Read Great Literature

How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

A Community of Great Literature Readers

Circular Reading Room of Stockholm public library.

About This Blog, Plus Site Index

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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Reading English Victorian Literature: A Brief Guide to the Classics

Archery was popular with Victorian women, one of the few sports considered proper for women. “The Fair Toxophilites” (lovers of archery) by William Frith.

The English Victorian era, dating from about 1832 to 1901, gave birth to many of the works we now call “classic,” some of the best literature ever written in English.

Now we think of the Victorian Age as quaint and old-fashioned, but in reality it was the era in which our own modern age began. The Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, bringing rural workers from small villages to gather in big cities, shifting an economy formerly based on agriculture and handicraft industries into one based on high-volume manufacturing. The development of the Steam Railway system and the telegraph and, later, the telephone, connected people formerly divided by great distances, enabling the spread of modern culture.

In literature, the harvest of this period is rich. Victorian novels such as Middlemarch, Bleak House, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles still appear on critics’ lists of all-time best English novels. The last third of the century brought a flowering of new fictional genres: “sensation” fiction, science fiction, supernatural fiction, detective fiction, and adventure “lost world” fiction—genres that writers and readers still enjoy today.

Victorian poetry is no less famous, with works like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess” still anthology staples. Many poets continued the Romantic era focus on Nature and the Middle Ages, while adding a new fascination with the Italian Renaissance. Other poets focused on raising readers’ awareness of social problems, or pushed back against an over-mechanized and coarsening age, singing the glories of hand craftsmanship and “art for art’s sake.”

The end of the era brought great dramatists and playwrights, especially Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who used side-splitting humor and irony to challenge over-earnest Victorian values they thought to be hypocritical.

Sunset by Samuel Palmer

What were the major “must-read” works of the English Victorian era, and what were they about? To see my picks, check out my annotated reading list (link below). It has comments and descriptions of major literary works of the English Victorian period.

Before you do that, however, you can click “read more” to stay with this post to learn a little more about the Victorian Age, its literary themes and forms, and the culture that informed its literature. This background will help explain the themes, ideas, and problems with which Victorian writers were concerned, all to help you read with more pleasure and understanding.

English Victorian Literature: An Annotated Bibliography

(Click “Continue Reading.”)

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Reading 19th Century English Romantic Literature: Nature and Revolution

Singing Nightingale

The literary era we now call the English Romantic Period was short, only the 40 years or so between 1789 and 1832; yet many of the loveliest poems and innovative fictions in our treasury of great literature were written during this time.

For indeed, who can forget, once they read them, so many great moments in works from this era: the solemn ecstasy of Wordsworth praising a field of daffodils, the supernatural thrills of the ghost ship that appears when Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, the wit and sardonic charm of Byron’s version of the adventures of Don Juan, the spiritual yearning of Shelley gazing at the sublime Mont Blanc, the transcendent longings of Keats as he is swept away by the beauty of a Grecian vase or a nightingale’s song?

Fiction readers too can find their sublimities in this era among novels as different as Anne Radcliffe’s Gothic romantic fantasies, Mary Shelly’s philosophical Gothic novel Frankenstein, Walter Scott’s sweeping historical dramas in both verse and prose, and Jane Austen’s irresistible combination of true love and witty social critique in some of the most famous novels of all time.

Jane Austen’s works in particular have become known as Regency novels because they are set during the particular years known as the Regency. These years from 1811-1820, during which The Prince Regent George, Prince of Wales, ruled England in his incapacitated father’s stead, coincide with the English Romantic period.

English Romantic works are varied, yet several overarching themes and artistic preoccupations appear in almost all. What, then, is English Romantic Literature about?

First, overwhelmingly, English Romantic literature is about Nature.

English Romantics wrote many words about the places where they experienced the power, peace, or sublimity that Nature can bring.

Second, it’s about People, particularly Common People and their folkways.

