Monday, May 08, 2017

Fifty Classics Project

Five years ago, I joined a blogger project which involved pledging to read fifty classic works of literature over the course of five years. My own five year deadline was in March, and I failed to meet the goal. What? But you read so much! I do read a lot, but my Fifty Classics list was separate from my main list, which I am super-obsessive about. I know it sounds crazy, but it was difficult for me to deviate from my master book list. Anyway, I did read almost all of the books, but eight are left unread. (Although of those, five were rereads, so I'm really just three books short.) Look at me, cheating on this no-consequence vanity project! "Classic" by the way was loosely defined for this project so you might not agree with some of my choices.

Here are the books I did manage to read:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I've seen this named as the greatest work of all literature. I struggled with it, I admit, although I bought what everyone says is the best translation. It was the war scenes that confused me.

The Virginians by William Makepeace Thackeray. It's been a long time, but I vaguely remember that this is about a young American man, during colonial times, trying to make his fortune in England and being roundly cheated by everyone. Or maybe I am confusing it with Henry Esmond?

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. A reread from my college days. Not sure I'm much more enlightened the second time around.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. Grim, but I really liked it for some reason. Seamus is on a Faulkner kick lately and he liked it too.

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. Another reread. I just really am too stupid for Faulkner.

The Hamlet by William Faulkner. Better in the sense that I could at least follow the plot.

The Mansion by William Faulkner. Ditto.

Dead Souls by Gogol. A work colleague told me that this book is hilarious, but I didn't really see it. Too stupid for Gogol too, apparently.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I got a bad translation and it read like a very dark British boys' boarding school book, in which characters say things like, "Jolly good!"

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A better translation this time. I rather enjoyed this story, but it's a major time commitment.

The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Boswell and Johnson were good friends and this book is as much a chronicle of a friendship as it is the life of Samuel Johnson. A must read if you want to have any pretense of being educated.

Yeats - The Autobiography. I was familiar with the poetry of William Butler Yeats, but not as familiar with his work in the theater or his major role in the revival of Irish literature. Having read it made a lot of what I saw in the Dublin Writers' Museum make sense.

The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams. Great-grandson of John Adams, this is the autobiography of an American aristocrat. Very dry but affecting at times. We see eyewitness account of John Quincy Adams, described by a young child. Adams watched his sister die of tetanus. There is not a single mention of his wife, Clover Hooper Adams, who committed suicide in 1885. The famous Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery was commissioned in her memory.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf. What does a woman need to be a writer? To this day, it's hard for women to get away from their responsibilities to write.

The Red and the Black by Stendhal. I picked this one because in college, one of my professors made a joke about Stendhal that he apparently thought was uproariously funny and not a single person in the class got it. So the joke sank like a stone, but it inspired me to make a point of reading something by Stendhal. Still don't get the joke though.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. I vaguely remember this as a story about a college faculty member who has a lot of bad luck. I really can't stand Nabokov.

Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. I picked this because it was my Grandfather's professed all-time favorite book. This is a rollicking tale of four men and their adventures traveling around England. I loved it.

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. I like travel literature - and I've read quite a bit from the Victorian era, but I thought this was unnecessarily nasty.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens. Absorbing tale about Nicholas and Kate Nickleby and their struggles with their evil uncle. This was a reread from college and I appreciated it much more this time around. There are two really good film adaptations of this book.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Didn't care for it. Read it only as a prerequisite to the horror novel Drood by Dan Simmons.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Another reread from college. I think this is my favorite of all Dickens' novels.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Creepy Victorian tale of a beautiful young woman whose life is nearly destroyed by her evil husband.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins.  Another mildly creepy mystery. At times tedious, at others amusing.

Old Man Goriot by Honore de Balzac. Balzac was the other author mentioned in the joke about Stendhal that I didn't get. Not sure what's so funny. This book was super depressing.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Can you believe I'd never read these until now? A very readable collection of short stories.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Actually three novellas in one volume. A classic cozy book and the BBC adaptation with Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench is excellent.

