Email to a Classics Book Discussion Group

I received an email from the leader of a book discussion group of which I am a member.  The leader had asked me to select some classics from my My Best Books list on this blog.  She included a list of the books that the group had already selected for the next few months.  The following is my unedited response:

I get the impression that shorter works are preferred (though Jane Eyre, on your list, is not short).  Anyway, here are some thoughts.

Re the titles you mention, I’ve never liked Animal Farm, but then I’ve never liked parables, it seems too didactic or obvious or something, like preaching though without the preaching.  I know that doesn’t make sense.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful book, I never tire of it, but maybe Lee’s Go Set a Watchman might be more interesting to discuss.  Not a classic, though.  I read It Can’t Happen Here and mostly liked it, though I don’t think it’s Lewis’s best work—though I don’t know what that would be.  All his novels are interesting and well written, but none stand out for me.  I’d like to do Stranger in a Strange Land.  I’d call it a classic, but others might not.  Though the list you provided is not heavily into classic-classics, but rather more like semi-modern classics.  But I’ll (almost) stop worrying about hair-splitting.

I made up a new list; a lot of these are not on my Best Books list, so maybe I’m making a difficult situation worse.  But here it is (dropping the italics):

Albert Camus:  The Stranger

Thomas Hardy:  The Mayor of Casterbridge

Plato:  The Apology (often read and published together with Crito and Phaedo, making together a good story and not long)

Blaise Pascal:  Penseés (unless you want to avoid Christianity; I’m an atheist)

Confucius:  The Analects

Herman Hesse:  anything (though I’m tired of Siddhartha)

Friedrich Nietzsche:  Beyond Good and Evil (I think his best book; Thus Spake Zarathustra is a real slog.)

Marcus Aurelius:  Meditations

Leo Tolstoy:  Confession (also published as My Confession)

Viktor Frankl:  Man’s Search for Meaning (holocaust story + philosophy)

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels:  The Communist Manifesto

William Faulkner:  Intruder in the Dust

Stendhal:  The Charterhouse of Parma

André Malraux:  Man’s Fate

Benvenuto Cellini:  Autobiography

Victor Hugo:  The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I have edited my new list to pull out some excellent books that probably wouldn’t be considered classics; these are:

Thornton Wilder:  The Bridge of San Luis Rey (or anything)

Black Elk:  Black Elk Speaks

James Baldwin:  The Fire Next Time; Notes of a Native Son; or anything

Eldridge Cleaver:  Soul on Ice

Alan Watts:  The Way of Zen (or anything; In My Own Way is his autobiography)

Yasunari Kawabata:  The Old Capital (or anything; I’ve read most of his novels, not this one.  Snow Country is probably his most popular/famous.)

Junichiro Tanizaki:  The Makioka Sisters

Jean-Paul Sartre:  Nausea

Flannery O’Connor:  Wise Blood

Katherine Mansfield:  Ship of Fools

After working on these lists for a while—really a pleasure–I realize (yet again) that the definition of a “classic” is very debatable.  The Great Books of the Western World set, with which I am very familiar, offers some guidance, mostly silly, but I do agree with one of their points:  you can’t really call something a classic if it’s less than 50 years old or if people have stopped reading it.  The Harvard Classics are less familiar and more dated, but less narrow (since I had to look up “parochial,” I decided not to use it).  I think that only eight of the above are in either set, but all are at least 50 years old.

I’ve made this easy on myself by not including anything I don’t want to read.  I need to read the Bhagavad Gita again, but I don’t want to.  I’ve read the Camus fourteen times, so I wouldn’t need to reread it, but would welcome discussion of it.

Just for laughs I’m going to post this email on my blog.  I won’t include your text.

Hope this is what you were looking for.


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