Hi, I’m MJ! This is a blog about Great Literature in the Western tradition. I have read the classics since youth, pursued advanced degrees in English, taught literature in university classrooms for seventeen years, and talked about it with many other literature lovers. Through all, my enthusiasm for “the Greats” has only continued to grow.
I am here to share that enthusiasm with you, drawing on my conversations about literature with people ranging from beginning university students to expert readers. I will also share some tips for getting more out of what you read, and some of my own thoughts about some of my favorite classics. On occasion, Guest Writers may appear as well, to share their ideas about literature with you.
What Can You Find on the Site? Click “Continue Reading” for index:
My neighborhood book club has read many contemporary works, but what happened when they agreed to read a classic, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge?
It was the night of my neighborhood book club meeting, and I was nervous.
The club usually reads and discusses contemporary genre fiction and bestselling nonfiction. In recent months we had discussed Backman’s A Man Called Ove, Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, Lansing’s Endurance, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Bohjalian’s Sandcastle Girls (a love story set in Syria at the time of the Armenian Genocide), Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife (based on the Anne Morrow Lindbergh story), Mundy’s Code Girls (on the role women played in codebreaking in WW II), and more.
But this time was different. This time I had persuaded them to read a classic. Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, published in 1886, was to be the one.
The club members are smart people with rich career backgrounds who love to read, and they read a lot; but no one was in the habit of reading older works. Great works from earlier times often differ enough from current writing to make the reading experience significantly different.
How would they respond to a work written not just about an earlier time, but in an earlier time?
Queen Elizabeth I, portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, essence of the English Renaissance era..
From its beginnings during the 14th century, Renaissance ideas based on classical learning and a focus on all things human–including art, literature, culture, and politics–spread from Italy throughout Europe. Luckily for today’s lovers of English literature, when the Renaissance came to England, it inspired a flowering of magnificent English literature throughout the 15th and 16th centuries that readers still revere and thrill to read today.
This Renaissance era in England (also known as the Early Modern Period), from about 1485-1660, is freighted with famous writers and treasured texts. Spenser, Marlowe, Jonson, Milton, Donne, and the incomparable William Shakespeare are just a few names that appear on the Renaissance Writer Roll of Honor.
You can find out about the best-known works of these and many other Renaissance English writers by checking out latest literary timelines focusing on Renaissance English Literature, HERE:
Before you head to the Renaissance English Literature timelines, you can stay here for a few minutes to read some background on Renaissance life and literature. It will help you understand, appreciate, and enjoy these beautiful, enduring works in the Western tradition.
Take a quick trip back down Love’s highways and byways: re-sample “All Kinds of Poems About Love.”
Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Whatever the state of your love life, I invite you to celebrate the day by taking a look back at one of my favorite posts from the past: “All Kinds of Poems About Love.” Click for a quick walk down memory lane.
Whether Cupid has been kind or not-so-kind to you this year, even if “Love” is a concept you are in the mood to reject, everyone can find just the poem to suit the mood in this post. We hope you enjoy taking another stroll through Cupid’s garden to sample all kinds of poems about love, here on Read Great Literature.
Valentine Candy Heart message: Read some Great Literature about love!
Click here to take a look at the best and most famous works from the Middle Ages. Pick out something new to read, or just enjoy learning something about the major works and authors from the very beginnings of literature written in English!
Before you click, however, take a minute to read this post for some great background on Middle Ages English Literature.
When you read Middle Ages English literature, you will encounter a lot of firsts:
First major poem written in the English language (The Canterbury Tales)
First autobiography written in English (The Book of Marjory Kempe)
The oldest book known to have been written in English by a woman (Revelations of Divine Love).
You will also encounter many kinds of writing:
Compendiums of tales and stories
Chivalric romances recounting Knightly adventures
Tales of courtly love and love laments
Mystery and Morality plays, some serious but more often funny
Philosophical and social critique
Author William Langland depicted in stained glass, Church of St Mary the Virgin in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire.
If you are a Facebook member, you may have seen this challenge going around on people’s Timelines: a friend nominates you to post the cover of a book that is significant for you, one book cover for each of seven days—just the cover, with (I quote) “No Explanation.”With my reputation for loving books, it’s not surprising that this challenge came around to me. With my penchant for talking about books, it’s also not surprising that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut (or my keyboard silent) to follow the “No Explanation” rule.
In short, I explained.
I commented briefly on why I chose David Copperfield as one of my “significant to me” book selections. I’m glad I did, because the comment gave rise to a fun and interesting conversation about Dickens with several of my friends.