Ulysses by James Joyce. I basically crammed this book into my head. But now I can hold my head up at the "Bloomsday" celebration in our pub. I dragged Jon all over Dublin, retracing Leopold Bloom's steps. He did not enjoy it.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. I don't remember much, but something about an affair and a suicide.

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Deeply cynical story of a marriage.

Point Counterpoint by Aldous Huxley. Somewhat difficult novel about arty intellectuals in England.

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. Funny and obscene story of a Jewish man and his sexual angst.

The Diary of John Evelyn. John Evelyn was born in 1620 to a wealthy family. He lived through much of the upheaval in England in the 17th century.

A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne.

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. This is a reread, although why I read it even once, let alone twice is beyond me. It is funny, and Ian really likes it.

Framely Parsonage by Anthony Trollope. Picking up the Barsetshire series where I left off years ago. This is about a young clergyman who gets into serious and embarrassing financial trouble.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope. A charming Victorian love story.

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope. A very morally upright clergyman is accused of theft. Possibly my favorite book in the series, although I really love them all.

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. The first in the Palliser series.

Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. Second book in the Palliser series.

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope. A reread and the third book in the Palliser series.

Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope. Fourth book in the Palliser series.

These are the books I didn't get to:

The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope. Fifth book in the Palliser series. I just checked this one out of the library, so I'll be reading it soon.

The Duke's Children by Anthony Trollope. Last book in the Palliser series.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. A reread. I didn't like it all that much the first time, so I'm not sure why I added this one to the list. I don't think I'll bother with it.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. One of the Canadian boys I used to hang around with in the summer when I was in college really wanted me to read this, so I did and I loved it. I still have the paperback copy he gave me, but several of the pages fell out so I've never been able to reread it.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Another reread, and I loved the movie too.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. Of course I've read this one before. A lot of people dislike this book, but I see Fanny as funny and shy, not priggish.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. We read this in high school and I remember I really liked it, so wanted to reread.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.


  1. Every few years I decide I need to better myself and read more classics and then I hate what I've chosen. I suspect my tastes might be more low brow than I'd like to admit. I default to reading current books and have to rush through them because 78 people are on the library waiting list.

  2. Well done! My five year mark just passed and I came up 3 books short... am considering starting a new list of 50. We'll see. Maybe an update post like this first though. Which ones were your favorites? Any surprises?

    1. My favorites were the Trollope novels. I think the biggest surprise was how much I disliked Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. I was expecting to enjoy it.

  3. I find I struggle through reading many 'classics', so I just don't bother myself. I'm really okay with that. So the fact that you attempted and only fell a few books short is still very impressive. Well done!

    That said, I love Fitzgerald and some of the classic Russian writers - Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. My very first freshman year in college I took a Russian Lit class and fell in love with it. But Faulkner? I've tried. I just can't. And I'm okay with it.

  4. Bravo! Now that I have read your list, I am going to claim that I have read those 42 classics.

    You read FIVE books by Faulkner. You should give yourself a prize. My Mom raves about Faulkner and even went on a sort of field trip as an adult to Faulkner country. I tried "The Sound and the Fury" and concluded after two chapters that I am too stupid to read Faulkner.

    I hope I will have some time soon to read some Dickens. I can't stand Philip Roth's style, but this past year we read "The Plot Against America" for our book club and it was terrifyingly predictive of Right Now in our country. I loved "Tristram Shandy" when I read it 30 years ago - thought it was so clever! Mark Twain can be quite nasty. I have read a few Anthony Trollope novels a while ago (but don't ask me the titles), and tried "Framley Parsonage" at your suggestion earlier, but just couldn't make it through, probably due to nothing about the book but about my own mood. I couldn't stand it when our young clergyman friend made yet another error and dug himself further into difficulty.

    You don't have Barbara Pym on your list here, but I am forever grateful to you for introducing that author to me.

    1. It was painful to read all the stupid things Mark Robard did in Framely Parsonage!