Avoiding the Classics But Not the Authors of Classics

Some people don’t read long, challenging, and/or depressing classic novels because of time constraints and worry about feeling bored, frustrated, or sad. So, left by the wayside are Ulysses, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, War and Peace, and various other iconic books — some of which are actually quite compelling and even entertaining.

A possible compromise: People could read the authors of classics, but read those writers’ shorter/easier works rather than the longer/tougher stuff. That approach might eventually lead readers to the longer/tougher stuff, but, even if it doesn’t, they’ve at least experienced some literary greatness.

The alternatives to reading authors’ most famous/demanding works might be in the form of novels, novellas, or short stories — with some of that work early-career efforts written before the authors jettisoned simplicity.

I thought about that last week while being riveted by a collection of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories. I had read Anna Karenina and War and Peace many years ago, and was of course impressed, but I realized that briefer Tolstoy tales might be attractive to readers who want to avoid that author’s long and very long books. Among the Russian writer’s shorter classics: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (a grim masterpiece about a life lived too conventionally), the almost-novella-length “The Kreutzer Sonata” (an intense saga of lust, marriage, and jealousy), and the literally chilling “Master and Man.”

Moving on to other authors, I’d recommend reading James Joyce’s fairly straightforward and hauntingly sad story “The Dead” instead of/before reading Ulysses and his other brain-straining novels.

Readers who want to temporarily or permanently avoid the majestic Moby-Dick might instead try Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd or stories such as “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” (the latter a mesmerizing slave-ship tale).

Before tackling George Eliot’s exquisite but at times slow-moving Middlemarch, readers might consider her Silas Marner — which has a bad reputation among some high-school students but is actually a very poignant short novel.

Scared of reading late-career Henry James novels (such as The Ambassadors) that are excellent but filled with dense verbiage? Try Washington Square and other absorbing earlier James works that are written quite clearly.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is an incredible novel but not the easiest book, so one alternative could be his also deep but much more linear Love in the Time of Cholera.

Before getting to Willa Cather’s beautifully written but oh-so-earnest Death Comes for the Archbishop, readers might consider something like her Shadows on the Rock — an appealing historical novel starring a daughter and her widowed father in 17th-century Quebec City.

More before-or-instead-of possibilities (with the authors’ outstanding-but-somewhat-“taxing” classics in parentheses): Toni Morrison’s Sula (Beloved), Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (The Lord of the Rings), Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter), Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet (Old Goriot), Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight (Germinal), Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips story collection (The Handmaid’s Tale), Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees and its sequel Pigs in Heaven (The Poisonwood Bible), and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday (The Grapes of Wrath).

What would be some of your suggestions for less “grueling” fare by authors of classic novels?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

95 thoughts on “Avoiding the Classics But Not the Authors of Classics

  1. Ugh, I just made a comment about reading short works as opposed to longer ones. I seem to have deleted it by mistake. However, if I’m repeating myself, please forgive me. But I do think it worthwhile to mention works that are longer, but perhaps more important than others. I have enjoyed certain works by Edith Wharton, but was blown away by “The House of Mirth.”

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    • Sorry Dave, I just got my laptop back from the Geek Squad today, and I forgot that I had to update my devices with new/old usernames from before. So this is from Kat Lib. Thanks!

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      • Thanks for the reminder of your identity, Kat Lib! 🙂 It’s definitely annoying to have to update devices with our ID info. That’s happened to me sometimes after I’ve had to clear my laptop’s cache. But glad you got your laptop back!

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    • Sorry about the accidental deletion, Kat Lib. A frustrating feeling. 😦

      I forget the length of “The House of Mirth” — medium sized? — but what a terrific/heartbreaking novel. As great as “Ethan Frome” is, among the reasons it doesn’t quite match “Mirth” is its relative brevity.

