Home / Loading the Canon, or The Preamble to the Great Book Adventure

Loading the Canon, or The Preamble to the Great Book Adventure

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Now, I'm not one for resolutions, never have been. I've always thought it was a little silly to put off starting something new until an arbitrary calendar date. I mean, what if you got hit by a bus on December 29th? Maybe if you had started jogging earlier, you would've gotten out of the way. But I digress.

This is about starting something new by reading more than a few old things. I find myself looking at 2008 with a resolution in mind. Well, let's call it a plan. That sits better. So, the plan, then, is to read one “great” book a month for the entire year and write about them as I go.

Of course, that begs a question, doesn't it?

While ‘great’ is a ludicrously subjective word, I mean to look at books set squarely in the western literary canon. I'm looking for books that I haven’t read, with either an author or a title whose name you say in capital letters. You know, SHAKESPEARE, DICKENS, DON QUIXOTE, books that we were all assigned to read in school and for which most of us promptly went out and bought the Cliff’s Notes.

Nevertheless, there are just certain pieces of literature that you have to say with that sort of emphasis. I am fully aware that I will most likely end up spending the year in the confines of the Dead White Man’s club, but something about certain books has created a reputation which has elevated the work beyond the everyday. I think that's what I'm most curious about in this project. How did ‘great’ books become that way? Is the reputation still deserved? After all, if a piece of art no longer speaks to an audience, is it worth keeping around?

Another motivation for this plan is the slightly nagging feeling that I can’t really consider myself literate if I have at least taken a crack at the traditional stuff. Generally speaking, my tastes run towards the esoteric, in both modern and ancient literature. I prefer swimming in the quiet tributaries and back bays rather than the main stream, as it were. My scholarly studies took me into the realm of ancient hero stories, while my reading these days has more to do with imaginary worlds or odd corners of history than anything else. The problem with this preference is that it leaves me feeling somewhat out of the loop. As both a student and now a teacher, my life is something like working at a movie theatre and never seeing a Spielberg or Jerry Bruckheimer production. Hence, the plan.


Don Quixote
Something by Dickens
Machiavelli's The Prince
The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
Something by Voltaire
Something by Hemingway that's not the Old Man and the Sea (read it)
Something by another American (not Steinbeck, Twain or Harper Lee. Faulkner, perhaps?)

* * *

It's a rather paltry affair, isn't it? As you can see, this is neither complete nor set in stone. I'm hoping that, as with most things, a little help and a little inspiration will sort it all out in the end. If you, dear reader, have any suggestions, please let me know. I would welcome too, any thoughts on what make great books great, and whether what I'm reading qualifies. In some ways this may be as much an experiment in the nature of reading as it is an exploration of literature.

Either way, at the end of it all, I should be at least a little better off. Unless, of course, I do treat it like a resolution and fall off the treadmill some time around the Superbowl.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Moira

    Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 – Always a good one to make you appreciate any and all books.

  • duane

    A few suggestions:

    for Voltaire, Candide

    for Dickens, Bleak House

    Hemingway, never cared for him, actually

    replace Machiavelli with Dante’s Inferno

    for “another American,” you could consider Willa Cather Death Comes for the Archbishop, Upton Sinclair The Jungle, or something more modern, de Lillo or Wolfe

    other “greats” that I like:

    Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
    Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann
    Ficciones, Borges
    Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
    The Stranger, Camus

    Ibsen, Kafka, Nabokov, Hardy, Austen, Goethe, and James are worth the effort. Also, plays by Euripides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Aristophanes, if you want to be a real egghead.

  • Dickens is my favorite novelist and I’ve read all of his stuff. I still haven’t quite forgiven him for dropping dead halfway through writing Edwin Drood.

    I agree with Duane on Bleak House because of the richness of its characters and (unusually for Dickens) the density of its plotting.

    My other favorite Dickens is A Tale of Two Cities, simply because it’s so different from anything else he wrote that it adds to the attraction.

    For Hemingway, I recommend A Farewell to Arms as a good start. A tersely-written, gritty, realistic war novel.

    Every BC regular should read Machiavelli, if only to get a closer insight into the workings of Dave Nalle’s brain.

