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, obtained 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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Defoe and the Invention of Realism in the Novel

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Shows featured author, Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe

Realism in the Novel is an old story today. But at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Realism was something new, and Daniel Defoe was one of the first writers to practice it.

In the early 1700s, a metamorphosis in English fiction writing took place. Fewer stories featured high-born princes and gorgeous ladies, clever rogues, or their slaves and minions. Instead, fiction focused more on clerks, maids, sailors, lawyers, bankers, bakers—realistic, ordinary people that an 18th century reader might actually meet.

Settings moved from vaguely described kingdoms lying somewhere in foreign lands to everyday places, like the streets of London or Colchester, or the inside of a shop, rooming house, or jail. Instead of characters who spoke in high-flown witty phrases manifesting extremes of emotion, fictional characters slowly began to talk more and more like real people.

Before the advent of this newer way of writing fiction, which became known as Realism, writers had not focused on providing “verisimilitude” to their tales. That is, they had not developed all the writerly techniques that make readers feel that a story could have happened in the factual world, the one they saw daily out of their windows.

But with Daniel Defoe’s publication of Robinson Crusoe in 1719 and Moll Flanders in 1722, “verisimilitude” is exactly what readers saw: fictions that seemed as real as actual memoirs or biographical accounts. In fact, many of Robinson Crusoe’s earliest readers believed that this fictional account was a true story. With Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and other novels to come, Daniel Defoe was helping invent something that seemed new: Realism and the Novel genre, which developed as showcase for the Realist’s techniques and aims.

Defoe made his storytelling in Crusoe feel real by basing its form on a popular memoir of an actual castaway, Alexander Selkirk. Defoe populated his faux-memoir Crusoe’s pages with numerous mundane details to make readers feel he was writing about the real world, not just dreaming up wild events in his imagination.

In Moll Flanders, the Defoe novel that I know the best, he continued to experiment and develop with techniques to make a story feel real, so much so that you can watch Defoe’s techniques develop and the story’s texture evolve as you read it from one end to the other.

To learn more about where Defoe got inspiration for this new way of writing, and how he invented and honed his Realism, come along for a closer look at Moll Flanders, and an important fictional predecessor to Defoe, a famous teller of sexy romantic tales, Aphra Behn. And before that, we’ll talk a bit about whether Realism is really a “thing,” and if so, where it might have come from.

“Before”–painting by William Hogarth

 

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Give Reading Poetry Another Try with Guided Reading Questions

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Who says you can’t read poetry?  And why bother? Here’s why and how:

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times: “Poetry just isn’t my thing!”

My response to that: Don’t be so sure! Could it be that you just haven’t met the right poem?

I can well believe that some particular poem, or poet, is not your thing. Many famous poems are quite old, therefore using language that seems unfamiliar to modern readers. Even some poetry written after 1900 may be hard to understand, given that many 20th century writers followed a modernist aesthetic calling for experimental, strange, or highly figurative language. That kind of poetry might seem puzzling at first reading. If you’re not accustomed to poetic language of these kinds, reading poetry might not seem worth the effort.

However, classic and much beloved poems are hardly all alike. Many lovely poems are not that hard to understand; reading them can add meaning and beauty to your mental life.

Besides, making poetry is natural to the human mind: poetry is playing with language, finding meaningful and powerful ways of expressing ideas, and reveling in beautiful and interesting sounds of words. From the very beginning of language, people have naturally sought memorable words to capture, enshrine, and encourage contemplation of human experience.

Besides offering meaning, so many poems are just pretty—their pictures, their sounds, the feel of the words upon the tongue. Experiencing poetry taps into something primal and pleasurable in the human mind.

Whether you are poetry skeptic or poetry-loving enthusiast, I invite you to join me now for a little poetry read-along. Just below, I quote three different poems. Below each one is a series of guided reading questions I hope will help you understand and enjoy the poems more.

Want to play?

