On my Dragon Prophet blog, I've been chronically my reading for 2013, when I was trying to focus on reading classic novels that I'd somehow managed to skip in my reading to date. Some of these books left me stunned by how wonderful they were, the sort of books I wanted to run out and immediately start telling my friends about. But, because human nature is perverse, the books I usually wound up telling my friends about were the truly wretched ones, the books that turned out to be tedious, pointless slogs. In the end, I read 36 classics. Here are the five best, and five worst:
The Five Classics I read this year that I loved the most:
The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells--An absolutely stunning book that explores man's relationship with God and tries to fix the line between what is human and what is beast, and just how thin that line may be. Beautiful writing, fascinating characters.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte--Of the romances I read this year, this one was my clear favorite. Jane has dignity and self sufficiency. She has to support herself, and has goals beyond just getting married. In contrast to, say, Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles to her happiness are genuine and not trivial. The lovers in Pride and Prejudice are kept apart by misunderstandings and class barriers that didn't resonate with me. The man Jane loves, on the other hand, is already married and hiding his deranged murderous spouse in the attic! That, my friends, is a barrier to romance. Alas, the book does fall apart a bit near the end, when the Jane's fortunes improve mostly through strokes of good luck instead of actions that she takes. Still, for truly deep, complicated characters, this book is hard to beat.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey--Holy moly! The language of this book is lyrical and evocative, written from a distorted point of view that misunderstands reality in a way that illuminates it. The plot and pacing are terrific, there's several characters you wind up caring for, and there are thought provoking explorations of how far society will let you go as an individual before you enter the zone of crazy. The one flaw is cringe-inducing misogyny. Every female in the book is a castrating bitch or a saintly whore, and the female antagonist is finally "put in her place" by a sexual assault. That said... wow!
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut--Daring story structure, writing that is both plain and simple and poetic and surreal. A must read for those who think of WWII as the "good war." A beautiful tragedy.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller--Yeah, another WWII novel. Easily the funniest book I read this year, built around the most agonizing tragedy you can imagine. The way the story keeps building up layer after layer, from a dozen different character's perspectives, is a real high-wire act that leaves me amazed at how well it's pulled off.
Speaking of classics that left me amazed...
The Five Classics that I can't believe are considered classics:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson--A good premise smothered by the author doing everything in his power not to actually show us much of Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Stuffy writing, the barest imaginable plot, made all the more bewildering since Treasure Island by the same author is such an wonderful, fast paced, tightly written book.
Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne--Oh god, I can't believe I slogged all the way through this boring pile of words. The most shallow characters you can imagine, for no particular reason other than "just because," decide to go wander around in a really big cave. Lots and lots and lots of pages of characters looking at rocks. And, while I'm forgiving of outdated science in older SF, even when this book was written the whole notion that there were forests in the center of the earth had to be built around pure wishful thinking rather than any sort of evidence. The book's one virtue: It kept 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea off this list!
Dracula, Bram Stoker--This book is still famous today based on four or five awesome chapters at the beginning of the book, really some of the best horror ever written. And then... it feels like a different writer steps in to crank out the rest of the book. The hunt for the vampire is mostly a committee meeting. Seriously, there are chapters--chapters!--devoted to Mina typing up and organizing notes. Every time Van Helsing spoke, my eyes glazed over. And, the final climax is just about as anticlimactic as it could possibly be. Still, the first few chapters almost kept it off the list.
Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift--I admit, there's some funny stuff in here about the absurdity of how humans organize their societies. But, reaching the ten funny paragraphs requires wading through chapter after chapter of Swift bleeding his premises completely dry. We get it, Jon! These guys are really small! Or big! The real weakness of the book is that it's utterly plotless. It's just a record of weird stuff that just happens due to good luck or bad luck. And Gulliver himself is a complete non-entity, devoid of personality or goals, just a tourist in his own life.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac--Probably my most controversial pick on this list, since it's influenced so many writers. But it suffers from the same flaws as Gulliver's Travels. There's no plot, and the characters are all surface. Sal Moriarty is supposedly a fascinating, well drawn character, but, Jesus, if you met this guy in real life, you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in his company. He's a deadbeat who impregnates women and abandons them and tries to distract you from all the damage he's causing by talking about the beauty and mystery of life. I liked this book when I read it years ago, but, now I know children abandoned by their fathers, I know people who consider themselves too concerned with the life of the mind to be bothered with holding down a job, and I have no patience for a book that tries so hard to explain why such behavior is beautiful.
If someone wants to make a case for any of these five books, I'd love to hear what you found good about them. I know tastes vary, and my own prejudices can sometimes blind me to the charm of art that other people adore.