Essential Knowledge: Part XI

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. EliotW. 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.

80 thoughts on “Essential Knowledge: Part XI

  1. I dissent. Finnegans Wake is not nonsense, but finding the sense takes much onerous effort with lexicon and reference work. Its sleepsense dreamscape can be teased into the not-quite-understood but engaging nature of our own dreams. The concept is simple: a sleeping mind traverses the night, unmoored from ego and particular circumstance. Joyce’s execution was too hard, and the book has limited appeal. It does have the virtue of making Ulysses seem accessible.

  2. I agree with classic SF as way to induct younger generation into some non trivial reading I suggest Poul Anderson. Especially the Flandry series. High adventure that makes you think through ethical issues.

  3. After reading the comments through to the end, I’m shocked (Shocked!) that no one listed any Robert A. Heinlein; especially in regards to kids books.
    Poddy is shocked too.

  4. You can always assess the intellectual and aesthetic acumen of a person by asking the simple question, “Do you prefer Tolkien or Rowlandson?” The answer speaks volumes.

    • @ Lorenzo – Agreed. I’d also be curious how thezman ticks as a futurist, beyond the obvious “robot future”.

      • Zman can speak for himself, of course, but I remember several posts where he was skeptical of the nearness of any big technological breakthroughs.

  5. Might I suggest Part XII?
    Humor, from great writers and even cartoonists?
    Humor is in my mind an essential part of our culture.

    • I like to read what was “popular” at the time as well as what was “great”, and especially popular but has disappeared since. It gives me insights to the thinking of the day, which is do hard to do with the filters of hindsight. In that vein, for humor, try Max Shulman.

    • S.J. Perelman. If you’ve never picked up one of his books, you’ve been missing out. They’re the only things I’ve read that had me literally laughing out loud at times.

      • My dad’s favourite author! I still have his old “The Best of S.J. Perelman”. There’s one passage from “Acres and Pains” I cannot read out loud without cracking up. It’s when he goes to a country doctor and the guy is grabbing him and jabbering something like, “Those tonsils will have to come out, you’ve got tularemia for sure, and your gullet is full of tacks!”

        • I laughed out loud at another passage from “Acres and Pains”. He was talking about carrying something up hill and he said something to the effect that one of his vertebrae gave out with a crack like a pistol shot. There’s another piece he wrote as well that always brings tears to my eyes. I think it was in “Eastward, Ha”, but it’s the story of a visit he made to Scotland where he hooked up with some drunk who talked him into visiting people he claimed were friends of his.

          As an aside, I just finished watching The Testament of Dr. Mabuse a couple of days ago. It holds up amazingly well for a movie made in the 30’s.

          • Isn’t it in “Eastward, Ha!” where he’s in some far Eastern city, Bangkok maybe, and buys a bag of candy which he takes back to his hotel room, and by morning there’s a line of ants marching through the window, across the floor, up the table and straight to the candy? He becomes determined to defeat these ants, and keeps going back to the candy store and buying the exact same order then trying to devise ant-proof storage schemes, to no avail. At the end, he was standing the table legs in individual bowls of gasoline, with the candy in a bowl, inside ANOTHER BOWL filled with gasoline to form a moat. Perelman is just the best.

            And Lang was such a genius, all his Weimar films are still watchable and enjoyable.

          • Oh yes, and after his back gives out, his WIFE has to lug the water uphill, while he lies on the porch shouting encouragement to her!

  6. Y’all left out Laurence J. Peter. He unearthed more universal truth than all those others put together.

    • Those Dune sequels are pretty hard to drag oneself through, though. Heavy in an unresolved, incoherent way, it seemed to me. And I was pissed off that the eerie little sister from the first one turns into a fat monster. Couldn’t she have stayed cute at least?

  7. I read the Silmarillion for the first time over the holidays and agree Tolkien’s credit is well deserved. Over years of personal experience and hardship he built a massive mythopoeic universe with such life, depth and detailed history it provided an unparalleled setting for his fictional work.

    That being said, the American in me still takes a little pride in the fact that by the time Tolkien got around to writing The Hobbit, a much younger man in Texas had also created an impressive mythopoeic universe and was writing such gems as “Queen of the Black Coast”, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, “The Phoenix on the Sword” and many other fantasy adventures that people enjoy reading to this day.

  8. Don’t forget Ray Bradbury. Lyrical sci-fi and fantasy. “It was a pleasure to burn”. Fahrenheit 451 is brilliant blend of 1984 and Brave New World

    • Come on Ron, Bradbury can be a interesting read but you can’t put his name in this pantheon.
      Everybody has been recommending Solzenitzen lately. Must be our times, and I hope to endeavor to read him.

