Thursday, May 13, 2010

Imaginative Literature

I posted my Classics Edition of favorite reading back on April 16 (3rd post down). Now I post imaginative literature, which I will define as any work of literature, poetry, drama, or novel written after Shakespeare. I will list them in the order that they came to me when I jotted them down. No particular pattern here, I don't think.

  1. John Donne, "Love Poems of John Donne". I don't know how, but I came upon a recording of Richard Burton reading these, and it is magnificent. I believe that Donne was a minister, but he certainly could write a poem to the glories of love.
  2. George Herbert, Poems. Some of these were set to music by Ralph Vaughn Williams, and I love them; but spoken or sung, they are beautiful. They sing of grace and redemption with a singular beauty.
  3. William Blake, shorter poems, such as "Songs of Innocence", "Songs of Experience", and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell". The longer poems get a bit too complex, but some of these shorter poems are pure beauty within simplicity.
  4. Jane Austen, Persuasion. Perhaps the novel that I didn't see on the big screen first (although I think that there is a fine film production). It captures the intricate Austen world that I don't think that I'd enjoy reading her more famous works now.
  5. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, and Benito Cereno. I'm a late comer to Melville (as the nation under-appreciated him until the 1920s). But, oh my, the wait proved worthwhile. John Patrick Diggins sings praises to Melville in his work, and this prompted me to try Moby
    Dick by audio book. Wow, a great performance of a great work. In addition, Hannah Arendt in On Revolution provides an intriguing discussion of Billy Budd that led me into that haunting work.
  6. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read this in high school. Twain's sharp tongue and ironic humor tickles the fancy of a high school kid, and I found it delightful.
  7. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent. I went through a Conrad phase. He captures characters in extreme and difficult situations.
  8. Willa Cather, My Antonia & Death Comes for the Archbishop. C & I read My Antonia together on her recommendation, and it proved a treat, a story that we could identify with, set as it is on the Nebraska prairie. I read Death for our trip to Santa Fe, and it, too, provided a glimpse of an American life, albeit a very different life than the young woman of the prairie.
  9. George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman. I've enjoyed a number of Shaw's plays, but this is a favorite, perhaps because I saw a portion of it performed in Cedar Falls the first your we were married, with Myrna Loy and Ricardo Montalban. (I did not know that I would later fall for the young Myrna Loy in the The Thin Man films.) Also, my parents had a copy of this play that I took a bit early. It's Nietzsche rendered with the Anglo-Irish wit of Shaw, delightful and thoughtful at the same time.
  10. T. S. Elliot, The Four Quartets and "The Journey of the Magi." I don't know that I knew of Elliot's Four Quartets until I heard a portion of it read in a film version of John Fowles's "The Magus" (with Michael Caine). It struck me then, and it's never let go. Other than portions of Shakespeare, it's a work of literature that I've found worth memorizing (in part). As for the "Journey of the Magi", I first heard it performed by Alec Guinness on a recording when we lived in Champaign. Guinness's voice with Elliot's unique vision of a traditional Christmas tableau made for a lasting impression on me that makes it my Advent poem of choice.
  11. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, and The End of the Affair. It's hard to pick a favorite Greene work; indeed, for literary travel, I have wandered in Greeneland quite a bit (his work also translates very well to film). Like Conrad before him, Greene places his characters in extremis, dealing with the very difficult in a way that captures emotional poignancy with almost clinical precision.
  12. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday. Of course, Father Brown is great fun, as are Chesterton's essays and biographies, but The Man Who Was Friday is such great fun, like a great metaphysical riddle built on the Book of Job.
  13. Albert Camus, The Plague. While I read The Stranger in both high school and college as assigned, only just a few years ago did I take up the recommendation of both daughters to read The Plague. I should have done so sooner, as I enjoyed this book in a way that one simply cannot enjoy The Stranger (too much metaphysical anxiety). The Plague, no walk in the park, mind you, provides a variety of characters and considerations that give it more depth and roundness, and a compelling story.
  14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, This, too, came relatively late to me via the joy of recorded books. Fitzgerald lives up to his hype in this novel. He captures time, place, and person in a perfect and unique manner. Thanks to C for this one.
  15. Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men. To my mind: the best "political" novel. Warren captures a slice of American life and politics—a la Huey Long—in a magnificent work.
  16. George Orwell, 1984 and Animal Farm. 1984 is simply the hallmark of dystopian novels, while Animal Farm instructs in a way that only imaginative parody can do.
  17. Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960). This may be the least well-known book on my eclectic list, but this SF work mixed my apocalyptic side (and my Boomer fear and fascination with the Bomb) and my latent medievalist side. A fun read, yet thought provoking.
  18. Ursula LeGuin. The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness. These are two outstanding works by the queen of SF/Fantasy. LeGuin doesn't just make some fun assumptions and then play with them, she creates whole worlds, whole universes, and then she watches them unfold. Both of these books have a political side to them, but both also have deeply personal characterizations inside of these complex worlds. A great writer created great reading with these books.
  19. William Golding, The Lord of the Flies. A high school read, but one that sticks with you (actually, a number of books from that era stuck with me). However, this book, which combines an apocalyptic setting with a world of boys—just boys—perhaps resonates most deeply with a teenage boy who will have had glances of how a world of just boys could go so astray.
  20. John LeCarre. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. I read somewhere that LeCarre couldn't write about Smiley for some time after Alec Guinness brought him to life on the screen in the brilliant BBC productions of these two works. If you've seen these productions, you understand why. I read these two novels only after seeing the television productions. However, LeCarre brings you so completely into this world that your knowledge of plot doesn't distract you because you're so thoroughly engrossed in the world that he creates. If I had to choose, I'd go with the television productions (each several hours long) over the novels, but if you don't read these two novels because you've seen the television productions, then some LeCarre should go on your list. LeCarre is not a "spy novelist", not an Ian Fleming; Smiley is not James Bond. Oh, my, no.
  21. Ward Just, The Ambassador's Son. Perhaps one should be older the read this book about a man whose son turns violently against him. A frightening book about a man, his wife, and their son caught in world that seems wrong, yet for no strong reason. This, and other Just books that I've read, catch contemporary dramas of American lives, which, however, may be played out anywhere around the globe.
  22. Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Grace Flick, translator). My oldest daughter recommended this to me when we were perusing Kramer's Book Store near DuPont Circle in Washington, and I'm very glad I took her recommendation. I'm generally skeptical of historical novels, as a well-written history or biography sticks to the facts (sort of) and avoids wild conjecture. Yet, when I read this book, I felt as if she'd taken me inside this man via true memoires to register his feelings, his world, so perfectly, one cannot imagine that it is not the most accurate, as well as beautiful, portrait we could ever find.
I end my list here. No doubt, I'll think of something that I should have mentioned. I welcome suggestions for further readings; perhaps someone can find a pattern here. I don't know that I can.

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