My Classics Club Reading List

I’ve never been one for reading challenges, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. I don’t like the public performance that taking on such a challenge represents—but then again, I’m maintaining a blog, which is its own sort of public performance. I don’t like how they turn the meditative act of reading into a competition against time—but then again, the mere act of rationing of, for example, a comics trade paperback over six days does something similar, tying the reading experience to something arbitrary and external. And I don’t like committing myself to tasks unnecessarily—but then again…well, I don’t have a ready counterpoint to that one; that one’s just true.

This has been a lot of throat-clearing to explain that I’m joining The Classics Club, whose main selling point is functionally a reading challenge.

The rules of this game are fairly simple: make a list of at least fifty classic books, read them within no more than a five-year span, and write a blog post about each one. That comes out to a leisurely pace of ten classics per year, which at least at a distance seems manageable.

What I find a bit more intimidating is requirement that one write about each book. I don’t generally write reviews in the traditional sense, offering up-down aesthetic appraisals. I prefer essays and the like, exploring a piece of writing because I find it interesting, because it opens up some larger conversation about craft or context. But I can’t guarantee that any given book will avail itself to such a post. I’ve read plenty of books which I enjoyed immensely but never wrote about because I couldn’t find an “in” to the text beyond saying, “It was good, and you ought to read it.” But I fear that’s because I’ve been too shallow in my own reading habits, neither analytic or emotional enough to my thinking. This little challenge is an attempt to rectify that.

In drafting this list of fifty classics, I’ve tried to go for a broad cross-section of the “genre,” as it were. Chronologically they range from before the common era (Virgil’s Aeneid) to 1993, which was the compositional cut-off date when I first started drafting the list (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I’ve gone for kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama. It’s a hodge-podge, and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. It may be difficult to draw connections between these books, but if I find one style is not my taste, the whole project won’t become stale.

Now for the technical specs. This project will begin on December 22, 2018, and conclude no later than December 21, 2023. Should I get through all the titles on this list, I will add more books to it based on my discretion.

And so, presented alphabetically by author, the fifty books for my Classics Club list:

          Auden, W. H.: The Dyer’s Hand
          Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility
          Austin, J. L.: How to Do Things with Words
          Bacon, Francis: New Atlantis
          Baldwin, James: Giovanni’s Room
          Behn, Aphra: The Rover
          Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron
          Böll, Heinrich: Billiards at Half-Past Nine
          Brooks, Gwendolyn: Annie Allen
          Butler, Octavia: Parable of the Sower
          Cather, Willa: My Ántonia
          Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World
          Chekhov, Anton: Uncle Vanya
          Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield
          Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man
          Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Last Tycoon
          Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
          Gordimer, Nadine: The Conservationist
          Gunn, Thom: The Man with Night Sweats
          Harper, Frances: Iola Leroy
          Hauptmann, Gerhart: The Weavers
          Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls
          Hume, David: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
          Ibsen, Henrik: A Doll’s House
          Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
          Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Lathe of Heaven
          Middleton, Thomas: A Chaste Maid of Cheapside
          O’Neill, Eugene: The Iceman Cometh
          Ovid: Metamorphoses
          Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country
          Pope, Alexander: An Essay on Criticism
          Radway, Janice: Reading the Romance
          Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
          Russell, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy
          Schmitt, Gladys: The Collected Stories of Gladys Schmitt
          Schuyler, George: Black No More
          Sexton, Anne: Transformations
          Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night
          Shute, Nevil: A Town Like Alice
          Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene
          Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row
          Stevens, Wallace: Harmonium
          Strachey, Dorothy: Olivia
          Toomer, Jean: Cane
          Treadwell, Sophie: Machinal
          Twain, Mark: Pudd’nhead Wilson
          Valenzuela, Luisa: He Who Searches
          Virgil: Aeneid
          Wright, Richard: Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon
          Zola, Émile: Thérèse Raquin

This ought to be fun. And in the words of Neil Young, “We’ll keep good time on a journey through the past.”

On Buying New Editions of Classic Books

If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will have noticed that I have a taste for the canon. I’ve recently written about Albert Camus’s essay “The Minotaur,” for example, and I have an ongoing series of blog posts offering close readings of old poems. Something you notice when you read classics is that there are a ton of different editions for each title. Every publisher has its own version of Great Expectations or Jane Eyre, and each edition comes with its own set of bells and whistles. You’ll even find people who collect different versions of the same book.

