kill a Mockingbird -- Did I mention that Harper Lee was invited to my wedding? She couldn't attend, but she sent a gift.
The Catcher in the Rye -- My opinion of this novel has changed dramatically since I first read it, but it is one of the novels that made me fall in love with reading.
 

Darren H

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Thanks for the input, Dome. :rolleyes
I read Moby Dick for the first time when I was 26, and I'm glad that I waited that long. If you want to read a good sea adventure, then skip Moby Dick and pick up Melville's Omoo or Typee, instead (or, God forbid, read one of James Fenimore Cooper's sea novels). But if you want to immerse yourself in the most beautiful prose and the most complex symbology and the most epic structure any American novelist has composed, then read Moby Dick. I'd put one of its central chapters, "The Whiteness of the Whale," ahead of most of the other novels on my list. It really does live up to the hype, but, of course, isn't for everyone.
 

Ken_McAlinden

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Hey, I noticed Darren's list above includes a bunch of "Modern Lit" suggestions in addition to "classics". I assume that gives me the OK to suggest Don Delillo's "White Noise", which I find to be intelligent, insightful, and very funny.
I also tend to agree with Andrew's suggesting that you may want to do some "literary resistance training" before launching yourself into a very "heavy" classic like "Moby Dick". I usually read something like an Elmore Leonard novel before and after something "difficult" like Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" or Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury", just to ease my feeble brain into and out of gear. :)
Regards,
 

Dome Vongvises

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Thanks for the input, Dome.
You're welcome. :p)

Hey, I'm not the one forming the opinion on Moby Dick here. Just one of my Math teachers. Said something about Captain Ahab mumbling about some whale for 90% of the book, and his crew trudging along with him.
 

David Lawson

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My problem with Moby Dick is the length Melville goes to describe the whale species. The reason behind this was (supposedly) to educate the masses on something they knew little about at the time (which was true for everyone, apparently, since Melville classifies whales as fish). That doesn't make it any more readable, in my opinion.
There are those who argue that Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is the "original" American novel, influencing just about everything that came after it. I would read it in that context, after you've read a bit by the authors above. We were made to read it at the beginning of American Literature class, not the end, and I didn't find it as enjoyable at that point.
Darren does have some interesting suggestions in his list, but I can't believe McTeague is one of them. The desert encounter at the end ruined the novel for me, and screams "Hollywood!" before it was even fashionable. ;) I will agree with his recommendation on Ellison, however.
As I Lay Dying is by far my favorite Faulkner book. If you develop a liking for Faulkner, I'd recommend Cormac McCarthy, with the possible exception of Suttree. Don't let the movie version of All The Pretty Horses deter you from reading the novel, either.
I also have a great appreciation for Dashiell Hammett, whose novels make entertaining reads and entertaining films. His influence is found throughout the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing, too. I can see why some wouldn't consider it "classic" literature, though.
In closing, don't let the naysayers dissuade you from Henry James just yet. The American is very approachable, primarily because it's one of his earlier works. I have yet to make it through The Turn Of The Screw, however.
 

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