To get the most out of the process, read each poem a couple of times through, then get a piece of notepaper to jot down your own responses to the questions. I hope the little time it takes to think through the questions will bring each poem to life for you.

If  You Like:

When you’ve interpreted each poem for yourself, you can click the link or scroll down to the bottom of the article to see some of my responses to each question. I expect we won’t have all the same answers to every question, and that’s OK! Every reader has a personal response to every poem.

It doesn’t follow, though, that a poetic text can mean just anything at all. Words, even poetic ones, do communicate specific ideas. As you develop your ideas of what each poem is saying, test those ideas to see if they truly fit with the words, phrases, and references in the poem itself, as the writer seems to have used them.
One object of reading poetry, just like reading any literature, is to lend an open mind and ear to exactly what that writer is communicating to us, whether the idea is familiar to us or completely strange or new.

Ready to go on this guided poetry-reading adventure? If doing a slow and deep analysis is the sort of thing that just makes you nuts, no problem! Just choose some great poems and read away. You can skip to this post for suggestions about how to “Just Fall In,” or skim on down this post, leaping over the reading questions to take today’s poems direct and straight.

However, if you do want to come along on this guided poetry reading journey, read on!

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Is Now the Time to Read That Beefy Classic 19th Century Novel?

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Time to Read? Pick up a Beefy 19th Century Novel!

Here’s a list of great 19th Century Novels to try. You can find inexpensive copies, or download and read for free!

With a pandemic raging, many of us are in official or self-imposed quarantine. I send you prayers and hopes that you and your loved ones are well, or soon will be, and that this epidemic will soon pass. If you are well but stuck inside, maybe now is the time to pick up one of those beefy classic novels you always meant to read.

But what to go for first?

Here I offer a smattering of my suggestions for best overall Big Reads that, for me, offer not just classic status, but also engaging stories and characters, worthy and thought-provoking ideas, and immersion in other times and places in western cultural history.

The great thing about choosing Classics for reading is that you can find many of them online for free, or pick up inexpensive second-hand copies from online booksellers. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you can even download copies of many classic works from Gutenberg.org in the correct format. The listings below provide links to Gutenberg download pages for each.

Here is the link to Gutenberg’s Book Search page, where you can search for any other out-of-copyright book you’d like to read.

A word to the wise: be patient when first starting your Classic Read. It might take a chapter or two to become accustomed to the more elaborate language and leisurely pace of fiction written in bygone years. But if the experience of most of my students is any indication, you won’t read far into these great books before you are wholly absorbed in the story-line, captivated by the characters, and stimulated by the thoughtful commentaries about being human that these great authors can offer.

Here are my picks for some great classics I think you would like to meet.

Note: If you want to choose readings from other eras, visit our Literature Lists and Timelines category page for ideas. Make a choice then search the Gutenberg link above for online copies.

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Poems Lamenting Love Lost: Is it Really Un-Valentine Poetry?

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Silhouette of Man under tree shaped like heart with twilit background

The most well-known day to celebrate romantic love, Valentine’s Day, is upon us again, so it may be a bit contrarian to focus on poems about Love Lost.  But let’s be realistic: sometimes–a lot of times–love goes wrong; and probably, no theme inspires more heartfelt verse than Love Lost.

When Love is Lost, how do people respond? First may come lament, the long, unfettered howl of the broken heart.

Next we  might try to forget, deny, or just to cope somehow.

When forgetting seems impossible, we may do the opposite: linger on memories of Love Lost that we just can’t expunge.

Of course, there are beautiful, amazing poems for all of these phases. After lingering over a few of these poems, we might wonder: with all the misery that love can bring, would we just be better off without it? You won’t be surprised that there are excellent poems all about that too.

The pains of Love Lost have inspired so much lovely, wise, moving, and enduring poetry, I personally can’t wish to do away with all the pain. Let’s take a tour of a variety of poems focusing on Love Lost.

In the end, though love has caused plenty of pain to poets and non-poets alike, most of us can’t make up our mind to do without it. Ironically, that observation may be a truly appropriate Valentine’s Day sentiment.