I find all this fascinating, because classics are the genre of literature which is probably easiest to find at a low cost, and a lot of these new printings of classics will run you more than a negligible sum. I’ve started wondering what these more expensive versions offer the reader beyond the text itself, and whether that’s worth the higher cost.

Just so we’re working with a concrete example, let’s consider a book that I’m currently reading: The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Specifically, we’re going to look at the 2009 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, published in 2009 and translated by Tim Parks.

The PrinceGoing in, I know that The Prince is an important work in the history of political writing, and that it was rather infamous in its day regarding its arguably amoral advice for rulers. I’ve even had to write a few essays for classes using scanned excerpts of the text, so I’m somewhat familiar with its prescriptions. But I’ve never read the work in its entirety, and given the state of the world, I figure it’s high time I read it. Now, supposing that I didn’t already possess this particular edition of the book, how might I go about finding a copy of it for a decent value?

The Prince dates back to the early 16th-century, so the original Italian text is unquestionably in the public domain. I don’t speak Italian, however, let alone the Italian of Machiavelli’s day, so I’m going to need an English translation. Even though translations are derivative works, they may still be protected by copyright. As such, it can sometimes be difficult to find translations of works in other language freely and legally available on the Internet.

Lucky for me, The Prince has been around so long that there are multiple English translations which have also entered the public domain. I can simply search through Project Gutenberg, for instance, and find the full text of W. K. Marriott’s 1908 translation. It’s fairly bare-bones as a book, but if all I want is the text, then it suits me fine. Indeed, I’ve lately been reading some translations of Plato via Project Gutenberg, and I haven’t had any complaints so far.

But maybe e-books aren’t for me, for whatever reason (e.g., difficulty reading off a screen for extended periods of time). Maybe I’d feel better holding a copy of The Prince in my hands. Assuming the local library doesn’t have a copy available—and if, like me, you live out in the country, that’s a distinct possibility—there are still ways to get the book for cheap. If you went to an American high school, you might be familiar with Dover Thrift Editions, which are no-frills editions of classic, public domain works. (One of these days, I’ll write an appreciation post about them.) Per their website, a copy of N. H. Thompson’s 1910 translation of The Prince retails for $3.00. That doesn’t include shipping, obviously, but that’s still a pretty low price point.

So: if the options I’ve just listed, and others that I haven’t, let me get a copy of The Prince at little to no cost, why on earth should anyone spend $16.00 for Penguin’s version? If I want the text, I have Project Gutenberg; if I want the text printed and bound, I have Dover. What, if anything, does the aptly-named Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition offer that the more affordable channels don’t?

Well, a few things, actually, but whether they’re worth the additional cost is entirely up to the reader.

In addition to the text of The Prince, the Penguin edition comes with four additional features: an introduction, a translator’s note, a map of Italy c. 1500, and a glossary of proper names mentioned in the text. The latter two, for my money, are the least inspiring aspects here. The map gives some sense of the political geography of 16th-century Italy, but since many of Machiavelli’s examples are historical it’s also of limited utility. And while the glossary of proper names is perhaps a more convenient reference when reading the book than a search engine might be, and only includes those facts the translator believes are important, it’s still a repackaging of easily available information. I’m not sure I’d pay a premium for that kind of editorial work.

The translator’s note is more compelling. For starters, it gets at why, even if one wouldn’t pay extra for a new edition of, say, a Jane Austen novel, one might do so for a new edition of a work in translation. Unlike original works, Parks argues, translations “have a way of gathering dust”:

If we read [Alexander] Pope’s translation of Homer today, we read it because we want to read Pope, not Homer. Linguistically, the translation draws our attention more to the language and poetry of our eighteenth century than to Homer or ancient Greece. (p. xxxi)

In Parks’s estimation, original texts maintain their freshness, as though they have a sustaining aura to them. Works in translations, however, need to be updated or they’ll turn stale. Maybe a new English translation of The Prince won’t evoke Renaissance Italy so much as the era in which the translation was written, but at least it won’t end up evoking Edwardian England instead.

For something specific to this edition of The Prince, I like how Parks uses the translator’s note as an opportunity to discuss his process. He mentions the difficulty in translating certain critical words from Machiavelli’s original text, such as “principe” and “virtù.” He also explains how his version differs from previous translations, and provides side-by-side comparisons of selected passages to illustrate the difference. Whether or not one prefers Parks’s translation to the others is a matter of taste, sure, but I like seeing a writer justify their choices regardless.

