Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Reading list for life

Over at Dave King's (down in the tardy comments a post or so ago) we got to the subject of 'books a young lassie of 17 really should read'. Mainly we were talking about books written before 1920 (a random date but let's stick with it for now). Maybe if this goes well we'll do a post 1920 post next time. And then a poetry one...

First off let's see what we can do with this!

If you had to pick one novel (or other prose) written before 1920 to recommend to this young lassie what would you choose?

If you really can't pick just one...pick a couple...you know I like to be flexible.

Obviously there are a lot of great books known best as children's books but let's keep off them for now. This girl is growing up and let's prepare her for the horrors and joys of grown-up life!



It's harder than you think...at least I think it is. I studied English Lit at school and Spanish and Russian Lit at uni and I have read... a few books but when it came to decide what I would really, hand-on-heart, you-must-read-this recommend...I wasn't so sure all of a sudden. Yes, I read a lot of Dickens when I was 17 but that was for an exam. I enjoyed it...all of it...but is that what I would say 'stop what you're doing and read this now!' Likewise I read every Jane Austen novel and enjoyed them all...but would I offer them up as must-reads? Is that just because they are considered and labelled 'classics'? If they didn't come with that label and kudos (if you like) would they be top of a list, top of my list? It's quite tricky.

I started off recommending Charlotte Brontë's 'Jane Eyre' (pub. 1847) but I know that is partly because I read it quite recently (within the last couple of years anyway). I had never read it before (one of those things...just passed me by somehow) and I expected it to be...you know, the big dramatic Brontë thing (I had read 'Wuthering Heights' and found it fairly tedious...all that toing and froing over the moors...) but then when I read 'Jane Eyre' finally...wow! I loved the voice it was written in, the awareness of the writer and the character...more than the story (which we all know, more or less) I loved the writing and the way you can feel the writer finding a freedom in the book that she probably didn't have in life. Or maybe you think I got that wrong...sometimes when you read a book can be as important as what you read...

Anyway, I look forward to your suggestions. All readers are welcome to join in here...not just the regular comment providers! And no suggestion too ridiculous.

29 comments:

Fiendish said...

I am thrilled at having partly inspired this blog post, Rachel. I feel very cool. Right now I've got "The Age of Innocence" by Edith Wharton - written *in* 1920, I think, but maybe it's best to start small? I don't know whether it's worth bothering with, though. And obviously, I'm excited to read any and all suggestions.

Rachel Fox said...

Well, I haven't read that one so you can tell me whether I should or not when you're finished! Sometimes I think I'm not too badly read and other times I think 'Oh my god, I've read NOTHING!'
x
ps of course you're cool. Cooler than cool, in fact.

hope said...

The first book which popped into my head was "Wuthering Heights" {okay so I found Heathcliff intriguing.. when I saw the original film with Lawrence Olivier, my version of Heathcliff came to life.] I followed that by reading "Jane Eyre"! Think I was 13 or 14 at the time.

Now I'll have to think all over again. :)

BarbaraS said...

Pre 1920? I think you might just be able to squeeze Katherine Mansfield in then... her short stories are so illuminating, they're positively lucernal. But I don't know how well they would be appreciated by a young un...

Sorlil said...

Well it all depends on the person - I can't stand any of the Jane Austen novels for instance. But, as I said on Dave's thread, if you're into the crime genre then Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment is a must. I would also recommend a novella written by Kate Chopin called The Awakening, first published in 1899. It's a very beautifully written story and I just love it, plus it's short!

Rachel Fox said...

I think this is going to be a reading list for me too. I'd never even heard of Kate Chopin, Sorlil, so I've learned about her today if nothing else!

I'm not sure I would have been keen Austen either Sorlil but I had the most fantastic English lit teachers at 6th form (i.e. when I was 16-18) and we did 'Emma' for A level. They really made it interesting...the way they taught it as much as anything. Plus even though a lot of the film adaptations leave me cold I must admit the Emma Thompson 'Sense & Sensibility' is one of my favourite period dramas on film...and even considering Hugh bloody foolish Grant.

x

Ken Armstrong said...

I think 'Jane Eyre' is the 'cannot fail' book recommendation. My first Dickens was 'Great Expectations' and I think it's a great one to start with.

Boys like Poe...

Rachel Fox said...

I'll avoid the temptation to make a bad Tellytubbies joke (that wouldn't work when typed anyway).

x

Jim Murdoch said...

Apart from a couple of Robert Louis Stevenson books we were forced to read at school I've read next to nothing before 1920 and have never had any interest in doing so. And what little I have read I'm not sure a seventeen year-old girl would appreciate.

I'm also not sure I necessarily subscribe to the concept of the 'timeless classic' because I think so many of these classics were very much of their time. I've pretty much been the same with classical music, very little before The Rite of Spring (1913) has been of interest to me after school. That said, I've just spent the last couple of days completely absorbed in Fauré's Requiem (1890) so, maybe in time I'll get drawn to some of these earlier texts but I somehow doubt it.

Rachel Fox said...

Funny you mention RLS...I've been meaning to re and/or reread some of his for a while. I don't think I've actually ever read Jekyll & Hyde for a start.

shug said...

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincy
OR
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
or
Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain Fournier

Rachel Fox said...

Strangely I've never read the opium eater one...will add that to my list too. Never heard of Hamsun (am I so ignorant and uneducated that I don't even know how bad it is? oh dear...).
As for Meaulnes...we did it for French A level and we all hated it (but the teacher...a very strange, affected woman with ten inch fingernails...she loved it and thought we were all...ignorant!).

Colin Will said...