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  2. These ‘gateway’ items (see Eve Messenger’s comment below), being so tantalizingly brief and/or uncomplicated, can lull the unwary into a yawning snare which may close around them before they are even dimly aware of the possibility of encirclement. Reading benders and lost weekends curled around nothing but a fat book under a lamp inevitably follow, as the cows wander about unmilked, chores languish on their lengthening list, undone, and overhead, a simple sprung umbrella keeps the rain leaking through the roof off the head of the heedless compulsive, oblivious to all but the 900 page monsterpiece before him.

    Beware!

    A little bitty book can be a SLIPPERY SLOPE, especially the sides. To say nothing of the insides.

    This week’s topic for discussion reminds me of that Dorothy Parker quote: “I hate writing, I love having written.” There are some authors about whom I at least would say, ‘I hate reading. I love having read.’ Because knowing the body of world literature, at least having more than a passing acquaintance, has ever been my goal– it’s the getting through, by the page, from here to there, that has more than occasionally proved difficult.

    I am grateful. I would love to have read all the great works by the great authors, but not having a life expectancy of 200 years, and reading most of all for enjoyment, I can at least have read some little something by many of the biggest somebodies, who have thoughtfully turned out smaller samples.

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    • Wonderfully stated, jhNY! I too am grateful for the shorter gems by the authors of masterpieces. It’s certainly nice to have the option of reading both the doorstops and the doorknobs by iconic writers.

      As you colorfully observe in your first paragraph, very long novels can definitely leave less time to do other things. For me, it’s not so much unmilked cows but not enough sleep. “Middlemarch” in the middle of the night and all that.

      Last but not least, nice variation on Dorothy Parker in your next-to-last paragraph!

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      • “For me, it’s not so much unmilked cows but not enough sleep. “Middlemarch” in the middle of the night and all that.”

        I am dazed today due to the fact TCM has insisted on broadcasting Fritz Lang silent classics into the wee small hours (Dr. Mabuse The Gambler, a mere 4.5 hour thriller was first; there were others– at 4AM I retired midway through Metropolis) and I put up no resistance, and sat up, wide-eyed, way too late. Sleep does conflict with mania, I now know, and not for the first time.

        Have been reading Parker book reviews off and on this week in the Dorothy Parker Reader, edited by Brendan Gill– too bad she was not better loved and better paid for what seems to me is the chief aspect of her writing talent. She touts Lardner and Hammett and Faulkner and settles the hash of Sinclair Lewis and Dreiser with praise where it’s due, and nowhere else.

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        • Sounds like some serious late-night movie watching!

          Dorothy Parker was indeed an expert reviewer when she put her mind to it. I’ve also read a collection of her short stories — they ranged from great to good to okay — and of course some of her verse was hilarious.

          A few years ago, I read a Parker biography. Fascinating life, capped by that bequest to Martin Luther King Jr.

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          • I’ve read a few short stories of hers too, but I can’t say she rose much above the herd of her day in that capacity, and worse, though they are carefully done, they seem to have in them no life of their own. The few poems I’ve read are also done with skill, but…

            Her critical stuff though, crackles with wit and better, thought. And she is mostly right, and often first, in her preferences and conclusions.

            I empathize with her troubled self-regard, in that it’s obvious that she thinks less of what she is best at than what she wishes she could do as well. Me too. Had a good thing going writing about music, but never respected what I did as much as I respected what the subjects of my music writing were doing: music its ownself. So, I left the criticism entirely behind, made no real progress in pursuit of my hope to have a career as an artist, got jobs on the periphery of the business, got old, and here I am!

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            • I agree, jhNY. Some writers indeed wish to do the stuff they’re writing about and/or the stuff they might not be best at — because they feel it’s more important, glamorous, or whatever. I think most of us have creative dreams that haven’t been quite fulfilled, and it’s not a great feeling. Sorry about the regrets you have.

              “Horsie,” “Big Blonde,” and a couple of other Parker short stories I read were pretty good — the rest so-so. I’ve heard that Parker also often thought of writing a novel, but didn’t quite have the discipline or the self-confidence for that longer form.

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  3. I was going to mention “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” but you did it for me! Maybe one of these days, I’ll gather the attention span together to read “East of Eden” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, but not yet.