Finally, there is the introduction, which I’d wager is the most common feature in new editions of classics. Introductions are a chance to place the original work in context: to explain the historical and social forces which may have influenced the author, synthesize how critics have approached the work through the years, and draw attention to details the editor believes are important but worries the new reader might miss. The premium price for a new edition includes some insurance that one won’t blindly stumble through a difficult work.

This is especially important for a book like The Prince, whose reputation precedes it. If you’ve never read The Prince, you might imagine that it’s a handbook for being an absolutely ruthless tyrant, when the reality is a bit more nuanced and complicated. That’s why, after a sizable biography of Machiavelli, Parks goes into a brief history of the book’s reception through the centuries, as well as its noticeable influence on early modern English drama. (It’s certainly a more detailed history than one finds in Marriott’s introduction, for instance.)

And unlike with the glossary of proper names, where the bare facts take precedence over style, both the introduction and the translator’s note are enjoyable pieces of writing in their own right. Parks has a knack for wry appraisals, whether he’s noting “a certain Victorian bashfulness in previous translations” (p. xliii), or wondering how Machiavelli thought writing this book would bring him back to the center of Florentine politics:

[T]here is something ingenuous and almost endearing in the clever diplomat’s miscalculation here. The brilliant reasoning required to convince yourself that you had got a grip on politics and history, the profound analysis that would demonstrate to your fellow intellectuals that you were as clear-headed as Livy, Tacitus and Thucydides put together, were not the qualities that a young and hardly well-read Medici prince was likely to comprehend, never mind enjoy. (p. xxi)

In effect, if one buys this new edition of The Prince, one gets two good essays about the book in addition to the original work. And that’s not an insubstantial amount of writing. All told, the supplemental material is about sixty pages long, whereas The Prince itself takes up about a hundred. If you apportion price to page count, all this new material would run you $6.00 out of $16.00. Is that worth it? That’s up to you.

We could mention other elements of new editions of classic books: design elements like the cover and typeface, or the primary source documents found in more scholarly publications. But I think here’s a good place to stop for now. (I would like to actually finish reading The Prince, after all.)

So, to open up the discussion: Do you buy new editions of classic books, and if so, what aspects of those new editions convince you to do so? Let me know in the comments!

Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”: An Analysis

Walt WhitmanI’ve indirectly talked about Walt Whitman on this blog before, when I applied his introduction to the original, 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass to the 1938 film If I Were King. But I’ve never discussed any of his actual poetry. Much like John Dryden, the last poet whose work I analyzed, most of Whitman’s best-known poems are both long and dense. Think “Song of Myself” or “I Sing the Body Electric.” As such, he doesn’t lend himself to the casual blog treatment.

Still, I think it’s time I give this central figure in American verse his due. As such, let’s take a quick dive into one of his shorter gems, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” The text is as follows:

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider” provides us with a perfect example of what’s called an emblem structure. A poem using an emblem structure builds an argument in two parts. In the first part, the speaker describes an object in some detail; in the second part, they reflect on the meaning, the significance, of that object. What starts out like a still life soon becomes a metaphor.

Now, unlike the octave-sestet structure of a Petrarchan sonnet, say, there’s no rule dictating where the shift in an emblematic poem will occur. However, in the case of Whitman’s poem, the two parts of the argument are very easy to spot. The first stanza gives us the description of the object (a spider spinning its web), and the second stanza gives us the speaker’s reflection on the object (how his soul is like the spider). The first lines of each stanza even act as signposts, introducing the subject of each stanza so the reader can track the speaker’s thought progression.

So how is the soul like the spider? Let’s look at how Whitman presents the spider. Before the creature even appears in the body of the poem, we learn that our subject is both “noiseless” and “patient,” which is a calming pair of adjectives, and though accurate, perhaps not the first things we think of when we hear “spider.” In the second line, the speaker gives us the spider’s situation: “on a little promontory it stood isolated.” There’s our starting premise: a spider, all alone, sitting calmly on the ledge.

From here, though, things start moving. Line 3 presents us with a syntactical ambiguity. “Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding” is parallel to the previous line, so we instinctively make the speaker the agent of everything in the phrase. In this case, that would mean the speaker is considering “how to explore the vacant vast surrounding.” But the subsequent line clarifies the agent here is the spider, not the speaker. The spider “launch’d forth filament” with goal of confronting the emptiness before it.

Whitman has put the still life into literal motion, and if line 5 is any indication, it’s a perpetual motion at that: “[e]ver unreeling…ever tirelessly speeding.” It’s also a motion the spider itself generates, for it launches the filament “out of itself.” Here we have all the material needed for a metaphor. All Whitman needs to do is to make the target of that metaphor explicit.

