Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

I feel great, like extremely good. It’s unaccountable, since I’ve felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can’t explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren’t a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it’s kind of like, well you’ve just got to stick with this. But really it’s not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, “Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn’t get far…maybe I’ll try again.”

To which I’m like, “No! What’re you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn’t effortless, then don’t force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it.”

So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what’re some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it’s easy to read, but that’s because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we’ve been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff’s Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.

Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I’ve read something like twenty books by him. But he’s frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn’t have that problem. It’s a hundred thousand words long–relatively compact, by Trollope standards–and the plot also isn’t quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who’s slowly going broke and/or a woman who’s married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it’s about the warden of church-run old folk’s home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It’s essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you’re like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except…he also really doesn’t do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it’s a great first introduction to Trollope.

So that’s five novels that are marvelous from page one. What’s a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I’m going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It’s like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn’t finish it.

And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I’ll choose…Dangerous Liaisons? That’s an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It’s an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it’s witty and brilliantly structured. I’ve looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.

You know what, I’m gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it’s romp. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read: it’s the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I’d say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I’d relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I’d be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like “Cow dying on a bridge.” It’s really dumb, and potentially racist? It’s hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Other readable classics…hmm…Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It’s actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don’t care for the philosophy.

Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it’d be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn’t limited myself to before 1900 there would’ve been more women, I swear). But although their works aren’t quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There’s something about the way she plays with time that’s really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.

ROMANCE OF THE THREE KINGDOMS has some pretty stunning character development

51sCIJ7uTlL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I love drilling back into foundational texts and discovering the complexity that made them into foundational texts. For instance, it’s really funny to read all the ‘radical’ retellings of The Iliad that are like, “The Greeks are a bunch of barbarians! The Trojans were civilized and wonderful!” and then go back into The Iliad and realize, wait…that’s already right there in the text. The whole book is suffused with a sense of sorrow about the doom that’s going to overtake Troy. And there’s also a serious sense of judgement that gets leveled at Achilles, in particular, for his pettiness and moodiness.

I remember there’s a part of The Iliad where Achilles gets told, “You can stay here and live a long life and be a great kind, and then be forgotten after you die. Or you can go with the army and be killed, only to live on throughout the aeons.”

And yes,The Iliad has a definite viewpoint on this. It praises Achilles for going. But it also contains the inverse of itself. Great works do that. They allow you to read them and think, “Oh my god, Achilles. Why are you doing this?”

It’s like The Merchant Of Venice. It’s an undeniably anti-Semitic play. But there’s still a raw power in Shylock’s sense of grievance–a power that prevents you, four centuries later, from dismissing the work.

People have trouble with that. They think a work needs to be all one thing or all the other. Either it’s anti-Semitic or Shylock is a complex character. But both things are true. He’s a character who has risen beyond and surpassed his author.

I’m finding much the same thing in Romance of the Three Kingdoms. There’s a definite viewpoint here. Liu Pei is the hero. He’s the noble one. He’s the true descendent of the Hans, and he’s the only legitimate Emperor. But it’s also possible to read the book another way! For instance, there’s a crime that lies right in the heart of the book. Liu Pei is penniless and defeated, and he goes to the court of his cousin, Liu Chang, with, more or less, the intention of stealing the man’s kingdom. Oh, he tries to deny to himself that he’s doing it. He tries to say he’s a reasonable man and that he’s only acting on the basis of prior provocation. But in truth he’s crossed a line.

There’s deniability here, of course. The other man also plots against Liu Pei (to a limited extent). You can say that this is the nature of their disordered world. Strength wins out. A weak man can’t be expected to keep his throne. In fact, it does a disservice to the people to allow a weak ruler to remain in power. But…that’s also the viewpoint that Liu Pei struggles against. He believes that the Han Dynasty is meant to rule, and his whole career is based on opposing the usurper Ts’ao Ts’ao. So where does that leave us?

In a very complex place. A very, very complex place. And that’s why we still read this book.