Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

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Circular Reading Room of Stockholm public library.

About This Blog

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:

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Christmas Poems: Seeking Meaning in a Material World

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Christmas trees in my living room.

It’s the time of year at my house to get ready for our Christmas celebrations, so I have been working like mad to deck my halls, trim two big trees, and set out multiple Christmas knick-knacks. Finally I began to set up the manger scene, a miniature wooden shed with figures depicting a traditional version of the birth of Christ.

Unwrapping the figures I had packed away last January, I saw that Mother Mary was there, and Joseph, and the cow, the donkey and the sheep. I finished hanging the angel above the manger on its peg, and set up the three wisemen, then unwrapped the manger and put it in position.

But where was the baby?

Somehow, between last Christmas and this one, I had lost the Baby Jesus!

Tabletop Nativity Scene is missing the Baby!

Nativity Scene: But where’s the Baby?

The thought crossed my mind that this whole Christmas panoply–the trees, the lights, the Nativity scene–all was for naught without my central reason for celebrating Christmas: honoring the birth of Christ.

Christian faith may or may not be at the heart of Christmas for you, but if you celebrate Christmas at all, the time surely comes in every season when you stop and ask what all this fuss is for. What is the real meaning of it all?

Christmastime seems to hold out a promise of bringing deeper meaning to our lives. And yet for years, even centuries, many have criticized some Christmas customs for excessive materialism and shallowness, all long before Kris Kringle’s friend Alfred famously bemoaned the modern focus on “commercialism” and “make-a-buck” in the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.”

Whence among presents and tinsel, partying and overeating, not to mention struggling too much as usual with the ordinary chores and problems of daily life, is real meaning and transcendence to be found in the winter holiday season?

Here are five poems by poets who asked that very question, ending up with interesting meditations on varied answers. If you are seeking meaning among the material, whether from the Christian or another faith tradition, perhaps one of these Christmas poems can direct you to a small spot of the numinous this season.  Click “Continue Reading” to find out what they are.

Other Posts About Christmas Poems

Vintage Christmas Poems: Ringing in Hopes for Peace

Happy Christ-tide: Milton’s Nativity  Ode

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My New England Author Home Tour: Common Lives, Uncommon Minds

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Large rambling two-story brown wood-sided farmhouse shows the rough but charming environment Alcott lived in.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women.”

On August 10 this year, I set out with my husband to do something I have dreamed of for a long time: take a driving tour around New England. The goal: to visit as many great authors’ homes as we could manage in our eight-day tour of southern Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts.

We basked in the ever-changing views of the beautiful New England countryside, passing by rolling hills, pine-covered green mountains, marsh, forest, and rocky shoreline, stopping often to visit the old homes and sites where authors wrote some of the most treasured literature in America’s history.

This trip was a lovely and thought-provoking experience. Many of us revere our favorite geniuses, whether writers, artists, athletes, actors, or directors, for the intellectual thrills, pleasure, and meaning they bring to our lives through their excellent productions.

Sitting Room of the home where Longfellow grew up.

But I know for me, this reverence makes it difficult to regard my most admired authors exactly as fellow humans. After seeing where they lived and wrote, where they made their homes, a bit about how they lived, often in humble circumstances, my perspective is changed.

Treading the beautiful old wooden floors we found in almost every home, the very boards my favorite writers trod back and forth when stuck for a word or a phrase, reminded me of something.

These writers were indeed geniuses, but they were also just people–humans a lot like me. They had to figure out where to live, what to eat, what to wear, when and where to write.

They had family, friends, enemies, and fellow townspeople. They had other passions besides writing—perhaps a garden, a fondness for hiking, a favorite grandchild, a well-loved chair, a treasured view. Their homes were decorated with pretty wallpaper and draperies, bright paint colors, beloved art, and above all, books, books, books!

Drawing of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The minds of the great authors whose homes we visited might tower above most of ours, but they lived their lives on a human scale. Experiencing that humanness viscerally gives me even more affection for their works. It’s so much clearer that these writers speak to me, and to all their readers, not as gods issuing proclamations from the clouds, but as fellows sharing their thoughts at our elbow, as friends writing us letters from their desks, just down the street.