      • The “top 100” is necessary, but you need to do more than that, as your interests take you, if you want to get a full literary meal. My best sources are recommendations from others (getting some here, today), and just picking up books and reading a few pages of them. The book version of surfing the dial on the TV.

        Sticking Bradbury on my list, it’s been a few years.

      • I’ve read Solzenitzen’s The Gulag Archipelago. It’s the ultimate permanent inoculation against communism and all forms of socialism. But be prepared. It is grimmer than any horror novel you can imagine, and more so becasue it it true.

  9. Sometimes I feel like I’m back in high school. Pretend to read the book, and pick up stuff about it in class discussions, pass the test.

  10. I’m a purist who considers e-book reading a tool of the devil, so I’ll share that nice, early, hardcover copies of Kipling can be acquired on eBay for as little as $3-5.

  11. I love these posts! I really enjoy hearing the commenters’ opinions too, even though I’ll be the guy they chew on today…. because I must be the only guy on the Alt-Not-Left (or whatever we are today) who is bored to tears by Tolkien. I made several stabs at it, at different points in my life, and… nope. I fully understand his importance, but he’s like Hawthorne to me — much better read about than read.

    • I’ve always had similar feelings for Hemingway. Yeah, some of his stuff is pretty good, but a lot of it is terrible. I just never thought of him as a mature writer. He was a perpetual adolescent and colossal phony.

      • I’m with you on Hemingway. Worth reading a bit of to see the technique, but that macho man stuff gets old fast (see also: Norman Mailer, who was an even bigger phony and far less talented). There’s often a big gap between books that are Important, and books that are Good. I guess I’m a philistine, but I think you can Cliffs Note the Important ones.

        • Yeah, I never go Mailer either. He struck me as the sort of guy who appealed to cosmopolitan women in the 70’s. Sort of a proto-beta-male. I’m always suspicious of men that are always trying to show they are tough guys. They are the ones who crack first.

          • The Naked and the Dead was his only worthwhile work that I read, and I forced my way though several before I gave up on him. His depiction of humping a lot of weight up and down hills in the heat is remarkably accurate.

            If you’re looking to get a kid reading, the best thing you can do for him is get him interested in hard SF. It may lead him to a competence in science. Which is worthwhile for the rest of his employment life.

          • I have a shameful habit of reading low-grade (Kindle Unlimited, FREE!) Space Marine milsfic.

            Sadly nobody but me seems to care about getting the science (except for the plotonium drive, you gotta have one to even have Space Marines…) even back-of-the-envelope plausible.

            Example: Large threatening enemy artifact: ZOMG it’s huge! 25 km long! 234M tons!

            Activate Spergatron-1948!

            So if it’s as dense as water it would be umm ~100m in diameter with an aspect ratio of 250 —- shaped like 2 feet of 0.1″ wire. Say wut?

      • Hemingway’s publisher, the literary critics, and the college literature departments did a great job of teeing him up. Steinbeck, too.

          • Put ’em both on the list. I actually like Steinbeck’s descriptions of California, he does a good written version of the plein-air art of his day. But the critics and Life magazine (I don’t think you can overestimate the ability of Life magazine to promote or demote a person or idea, right up through Vietnam, which exhausted the magazine as well as the public) took authors and blew up their work into some sort of vanguard of the higher liberal/progressive consciousness.

            Loved “The Pearl” back in the day and it holds up well for me now. “The Grapes of Wrath” not so much. It turns into a rant worthy of Rand halfway through, and IMO buries the real world and the issues of the day, replacing it with straw man arguments and overwrought imagery.

            The less I am reminded about my thoughts on Salinger, the better.

      • “To die. Alone. In the rain.” Brilliant! The typical German answer would take that one step further to include, “In a ditch.”

      • His early short stories are pretty good, “In Our Time” collects some of the best. Keep boys away from his novels. “A Farewell to Arms” and, Gawd Help Us, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” attempt to mask sentimental romantic slop with manly sounding war stuff but don’t succeed. “The Sun Also Rises” is unconscious self-parody.

    • I’ll leap on the sword with you, my friend. For some reason, Tolkien has always bored me, as well. I always shy away from discussions on the topic, because I know I’m supposed to love his writings, but…I don’t think I do.

      • Another heretic! Let’s go all the way — Ayn Rand is a fraud; her philosophy is juvenile, and her writing is terrible. 🙂

      • Me neither. The only fantasy author I read with gusto and enthusiasm was Roger Zelazny.

