The last post in this series left off with English literature through the Victorian period, with a little overlap here and there, along with a few references to American literature. In retrospect, I probably should have done the literature posts a bit different. Instead of breaking it up into eras, it would have been better to break it into three or four categories, based on the significance or importance of the writer. Getting into this, I did not have a plan for covering literature so things got a little sideways.
The truth is, there’s probably only 100 books and writers that have a claim to being essential to the English canon. If you asked a bunch of well read people to list the 25 books they would take to a deserted island, they would have no trouble cutting down their list. There would be lots of overlap between them, but in the end, there are probably a hundred or so books that truly qualify as essential to an English reader. The rest fall into categories like “important to their genre” or “emblematic of a certain period.”
Anyway, in order to put some structure on this topic, let’s finish off English literature through the early 20th century. The first recommendation here is Samuel Beckett. The reason for this is he is a good example of something that changed in English letters around this time. Writers were no longer appealing to the educated classes. Writing in the 20th century was a social movement and often a political act. Beckett was probably as famous for his influence as he was for his writing. Writers were now pop stars.
You can, if you are a masochist, buy something like the Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett and start plowing through it, but that’s not going to be fun. My recommendation is to come at it from a different angle. Instead, read a good biography of him like Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. It’s probably better to learn about the man and then sample some of his work. Since he was primarily a dramatist, maybe take in a play or rent a movie adaptation of Waiting for Godot.
Another important figure is William Butler Yeats. Like Beckett, Yeats is probably more important for his shadow than his work. If you are into folk literature and traditionalism, then you will enjoy reading Yeats, even if you don’t care for poetry. This is a biography I read a few years ago and I enjoyed it. Again, it is a great introduction to the man and you can use it as a jumping off point for selected readings. I’ll also note that Yeats was a nationalist and traditionalist, something all of us should rediscover.
This naturally leads into the dreaded discussion of poetry, but luckily there is Rudyard Kipling. Like a lot of great literature, Kipling can he had for a song, especially of you don’t mind the ebook format. His poetry is available on-line. Like so many men of his era, his influence extends beyond literature so reading a biography of the man is a good way to understand his impact on the culture. I read this one a dozen years ago, but there may be better ones. It was interesting, despite the writer’s best efforts.
As far as poetry, well, I’m not a big fan of the genre, but others will disagree. The big names are T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Dylan Thomas. Yeats is the giant, but we covered him. I never really cared for Eliot, but I liked Thomas enough to have memorized a few of his poems. In all candor, I did it because quoting Dylan Thomas worked well on the ladies back in the day. They thought I was deep and sensitive. My guess is this still works, if there are any younger guys reading this. Poets used to be lady’s men for a reason.
Another giant is James Joyce. I think Dubliners is one of the best collections of short stories ever written. I’ve read it a dozen times and will probably read it a dozen more before I die. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is also good. I strongly recommend against reading Ulysses, as it is the most dangerous book ever written. Like some others listed here, Joyce really is a giant, despite his relatively modest output. Knowing about him is important. That said, Finnegan’s Wake is just nonsense.
Obviously, Orwell and Huxley are must reads. Both writers get talked about to death by people on the Dissident Right, so there is no need for additional commentary. For Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm are must reads. I’m much more fond of the latter than the former, on aesthetic grounds. Brave New World is a great book. I’ve made this point a gorillion times, but Huxley was much more realistic about the future than Orwell. I’d also argue that he wrote a better book. 1984 is ugly, like Wagner, while Huxley’s book is beautiful.
Finally, the man who invented fantasy literature is J. R. R. Tolkien. My guess is most literate man got the taste for reading through Tolkien. I still remember the puzzled look on my mother’s face as I spent a full summer Saturday on the couch engrossed in The Hobbit. Even as an adult, you can still enjoy The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they are probably best read as young adults and then re-read later in life. Classic science fiction works this way too, but that is a topic for another post.
Like so many great writers of the late Victorian and early modern period – yes, I know, you have a different definition of this time period – Tolkien was a fascinating guy. He fought in the Great War and hung around some of the most important men of letters in his day. In fact, his war experiences are what inspired his darker imagery in his work. Here is a pretty good biography of him from 20 years ago There may be newer biographies out now, given the popularity of the movies, but his life is a fun read.