Narratives featuring common people, speaking in their own language abound.

Third, English Romantic literature is about Freedom and Revolution.

As young writers, many English Romantics were swept with enthusiasm for the French Revolution and its promise of liberty for common people, before the Reign of Terror destroyed their hopes.

Beyond the French struggle, Romantic writers called for revolution of all kinds: to increase the rights of women, to do away with slavery, to elevate and succor common working people, to reconsider religious orthodoxies, and rebuild governmental institutions.

Fourth, Romantic writers sought to invent and practice new ways of writing poetry and fiction, to elevate the creative ability of the poet’s Imagination to create and transmute Nature into organically beautiful works.

English Romantic writers fought to resist the over-mechanized, cold, sterile view of life and mind they believed was promulgated by the Enlightenment thinkers of the previous century. As we have seen, Romantic writers revived much older styles downplayed by 18th century writers, such as ballads, lyric poems, sonnets, and romantic adventure tales akin to medieval tales of chivalry.

Fifth, English Romantic literature is about wrestling with the human condition—with impermanence, sorrow, and mortality.

Keenly aware of the struggles of human life, English Romantics pursued passionately their hopes for transcendence through Beauty, Nature, Intellect, and Spiritual Awareness.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

If you would like to dive directly into some of the most beautiful poems and prose ever written, you can click this link to proceed directly to our Timeline and Reading List of 19th Century English Romantic and Regency Literature, where you will find recommendations for readings from most of the great authors of this era. You can also go there to learn much more about individual English Romantic authors and their works. 

But if you want to gain more perspective and background on 19th Century English Romantic writing before you start reading some, click “Continue Reading” to see more of this post.
Either way, I hope you will continue to explore the great English literature of the early 19th century!

English Romantic and Regency Literature: Timeline and Reading List

Index to Reading Lists on Read Great Literature

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Distinguishing Tone in Fiction: Tragedy, Pathos, Comedy, Irony

What emotions do different fictional tales evoke? Readers must distinguish tone in fiction to appreciate the total effect of a writer’s art.

“Tone” in fiction guides our emotional responses. Is the story funny, sad, tragic, or ironic, or all these? Let’s take a look at the gamut of Tone in Fiction, with examples and clues to distinguishing tone and irony

 

How to Read Fiction Step 6: Distinguishing Tone

When teaching Tone and Irony in fiction, I often began by asking the class to imagine a scenario:

Suppose that I, the instructor, walk into the classroom where all the students are assembled. I stride purposefully toward my desk, but before I can get there, I hit a wet spot on the floor. I slide, falter, and fall– boom!– right onto my derriere. Papers go flying, my handbag spills, books scatter. A classroom tragedy!

Or is it? Maybe it’s not tragic at all, but actually kind of funny? Or even truly slapstick, knee-slapping funny? Or perhaps it’s a great example of irony, since only yesterday I had told students to watch out for wet floors. Or perhaps it’s a satisfying end to some long drama, a karmic come-down for a supercilious professor who enjoys berating her students day after day. (Note: that situation would be a total fiction, of course!)

If someone were telling this story aloud, it would be fairly easy to interpret which of these reactions the teller expects us to have. We could discern it from the speaker’s tone of voice, gestures, and body language. But If this story were being related within a fiction, how can we decipher how the author means readers to experience or interpret this event?

The bare sequence of the events as described doesn’t tell us how to react. What does? For one thing, the kind of language used to describe this event would help shape tone for readers. Is my pain and indignity being described, or is the description comically exaggerated?

In addition, readers also might need to consider more context while interpreting tone. For instance, if I hit my head going down, become comatose, and miss my daughter’s wedding, it might be tragic. If the student I most dislike comes to my aid, and I learn to regard him fondly, readers might experience pathos. If I slip and slide all over the room, waving wild arms before crashing, then get up and just start the class as if nothing happened, just rolling my eyes a little, it might be comic.

