Friday, December 3, 2010

The Tangled Web

There was a time when writers and politicians assumed that educated people had been exposed to certain books and ideas. They made references to those works with the understanding that their readers would know what they were talking about. For them, the literary world was a web whose connecting threads were visible or even obvious. To a large degree, writers producing Western literature at least until World War II wrote quite consciously in that web, connecting themselves to writers who had gone before and adding their own threads to the matrix.

To learn to read this web in the modern world is an utterly ridiculous project. And I’m committing to it.

Today’s writers and thinkers know that the world is a much bigger place than we used to imagine. We are influenced by a great number of cultures and have access to an enormous body literature from around the world. No longer do our writers necessarily assume even the best educated people the United States or in the UK have a common knowledge base. There is too much to know, too much to learn, and everything is changing and growing with incredible speed.

Even if we consider the books of earlier ages, there is nothing that absolutely defines a book as a classic. Nor is there any completely defendable reason to start one's studying with the so-called “Western” classics. Although I’ll talk more in future posts about why I’ve decided to start with these particular books, I’m never going to waste my time trying to convince other people that this is the proper way to be well-read or educated.

Please keep in mind that I am not a literary scholar. I wasn’t even an English major. I hope that some of you might be intrigued by--or perhaps provoked by--some of my posts--and at least that you will be inspired to read some of the books. But it is important to point out that I do not intend these posts to be instructional in any way.

I am writing primarily as a way to organize my own reading and thinking. A secondary reason for keeping a blog is to learn from you: to learn from your questions and comments, whether they agree with my readings or not. I hope you will not feel that you must accept my interpretations. Sometimes my posts will be merely personal responses different from yours. And often I may be just completely wrong about something. Always feel free to point out my mistakes and advise me better—but please remember that this is merely the book journal of a common reader, a reader who is learning as I go.

Wish me luck as I cast my own little threads into the web of literature!


  1. Unfortunately, the comments to this post were all lost when I uninstalled IntenseDebates. My very sincere apologies.

  2. Not wrong, I don't think. I don't think opinions can really be WRONG. :)

  3. I totally agree--but when my interpretation depends on, say, thinking that Yeats was an early 19th century poet which I did until astonishingly recently, then feel free to correct me!

  4. I am very, very interested and curious to watch this process unfold.

    On a related note, I'm reading Anne Carson's alternate Oresteia right now - Aeschelus's Agamemnon, Sophocles's Elektra, and Euripedes's Orestes. Since you're reading the original Oresteia and visiting the other two playwrights involved in Carson's project, it might be an interesting read - I'm finding the language stunning (love Carson), and I now want to read the original tri-play cycle to compare & contrast. For what it's worth!

  5. My very best wishes to you in this project. :-)

  6. Amateur ReaderDecember 08, 2010

    Good luck with all this. I can tell you, from personal experience, that this is an achievable project.

    Is it presumptuous to suggest additions to your list? I'll assume it's not - more Euripides, Helen and, as Emily suggests, Orestes, both outrageous assaults on Greek literature. Ah, I love Euripides.

  7. Emily: Thank you for the recommendation! Looks like she also has a translation of Euripides out. I'm so pleased to have found them! Thanks.

    Jillian: Thank you so much! I am currently gathering information about various translations as well as reading some terrific books about the experience of reading. What fun!

    AR: Thanks, AR. I'd always LOVE recommendations, and will add these to my list. The more preparing I do, the more I learn I should read.

    I am most grateful to you for assuring me this project is achievable. I know I have more books listed than I might actually read, and that this project will take a very long time, and that I always have contemporary fiction and non-fiction I want to read, and that I am an obsessed historian enough to want to read biographies and context. But somehow it still feels like a reasonable life project--even though it looks daunting when it is written on just a few pages!

  8. I don't think it's ridiculous! I've been mulling over how to be 'well read' myself, although I think I've ended up with more questions than answers. :) I love your lists: I read a decent amount of the Romans in my Latin classes, but my knowledge of the Greeks is sadly sparse. So I can't wait to see your posts begin: will you be discussing translations?

  9. I'm excited for your project! I'm happy, too, that your reading schedule is up. I think when I visited your blog earlier it wasn't showing right, but now it is! Since my own project isn't tied to any sort of order, I'm hoping I'll be able to join you on at least some of your reading. Are you planning to do any official readalongs, or will it be more that we would just be reading the same book around the same time? Gilgamesh and The Iliad are both on my list, and I have them both on audio, so maybe I'll tackle them in January.

  10. Eva: Thanks, Eva. I am so envious that you studied Latin. My son is learning a bit now and I'm picking up some on the side--but it isn't the same as learning it at a younger age.

