Thursday, October 23, 2008

Classic Works in Various Genres: A Project

My reading goal this year was to read "classic" works in a variety of genres. The goal is twofold: To get exposed to a bunch of genres I don't normally read and to read some books that I felt like I "should" read. The number one criteria in this is, which book in this genre do I most wish that i had read. This post will document where I've gotten so far and where I plan on going. Progress has been pretty slow since I have been sidetracked numerous times, but I'm enjoying it so much that it will spill right on over to 2009, or even 2010 with the pace I've been keeping up. These books are very angl0-centric because I dislike reading translated works. Perhaps once this is over I will move on to a series of reading international literature though.


Genre: Comic Book
Selection: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby - The Essential Fantastic Four: Volume 3
Reasoning: The most obvious classic comic book work to read here would be Watchmen but unfortunately for this project I've already read it. Similarly, I've read several of the other more obvious choices such as Sandman, Killing Joke, Dark Knight Returns, and Born Again during a brief comics phase I had in college. So I decided to dip into the well of classic comics here, of which I've read none. My first inclination was towards a collection of old Spiderman or X-Men or Superman comics, but a Martin Skidmore post on FreakyTrigger pointed in the direction of this book and I decided to take his word for it.
Brief Review: While I failed to grasp the significance of things such as the introduction of the Inhumans and the Negative Zone because I know little about the Marvel Universe, I still enjoyed a majority of the books. The books were plotted pretty well and paced much more quickly than the comics I was reading in college. The characters are completely one-dimensional and Reed is sooo unlikeable, but this was still a really enjoyable read.
Going Forward: I enjoyed the work OK like I said, but it wasn't too great or anything. Not the kind of thing that makes me want to run out and buy more old comics. I think my comics phase is still behind me.

Genre: True Crime
Selection: Vincent Bugliosi - Helter Skelter
Reasoning: This was the easiest selection I have yet had because as far as I can tell there's nothing even remotely on the same level as classic as this book in the True Crime genre. Widely read and loved and just the kind of book I feel like I should have read.
Brief Review: An extremely engaging and interesting account of the Charles Manson case. As far as I can tell a fairly definitive account of the event. One of the best nonfiction books I've ever read.
Going Forward: I had never read a true crime book before, but after this book it is likely I will read another Bugliosi book. I've been eying his OJ book Outrage lately.

Genre: Pop Fiction
Selection: Steven King - The Stand
Reasoning: I've long been fascinated by the works of authors like John Grisham or Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton who are very popular but also very much hated by the "intelligent" crowd. The anti-hipster in me wants to read and love them, though I have never read a single work by any of the three. However I did ultimately decide to go with a work that does have some cachet, just because The Stand is such a cultural touchstone.
Brief Review: I had previously only read The Dark Tower series by Steven King. After reading those and this book I am convinced that Steven King has no clue how to effectively end his books. Despite the ending, and a long sequence towards the middle which dragged horribly, this book managed to be an entertaining read with compelling characters. And the ending did indeed get to me emotionally, big surprise.
Going Forward: I've liked Dark Tower and The Stand but I really think that's enough King for a lifetime. Both books had the same problem, namely way too long and terrible ending. I have zero desire to continue reading his body of work. I probably will read a Clancy or Grisham work some day.

Genre: Chick Lit
Selection: Jane Austen - Emma
Reasoning: Much like Helter Skelter above, not much of a choice here. Jane Austen is an all time classic and considering how much I love romantic comedies it's amazing how I've never read any Jane at all. Except that I did read Pride and Prejudice for a class in high school.
Brief Review: Even though this book was not nearly as emotional or romantic as I thought, and the main character was 10x more unlikeable than Cher from Clueless, I still loved this book. The romance was great, but just the dialogue and characters were incredibly sharp. This is one of my favorite novels I've read.
Going Forward: I liked it enough that I bought the Complete Novels of Jane Austen and already read Persuasion, also excellent. Eventually I will get through all the novels.

Genre: Mystery
Selection: Agatha Christie - Murder on the Orient Express
Reasoning: I did debate whether to go classic British, or more modern, or hardboiled American on this. But really do I need to explain the reasoning on Agatha Christie here? I did debate which specific Christie book to get, but based on the descriptions on the back this seemed more interesting than And Then There Were None and, at least in America, those are her two classic famous works.
Brief Review: Very fun, and kept me guessing up to the end, which I did not know ahead of time. Extremely well put together though, with lots of twists and turns and never gets boring. Her social/class commentary is also really great.
Going Forward: Again, I enjoyed it enough that I've already purchased and read a few other Agatha works, including And Then There Were None. Also One Two, Buckle My Shoe which had probably the least plausible ending of any book I've ever read, and I've read Goosebumps books.

