A famous actor claimed in a press conference that television and movies had rendered reading useless and backward. On the contrary, despite such die-hard critics, no other medium will ever supplant the role of the written word. Literature inspires the imagination while still allowing it to be an active and creative participant. Literature moves at the pace of the one experiencing it. Literature as a medium rises above boundaries of time and class. It is a medium that requires no admission fees, social situation, or particular viewpoint, in order to contribute to it or receive from it. And in principle it is unlimited by geography, by power supply, by governments, by technology, or by anything else except a writer’s power of verbal expression and a reader’s power of understanding. Literature is at its best the unfettered voice of human beings to each other. It is the collective result of our individual attempts to experience and explore life, to answer its questions, and to set free our imaginations.
This site is designed as an aid in this enjoyment of literature. As a travel agent provides brochures highlighting selected attractive locations for prospective visitors, I here offer some brief descriptions and light evaluations of a few notable (although some nearly forgotten) works of literature throughout human history. Alongside these I provide a smattering of interesting themes, quotes, and similar works. If you have never read a particular book, think of the entry as an brochure, giving you a little taste of what you are in for if you do. And, if you have already read it, the brochure becomes a memento of your literary experience.
A collection of brochures is basically a field guide or travel guide, not a professional or academic work. As such, I confess to a gross neglect of the field of literary criticism, that area of humanities whose denizens actually have a job thoroughly devoted to talking about things other people have written. As I myself am an academic, I feel that I ought to defend myself. In my area of expertise, we have a wonderful genre of research and writing called natural history. Popular instances of this include the Stokes Nature Guides, the Peterson’s Field Guides, the nature shows on television. Now, the thing about doing natural history is that you mainly trust your own powers of observation. Someone who goes out into the woods and sneaks up on a fox den makes observations de novo as if nobody else– or almost if nobody else– had ever seen one. This liberates the observer from external information and can even enhance a certain kind of objectivity, or at least freshness. There are at least two reasons why it is almost that way but not completely. First, others’ experience and understanding of certain things, including famous literary works, are going to color my own perception and understanding whether I want them to or not, perhaps subconsciously. Just as I can’t see an eagle without feeling some sense of awe that has been socially cultivated in me (and in millions of other Americans, and Ancient Romans, etc.), I can’t really think afresh of the great white whale in Moby Dick because of the pervasiveness (however subtle it might be) of associated imagery in our culture. Secondly, I can’t help drawing on one or two friendly co-trekkers, whether because I’m in a tight spot or simply because they saw or said something right to the point. Even the naturalist has a field guide in the back pocket, and sometimes it can be hard to know what you’re looking at without one. If it’s difficult not to take advantage of Thoreau’s “maids maids maids hang up your tea-kettle-ettle-ettle” when we hear a song sparrow sing, it’s near impossible not to draw upon a century of scholarship when trying to process the various faces of Kierkegaard.
Like any field guide, or its older relative the travelogue, another by someone else would look very different, and what is presented as if it were absolute truth is, the reader must continually remind oneself, the reflection of just one reader. Ugh, doesn’t this fact just make the effort superfluous? Well, sure, it might– I used to avoid reading commentary of one author by another for the same reason. I would ask myself why I would ever want to read Hazlitt’s musings on Shakespeare’s characters, or Lewis’ preface to Spenser. If I have a spare moment, I thought, I’d rather read Shakespeare and Spenser themsleves rather than some second-hand description, however lauded. But then, strangely enough for someone thinking like this, I entered two fields that changed my mind. One was philosophy, where so many powerful ideas have already been expressed that the current task is partly to sift through them and find what is of value among the things we are all (throughout time and place) saying to each other. The other field was biology, where reading nature (seeing the actual organisms) is done from time to time, perhaps not as frequently as we would like, in precious field expeditions; whereas much more of our average month is spent reading Nature (the journal), i.e., second-hand descriptions. It is these second-hand descriptions, and especially the generalizations one may draw from them, that comprise the edifice of science. From this practice I learned that some of what is wonderful about the world might just survive the piggy-backing of author upon author attempting to convey it. There is something to be said for the concentration of truths by an interpreter, just as we like maple syrup as well as maple trees. I get an immediate and concentrated sense of human nature from reading a few of Hazlitt’s comments on Shakespeare’s characters that I could only get from Shakespeare himself by reading his plays back to back for hours on end (and that, only if I am as perceptive as Hazlitt, which I doubt). And besides, Shakespeare is not the first person to see what he saw. The bucks of truth, goodness, and beauty don’t really stop at any human. Nobody can be credited with inventing them, so they are as much Hazlitt’s as they are Shakespeare’s.