This was so much fun, I wanted to share it with my blog readers as well. My friends kindly gave me permission to post our Dickens chat here, just to show how much fun it can be to have shared experience and love of a classic author. Several different topics come up, as you can see, the usual case when readers discuss an author of sufficient depth and accomplishment to be valued as classic.
Characterization techniques help characters fly from the page. Readers experience them as if they are real people.
In “How to Read Fiction Step 4, Part 1,” we discussed four ways that writers create living characters in fiction, focusing on the four qualities readers are most likely to perceive first: Characterization Through Naming (1), Through Physical Description (2), Through “Tags” and Catchphrases (3), and Through Associated Objects (4). These characterization techniques give readers an immediate and forceful first impression of characters as they first meet them in fiction.
As readers read further and deeper into a tale, they encounter fuller and more subtle means of characterization. Narrators and other characters give readers guidance about main characters. Even more powerful, the characters reveal their own personalities and psyches through their own words and actions. Let’s wade in deeper to see how these techniques work to flesh out fully-developed characters.
Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.
Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.
The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:
“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!” “Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.” “Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.” “I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.” “My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”
But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?
Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.
Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.
In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.
St. John’s Almshouses in Sherborne could be a model for Hiram’s Hospital in “The Warden.”*
Do you like taking quizzes? Try this one:
What famous novelist attacked false news and the unbalanced power of a money-driven mainstream media, and in what novel?
What famous novelist, in this same novel, faulted popular storytellers for creating blind emotion and simplistic portrayals of “good” or “bad” people?
What famous novelist attacked a famous public intellectual for his bombastic cynicism about everything in the modern world?
What novelist thought the central character of a work should be neither a faultless victim nor a morally pristine super-person, but rather an ordinary man, weak but well-meaning, a “mixed” character with good and bad, noble and foolish characteristics all mixed together?
As contemporary as these ideas may sound, the answer to all these questions is not someone writing today, but a writer whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 2015, along with his novel that was published in Victorian England back in 1855: writer Anthony Trollope and his sweet little gem of a book, The Warden.
Following a good plot can be as thrilling as riding this roller coaster. Go ahead and enjoy the ride, but also learn to appreciate the plot structure!
At least since Scheherazade wove 1,001 tales for King Shahryar, readers have fallen under the spell of master story-tellers. Though authors think a lot about how to craft their plots, readers don’t often give much thought to how a plot is built, beyond consuming it. We just love being on the roller coaster ride: What happens next? And next? How will the characters ever get out of that mess? And the next, even harder one? How will things turn out for the characters we come to care for?
What most readers want in plot is a fast-paced but also logical chain of events, including some twists and surprises. At story’s finish, everything should just feel right, as if events led to the place they naturally would. Enjoying and critiquing a plot of this familiar type feels easy and natural.
What happens, though, when a work we are reading doesn’t follow the typical plot conventions? Great literature often does not.
Riding the plot roller coaster is fun! But there are more ways to enjoy plot than just to consume it.
For one thing, some great works were written before plot as we know it was fully developed. Later writers of great fiction may experiment with plot structures or focus more on other elements of fiction like character or narrator perspectives. Some important works may even avoid bringing the plot to a firm finish or resolution, to make a point or for some other artistic purpose.
Such departures from convention may frustrate some readers who don’t expect them, making it hard for some who don’t find a fast-paced plot full of events, their favorite entry into a story. But unexpected or highly artistic uses of plot can be the very element that lifts readers to a more extraordinary aesthetic experience.
If you want the meaning and power of great literature to open up for you, it helps to consider and appreciate how a plot in fiction is built, not just read to find out what happens next.
The best plots don’t just grow; they are carefully built. Knowing the parts of a typical plot can help you see and enjoy when authors structure them well, or poorly, and also notice when they purposely avoid following conventional plot shapes.
Kandinsky’s 27-Garden of Love. This image was printed on the postcard commemorating the Armory Show of 1913, the art show that introduced Modern Art to the American public.
What is American Literary Modernism?
When most people hear the term “Modern Art,” certain styles and images spring to mind: Cubism and the lyrical fundamental forms of Picasso, abstract lines and child-like bright colors of Kandinsky or Miro, the raw emotional expressionism of Munch in “The Scream.”
But how do the tenets of Modernism translate to literature? In honor of the unveiling of our new American Modernist Literature Reading List, covering American literature from 1915 – 1945, let’s touch on some of the qualities we’ll find in the works on that list—things like rejection of older forms of literature, invention and experimentation with new forms, minimalism and pastiche, streams of consciousness in narrative, impressionism and subjectivism, a new interest in primitive art and forms of belief, and a drive to make reality appear “new” and “strange.”