Genre: Science
Selection: Oliver Sacks - An Anthropologist on Mars
Reasoning: I was a Math major in college, but my interest in pop science works is very low, if not zero. I've always wanted to read a Sacks work and once I saw that this was located in the Science section of Borders I jumped on it immediately. I may still go for a "hard" science work like the Feynman lectures of A Brief History of Time.
Brief Review: Oliver Sacks is a really good writer and the bizarre mental conditions he writes about are surely extremely interesting. On the balance though this is a work I was never too excited about. I kind of wish I had gone with Awakenings instead since that is the most popular Sacks work. Ah well.
Going Forward: I may still read Awakenings one day but its fair to say this wasn't some kind of massive revelation about pop science works for me.

Made the Selection but Haven't Read
Genre: Short Story
Selection: Flannery O'Connor - Everything That Rises Must Converge
Reasoning: I'm a huge Flannery fan, and a huge fan of Southern literature in general, so it's somewhat ridiculous that I haven't read this yet. As far as level of classicness, well something like O Henry - The Four Million is probably THE classic of the short story genre, but I am biased towards Flannery so I'll stick with that. I may be convinced to switch the genre of this one to Southern Lit so I can fit in O Henry anyways, I haven't decided.

Genre: Biography
Selection: Henry Adams - The Education of Henry Adams
Reasoning: I picked this work because it was #1 on the Modern Library top works of the 20th century. Ben Franklin's autobiography is the only other one I can think of that's up there with this one, but I'm comfortable with this choice.

Genre: Self Help
Selection: Steven Covey - The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
Reasoning: This is actually one of the genres I had the toughest time with, oddly enough. My strongest considerations were this book, Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, and I'm OK, You're OK. I didn't want to do Covey cause he's by far the most recent. Bur I've always considered Peale and I'm OK to be some kind of hippie crap that holds no interest to me. The title of How to Win Friends and Influence People kind of icks me out. Objectively, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living should have been my pick but, quite simply, worrying is not a serious problem of mine. I'd rather go with the work that is more likely to genuinely help me.

Genre: General Fiction, British
Selection: Charles Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities
Reasoning: I've never read a single Dickens work, which is rather ridiculous, and this is probably his #1 most classic work.

Genre: General Fiction, Not British or American
Selection: James Joyce - Ulysses
Reasoning: I really do not want to read this book, but when it comes to classics they don't come much more classic.

Genre: Drama
Selection: Shakespeare - King Lear
Reasoning: I've never read it or seen a performance and know nothing of its plot or characters and that makes me feel uncultured.

Genre: Dystopian
Selection: George Orwell - Nineteen Eighty Four
Reasoning: It's so completely absurd that I've never read this book that I had to make up a genre to fit it in.

Possible Other Genres
Genre: General Fiction, American
Thoughts: No clue yet. My general idea would be to go old, like Washington Irving, but I could be persuaded to pick Updike or something like that. Too many choices and none stand out.

Genre: Hipster fiction
Thoughts: Carver and Palahniuk jump out but this is one I'm not in a rush to get to and this is a questionable genre so it may just get left out entirely.

Genre: Postmodern
Thoughts: The most obvious choice I can think of is White Noise and most likely that's what I'll go with, but I could be persuaded over to Pynchon as well, I need to do more research.

Genre: Science Fiction
Thoughts: The immediate thought that came to mind was Stranger in a Strange Land but I know almost nothing about this genre and definitely need to do some research.

Genre: History
Thoughts: Halberstam or Studs Terkel both seem good. My friend who reads a lot of history recommends Halberstam so I guess I'll go with him.

Genre: 21st Century Fiction
Thoughts: Obvious choices here are The Corrections or Empire Falls. I'll probably just go with The Corrections but part of me just wants to read whatever wins the Pulitzer this year.

Genre: Politics
Thoughts: The Republic is my first choice, but I could easily go with Hobbes or a more modern work as well

Genre: Poetry
Thoughts: Too many choices and I haven't any idea what to use to narrow it down. Most likely here I'll just go to Borders and pick something at random. Don Juan is the only thing that leaps immediately to mind.

Genre: Sports
Thoughts: Since I've read almost every classic baseball work, my initial instinct is to go for Friday Night Lights but then again I never have read The Boys of Summer so I dunno.

Most likely other genres too (economics? military history? music/movies? criticism?), depending on how bored I get of the project eventually. And like I said I'm trying to keep it anglo for now, though I am open to branching out to international works too eventually.



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