    I know you’ve never read Ayn Rand, but IF you DO decide to go there, I would suggest “We The Living” as an alternative or precursor to either “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead”. It’s a fairly short novel, supposedly somewhat autobiographical, and the woman was an amazing writer.

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    • Thanks, lulabelle! Great suggestion if I ever decide to try Ayn Rand’s work; the “test” read wouldn’t take that long. 🙂

      If you ever have the time, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” would be well worth it. But “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday” are also great — as you know!

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      • BTW, lulabelle, I’m reading and loving “The Yearling.” Thanks for recommending Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings! I’ll be discussing the book in my next column this Sunday. (Couldn’t find MKR’s “Cross Creek” in my library.)

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        • That Yearling was a lot of book to lay upon the head of a child, which I was when first exposed.

          The movie, starring a young and gorgeous Gregory Peck, among others (including fawn), was shot in Technicolor, which eases the pain of events somewhat by means of clever lighting and a warm and golden palette.

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          • Yes, jhNY, “The Yearling” is not for the fainthearted. It’s a YA book in the way it focuses on the boy Jody, but also a “grown-up” novel as it deals with the harsh realities of 1870s life in backwoods Florida. I’m within about 50 pages of finishing it, and am very impressed.

            Never saw the movie, but it sounds lush and Hollywood-y as it (from your description) softened the book to some degree.

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        • I am glad you are enjoying “The Yearling”, Dave. If you ever get an opportunity to see the movie “Cross Creek”, with Rip Torn, Mary Steenbergen and Peter Coyote, please do! It is not a “Hollywood” treatment of the subject matter, but an amazingly done poignant memoir of Marjorie’s time in Florida. The only thing “Hollywood” about it is that Mary Steenbergen is much more attractive than Marjorie was.

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    • Ha! Reading an iconic author, even if it’s not her/his most iconic work, can indeed make a person look impressive when sitting in some public place. 🙂 Adding to the cachet is that one is not reading the “expected” work by that author.

      Thanks for the very enjoyable comment, jshupac!

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  4. Hi Dave, my laptop is now at The Geek Squad
    being totally wiped because I somehow managed to set up an account when I switched to Windows 10 that has a password that I neglected to write down and I was unable come up with after a million tries. I am usually very good about recording username and password info, but I am so distracted by my upcoming move I am now $200 poorer and inconvenienced by not having my laptop for a days. Lesson leaned! 🙂 Anyway I have probably mentioned before that when I was in college many moons ago I was trying to come up with an elective to take one semester and came up with the brilliant plan to take a course on Tolstoy. I figured that it was the best way to read War and Peace, as well as Anna Karenina. It actually was a very interesting course. my professor was very knowledgeable and translated some Russian authors’ work that I now don’t remember It also incorporated other works by Tolstoy, such as a play, some of his religious books. The Death of Ivan Illych. I was going through some books the day and came across one from entitled What is Art? I still don’t know if I tossed it or not

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    • Sorry about the password problem, Kat Lib. Totally understandable to be distracted by your upcoming move, but it IS frustrating to have had to have that expensive Geek Squad work done. 😦

      That Tolstoy elective sounds like it was well worth taking! A diverse author. Even several of the short stories of his I read had a different feel from each other — as if he was experimenting with various approaches.

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      • I just noticed all of the typos in my comment above. I am clearly not adept at typing on my phone, not that I didn’t make mistakes on my laptop, but at least it didn’t take me as long. I was using the microphone Google to come back to your blog and apparently didn’t enunciate very well, as it brought me to a listing of “disaster on literature.” 🙂
        Anyway, I know that when I was doing my regimental reading plan a few years ago, when it came to every fourth book which was supposed to be a classic, I generally opted for all shorter ones, many of which have already been mentioned, e.g., Silas Marner, Ethan Frome, Washington Square, Daisy Miller. etc. When I was in college, I took an English class that featured shorter novels or novellas. Of course I can’t remember which ones, because of course the anthology that we used is packed in a box somewhere in one my stacks of things to be moved…

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        • It can definitely be trickier typing on a phone than on a laptop or desktop.

