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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.