    I will definitely be talking about translations. In my preparation, I've picked out a few to look at for most of the early books so I can compare. And I'd always love to hear suggestions of translations other people have enjoyed!

    Erin: If people are interested in doing an official read-along, I'd be happy to host. Might you be up for Gilgamesh at the beginning of January? I'm especially excited to hear about the audio of it!

  11. ClassicBookwormDecember 08, 2010

    I'm enjoying these set-up posts before you start your journey through the classics. :) You bring up an important point that in the past every well-educated person had to learn the classics and had a common cultural background as a result, but for me there is more to it than that. These books are simply the best. They are well-written, artistic masterpieces in fact, and they have important things to tell us about ourselves and our world. Furthermore they tend to be quite enjoyable, on many levels, and are often ripping good yarns! I think these qualities are often lost on youth, but as one gets older the relevance of these works becomes clearer and more personal.

    I won't deny that these books are sometimes more difficult to read than a modern bestseller, due to differences in language and culture, but with so many great critical editions out there a reader can dive in anywhere and keep their heads above water pretty well. Reading chronologically, as you're doing, is such a great approach because you are building up the context as you go. And you're lucky to have a history background because that is a big help. I try to read into the history of an era before reading its literature, and it makes it so much easier to grasp the import of a book. Unfortunately not everyone seems willing to put a little work into their reading. It's strange that in this age of self-help many people don't seem interested in improving their intellects as well as their health, careers, and relationships. Maybe they don't believe it's possible, even though neuroscientists have been shouting from the rooftops that our brains can grow and develop at any age. I hope that that knowledge filters into society and readers won't feel so daunted by the classics.

  12. Thank you so much for your comment, Sylvia. I hope you're right that reading them chronologically will help me understand the books' contexts. That was certainly my plan. The historian in me definitely makes me want to see things of a piece. But sometimes I wonder if going backwards from our world into the past might be enriching as well by taking us from the familiar into the unfamiliar.

    Although I've read several contemporary books which have affected me profoundly, it is astonishing to me that almost every "classic" I've read has stayed with me and become part of me in a deep way. And (as I plan to write about next week) the work that sometimes goes into reading classics might have something to do with the deep joy the texts bring.

  13. farmlanebooksDecember 08, 2010

    Good luck with your project! You have impressive ambitions! I love the fact that you plan to read them in chronological order - that should give your a fantastic insight into the development of the novel. I worry that the rigid scheduling may take some of the fun out of reading, but I guess that depends on your personality. I look forward to following you and seeing which ones you find the most rewarding

  14. I love your reason for starting the project and I can't wait to follow along. Best of luck!

  15. Good luck with your reading project! I found, as an English Lit. major at uni, that it was always helpful to read around the subject first, before tackling the actual texts themselves. Having some idea of about the background of the writer, the history of the period, and reading what others had to say about the texts, made it a lot easier than just diving in and starting at page one. That worked for me, so I thought I'd just mention it here. Wikipedia gives good background, usually, and there are plenty of websites you can utilise to aid in your reading project. Best wishes with it all! :)

  16. Violet: Makes perfect sense, Violet. I've always felt that knowing something about the context and biography helps me to understand both the literature and non-fiction of a time. As I've been preparing, I've marked the titles of many author biographies and histories in the local libraries. I agree with you that it might make sense to read at least some of them before the works themselves. Thanks!

    AmyMcKie: So nice to see you here, and thanks for the best wishes!

    Farmlanebooks: Thank you. Yes, my big concern is that this project might start seeming like a chore at times. If it ever does, I'll be taking a break to read whatever I want for a little while, or switching to another period, or even just knitting for a bit. I'll try to talk about this a bit in Monday's post. Thanks for dropping by!

  17. I can't wait to see you begin this process. Speaking from what little experience I have with my own project, you are going to feel so rewarded and glad that you decided to do this. Its an amazing experience to learn from all of these great writers.

    You know, I was always under this assumption that I was pretty well read for someone my age. I do have an English Literature degree and as an avid reader, I figured that I was doing well for myself. Then I decided to do this and I am continually surprised by how much I don't know or haven't experience yet. Sometimes I wish my English degree meant something more, or that I had learned more while I was in college earning it so I could make sense of some of the tougher material. But overall, I am glad that I took it upon myself to get an education from somewhere, even if I am directing it.

    On another note, pertaining to translations, I HIGHLY recommend Robert Fagles for Ancient Greek stuff (Primarily The Odyssey, Iliad, and Aenid). He is AWESOME and far better than any other translator I have tried.

  18. Thanks so much for your encouragement, Allie, and for your inspiring blog.

    I too feel astonished how much is out there that I have not read and do not know. For so much of my life I was teased about being such a bookworm that I must have read the whole library. Hah! If only those jokers knew how much more I have to learn!


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