          Ha ha — “disaster on literature” sounds good to me. 🙂 I can write a post about “The Poseidon Adventure,” Titanic-themed novels…

          The shorter classics you named are all well worth reading! The only one that didn’t grab me a lot was “Daisy Miller” — not sure why. When it comes to shorter and longer Henry James novels, I prefer “Washington Square,” “The American,” “The Europeans,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Ambassadors,” etc.

          Continued good luck with your moving preparation, Kat Lib!

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          • There you go, Dave, a topic for a future column about disasters. Although I think most books about disasters are non-fiction books, which is actually very sad. Off the top of my head I can come up with a few books, such as Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (Katrina), Hiroshima by John Hersey, and Into the Air by Jon Krakauer (Everest expedition). As far as first fiction goes, I first thought of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.

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            • Those sound like compelling books, Kat Lib! (I’ve read the devastating “Hiroshima” and the poignant “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”) I was kind of joking about doing a column on disaster lit (might be too similar to the one I wrote on apocalyptic lit a few weeks ago), but it’s a possibility if I can think of enough novels in that “category.” There are certainly plenty of fiction books that have disaster moments, such as the bombing of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.”

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              • Yes, I do agree that a column on disasters would be difficult right now, because there are so many disasters happening just this week, whether due to climate change or not, such as the earthquakes in Japan and Ecuador, and the floods in Houston, it’s easy enough to make one cry. So everytime I start to get upset over having to deal with my move, I have to remember how lucky I am to have a nice new home to go to.

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                • Yes, Kat Lib, it would be kind of a depressing column, too, and hit “close to home” with so many awful things now happening in the world — as you note. And you’re right to keep things in perspective. As hard as it is to move and deal with other stuff in life, it sure beats earthquakes, flooding, war, and more.

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          • Shorter still, but a fine ghost story (or not, as there may be no such ectoplasm) is The Turning of the Screw, another James novella. As you know, I’m better reading James by the sentence than the chapter, so my opinion is only informed by a somewhat limited experience. In the last couple of years, I attempted The Wings of the Dove till the plot coinkidinks overwhelmed my good intentions, slogging through the circumlocutions and and clausal archipelagoes like a trouper for 100+ pages; my bout with The American Scene (non-fiction travel) barely got me through new England before I returned, tail dragging, for home. Did enjoy, years ago, Washington Square, which leads me to conclude– Though he goes well past me in his most convoluted creations, James has a knack with demon lovers, male variety, with or without corporeality.

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            • “…clausal archipelagoes” — love it!

              I read “The Turn of the Screw” a long time ago, but I remember it being pretty darn readable for later-career Henry James. Haven’t gotten to “The Wings of the Dove” yet. James’ “The Ambassadors” from roughly the same time period can also be tough going, but once I convinced myself to read it slowwwwllllyyyy, I admired it — and even enjoyed it — greatly. It helped that I read it (last summer) while on vacation.

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  5. Dave, I know I’m guilty of this. I read “Silas Marner” at your recommendation and followed that up with “Middlemarch”. It is so much easier to read a short book to see if you enjoy the author rather than dive headfirst into a book that you might have trouble slogging through.

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    • Well said, GL! Definitely a worthwhile approach. I also did that with Edith Wharton (reading the short “Ethan Frome” first), Henry James (“Daisy Miller” first), and several other authors.

      For living authors, there can be a chronological progression that takes care of that. With the “Harry Potter” series, for instance, I read the relatively short first novel when it came out in the 1990s and then kept reading as the next-released books got longer and more intricate and disturbing (yet remained wonderful).

