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.

I read another one of Anthony Trollope’s bricks, and I enjoyed it quite a lot

Most of Anthony Trollope’s enduring work is bound up in two series. The Palliser novels follow the life of a fictional British politician. And the Barchester novels examine life (predominantly clergical life) in a fictional provincial town. Oh, and almost all of his novels are long. They are brutally long and have the kind of leisurely, digression-choked pace that was only permissible during the Victorian era.

After I read and loved the first (and fairly short) Barchester novel (The Warden), I looked with horor upon the 200,000 word behemoth that was the second novel. I didn’t really want to get enmeshed in a series of lengthy books. Instead, I tried the only one of Trollope’s stand-alone books that is said to be worth reading (The Way We Live Now). It was good, but it was also a long and brutal slog that was, in many ways, lacking in much of the softness and charm of the quaint provincial life portrayed in The Warden.

And that’s where I left things with Trollope for several months. I sensed that there was some goodness in the rest of the Barchester novels, but I wasn’t sure I could commit. But finally, after slogging through a dense, dreamy short novel (John Cheever’s Falconer), I looked at the second volume (Barchester Towers), and thought, “Sure it’s long, but it’s so readable. Wouldn’t it be nice to just sort of sink into a book?” Yes, this is the mindset that drives the sales of epic fantasy.

Well, I did read Barchester Towers. And it was nice. It was an extremely pleasant reading experience. The plot involves many of the same persons as the first novel. The kind, bumbling bishop has died and a new bishop who bumbles in a different way has been installed. And with him comes a prideful and avaricious chaplain who plots to marry a girl, and there’s alot of flailing about and maneuvering about who will get this preferment and that deanship. It’s not much of a plot at all, really. Nothing is at stake. Never do you get the sense that the girl is going to end up with either of the two villains who are plotting for her hand. Nor are the villains even that villainous. One is just kind of greasy and greedy. The other is a fop who’s in debt.

But the characters are all very well-drawn. They’re larger-than-life, like Dickens characters, but not nearly so farcical. There’s Mr. Harding, a beloved but kind of ineffectual curate who keeps worrying about whether he’s carrying out his duties well (but makes no effort to actually ramp up his energy-level in undertaking them). There’s the Stanhopes, a family of amoral dissipates, who are the subject of some of Trollope’s best descriptions, such as:

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness; but the want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature that their neighbours failed to perceive how indifferent to them was the happiness and well-being of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it were not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

There’s Archdeacon Grantly, who seems quite irreligious and primarily motivated by family pride, but who seems to so genuinely love his family–including his father-in-law (the aforementioned Harding) and his sister-in-law–that you can’t help but like him. There’s Mr. Quiverful, a clergyman who has fourteen children and desperately wants a better posting, but is unwilling to seek it dishonorably. And there’s his wife, who has no such compunctions, and of whom Trollope writes:

Whatever the husband might feel, the wife cared nothing for the frowns of the dean, archdeacon, or prebendary. To her the outsides and insides of her husband and fourteen children were everything. In her bosom every other ambition had been swallowed up in that maternal ambition of seeing them and him and herself duly clad and properly fed. It had come to that with her that life had now no other purpose. She recked nothing of the imaginary rights of others.

And there’s the secret main character of this (and all) Trollope novels: money. He’s one of the only novelists (other than perhaps Jane Austen), who seems to really care about money: what people will do get it and how they will use it. There’s a marvelous scene where he describes the difference between a social-climbing farmer whose wife spends his money on lace and school-lessons for his children and his solid yeoman neighbor–equally endowed with money–who saves up in order to buy farms for all his sons. Trollope can describe how clergyman will live and die with anxiety to move from a 200 pound a year posting to a 400 pound a year posting, and how another clergyman can easily give up an 800 pound a year posting. He is able to describe money as both a marker of status and a divider of social classes and a real, concrete thing that is used to purchase the things that people need (or desire so strongly that the desire seems akin to a need).

And finally, the novel has the wonderful Trollopean narrator, a first-person character that interjects itself into the novel and frequently runs away on its own awesome digressions, like this one:

‘New men are carrying out new measures, and are eating away the useless rubbish of past centuries.’ What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era; an ear in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at every thing that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.

Anyways, yep, it’s hard to recommend this book. The book I’m really recommending is the first book in the series. The Warden is half as long and twice as good. But if you like The Warden, you should not be shy about reading Barchester Towers. It’s pretty good too.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

I am so lucky. Roughly every week or so, I read a book that blows my mind, and entertains me in ways that I hadn’t thought possible. Last week it was Middlemarch, the week before that it was Pride and Prejudice, the week before that it was The Picture of Dorian Gray, the week before that it was Less Than Zero, and so on…you guys just have no clue about the kind of awesome stuff that I get to read, but am way too lazy to blog about…

But this week it was Anthony Trollope’s The Warden. I think there are very few books that I’ve enjoyed as thoroughly as I enjoyed this one.

First of all, it’s got the sort of tiny, funny little plot that I really love: the priest who’s attached to this 19th century British old age home comes under public attack because he gets way more money from the trust (which was established by a 14th century wool merchant) than the twelve pensioners who are its supposed beneficiaries do.

And it has a wonderful, interventionary narrator: an omniscient first person voice that interjects into all the doings of the characters and comments upon them…as in the following description of a novelist (called Mr. Popular Sentiment) who’s a thinly veiled caricature of Charles Dickens:

Of all such reformers Mr. Sentiment is the most powerful. It is incredible the number of evil practices he has put down: it is to be feared he will soon lack subjects, and that when he has made the working classes comfortable, and got bitter beer put into proper-sized pint bottles, there will be nothing further for him left to do. Mr. Sentiment is certainly a very powerful man, and perhaps not the less so that his good poor people are so very good; his hard rich people so very hard; and the genuinely honest so very honest.

And, finally, the characters are delightful. The titular warden is a fuzzy-headed old man who’s living quite happily, without any concerns about the source of his income, until the newspapers stir up his conscience and he realizes that, actually, he’s not entitled to any of it. And his prime antagonist in this novel is not the reformer who stirs up all this public feeling against him; it’s his extremely pragmatic son-in-law, who he’s completely terrified of.

Oh, and there are sooooo many good set-pieces. For instance, aforementioned reformer is sort of sort of in love with the warden’s youngest daughter. And at one point the reformer’s sister goes into a spiel where he berates him for acting like a fool:

“Pray, pray, for my sake, John, give it up. You know how dearly you love her.” And she came and knelt before him on the rug. “Pray give it up. You are going to make yourself, and her, and her father miserable: you are going to make us all miserable. And for what? For a dream of justice. You will never make those twelve men happier than they now are.”

“You don’t understand it, my dear girl,” said he, smoothing her hair with his hand.

“I do understand it, John. I understand that this is a chimera,—a dream that you have got. I know well that no duty can require you to do this mad—this suicidal thing. I know you love Eleanor Harding with all your heart, and I tell you now that she loves you as well. If there was a plain, a positive duty before you, I would be the last to bid you neglect it for any woman’s love; but this—; oh, think again, before you do anything to make it necessary that you and Mr Harding should be at variance.”

So much drama. So many scenes. It’s just…it’s a perfect little book. Oh yeah, did I mention that the book is little, too? It’s really short. Like, under seventy thousand words. For a nineteenth century British novel, that’s practically a short story.

And I didn’t know anything about it! No friend of mine had ever told me, “Dude, you have to go read The Warden, because it is so very charming.” I just picked its name out of a list of ‘great books’ that I occasionally use to select my reading.

Now I am correcting that silence. You guys should read this book. It is so very charming.