However, I must admit that I still like maple trees better than maple syrup. Concentrated doses are great, but the original dilute beauty in situ is still better. Just as I’ve always liked nature better than science, I’d rather you read Tolstoy than read me or anyone else talking about Tolstoy. Of course, you may have already read him, in which case I hope you treat my musings on his work as both a conversation with you (however one-sided it is by necessity), and (as mentioned above) a souvenir of your own experience, as when you buy a postcard that is someone else’s photograph of the same vista you have seen. And if you haven’t read Tolstoy, my hope, my very purpose in recording these entries, is that after following me talking about him for a little while (I have just now read my very long Anna Karenina entry and it took eight minutes), you will not only get a small concentrated dose of the wonder of the original (like coming close to a gorilla in the zoo), but you may just decide that it’s worthwhile to expend the energy to observe the real thing in its native habitat. And after all, the original is what a field guide is all about– nobody looks at one as an alternative to seeing the real thing!
Enough writing about writing about writing, for goodness sake. I’ll close by mentioning that, despite the titular claim to “Great Literature”, the quality of books takes sundry forms– not all greatness is alike, and not all greatness has yet been duly appreciated. I treat the canon with the respect it deserves, but I am bold in adding to it, especially from recent works. For another thing, I do not claim that every book here is a edge-of-your-seat page-turner. Some books can be read in one obsessive sitting, whereas others are better sipped over weeks or months. And readers are different in terms of where on that continuum a book will lie. Also in recognition of the diversity of the material, my representations of the books are varied. The chief virtues of some, such as many adventure novels, can be appreciated from a plot summary; whereas in other books, even in some novels, the sequence of events is of little importance compared to something else, say the characterization of the protagonist. Thus the sections in each entry here vary in form and content. The sequence of sections and what they contain (for which please see the “Organization” tab) are subject to widely varying emphases. For instance, family relationships of the characters are complex in both Go Down, Moses and Anna Karenina. However, they are more central (and more confusing) in the former work, more integral to enjoyment of that novel; so a family tree is presented for the Faulkner book but not the Tolstoy. In the same way, the length of an entry is not necessarily indicative of the length or the quality of a work. Little needs be said to convey the value of some books, whereas we could benefit from knowing a great deal about others. This is a matter of taste, of course, but I give in to my perceptions or biases here wholesale, because I’m not forcing anyone to read these things. So I give a brief summary and a few words about Stevenson and Sayers, but elaborate extensively on Augustine and Tolkien. Obviously some books are denser then others, some more quotable, and the wonders of some come only through reading large portions that cannot easily be extracted. Many books even leave one with a feeling or a sense of something very difficult to convey– these are often the best books. Ah, please go to the original! If such things could be represented in a summary or a set of quotations, or indeed in any kind of encapsulation, the book would be needless. It is for a good reason that nearly everyone likes nearly every great book better than the movie.
Thanks for visiting! I look forward to your comments. I intend to post about one work a week once I get a critical mass going.
New York, 2014
This site is organized like a library with a slew of card catalogues (remember those?). There are several ways you can maneuver through it– nine ways, in fact. In order of their appearance down the right sidebar, they are:
- Search (only searches author, title, categories, tags, etc., not the full text of the entries)
- Title (along with a brief blurb about each book)
- Keyword (“Idea Space”)
- Time Period (“Eras”
- Posting Date (“Archives”)
On each page, first is presented a reflection, perhaps including a summary. This covers aspects of the work that impressed me most, or stimulated my thought, after having read it. For any particular work this might include some or all of the following: themes, plot synopses, chapter summaries, and preliminary critical observations and evaluations of its merit. The purpose of this section is merely to impart a flavor of the book, as well as my own intellectual or emotional reaction to it. By the way, if I think reading a particular paragraph would spoil someone’s enjoyment of a good ending, I’ll stow it away as a separate file and ask you to download it (SPOILER) if you wish. In these cases, my recommendation (and the reason for going to such trouble to protect you) is NOT to download it, but to read the original and remain in ignorance of the ending until it unfolds in due course.