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  6. Dave, are there any books that you HAVEN’T read? I’m glad to say that I’ve read some of the longer novels mentioned here, and mostly found them enjoyable. I will get to “Moby Dick” eventually, but based on your comments this week, as well as comments from a few weeks back, I think I will add Melville’s shorter work to my list. Am very tempted to also add ‘short Tolstoy’ to my list. I was disappointed with both “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” but always felt that it was my fault. With a shorter story, I might be able to ‘get’ whatever I was missing in the other much, much, much longer tales 🙂

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  7. Dave loved the collection of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories read them so many times. Read “Moby-Dick” but never did “War and Peace” although watched both of the classic movies.
    Loved “Interpreter of Maladies” and “Unaccustomed Earth” books of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri but was hesitant to read “The Lowland” the engrossing family saga until much later after one library patron convinced me to read it and am so glad read this wonderful classic.

    Even before that read “A Suitable Boy” by Vikram Seth 1349 pages the book is one of the longest novels ever published in a single volume in the English language later promised myself not to read such a lengthy novel. I did have the book until recently I donated the book to the library knowing I will not re read the book again even such a wonderful story teller Mr. Seth is.

    Lately I find what a great poet he is..here is the one I love

    “Sit, drink your coffee here; your work can wait awhile.
    You’re twenty-six, and still have some life ahead.
    No need for wit; just talk vacuities, and I’ll
    Reciprocate in kind, or laugh at you instead.

    The world is too opaque, distressing and profound.
    This twenty minutes’ rendezvous will make my day:
    To sit here in the sun, with grackles all around,
    Staring with beady eyes, and you two feet away. ”

    ~Vikram Seth.

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    • Those Tolstoy stories are something, aren’t they, bebe? Superbly written, philosophical, depressing, heartbreaking, class-conscious, and very candid for their time. I even read that “The Kreutzer Sonata” was banned for a time in the U.S. and elsewhere.

      Yes, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels AND short stories are both well worth reading.

      “A Suitable Boy” is definitely in “War and Peace”-length territory. I’ve had it on my list for while, but haven’t quite gotten up the courage to read it. I look at a book that length and figure I can read three or four novels during the same amount of time. 🙂 Didn’t know Vikram Seth was a poet, too. Very nice verse — thanks for posting it, and for the excellent comment in general!

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      • Hey Dave, did you by any chance read the ‘Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories’ collection translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky? They’re my ‘go-to’ translators of the Russian masters. I’ve read their ‘Brothers Karamazov’, ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Notes from the Underground’ and intend to move on to their ‘Demons’ and ‘The Adolescent’ of Dostoevsky. I also read their ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’. Generally, their translations seem to have an almost effortless flow and vibrancy, almost like these books have been digitally remastered, to mix a metaphor. Also intend to read some of their Chekhov translations as well.

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          • So many translators have done a fabulous job Dave…besides Leo Tolstoy`s works. The recent ones as we both have read Millennium Trilogy, the translator did a fabulous job.

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            • Very true, bebe! Great that there are many excellent translators around. I forget who the translator(s) was/were for The Millennium Trilogy edition I read, but I agree that she/he/they did a fabulous job with those terrific novels!

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  8. “Ulysses” has been mentioned a lot, and I did tackle this book several years ago with the assistance of a study guide. I can’t really say it was “enjoyable”, but it was worthwhile, and pretty fascinating. I really hope to read it again in the near future, and I think it is one of those books that could be read repeatedly, each time revealing something new. In Philadelphia, they have an annual “Bloomsday” (June 16) celebration where portions of the book are read aloud in a festive atmosphere. Every year, I intend to attend, but haven’t made it yet. A visit to Dublin on Bloomsday is something on my bucket list. I have not read “Portrait of the Artist” or any of his short stories yet, but look forward to doing so. I have heard that “Finnegan’s Wake” is even denser than “Ulysses”.

    The only novel denser than “Ulysses” that I’ve read is “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon. Again, it can’t be described as “enjoyable”, but it was also worthwhile, and I am glad that I read it. However – once through was enough for me. I was recently surprised to come across another book by Pynchon called “Inherent Vice”. Although this novel contained some of the same paranoia themes as “Gravity’s Rainbow”, it was much more readable – it was basically a detective story written in the 2010’s in the classic 1940’s “noir” style, but set in the 1970’s Los Angeles stoner culture. I recommend this for anyone who wants to read Pynchon, but not spend the time and effort on his more dense works.

