Habitual Mood

Commonplace Classics

I have been looking at a lot of online lists of "classic" books and thinking about Elisa Gabbert's notion of "stupid classics"

[By stupid classics] we did not mean lacking in intelligence, or bad. For me, “stupid” meant relatively short, accessible enough to be on a high school syllabus, and probably rehashed into cliché over time by multiple film adaptations and Simpsons episodes. The quintessential example was The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Like anyone, I have many gaps in my reading, including a lot of these "stupid classics" - or, as I'll call them, because I'm nice, commonplace classics. Some I would refuse to read at gunpoint (Ayn Rand), but there are many that I'd like to get to. As Gabbert notes elsewhere in her piece, "if you want to speak or write knowledgeably about [classics], you really do have to read them. You can’t just assume you know what they’re like." I love to speak or write knowledgeably! So I started making a reading list with an emphasis on a) books I actually want to read at some point, and b) books that I already own or that are easy to come by. I also decided to include a few books I have read before, but so long ago as makes no difference.

  1. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
  2. Richard Adams, Watership Down
  3. William Beckford, Vathek
  4. Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
  5. Willa Cather, My Antonia
  6. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
  7. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and the Damned
  9. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
  10. Graham Greene, The Quiet American
  11. H. Rider Haggard, She
  12. L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
  13. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  14. John Irving, The World According to Garp 
  15. Jack Kerouac, On the Road
  16. Rudyard Kipling, Kim
  17. Jack London, The Call of the Wild
  18. Edgar Allan Poe The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
  19. W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge
  20. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
  21. Neville Shute, On the Beach 
  22. Jules Verne, 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea
  23. H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr Moreau
  24. Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
  25. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

My selection process was heavily vibes-based, but I think it's fair to say these books are "classics", some in the academic, canonical sense, others in the (admittedly vague) sense that the habitual reader of fiction is probably at least aware that they exist. Books people read at school or university; books that have been adapted for the screen; books that won literary awards or have appeared on so many lists of supposed classic books that their status is assured by mere familiarity. The kind of books that turn up a lot on user-generated sites like List Challenges. Most of them are short; there are a couple of longer works, but nothing too onerous.

I have previously read  Heart of DarknessThe Razor's EdgeTwenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, all of them a long time ago. The Verne I read as a child, in what I now understand to be an extremely unreliable translation. I don't know which one it was but apparently they were all dreadful until recently.

I'm going to use a random number generator to choose which book to read, otherwise I will put off reading On the Road, by some margin the least appealing to me of the twenty-five, until the end of time. First up: The Razor's Edge.

#books #commonplace classics