The challenge: To read the classics from A to Z.
It is a challenge I have long thought of undertaking, and now with my life in a state of flux, where almost everything seems impermanent, transitorily temporal, to read the classics seems a grounding idea, a rooting force.
It is also a challenge born out of my admitted ignorance. Though I know the classics by name – scanning the Penguin Classics list that shall be my guide there is barely a title I do not know – I feel I have read so few of them. The books contained in the classics are – each in their own way – brilliant, exciting, enchanting, moving, despairing, humanising and above all real. They are works that when I finish one I know I have read something of worth and that I have enjoyed it.
I have to admit that a lot of more recent fiction leaves me cold, uninspired. It is not because they are by bad writers but that because of the way modern markets work there is little room for the novel of ideas, the poetry of thought or the theatre of the real. If one compares the emotional complexities of, say, Madame Bovary with, say, the conundrums of Bridget Jones there is truth in both (and Bridget Jones may one day be in this list), Madame Bovary is still a more complex, breathing, living figure, whereas Bridget Jones seems nothing more than the sum of her jokes.
Every challenge needs rules and these are mine:
1) That I read every book in the Penguin Classics list. This list includes the Modern Classics line. The list I have used is the one published on the Penguin website in May 2008 and updated with their release list until the end of 2008.
2) That I read the authors in strict alphabetical order – so starting with Edward Abbey and ending with Stefan Zweig – and for authors with more than one work in the list that I attempt, where possible, to read their works in date order.
3) That upon completion of a book I have to review it on this blog. The review will be as intellectually rigorous as I can manage and examine the work in detail.
4) Where an author as multiple titles on the list (more than five) I can, if so desired, read beyond that author by one book so long as I return to the previous author as the next book. So I may, for instance, go Dickens-Diderot-Dickens-Diderot-Dickens-Dinesen-Dickens etc until Dickens is complete. Too much of one author may become potentially stifling.
5) That I will reread works already read, with the exception of The Brothers Karamazov which I am currently reading and was the final inspiration to start this project. The Brothers Karamazov review will appear when I finally reach Dostoyevsky.
6) Where an author has other works that are not contained in the Penguin Classics list I may or may not review those other works. I am here thinking of authors such as Balzac whose 143 works that comprise La Comédie Humane are not all in print. The reviewing of these works is wholly dependent upon time and enjoyment factor.
7) If Penguin issue new classics that should have been reviewed earlier in the list I shall endeavour to review them as quickly as possible. If they will be appearing at some point future in the blog, then they shall appear at the appropriate time and place.
8) That I may review other books not on this list if such a work impresses me enough to do so. Here I will give special mention to Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist which I have just finished and though I will not be reviewing it, I would have done had this blog been started then.
My final admission is this: for a number of years I worked in the English Department of a university and I feel it is shameful that I have read as little of these as I have (though I sometimes feel I have read more than some of my old colleagues). I love literature and I am a writer, so it seems only right that I have read these works. My final, final admission: I have never read a single Dickens. It will be interesting getting to him and finally reading him and plugging that gap in my knowledge.
In this list is the whole of human experience. I cannot wait to wallow in it.