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    • Brave and ambitious of you to tackle “Ulysses,” drb. It’s interesting how some novels of that “reputation” can be not super-enjoyable yet very worthwhile, even as other “intimidating” books can actually be quite readable. For instance, parts of “The Brothers Karamazov” and “Moby-Dick” are incredibly entertaining.

      I read “Inherent Vice” — the only Pynchon novel I’ve tried — on your recommendation a while ago, and it indeed has LOTS of fun with the detective genre. 🙂

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    • I read ‘Ulysses’ over the month of June 1994 so I did read it on Bloomsday. Someday I hope to try it again. I too read it with a study guide, explicating each section and the parallels with Homer’s ‘Odyssey’. I have only read one of Pynchon’s novels, the fairly short ‘Crying of Lot 49’, one of his early ones from the 60’s. Stylistically it wasn’t difficult but it still packed in a densely woven maze of conspiracy so interpretation involved unraveling most of those tightly sewn threads.

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      • There’s some interesting stuff, involving precedents, on the topic of Ulysses and Joyce in Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, which, though it’s been several decades, I remember being intrigued to read.

        As I remember it, Heinrich Schliemann’s diggings for Troy, by following Homer, had much influence in the most general way. William Butler, I believe it was, wrote a book in which he re-imagined bronze age Attica, right down to hair pins, by a close reading of Homer. These two things made Joyce think he might leave behind a similar sort of time slice/blueprint for the ages of Dublin.

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  9. I am currently reading “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf, one of the earliest 20th Century “stream of consciousness” novels. In general, I have enjoyed stream of consciousness novels, so I was not afraid of Virginia Woolf. I find that one gets quickly used to the cadence of such novels, and they are mostly fascinating, as the reader seems to be truly experiencing the story by being inside the head of the character(s). In “Mrs. Dalloway”, we follow the events of several characters as they proceed though a day set in post World War I London, which contain observations, evaluations, and flashback of several characters including Clarissa Dalloway, a middle class society woman married to a politian, a former beau who has followed a different path and recently returned from India, and a shell-shocked veteran trying to make sense of his altered life. This is my first novel by Woolf, and I am not too familiar with her oeuvre. So if anyone knows of a more direct or mainstream work, I’d appreciate hearing about it.

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    • Thanks, drb! Actually, “Mrs. Dalloway” is the only Virginia Woolf novel I’ve read, too. It IS a bit tricky to get through, but ultimately very compelling, satisfying — and, in part, harrowing. I’m guessing there are some “easier” Woolf books, but I’ll have to leave it to other commenters here to say which ones those are.

      “Mrs. Dalloway” is not an especially long novel, but books with nonlinear aspects definitely have to be read more slowly. 🙂

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  10. Dave! Now you’re talking my language – not that you weren’t before, but i am a literary wimp, for all the reasons you listed! This is such a fabulous column that I printed it out and will read those “less threatening” books! Bless you!!!

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    • Very much enjoyed your comment — and
      your use of the phrase “less threatening” for certain literary works. I know you’re being a bit modest, because you have recommended some fairly challenging books to me (Ann Patchett’s great “Bel Canto” anyone? 🙂 ). But when a person is busy with life, with one or two professions, etc., it can be hard to read a lot of really challenging novels.

      Thank you, Cathy!

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  11. (1) “Ulysses, (2) Moby-Dick, (3) Middlemarch, (4) War and Peace.” — (1) We did a four-week course in college, reading it and that’s all we did, figuring it out as we went, including the prof.; (2) Takes 3 readings to really get it; (3). Read it in a Victorian Novel course. So long ago, remember nothing; (4) Probably not going to happen.

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    • Thanks, Joe, for your interesting thoughts!

      Wow — a four-week course just in “Ulysses”! Few novels would warrant that; maybe Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” and a handful of others. Funny how the prof was trying to figure things out, too. 🙂

      I’ve read “Moby-Dick” twice, and I think I “got it” the second time. But I bet I’d get it even more a third time!