  • bliffle

    What’s wrong with Hemingway? Too celebrated? try “The Sun Also Rises”, “For Whom The Bell Tolls”, “Islands In the Stream”, etc.

    Or, try Hemingways sometime friend, sometime nemesis, John Dos Passos. You can’t claim to be a modern literary US citizen if you haven’t read “USA” and the sequel “Midcentury”.

    Richard Wrights “Native Son”

    Dashiell Hammitt, Raymond Chandler.

    Not all great writing is fiction. try some americana: “Fifty years on the Trail” John Young Nelson, “Lucky 7” Tom John Carpenter, “Old jules” Mari Sandoz (one of the best books ever written by an American, IMO).

    Great books come from every corner of the world. We all know familiars like Tolstoi (try “Family Happiness”, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, “Yardstick: the story of a horse”, “How Much Land Does A Man Need?” for short memorable Tolstoi), Dostoievsky (“The Idiot”, “the Double”), Gogol (“Dead Souls”) Nabokov (“Bend Sinister”) Stendahl (“Red and Black”) Flaubert (“Sentimental education”) Remarque (“All Quiet On The western front” , “The Black Obelisk”).

    Less familiar Europeans like Selma Lagerlof “Barabas”). Alberto Moravia,

    You can’t ignore the great Eastern literature “Golden Lotus”, “Dream Of The red Chamber”, “Stone Monkey”, Lady Murasaki.

    If the cost is too high, read free books. Go to Gutenberg Project online for free copies of out-of-copyright books by Jack London (“Iron Heel”), Joseph Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson, etc. All in glorious machine-readable ASCII text. there are also online sources for fully formatted ready-to-print books.

  • If the cost is too high, read free books. Go to Gutenberg Project online for free copies of out-of-copyright books

    Or the public library.

  • troll

    Chris – read Gravity’s Rainbow first: it will give you the necessary perspective for your literary quest…and good reason to ‘fall off the treadmill’

  • bliffle

    Public libraries are a good source. Or even private libraries, such as the library of someones home where you are staying. Hosts are often thrilled that a guest has taken interest in a book that they had read and enjoyed.

    But sometimes you may awaken at 2AM in a strange town where you have no internet connection, so you reach for the laptop in order to read some more of Joseph Conrads “Arrow of Gold” to while away an hour before returning to sleep. Better than playing a stupid game of Tetris!

    A couple of good books from Gutenberg Project take very little space and if you travel you WILL find them handy.

  • Reading Conrad is like trying to run the hundred metres in a swimming pool. Why a Pole who lived in France chose to write in English has always puzzled me.

  • bliffle

    If you read books you will discover that there are many good and great books and that it is not a competition. there is no one book that is the Greatest Book Ever Written. Not even “War and Peace”! There are so many good and enjoyable books that you will never exhaust them. We Americans have to abandon the idea that there is One Exemplar For Every Great Thing. It is not a competition, it is not like determining the fastest drag car or the land speed record. this seems to be a foreign idea to many US citizens.

    Reading books can lead you from one thing to another and into areas you never could have imagined you would go. It flattens out a lot of the world while increasing your appreciation of other people, other places, other lives and other cultures.

    It’s about pleasure, after all, and not accomplishment.

  • I think one thing that is helping me define what this quest is all about is hearing from other people. I’ve always been of the opinion that a great book will speak to its readers, regardless of time or place. When I start to hear several people talk about the same title that peaks my interest. So, please, keep the suggestions coming. I’m definitely going to look into Bleak House and some of the others. Doctor Faustus, The Stranger and Farewell to Arms I’ve all heard good things about before. I’ve, of course, been told I should read Crime and Punishment as well, but, to be honest, Dostoevsky depresses the bejezzus out of me. Sometimes, that’s a good thing, though.

    Some of the suggestions I’ve read are: Fahrenheit, The Inferno, Heart of Darkness, and The Jungle. All of them are excellent and the only thing keeping them out of the adventure is that I’ve traveled that ground before.

    As for reading the books and the cost…The Gutenberg Proj is wonderful (especially for a teacher in a strapped school system), but I’m always a fan of paper under my fingers. The public library is one of my favorite haunts. Although, I think that has more to do with me running out of shelf space than anything else.

    Thanks to everyone who commented. It’s nice to be read by such well read people.