Is this situation funny or sad, tragic or ironic, or all? The writer’s tone can tell us.

When reading any good fiction, readers must interpret verbal and contextual cues to figure out just what kind of a story this really is. Those qualities of fiction that evoke particular attitudes and emotional responses in readers work together to produce Tone in fiction. If readers can’t interpret the tone of a scene, or worse, the overall tone of an actual work, they will misunderstand the story that the author is telling.

Keep reading to learn more about how readers can recognize the cues given by an author to establish the Tone of the fiction for readers. I especially want to talk about recognizing comedy and irony, since many students find those especially difficult to recognize in older works where verbal conventions were different.

How to Read Fiction Series

Step 1: Style

Step 2: Theme

Step 3: Plot

Step 4 Part 1: Characterization Techniques

Step 4 Part 2: More Characterization Techniques

Step 5: Narrators

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Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature

John Dryden, major English author of the Restoration and early 18th century, and family.

Literature of the English Enlightenment: Courage to Use Your Own Reason

Our newest Timeline and Reading List features literature from the English Enlightenment. Lasting from 1660 to the late 1700s, the era often referred to as “The Long Century”  is an incredibly rich period, not only for innovations in literature, but also for developments in philosophy, science, mathematics, and political thought. Historians and students of culture find a common quest over these years to apply human reason to ultimate questions.

This “long 18th century” has been given many names: The Age of Reason, The Age of Enlightenment, The Age of Individualism, and The Age of Empiricism.
In much of the literature of the era, writers did not just document their own times, but sought for general truths that applied to people at all times, everywhere.

What made people tick, and especially, how can we formulate those truisms?

Much literature focused on moral questions: what values are right, true, good, and everlasting? Who on the public scene, especially writers and politicians, are following them and who is breaking them, and what are the consequences?  Based on these values that are good for people and good for society as a whole, how do we judge our politicians, writers, and dramatists in light of these truths?

Join us for a look at some background information on the literature of this era that can help readers understand and enjoy it. For an overview of the culture, authors, themes, and major works of this prolific and seminal era, click the “Continue Reading” link under the London river view painting. To skip the overview and go directly to the Restoration and 18th Century Timeline, or to any specific section of it, use the links just above “Continue Reading.”

From the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “This painting combines the two genres: the imaginary foreground is inspired by antiquity, while in the background is a view of the north bank of the Thames with St. Paul’s cathedral, the Tower of London, and Old London Bridge.” Painted in late 1740s.

Links:

The blue link will skip the rest of this background article and go directly to the Timeline and Reading List.

To read more of this background post, click “Continue Reading” button just below.

English Literature of the Eighteenth Century

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The Virtues of a Quiet Christmas: What Vintage Writers Tell Us

Lonely reindeer in the snow hitched to a wagon, another deer hitched behind, sign of a quiet Christmas

A Quiet Christmas?

With Christmas season upon us, book lovers the world over must think yet again of that familiar holiday story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.

Whatever winter festival you celebrate, A Christmas Carol endorses its most lavish version. As the miserly Scrooge is instructed by his ghostly visitors, this winter celebration should be brimful of gifts, lights, decorations, and loving charities, and spent with a myriad of friends and family gathered closely around tables full of delicious food.

However, in the context of 2020, when “social distance,” sadly, has become a buzz-phrase, the Dickens Christmas scenes that spring to my mind are not those from A Christmas Carol, but rather from another great Dickens work that begins its tale on Christmas Eve: Great Expectations.

The opening of Great Expectations describes a very different kind of Christmas indeed. In the opening pages, we are introduced to Pip, a dismissed and denigrated little boy, who happens upon a starving, escaped convict out on the lonely moor near his home. This convict frightens Pip into stealing him a pork pie from his older sister’s replete Christmas pantry. We then watch Pip in misery at Christmas dinner, unable to enjoy much food in spite of the plentiful treats provided, as he is bullied and harassed by the Christmas guests and riddled with guilt over his theft.