Side note: if you want to read something a little more upbeat about love on Valentine’s Day, take a look at these two Valentine’s Day-appropriate posts:

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real? (Hint: Yes it is!)

All Kinds of Poems About Love

To continue the tour of Poems Lamenting Love Lost just continue reading.

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Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Is Love Real?

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Painting of scene from As You Like It--Jester Touchstone talks to country lass Audrey in Arden forest.

Shakespeare’s As You Like It: Touchstone the Jester romances Audrey, the country lass.

As You Like It: Is Love Real? Learning and Laughing at  this and other Big Questions

How could a very old play about an imaginary forest where shepherds and shepherdesses tend their flocks, sing of love, and write poems on trees have anything to say about our lives in the 21st century?

Plenty, as I and my students repeatedly found—because this play, As You Like It, was written by the magnificent William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s knowledge of the human heart shows as full and rich today as ever it did when As You Like It was first performed in 1599.

One reason I love this play so much is that it tells us something so many of us modern cynics need to hear today:

Love is real. Yes, it may be complicated, twisted, and strange–but ultimately, love  is good, and can truly be long-lasting.

Here’s another good message in this play:

Simplifying your life, taking it right down to the basics even for a short while, can help you gain self-knowledge and regenerate your soul.

Not that Love, or Anything, is Simple. . .

Of course neither message is presented as just that simple. As You Like It may be high on love, but also illustrates its negative aspects.

For one thing, love is not as nearly so “romantic” as poems and romance novels often describe it. People get mixed up, mistaking obsession, lust, or ambition for love. We call all kinds of relationships “love” that, in truth, really aren’t. And not all loves are going to last.

As You Like It also shows that a “simple” life in the country—living rough and leaving a “small footprint,” as we might call it today–isn’t always that simple, or even very pleasant. However, life in the sophisticated city doesn’t always offer the best life either.

For one thing, civilization isn’t always that civilized. “Civilized” people can treat each other with savagery. The best people struggle to keep their positions in society as the worst people strike out from behind false smiles.

Yet when all is said and done in Shakespeare’s comedy, after many witty dialogues by the characters and much laughter from the audience, As You Like It ends with some clear messages:

  • Though some folk are corrupt and selfish, there are good people in the world.
  • A simple country life, for all its hardships, has valuable lessons to teach.
  • Urban civilization, for all its corruptions, can also enrich people’s characters.
  • And. . . True Love, despite its complexities, is very much worth pursuing.

As You Like It: Part Parody 

It’s doubly fun and interesting that Shakespeare conveys these, and many other themes and ideas, through engaging in a a re-mix of another popular work: Thomas Lodge’s pastoral fiction RosalyndeAccording to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, “Thomas Lodge’s prose romance  Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacy  (first published 1590) is best known today as the major source for Shakespeare’s  As You Like It, but its own success is apparent from its numerous reprintings.”   As You Like It, coming along nine years after Rosalynde’s first printing, is both homage to and parody of Lodge’s pastoral fiction.

Shakespeare’s play follows many of the conventions popularized by Lodge’s work and other Renaissance pastoral romances,  in which well-born ladies and gentlemen leave their sophisticated lives at court to wander an idyllic forest and countryside among simple shepherds and shepherdesses.  (“Pastoral” means “country.”) In traditional pastoral, these fictional lads and lasses have little to do but discourse of love and woo one another from morning to night.   Thus,  Lodge’s work is lively and enchanting.    Shakespeare’s version of the pastoral in As You Like It, however, is as gritty, real, and elemental as it is charming and sweet.

Though funny and very entertaining, As You Like It goes well beyond Lodge’s Rosalynde in presenting a balanced view of the elemental questions about life and love.  Let’s take a closer look at As You Like It.

Shakespeare's As You Like It characters painted in forest scene.

Shakespeare’s forest of Arden in As You Like It. 1864 painting by John Edmund Buckley.

 

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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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