    • Aw,c’mon Severian,you heretic! Try “Bored of the Rings” by The Harvard Lampoon,written when Harvard still had students with a sense of humor. Who can forget Frito the Hobbit,Goodgulf the Wizard,and the legendary Riders of Roi-Tan?

      • Yes! The best part is the teaser page in front, with the hot Elf about to peel off her clothes…
        Read the whole thing trying to find that part. (Spoiler- it’s not in there!)

    • It’s certain chapters in Tolkien that I love — the Tom Bombadil chapters, the Treebeard chapter, the Scouring of the Shire. I guess I identify with Treebeard and would like Tom Bombadil to be my best friend. Or maybe I identify with Sauron and would like Treebeard and Tom Bombadil to be my best friends. The only fully developed characters in the novel are Gandalf and Sam; the Aragorn-Legolas-Gimli trio is very thin and looks to me like a representation of the nice-to-nerds athletic popular kids at school, as soon through a nerd’s eyes.

    • That’s how I feel about Wagner’s operas. I get all ready to listen, thinking THIS time I’ll be swept away by the grandeur that everyone else loves. The Overture starts me off well, then the singing starts, and I find my mind is wandering to what we’re going to have for supper that night, and pretty soon I’ve just switched it off. It’s simply boring. I find myself wondering if all this is really written down and SUPPOSED to sound like this, or if Wagner wrote some sort of special kind of opera that just offered general suggestions to the singers and left them to make up whatever they thought would sound good.

      • Wagner is something you have to experience in person. The grandeur of the performance, assuming well done sets, and the feel of live music, makes it quite an experience, but the music is still ugly. It’s just an ugliness in context. It’s why I listen to Italian opera at home. Or maybe Vivaldi or Beethoven if I’m feeling a need for classical.

        That said, the Bugs bunny version of Wagner is great

        • It was obvious to me that the country was doomed as soon as I realized that most Americans know ” “The Ride of the Valkyrie” as the Kill the wabbit song.

          • Ha. Bugs Bunny is a reminder that the average man used to be a lot smarter than today. To enjoy Bugs in the day, you had to be literate, familiar with the canon, know a bit about history and know a bit about high culture.

      • Wagner was a ridiculous nerd, he certainly wrote it down. My experience was that I didn’t love him until I both dug deeper into the orchestration (the orchestra is a full-fledged character in Der Ring, often commenting on the on-stage action through the use of other motifs), and saw full staged productions.

        He’s now my favorite opera composer, and it’s not even close.

  12. I can’t think of a high-status, set-in-the-real-world English-language novel for my kid to read that would be as simultaneously deep and engaging/exciting as Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov or Devils. Bleak House has that kind of status, and there are a lot of great characters and scenes in it, but it’s ruined for me by the sentimental girl-diarist who has the first-person point of view throughout about a quarter of it. Any suggestions, anyone?

    • It would depend upon their age and sex. The Bronte sisters would be a good place to start for a girl. For boys, Joseph Conrad is good choice.

      • Almost 13-year-old boy. Conrad’s a good suggestion. An Eastern European writing in English … Huxley wrote a couple of Dostoevskyan novels (Point Counter-point, Eyeless in Gaza), but they’re so dismal.

          • My mother had us read Johnny Tremain when we were kids (I liked it) and then gave my kid a copy for his 11th? birthday — he wasn’t very motivated to read it, so I read him all of it except for the last chapter, which I made him read to himself. It’s pretty good, although a decent thoughtful Loyalist character would have been a nice addition to it.
            I made him read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and the right-leaning SciFi classic The Mote in God’s Eye (Niven and Pournelle) during the past year; once I nag him into beginning a reading-session he’s into it for about 45 minutes at a stretch. So it seems as though Dostoevsky-level stuff is the next step.
            Thanks, everybody below.
            Karl Horst — I’ve read Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid to him out-loud; I enjoyed that. I’m toying with the idea of nagging him through the Republic. Plato really is pleasant to read. (I’m reading Laws right now, along with other stuff.)

          • Jerry Pournelle reads this blog. He sent me a note on these posts a few months back.

            How about that?

          • Pournelle’s Jannisaries is a good series. Niven has Ringworld if you want to suggest more sci-fi.

          • For the young and young at heart, Niven’s ‘Man-Kzin Wars’ series is the biggest blast in science fiction.

            Hrrr! It stirs the liver of Heroes!

            (Beginning with ‘Protector’- Earth is a lost colony of the dread Pak- a humanity stunned by PC tyranny makes first contact with tigerlike aliens intent on food and slaves. Honor demands victory!… yet those cursed monkey tricks defeat the Heroes once again!)