Indeed, the parallels between the first stanza spider and the second stanza soul are extensive. The “measureless oceans of space” that the speaker’s soul is “[s]urrounded, detached” within recall the “vacant vast surrounding” that the spider faced, as does “ceaselessly” bring us back to “tirelessly”: neither being’s efforts will end anytime soon. And of course, the soul’s actions are those of the spider as well. Just as the spider spews out its silk, the soul is always “musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” The soul’s efforts are even likened to the spider’s material: it shoots out a “ductile anchor,” a “gossamer thread.” Just what the soul is seeking to achieve may be nebulous—and what great metaphysical mystery isn’t?—but we at least have a sense of what the soul’s actions are like. And that’s probably more than we could say going in.

Something else I’d highlight is how Whitman’s musicality perfectly reflects the actions of both the spider and the soul. Now, Whitman is of course famous as a pioneer in free verse, but free verse doesn’t reject meter, merely the rigidity of fixed forms. It embraces the flexibility of everyday speech while still elevating it to the level of verse.

Specifically, the first stanzas’s use of falling rhythms, of trochees (a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable) and dactyls (a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables), embodies how the spider must reach out into the unknown emptiness before it. The repetition of “filament,” of the spider’s instrument of exploration, is the most overt instance of this: “filament, | filament, | filament, | out of it | self.” But it continues into the subsequent line: “Ever un | reeling them, | ever | tire | lessly | speeding them.” The switch to trochees is a nice touch here, tightening the rhythm right at that most determined phrase: “ever tirelessly.”

As an exercise, you might go through the second stanza of the poem, and see if Whitman uses the same musical underscoring for the soul as he does for the spider. If so, then we have a consistent “pattern” (however unpatterned it actually is) for soundplay in the poem. If it’s different, what does that change tell us about how Whitman sees the soul in comparison to the spider?

What are your thoughts on “A Noiseless Patient Spider”? Feel free to share your opinions and analyses, or to suggest more classic poems to give this sort of treatment to, in the comments.

A Top 5 List: Modern Poetry Classics

Shanah McCready, known to the Internet as the Bionic Book Worm, organizes a series of book-related Top 5 lists every Tuesday. This week’s theme is “modern classics,” which is quite a broad topic, and an inherently speculative one. After all, who knows what future generations of writers and readers will latch onto? I doubt anyone thought Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for example, would cast such a long shadow on American literature.

The doubt involved in making a list of “modern classics” is doubly present when it comes to poetry. Given how vanishingly rare it is for a contemporary poet to achieve broad recognition in the literary community, let alone the general reading public, picking any collection as a potential staple of future reading lists seems, shall we say, hopeful.

But I shall remain hopeful. As such, I’ve decided to put poetry front and center on this list. Here are five poetry collections released since 2000, listed in order of release, which at the very least ought to be considered modern classics.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

1) Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
University of California Press, 2002
Links: publisher | Amazon

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve pressed this book under the weight of the photocopier, curious to see how students will react to Mullen’s plays on form. This is a collection that turns “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a police blotter (“European Folk Tale Variant”), a courting ritual into a litany of tongue-twisters (“Any Lit”), and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into a paranoid rant about the Walt Disney Company (“Variation on a Theme Park”). Mullen takes the diction and rhetoric we take for granted everyday and puts it through the grinder, showing how meaningless (or meaningful!) it is at base. It’s a collection I’m not sure I will ever full-heartedly love, but it’s one I will always deeply respect.

 

Sea of Faith2) John Brehm, Sea of Faith
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Links: publisher | Amazon

Whereas Sleeping with the Dictionary is a book that always inspires me to think about writing, John Brehm’s Sea of Faith in one that inspires me to actually write. Nearly every poem in the collection is one I wish I could have written, because Brehm’s an expert at converting raw sensory inputs into polished works. Take “Coney Island,” which piles one overwhelming detail on top of another, to the point where I believe that “we’ll actually / get on a rollercoaster / just to calm ourselves down.” For another: “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” which finds the profundity beneath what sounds like  “[j]ust a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks.” Sea of Faith is probably my most obscure pick, which is a great shame. It deserves a wider audience.