In some cases I have added CHAPTERS, SUMMARIES, or GLEANINGS, which are interesting arguments, insights, themes, observations, or some other discrete aspects of the work, in a bulleted list.
Then comes TIDBITS OF SIGNIFICANCE, a series of quotations taken from the text. Generally it was the philosophical, imaginative, or literary significance of each blurb– its “quotability”– that made me think to include it, and so you certainly won’t get a good idea of the plot or characters or action by reading them. You will certainly get some thoughts thrown your way: some deep, some funny, some provocative, some wise, some foolish… but all memorable in some way.
After this is a short section I call TIPS. It contains two parts. First, in READ THIS WHEN, I make a concise statement suggesting what kind of work this is, and in what mood or situation, or with what personality, you would be likely to enjoy reading it. Second, I list a few other good works of literature under the heading IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D ALSO LIKE… I invent a couple of mini-genres and suggest other books that would fall into the same category as the one you’ve just been reading about. So, whether you’re into the African jungle or 19th century Parisian high society, travels into space or into the Middle Ages, somber reflections on death or powerful manifestos of triumph, if you find one book here in that vein, I’ll point you to a few others.
Finally, I link to my favorite extant hardcover and paperback editions of the books available on Amazon.com, under FIND THIS BOOK. I should mention that most of my favorite editions of books are long since out of print. You will not find those cute multicolored Everyman abusable hardcovers any more– and indeed many of the works they treated so reverently are no longer even in print at all despite their excellence. And many lesser-known books by great authors are only available in complete works that are now extinct; despite the popularity of Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Treasure Island, for instance, just try to find a print version of Pavilion on the Links, though it is no less exciting. And, needless to say, you won’t find me linking to any exquisite 18th century reinforced volumes with pages thick as cardboard but supple as leather, the first letter of every chapter beautifully illuminated with tendrils and forest creatures… Ok, ok. There’s Project Gutenberg and the Victorian Web and so on. You can find what you want online in most cases. But if you’re a little more old-school, if you want to be able to get sand in it, or turn pages, if you don’t want to worry about batteries or theft or coffee or the cat or kids, if you want to mark (use pencil!) in the margins, just click the link and wait for that Christmas feeling you only get when something real, tangible, and wrapped arrives.
At the bottom of each post, I encourage you to leave comments, including suggestions or questions. Be as critical as you like! And feel free to subscribe (at the top right of every page and post), which means you’ll receive an email when a new post appears.
… (of course, as trite as it may sound, I must:) to the men and women, whether represented on these pages or not, who have left us the legacy of human civilization and imagination in their writings.
… to those of Leominster and Fitchburg, Massachusetts, who initially sparked my interest in literature when I was young– my parents Ben and Jean Lahti (for teaching me to read, and giving me The Bible, Tom Sawyer, Where the Red Fern Grows, and much more!); my brother Adam and sister Sarah for helping me develop the imagination to appreciate stories and myths; my grade-school friends Craig Poole and Joe Rousseau (who were partners with me in getting obsessed with Tolkien and medievalist fantasy); and three high school teachers: Marsha Cournoyer (for making my love for epic fantasy “official” by introducing me to Homer and Beowulf), Barbara McGuirk (for dousing me with English poetry), and Lynne Carroll (for resolutely driving me to translate Virgil).
…to those responsible for my academic training who most inspired me, encouraged and helped me to meld imagination with reason, and taught me how to think critically without destroying beautiful things in the process: Professors Scott Carroll (history, now at The Manuscript Research Group, Oxford), David Aiken (philosophy, Gordon College), and E. David Cook (philosophy, Green College, Oxford).
…to my wife April for conversations about many of the works reviewed on this site, and for daily inspiration! See her online photography shop here and craft jewelry shop here, and our Chuckaboo Prints shop which has a lot of literature-themed products. Last and no longer least even in size, to our now adult kids Eva and Elias, for their enthusiasm in giving April and me the opportunity to experience so many wonderful books by reading to them throughout their childhood.