      As for the outstanding “Middlemarch,” I reread it a year or two ago, and have already forgotten a lot of the details. But the depiction of the marriages of Dorothea Brooke and Rev. Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are just amazing — unsparing, psychologically deep, etc. Not sure if I’ve ever read more compelling descriptions of unhappy unions.

      I read “War and Peace” so long ago I barely remember a thing. But I do recall that it was longer than a Jack Reacher novel…

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  12. Oddly enough, Dave, a Bible study I’m part of, which has waded through such long books as Isaiah and Revelation, has decided that our next four books will be among the shortest: Obadiah, Zephaniah, Philemon and Jude. I’ll tell ’em I swiped the idea of doing that from you.

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    • One of those coincidences, Bill! And — ha! — I could also say I swiped the idea for my column from you. 🙂

      Your comment reminded me that it’s nice to mix longer/shorter, easier/harder works. “Variety is the spice of life” and all that. For instance, after reading Tolstoy’s amazing/harrowing short stories, I’m now reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” — which is excellent and far from simple, but not Tolstoyan!

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  13. Thank you for instead of possibilities,those easier to digest if you will. 🙂 I wouldn’t touch Ulysses with a ten foot pole but The Dead as you know is a beautiful story that lingers in ones memory. I’ll add Ethan Frome as a short read for Edith Wharton.

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    • Well said, Michele! And thank YOU for mentioning the compelling “Ethan Frome.” While Edith Wharton’s longer famous novels — “The House of Mirth,” “The Age of Innocence,” “The Custom of the Country,” etc. — are very readable, albeit downbeat, the also-downbeat “Ethan Frome” is no more than novella length. I think the edition I read a few years ago was only about 180 pages.

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  14. Your post is so timely. I’ve been re-reading James Joyce’s short stories ‘Dubliners’ which includes ‘The Dead’ one of my favourites (I love the dialogue in it). However, I have made several attempts to read ‘Ulysses’ and failed miserably. Sigh. 😦

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    • That’s a coincidence, Jean. 🙂

      “The Dead” dialogue IS magnificent. Such a memorable/melancholy story.

      I would definitely like to read the rest of the “Dubliners” collection at some point. I’ve only gotten to “The Dead” — which I read online a while ago (unusual for me because I still mostly favor fiction in old-fashioned print form).

      Thanks for commenting!

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  15. Guess I’m guilty here. I prefer short stories over novels. In most cases they are better crafted and can be read in one setting. I do like short stories by classic authors that are not their better known one, though.

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    • Thanks, Sheila! Short stories CAN be great. Heck, as you know, some authors specialize(d) or mostly specialize(d) in them — Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. And, as you mentioned, some classic writers’ lesser-known short stories can be excellent. I prefer novels, but love many short stories, too.

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  16. Most of those authors you mentioned wrote shorter scale works as well as the longer, more challenging ones. I recently read that Tolstoy collection you cited and agree completely about the ones you mentioned. I might also mention that ‘Hadji Murat’ makes many of the same historical points about warfare in the 19th century as ‘War and Peace,’ although it has the advantage (for the brevity-obsessed) of being only around 100 pages as opposed to 1300. “The Dead” as well as many other stories in Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ are good introductions to him. I would recommend even reading the relatively short ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ before tackling ‘Ulysses’. With Henry James, if you want something even shorter than those early novels there are several outstanding novellas, which is how I got hooked. “Daisy Miller” for early style, “The Aspern Papers” for middle era and, if you want to sample the late James but are not yet ready for the dense later career trilogy (‘The Wings of the Dove’/’The Ambassadors’/’The Golden Bowl’), “The Beast in the Jungle”. The extremely challenging William Faulkner even wrote some relatively accessible shorter works. Outstanding stories such as “Barn Burning” and “A Rose for Emily” are sometimes taught to college students who would rather have their teeth pulled without deadening than try ‘The Sound and the Fury’. Even ‘As I Lay Dying’ is more easily read than that or ‘Absalom! Absalom!’. Then there’s his very last novel, ‘The Reivers’, which has some of the same characters as in earlier challenging stories but is more of a nostalgic look back at the time of his childhood along the lines of ‘Tom Sawyer’ and ‘Huck Finn’. The only really challenging author I can think of that really provides no ‘easier’ alternative is Marcel Proust, which is probably why most readers get through the first volume of ‘In Search of Lost Time’, ‘Swann’s Way’ and consider that they have accomplished something and are more than willing to stop right there. Thomas Mann also writes some novellas, usually compiled in a collection that always includes “Death in Venice”. That’s probably a safer route to go than diving headlong into ‘The Magic Mountain’.