            For girls as well, get the ‘Company’ stories of the late, great Kage Baker.

            (Doomed orphans throughout time are taken and made immortal cyborgs.
            They wait to rescue history’s treasures lost to war and disaster.
            But history ends in 2355- and no one knows why…)

            I know, I know. Not Classics.
            But someday they will be!
            Anything to defeat Harry Potter!

          • For a 13-year old boy? Booooooo.

            I’d recommend ‘Vanity Fair’. Not as sentimental as Dickens (I agree, the girl diarist in ‘Bleak House’ is so insipid I’d like to hang her), in fact it’s downright cynical in parts. But it’s also funny and doesn’t talk down to the reader.

        • getting a 13 year old to read anything is a small victory. the titles you are considering are waaaayyyyy over the head of a 13 year old and probably most 18 year olds. but good luck…

          • My mother always said the key was to make sure the kid enjoyed whatever they read. After that creates a love for reading, then you can start putting in some of the dryer tomes that everyone is required to love, but secretly hates.

            I remember quite fondly reading Verne, Burroughs, London etc. Nothing incredibly deep or “classic” but undeniably fun, and it really does help instill a love for reading.

      • Amen to Conrad, and not just his sea stories. See “The Secret Agent” for a view of nascent terrorism.

      • I think Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is great for its realistic portrayal of the issues with the colonization of Africa (the horror). The issues with disease re. the Native Americans worked in reverse with Africa. James Bowery has posited a theory called “G.O.D.” (Genetic Omni-Dominance) that the older a human population is the more genetically superior it is toward infectious human diseases in general.

        H.G. Wells is good. Even though he was a lefty his science fiction is filled with social satire.

    • The difficulty in recommending older literature to younger readers is that the writing and pacing is very different than the preferences of younger readers today. With that in mind, the vividness of description and the economy of writing in Animal Farm will appeal to youth, IMO.

      If your younger reader can tolerate a longer, more linear and traditional type of read, and has a real interest in early 20th century British history, try “Ruined City” (“Kindling” in the US) by Nevil Shute. A bit like “Atlas Shrugged” without beating one over the head, and profoundly more optimistic about people and the human condition. A good primer for capturing the flavor of that weird sort of old school British optimism in the face of failure.

      Here are a couple of–maybe–real treats for some of you or your kids. “Just Patty” by Jean Webster, written in 1911, is a quick read about Patty, a teenage girl in a girl’s boarding school. A ton of interesting small cultural insights, lots of humor, and an encouraging undertone of a whole world out there for a teenager growing up in 1911 America. The other is “The Abandoned” by Paul Gallico, which is a very odd book about a little boy in mid-century London who is run over by a car and wakes up as a cat. If you have an affinity for cats, you may treasure it. Others will probably hate it.

      What I like about these three obscure books is that they are really uplifting in the end, which is a trait so absent in much of 20th century literature. All three are also full of little unexpected cultural insights specific to a time and place, which is valuable in this multi-culti world we live in today. They are also good examples of how stories used to be told, which is fundamentally different than how stories are told today. Finally, they are small rewards in stepping away from the “top 100” canon. Though they are not “great works”, sometimes small rewards are very sweet, indeed.

      • I agree with Dutch and I think it is very difficult for todays young readers to connect with anything written during the Victorian times, despite the profound social impact of these authors. The differences between our respective societies, and cultures, makes the connection very difficult. I think you almost have to go back to Homer or Plato since their stories are so old, they read more like science fiction, and have even been modernized in movies like “Brother Where Art Thou” which I thought was wonderful.

        • Well, one issue is that young people have such short attention spans. The main problem is that we have been cut off from our shared culture. So many of these authors expected you to have some knowledge of the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, etc that you miss out on a lot when you don’t share that connection.

          • Short attention spans or just not interested? I suspect the later. It’s actually pretty easy to engage young people, they just have to believe you’re actually interested in them. Amazing how that works. 🙂

      • I was praying nobody would mention Shrugged. I remain convinced it’s a Commie plot. An anti-libertarian vaccine.

        I only read the “Big Books In One Minute” version.
        John: “Dagny, I want to lay your rails!”
        Dagny: “Oh John, give me your steel!”

    • Books for boys:

      Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both by R. L. Stephenson;

      Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Great Expectation by Dickens;

      Kim (a great adventure novel about a boy in colonial India) by Kipling (and don’t forget the short stories);

      Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer by Twain, and the Red Badge of Courage by Crane.

      • And Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days by Verne.

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