Joke's Book Club: Spending time with the Classics

I realized that a lot of the stuff I read, and a lot of the stuff people strongly recommend I read, happens to be Very Recent Fiction.

Which is fine.

After all, one day students will have to take a course on Early 21st Century Novelists and someone has to write those books for students to read and discuss things the author never intended ("Is the use of duck dressed as a sailor a...'Christ symbol'?")

But that doesn't mean this must comprise my sole reading diet. So I vowed to leaven the whole thing with The Classics. The next part comes in defining, precisely, what a Classic is. Different people have diverse definitions. Scholars debate this and LitCrit types engage in pointlessly, stupidly abstruse arguments. Therefore, after considerable research, I have come up with a fairly airtight definition of a Classic.

Y'wanna hear it?


Classic [klas - ic]: A book written before my parents were born that is still famous and which won't bore me into a coma.

That last bit is very crucial, because it frees me from having to reread absolute drivel like James Joyce was fond of churning out, mostly for the benefit of people* who like swanning about, exhibitionistically displaying their academic plumage. If I may make this aside, when confronted with these poor deluded bastards, the best thing to do is simply mumble "You know best." in a conciliatory manner and go about your business. After all they know this stuff is the worst sort of effluvia, but much of their self-view hinges on publicly espousing the opposite cause, so you let it go at that. You really don't want to get them off on a rant about how they, like Mr. Science, know more than you. You'd rather be reading Joyce. Hell, even Beowulf The Naked Lunch** is preferable, and that's saying a lot.

At any rate, this still leaves the problem of finding a Classic to read. You are pretty much on your own here. The great learned minds are still busy admiring the Emperor's new clothes and suggesting James Joyce or some bright and cheery 800 page tome by some 19th Century Russian who went into anaphylactic shock whenever there was any seratonin within 50 yards (or, if you'd rather, meters) to be of any use. After all, the vast majority of those learneds would rather die of flatulence than suggest something, y'know, enjoyable.

So I chose to delve into Lewis Carroll.

I had found a reprint of his original manuscript with the title of Alice's Adventures Underground. It's very similar to the eventual and more famous final version as Alice's Adventures In Wonderland which we all know and love, but contains a lot that eventually was excised from wider circulation. Basically this is the compilation of stories he used to tell to the children of Dean Liddell (the most famous being Alice) when they went on picnics and rowing and assorted other expeditions. These little nuggets are often satirical references to people in their circle, but even without the back story they are charming and amusing and serve the story well.

It's helpful the book is funny, less so that it's reprinted, not in typeset, but in Carroll's own penmanship. Interestingly, he illustrated this original version of the story himself and apparently, among his myriad other skills, he could also draw -- perhaps not at the "professional illustrator level-- quite well. Beyond this, the book is layered (layered, I tell you!) with wordplay, mathematical puzzles, and allusions and clever inside jokes seamlessly woven into the fabric of the narrative.

Of course, by the time the "real" book was published a lot of the inside stuff had been polished out, but it's fascinating to see the story we all know (or think we know) in its embryonic stages.


*You know you have such a person on your hands, as it were, when he -- or she, because one never knows these days -- starts to assert that he (or, as previously discussed, she) truly enjoys James Joyce, a thing which is patently and self-evidently absurd in normal adults with a working knowledge of English.

** I hope this makes sufficient amends, Miz Badge.


Badger said…
Oh you DID NOT just dis' Beowulf.

You are rapidly writing yourself out of the will, young man.
Joke said…
In hindsight, comparing it to the published works of James Joyce was pretty vicious of me.

I apologize to Beowulf, Grendel and Grendel's dam.

Instead, I should have said The Naked Lunch.

Major Bedhead said…
Oh dear. I rather liked the long-winded Russian dude when I read him. Mind you, I'm not in any great rush to read him again.

I liked Beowulf, too.

I tried reading Joyce. Blech. I feel that blech about Dickens, too. Endless blech, pages and pages of blech.
Badger said…
We are appeased.
Stomper Girl said…
I like your definition. Even if it cuts out 20th century authors somewhat. (Depending on how old your parents are)
Sarah O. said…
Remember Wishbone? The cute little TV dog who acted out the classics?

Rather than read the classics, I'm waiting for Wishbone to come back.
Joke said…

I enjoy a lot of 20th Century types, but they are not Classics. After allm a CLassic stands the test of time and the prime ingredient in that test is time.


I'd give my left one to see Wishbone do Ulysses.

shula said…
Lewis Carroll.

Nice choice.
Poppy Buxom said…
I was an English major, so what you think of as "classic" is what I consider normal reading material.

When I hear the word "classics," I think "literature written in a dead language." And if that's your game, have I got a Juvenalian satire for you.

But I really think you should start reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin books. Start with Master and Commander. You won't regret it.

BTW what did James Joyce ever do to you?
Jaye Joseph said…
Dude. I loved Ulysses. In fact, next to the Odyssey it's my favorite book of all time. And I'm not one of "those" people, I swear. I just took a class in college where we read the Odyssey and then read Ulysses and compared the similarities.

I love a good puzzle and that's exactly what that book was for me. I'd read it again, but I can't do it on my own, I need a group. It's a book that needs to be discussed.

As for the rest of Joyce, I can't attest because I've never read any. I should try, but I've got a stack of current fiction to get through.

So there.

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