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    • Superb, comprehensive comment, Brian! Thanks! To respond to some of it:

      As you note, William Faulkner works such as “As I Lay Dying” are somewhat easier than “The Sound and the Fury.” I would add his kind of complex but very readable “Light in August.”

      Interesting angle on Proust — reading the “Swann’s Way” part of his “In Search of Lost Time” opus is indeed sort of the equivalent of reading a separate work of other classic authors. That’s what I did with Proust! If I’m remembering right, you impressively read all of “In Search of Lost Time.”

      Some of Tolstoy’s shorter works are indeed absolute knockouts.

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    • 😂 if you want the long and the short of Proust, I guess you have to read the long of it. Swann’s Way is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, but I think you make a good point. It’s so electric and the prose and Marcel’s thoughts really consumed me. I’m working on In a Budding Grove now. While I still think it’s beautiful and energizing, it’s not quite the same feeling.

      I also liked the mention of Cannery Row as an alternative to the bigger two novels. I’d love to chat with someone who has only read Cannery Row though. It’s so different than East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath. You could come out of CR thinking Steinbeck was a comic writer!

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      • “…if you want the long and the short of Proust, I guess you have to read the long of it” — well said, Afternoon Sufficed! I tried, but just couldn’t make it past the “Swann’s Way” portion of his masterpiece. (And I love older French literature — Stendhal, Balzac, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, de Maupassant, Flaubert, Colette, Camus, etc.) Great that you’re reading more of Proust than most people do!

        Yes, Steinbeck can be hilarious in certain novels. “Tortilla Flat,” too. It WOULD be interesting to talk with someone who read only some of Steinbeck’s work and thought he was “just” a comic writer. 🙂 I’m a huge fan of “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” and prefer those novels over his others, but they are indeed SERIOUS.

        Thanks for the great comment!

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        • I think Swann’s Way is the Inferno of French novels, in that most people never read past it, if they get that far, much as most never read Dante past hellfire, or more exactly the frozen waste in the last circle that is the pit. Few elect to endure Purgatorio; fewer still to fly up to Paradiso.

          I’m guilty of this myself re Dante, but I always figured it was due to the poverty of my power to conceive. As I learned from Peter Cook in Bedazzled,the prospect of eternal damnation seems preferable to the endless boredom of praise-emoting, especially the prospect of reading something large about the latter.

          Never quite made it through Proust’s first bit either, as I could not believe his narrator’s early reminiscences were actually exhaustive, madeleines notwithstanding, in that there was no mention of bedwetting, and given everything else we are told about the boy, there really should have been.

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          • Proust does omit the juvenile urinary habits although he moves on through his life with other infatuations. I guess they preoccupied him a bit more. In this respect, Joyce surpasses Proust in that respect because a sequence of Bloom’s stream of consciousness occurs while he is having a bowel movement and includes the passing thoughts of that experience among other things. Fortunately, he leaves the outhouse in search of other adventures. I personally enjoyed Proust’s beautiful inferno. It was like being immersed, and often lost, in an intricate, fragrant garden of many smells and textures before I finally reached the exit seven volumes later.

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            • Guess that would make Joyce the Martin Luther of novelists, or rather, his character Bloom would be the latest incarnation of the man who made so much out of a Diet of Worms.

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