School was 50 or so years ago, and I've never read any pre-1920 novels since then, but then I studied science and maths rather than literature. I don't even buy into the concept of the 'classic' novel. I either like stuff or I don't. Poetry's different - I'll happily re-read Chaucer or the Makars, or even earlier.

Rachel Fox said...

You're really surprised me there Colin! You were the one I was expecting to come over with a great big list of must-reads!

x

Rachel Fox said...

I feel we're not being very enthusiastic and this makes me feel bad for all the writers of times past and their efforts! Is it the classic drama TV adaptations...have they driven us to this...just total indifference?

I'm going to add 'Tess of the d'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented' by Thomas Hardy because I read it when about 17 and it made a big impression (though I can't say I liked it...but like isn't everything!) and 'Howards End' by E.M.Forster because Zadie Smith is quite right, it is brilliant.

Colin Will said...

If it was post-1920 I could give you a list Rachel. It would include Huxley, Heller, Orwell, Vonnegut, Grass, and many others.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to agree with Colin. Literature developed in leaps and bounds in the 20th century and there is so much of it. I'm not saying, "Damn the past," or anything - it would be like saying, "Roll over Beethoven," and not in a nice way. People die. History moves on. We start to forget. There is so much of twentieth century literature I've not read that I'd rather concentrate on that while I have the time. I prefer to specialise rather than dabble.

Rachel Fox said...

It's weird that it bothers me so much that we can't get more excited about this subject right now (novelists anyway or story writers...this hasn't been about poets this time or playwrights...no one has mentioned any playwrights anyway). It's weird especially as I don't listen to much music made before 1960 (never mind 1920) so I am having some double standards perhaps!

The thing is I think I was hoping for a huge deluge of enthusiastic recommendations and I feel like we've not come up with much this time. Yes history moves on...but are we leaving everyone behind in our rush?

Roll on the other reading lists...
x

smith3000 said...

I think I'm with Jim and Colin - United Front of Bloke or what?

I wouldn't want to consign it to the dustbin of history but I can't think of too much pre-1920s literature to recommend to anyone, 17 or not.

The problem is I haven't read much stuff pre-Joyce, Orwell and Huxley etc and what I did I didn't like much - The Mayor Of Casterbridge, various Dickens, Wuthering Heights etc. Not for me.

The only pre-1920s author I can get any real enthusiasm for is Kafka (if he actually is pre-1920s), who is just marvellous, but other than that ...

Does Chaucer count?

Colin Will said...

James Joyce, Ulysses, published 1922, definitely in my list of greats. Kafka's work was published posthumously in 1924-26. But this is taking Rachel's post in a direction she may not want to go.

hope said...

Is it maybe the context in which we read these books which is making rachel's list...um, difficult?

I think lots of books which might fall into the category were "forced" on me in school and not all were to my liking...think "Canterbury Tales". Some of it is just cultural differences {I know I'll be shot here but I never liked Jane Austen and her cronies because their style of writing put me off as a reader].

For example I read Dickens: loved "Great Expectations", hated "Oliver Twist". Could get into Shakespeare's comedies but loathed the rest. Had to read Tolkien's "The Hobbit", decided to get the rest of the trilogy on my own. Which is why my part of the list isn't helpful, I suppose. Most of what I read as a girl 12-17, I found on my own because a topic interested me. As a kid in the south, I found "The Adventures of Huck Finn" fun because of the dialog...wasn't until I was an adult that I learned some regarded it as racist.

So I'll add Mark Twain to the list [and my favorite off-the-wall poet, Ogden Nash].

sean said...

I don't think Rachel has a direction Colin ... but I reserve the right to be shot down in flames by la Fox. And thanks for cleaning up the Kafka thing. I still like him though.

And Hope, I think you are exactly right about context but this is a place where you can be the literary heretic and say that Jane Eyre is actually a bit shit. I think.

Also a touch drunk, to be honest ..

Rachel Fox said...

Ok...let's move on to something more recent then...see next post...although feel free to come and add other pre 1920 books if you are late in coming or have just remembered something you should have put first time...
Excuse excessive rambliness. I too had a drink last night...not something I do so much these days. Still at least I kept off the opium. Very tired now.
x

Fiendish said...

I've had a read through the suggestions, of course, but I'm just not sure if I'm really tempted. I was born in the 1990s. Reading stuff from the 50s and 60s even is a huge leap back for me. I don't mean to say that literature becomes obsolete along with technology, of course: plenty of my bookish girlfriends love Austen and the Brontes.

I guess I just find it kind of... boring. And is it better to have fun and be ignorant or bored and well-read? I don't know. But I'm sticking with the former.

hope said...

At rachel's request, I place my "odd" selection here. :)

Bram Stoker's "Dracula", which was much more mesmerizing than all the hokey movies which followed. It was creepy in a spine tingling way, yet I couldn't put it down.

Poetikat said...

You may like to read Thomas Hardy's, Jude the Obscure. It is dark and moody and not the least happy-go-lucky. It is a compelling and memorable story.

Kat

Dominic Rivron said...

What about the Sherlock Holmes stories? I've known several people (men and women) who've read them cover to cover.

Rachel Fox said...

Is there an order? Do they need to be read in the right direction, as it were?

Dominic Rivron said...

I think it's a shame not to start with the first, A Study in Scarlet, in which Watson first meets Holmes. And yes, there are little references in the stories to past events which mean they are best read in order, but it's a matter of choice and what you can get hold of. It's annoying to read The Empty House (Holmes brought back to life) before The Final Problem (death at Reichenbach).

I particularly like the fictional fictions: the stories Watson mentions in passing, but never writes up, like 'The Singular Case of the Aluminium Crutch', or 'The Politician, The Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant'.