Floating Life 4/06 ~ 11/07

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Classics: Books for Life

Classics: Books For Life by Jane Gleeson-White (Sydney, Knopf, 2005) is now on sale at the remainder shops for $14.95 instead of an outrageous $44.95. I picked up a copy yesterday. As Patrick Cullen writes in the linked review:

Italo Calvino’s 1981 essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’ offered 14 definitions for what constitutes ‘a classic’ and these definitions are wonderfully perceptive and varied. “The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’.” Some of Calvino’s other definitions extend on earlier definitions: “A Classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading,” or when read for the first time “gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.”…

…As she introduces Classics: Books for Life, Jane Gleeson-White acknowledges the subjectivity of the pursuit: “We all have our own favourite classics, book about which we are passionate, that become ‘our’ books and help us to define who we are.” …Sufficient description is provided of each of the [62] books to enable a reader unfamiliar with the author’s work to feel as though they are at least a little closer to understanding why the book may be a classic. Gleeson-White’s choices are generally corroborated by lists submitted by Australian and internatinal authors including Luke Davies, Charlotte Wood and Tim Winton, American Don DeLillo, South African J.M Coetzee, and Englishwoman J.K Rowling.

It is all quite unpretentious when compared with Bloom’s The Western Canon, say — and to judge from this, Bloom seems to have become quite batty lately; I accept that some books are clearly better than others, but also accept that canon-making is a minefield. “The canon” has shifted radically over the centuries; three centuries back it was still argued that no work in English could compare with The Classics of Greece and Rome. See Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books.

What is in your personal canon? I’ve put my own eccentric list on a separate page (see link in the right hand column) and invite you to add your choices via the comments here. Should be fun.

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Written by Neil

April 21, 2006 at 9:40 am

9 Responses

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  1. Perhaps some of John Howard’s speeches should be in the mix with contemporary song lyrics and Shakespeare. Then again, maybe that’s what he’s afraid of.

    Neil, this is a much better template.


    April 21, 2006 at 10:56 am

  2. Looks like a great and varied list. Hopefully will get around to reading all of the books on your list one day.

    I would also include; Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”
    Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”
    Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveller”
    Sophocles’s Theban plays



    April 22, 2006 at 7:50 pm

  3. Oh yes, Calvino! Great book, and aside from Shakespeare, I did not list plays. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams would both be there if I did. And Sophocles. But I have a confession: I am yet to read “Crime and Punishment.”


    April 22, 2006 at 8:05 pm

  4. Of course, I would be nominating my own (eponymously, that is) magnum opus, A la Recherche, and also, I think, 红楼梦 (Hong Lou Meng/Dream of the Red Mansions) as my multi-cultural offering.

    I see also you have eschewed poetry as well as plays. I’ve always had a soft spot for the non Paradise Lost bits of Milton – esp Lycidas, the Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity and Comus (ok, that’s a masque so basically that means it is a play). Actually, I think the common thread is that I like the earlier Milton. I especially like the way that the Hymn and Lycidas both just, sort of, stop at the end like a song that leaves its last phrase hanging in the air. To whit:

    “But see the Virgin blest,
    Hath laid her Babe to rest.
    Time is our tedious Song should here have ending,
    Heav’ns youngest teemèd Star,
    Hath fixt her polisht Car,
    Her sleeping Lord with Handmaid Lamp attending:
    And all about the Courtly Stable,
    Bright-harnest Angels sit in order serviceable. ”

    and, (the last two lines often misquoted):

    “Thus sang the uncouth Swain to th’Okes and rills,
    While the still morn went out with Sandals gray,
    He touch’d the tender stops of various Quills,
    With eager thought warbling his Dorick lay:
    And now the Sun had stretch’d out all the hills,
    And now was dropt into the Western bay;
    At last he rose, and twitch’d his Mantle blew:
    To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.”

    If we are sticking to prose, how come Mary Ann Evans didn’t get a guernsey? But then, I admit, I’ve not really reread her all that often. The temptation with choosing a canon is to put in the books we think we should be reading, rather than those we actually do! That’s why I picked out the non-PL bits of Milton, although PL must otherwise be pretty clasically canonical.


    April 23, 2006 at 3:13 pm

  5. I did stick firmly to books I have actually read, and I am about to add two more… 🙂


    April 23, 2006 at 5:19 pm

  6. I didn’t say I haven’t read PL, but when Milton got older he got so earnest and wore his learning less and less lightly, and I don’t find myself rereading it.


    April 23, 2006 at 6:37 pm

  7. I never read it all.


    April 23, 2006 at 10:16 pm

  8. I might get around to listing my own favourites at some point, but at the moment I’m immersed in some research which will allow me to review properly a new book on the history of comprehensive education in NSW. It’s very scholarly, but I feel it underestimates the significance of the country high schools, and so I’m busy gathering some data on them.

    Your inclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird on your list reminds me that in a not-very-good biography of John Bjelke-Petersen that I’ve just been reading. I noted that he demanded that the novel be withdrawn from all school libraries! He also wanted to sack a group of about 60 teachers who’d offended him in some way, but Flo intervened. Some of his colleagues thought he was a borderline schizophrenic.

    In the current London Review of Books there is a website listed that might be worth a look. It is http://www.ReadySteadyBook.com , a book review website.

    KW by email

    April 25, 2006 at 11:46 am

  9. OK, this activity has proven that I am not as widely read as I’d like to be! My list is rather short:

    Sylvia Plath “The Bell Jar”
    Margaret Laurence “A Bird in the House”
    Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
    Harper Lee “To Kill A Mockingbird”
    Aldous Huxley “Brave New World”
    Emily Bronte “Wuthering Heights”
    Jane Austen “Pride and Prejudice”
    Thomas Hardy “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”
    Tim Winton “Cloudstreet”
    Jeanette Winterson “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit”
    Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”

    I expect this will need revision when I think about it some more.


    May 12, 2006 at 6:21 pm

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