Though this Christmas scene begins with fear, it ends in compassion. At first Pip sees the scary convict as a monster. But later, when the kind blacksmith Joe takes Pip along to follow the authorities who chase down and capture the convict, Pip comes to see him through Joe’s eyes, as a cornered, harried, and harassed wreck of humanity–not wholly unlike himself.

These two versions of Christmas are both described by Dickens but could hardly be more unlike. One celebrates the value of sharing companionship amidst material surfeit. The other shows that food and company alone are not enough to provide enjoyment or meaning when true fellow-feeling and love is lacking.

Around the world, many who celebrate Christmas or other Winter Festivals may be feeling a similar contrast, perhaps remembering last year’s cherished holiday rituals and merrymaking, celebrating with co-workers, friends, and family who came together from far-flung places, around tables of plenty in houses filled with laughter.

Crowded Christmas celebration in 2014 at One Observatory Circle, US Vice President's home.

Crowded Christmas celebration in 2014 at One Observatory Circle, US Vice President’s home, perhaps a contrast to many of this year’s quieter celebrations.

But now, people may may be facing a quieter holiday amid recommendations to keep a “social distance” during the epidemic. Many who honor a winter holiday may do so alongside just a spouse or a few family members, or perhaps alone, in a much quieter house than last year.

What does classic literature have to say about facing a quieter holiday–Christmas surfeit v. Christmas simplicity?

Looking to vintage literature from the American 19th century, we find that this is actually a favorite theme. On one of my favorite web repositories of classic American literature, Americanliterature.com, we find a whole section devoted to stories about Christmas. The Academy of American Poets’ website, Poets.org, provides links to many poems about Christmas from several eras. Let’s see what some of these works had to say about the virtues of a quiet Christmas.

Vintage Christmas card showing spare branch of holly with some mistletoe: Christmas simplicity.

Vintage Christmas card showing spare branch of holly with some mistletoe: Christmas simplicity.

More Posts About Christmas 

Vintage Christmas Poems: Ringing in Hopes for Peace

Christmas Poems: Seeking Meaning in a Material World

Happy Christ-tide: Milton’s Nativity Ode

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All About Narrators: Who’s Telling This Story, Anyway?

Tere Marichal, storyteller from Puerto Rico, telling the Afro-Caribbean folktale of Anansi at Biblioteca Juvenil de Mayag during a Multicultural Childrens Book Day.

How to Read Fiction Step  5: Narrators and Point of View 

Wading into a new fiction, it’s natural to size up the characters and get a bead on the story line. Who’s the central character? What is her problem or goal? Then off we go, following the storyline up and down until we find out how it all comes out in the end.

But before launching out into the plotline, there’s one big question we need to ask first, and keep asking all the way through: who is telling this story, anyway?

Is it someone who is in the story with a limited view of events, or someone outside looking omnisciently down? Is it someone we can trust or someone we must question?

A work of fiction is not just a description of a series of incidents; it is a description of a series of incidents as told by a particular teller. Sometimes a fiction is more about the teller than it is about the events in the storyline itself. Whatever the narrator choice or mode of telling, this important aspect of great fiction is something we don’t want to miss.

In this post I’m going to talk about the many different types of narrators an author could choose when constructing a fiction, and how that artistic choice influences the story that we experience as readers.

How to Read Fiction Series

Step 1: Style

Step 2: Theme

Step 3: Plot

Step 4 Part 1: Characterization Techniques

Step 4 Part 2: More Characterization Techniques

Step 6: Tone in Fiction

 

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Defoe and the Invention of Realism in the Novel

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

Links to Related Topics:

Reading Restoration and 18th Century English Literature: Background information

Timeline and Reading List: Restoration and 18th Century English Literature

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Give Reading Poetry Another Try with Guided Reading Questions

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?

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?

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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