Not that these writers were just like average folk in every respect. Seeing their homes all together in this way made it plain that there are certain things they had more in common with each other than with the non-writing public. In a moment, I’ll talk about what these great writers seemed to have in common, and how knowing about these similarities enhances how I read their literature.

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Four Themes in Milton’s Paradise Lost

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Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Freize Détail of the Sainte Chapelle (Boulevard du Palais Paris, France), yet another view of Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? And in the end, why would a modern reader want to read it? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost, and makes the case for plunging in to this magnificent work.

Miss Part I? Click here to start at the beginning.

Paradise Lost Part II

As discussed in the post “Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost,” this magnificent epic tale tells the story of how Satan tempts Adam and Eve to disobey God and lose their place in paradise. In that post, you can read about the historical background behind the great poem, and how each major character helps Milton make his case for the existence of individual liberty.

Here, I will take up that theme in more detail, along with three other ideas that Milton promotes throughout the poem. It’s not surprising that such a vast work expresses more than just one big idea. Let’s take a look at four major themes I see in Paradise Lost.

And then, some words about why you would want to read it.

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Milton’s Many Voices in Paradise Lost

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Paradise Lost depicts the same episode from Genesis as this painting, showing God rebuking Adam and Eve for eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The Rebuke of Adam and Eve. Painting by Charles Joseph Natoire, 1740.

Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the most splendid and influential works ever written in English. What is it about, how did it come to be, and how can today’s readers approach this wonderful work? In a two-post series, our guest writer David E. Miller tells us all about Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost Part I

Part II HERE

Voices in Paradise Lost

Some authors become their characters. Charles Dickens is a conspicuous example. Reading a Dickens novel is like watching a one-man play. It’s as if, in the mind’s eye, Dickens himself does all of the voices and each antic and somber gesture.

But not all authors become their characters. Sometimes it’s more like the characters become their author, by becoming spokespersons for his different points of view. In the case of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667/1674), the characters we meet—Adam, Eve, even Satan–are various adaptations of Milton the man. Like Milton, they all have rich intellects and strong reasoning skills. They all are persuasive and utterly committed to their causes.

But more than that, just as did Milton the English citizen, all the major characters place great importance on individual freedom.

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Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge: Book Club, Meet Classic!

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Book Club, Meet Classic

Book Club, Meet Classic

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?

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Reading the Renaissance: English Literature from 1485-1660

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Painting of Queen Elizabeth shows her from the waist up, reddish hair in elaborate close waves, wearing elaborate Elizabethan gown with lace, gold, pearls, and gems.

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:

Tudor/Sixteenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1485-1603.

Jacobian/Early Seventeenth Century Early Modern Literature, 1603-1660

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.

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For Valentine’s Day: Reprise for Great Love Poems

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Artist pose-able wooden figure rolls stuffed red heart toward mini caravan: Take a quick trip back down Love's highways and byways: re-sample "All Kinds of Poems About Love."

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.

Pink plate showing several candy hearts with messages: Valentine Candy Heart message: Read some Great Literature about love!

Valentine Candy Heart message: Read some Great Literature about love!

Photos from Pexels.com. Candy heart photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush from Pexels

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Reading Middle Ages English Literature from our List

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Middle Ages Tapestry depicting many folk in period dress with dogs and spears ready to hunt bear and boar.

Boar and Bear Hunt, from Devonshire Hunting Tapestries in V & A Museum, late 1420s.

Now available on Read Great Literature: an annotated listing of the best literature from the English Middle Ages.

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.

First, this!

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
  • Devotional writing
  • Mystery and Morality plays, some serious but more often funny
  • Philosophical and social critique
Beautiful stained glass in shades of brown and blue depicting author William Langland, reclining in contemplation near a brook.

Author William Langland depicted in stained glass, Church of St Mary the Virgin in Cleobury Mortimer, Shropshire.

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Dickens Talk: A Fun Conversation on Social Media

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Color photo up close: smartphone screen showing social media icons, Facebook in center.

Classic literature comes to Social Media

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.

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Going Deeper: Five More Characterization Techniques; How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 2

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Barefoot young man wearing suspenders sits in wooden chair in middle of dirt road with book open on his head and book pages flying around him in the air. Characterization techniques help characters spring from pages as if real.

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.

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