 

Blood Dazzler

3) Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
Coffee House, 2008
Links: publisher | Amazon

An unfortunately timely choice, Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina is a poignant and inventive account of that storm’s particular devastation. Smith both employs a wide variety of forms (free verse, sestinas, abecedarians, etc) and inhabits a number of personas (politicians, residents, even the storm itself) to get the full scope of the tragedy across to the reader. If nothing else, you should listen to some of Smith’s readings on the Poetry Foundation website, which brutally highlight the sound-play at work, especially with regards to the poem “Katrina”: “I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted / a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

 

Dear Corporation,4) Adam Fell, Dear Corporation,
H_NGM_N, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

Inspired by the United States Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, Adam Fell’s prose poems addressed to the person Corporation burn with confused rage and raging confusion; as one of the letters begins, “I don’t know how to say how I feel politely, or poetically.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the collection’s political origins, each letter is also a deeply personal statement; the mere thought of the speaker reaching out to Corporation, of all persons, for solace is heart-rending. And as with Smith, Fell is an excellent reader of his own work. If you can find a recording or see him read in person, do so.

 

Citizen5) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Graywolf, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

If you follow poetry, then you knew this one was coming. A multimedia meditation on race in modern America, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric proved relevant to the broader literary conversation in a way that so few poetry collections are able to today. That alone would almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics; that these reflections are so sharp only puts it over the top. Seriously, the decision to cast John McEnroe as a Greek chorus in the essay on Serena Williams is absolutely brilliant (and given recent happenings, strangely prescient). To quote the book’s final line: “It was a lesson.” Indeed, indeed.

So there’s my list. What do you think? Are there any poetry collections released this century that you would have included? Let me know in the comments.

Giving Children the Classics: Moppet Books and Copyright

For the past few weeks, Publishers Weekly has been covering a copyright case involving publisher Moppet Books, which seeks to print a series of picture book adaptations of several classic novels that are still under copyright. These “KinderGuides,” as Moppet calls them, would aim to get young children interested in reading classic works of fiction. However, the estates of several authors, as well as Random Penguin House and Simon & Schuster, have brought suit to prevent the books’ publication. Thus far, the litigation has gone the copyright holders’ way.

As Andrew Albanese reported this past Thursday, Judge Jed Rakoff of the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has:

…signed off on a permanent injunction immediately barring Moppet Books from distributing in the U.S. any versions of its KinderGuides series held to be infringing, until the works on which they are based enter the public domain. In addition, Moppet Books also agreed to destroy all current copies of the infringing works “in its possession or under its control” within 10 days… [However,] the injunction includes an automatic stay on the destruction of existing stock, pending the “final outcome” of the appeal process.

I am obviously not a lawyer, so I don’t know whether Moppet Books’ KinderGuides are sufficiently transformative to qualify for fair use, as their defense has claimed. (Completely uninformed gut feeling: the copyright holders are in the legal right here.) And I can’t comment much on the adaptations themselves, since all I’ve seen of these books are few scattered page scans included in the press coverage.

What I can do, though, is talk about the concept of adapting classic novels for children. Based on my own experience, I think that something like the KinderGuides could be a valuable tool for getting children interested in the classics, and it is a shame that copyright law makes publishing such adaptations for tomorrow’s canon so difficult.

When I was in elementary school (probably 3rd grade), I remember a used book seller coming to our classroom and laying out tons and tons of cheap books for us to buy with our spare quarters. Younger me came across a somewhat beat-up paperback with a cool looking cover and an interesting title: Around the World in Eighty Days.

Now, this was not in fact Jules Verne’s original 1873 novel, but rather an illustrated and abridged version published by Moby Books. And oh, how I loved it. Every spare moment I had for the next week went toward following the adventures of Phileas Fogg and Passpartout in their quest to, well, travel around the world in eighty days. I can still see Passpartout’s towering figure from the illustrations on every other page, still feel the tension from the hurried, perilous transatlantic voyage on the Henrietta.

I wouldn’t read the original, unabridged version of Around the World in Eighty Days for a few more years (which was about the time it took me to realize that I hadn’t actually read it yet). But that cheap little paperback sparked my love of Jules Verne, and for that I’m thankful. I’m pretty sure that if I had started with the original text, younger me would have been rather bored and confused, or at least overwhelmed by the length, and would thus be reluctant to give Jules Verne a fair shake when he was older.

For the Twains and Melvilles of the world, the Dickenses and Brontës, it’s easy to find approachable adaptations of their works for children. After all, all their books are in the public domain, so there is no legal barrier to producing them. But when it comes to the likes of Hemingway, Kerouac, Clarke and Capote (the authors whose estates are involved in the Moppet case), copyright law makes producing such adaptations far more difficult.

Whether something like KinderGuides would actually lead to more children reading classic literature, I’m not certain. But at the very least, it did so for me. It’s an idea worth pursuing.