Help me create a list of epics that either destroy - or transform - students in college Lit classes...
July 28, 2010 1:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to make a list of epics that kill most people in college Lit - the really great ones that for many people are impossible to get through, but can be so worthwhile if they do. Here's a rough list so far:

  • Moby-Dick
  • The Canterbury Tales
  • Bleak House
  • War and Peace
  • The Odyssey
  • Remembrance of Things Past
  • Ulysses
  • Paradise Lost
  • Don Quixote
  • Thousand and One Nights
  • Beowulf
The books should be pretty well known - that is, the average person who got assigned this stuff in college is likely to shudder, cringe, roll their eyes, or, if they were really smart, lucky, and had a great professor, wax romantic about how beautiful and transformative the work was once they learned to appreciate it. Modern stuff - like "Infinite Jest" - probably isn't what I'm looking for, nor is "Lord of the Rings," etc, though some sci-fi suggestions would be appreciated. Epic poems are OK. And feel free to critique the above choices...
posted by soulbarn to Writing & Language (64 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Brothers Karamazov
posted by pecknpah at 1:58 PM on July 28, 2010

Not really answering your question, I just want to say that I didn't have to read any of your list in college. I was assigned most of them in high school, or not at all.

I do get pretty irked by Madame Bovary, though, and I'm not sure why. That was a college lit book.
posted by firei at 1:59 PM on July 28, 2010

Anna Karenina
posted by Melismata at 2:00 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Where I went to school, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Marx's Communist Manifesto, and Plato's Republic are required reading for just about every student unless you're really clever with your classes. The Republic is pretty short, but when those three are sitting in a stack on your desk, you kind of want to kill yourself. But at the end of the quarter you feel pretty goddamned superior.
posted by phunniemee at 2:01 PM on July 28, 2010

It's shorter but my high school prof. was that way about The Great Gatsby. I never want to hear about what a flesh-toned car could represent ever again... Even though it's a great book.
posted by ShadePlant at 2:02 PM on July 28, 2010

posted by philosophygeek at 2:02 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Divine Comedy and The Prince.
posted by superlibby at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2010

Oh and "The Prince"/ Il Principe by Machiavelli. Short but pick-a-partable and oft-referenced.
posted by ShadePlant at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude? Too recent?
posted by yellowbinder at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2010

D'oh... sorry for the repost!
posted by ShadePlant at 2:03 PM on July 28, 2010

Any longish work that any college age English student has ever been assigned would probably be a valid answer, really.
posted by frobozz at 2:05 PM on July 28, 2010

Silas Marner
posted by lemniskate at 2:06 PM on July 28, 2010

Faerie Queene. Also, as said above, Fucking Middlemarch.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:07 PM on July 28, 2010

I'm not sure I understand the criteria you want, these are 'killer' for different reasons and to different people, but The Decameron probably belongs on it.
posted by Some1 at 2:07 PM on July 28, 2010

Gravity's Rainbow?
posted by reductiondesign at 2:07 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

The Faerie Queene.
posted by Beardman at 2:12 PM on July 28, 2010 [3 favorites]

My awesome 12th grade english teacher was out for surgery and our long-term otherwise-reasonable sub taught Hardy's Return of the Native, which was horrendously awful and slow. I recall there being a test question related to the type of gun he was carrying, which was significant for some reason (personality indicator/mismatch?), except that none of us nerds knew anything about guns, so that beautiful piece of characterization or whatever was total nonsense to us.
posted by aimedwander at 2:12 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by fourcheesemac at 2:14 PM on July 28, 2010

Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by madred at 2:16 PM on July 28, 2010

I'm going to be a total dick and say "Clarel".

I know, I know. Still.
posted by aramaic at 2:21 PM on July 28, 2010

This one is somewhat less popular than the ones on your list, but I'll suggest Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, by Hermann Melville. At ~18000 lines it's one of the longest epic poems in the English language, and it's written in a claustrophobic iambic tetrameter dense with obscure allusions to all of the Abrahamic religions.
posted by invitapriore at 2:21 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ariosto's Orlando Furioso
posted by The World Famous at 2:27 PM on July 28, 2010

It seems like most of my friends who had to study Heart of Darkness in high school/college hated it, but those who read it on their own found it wonderful.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 2:30 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Faerie Queene.
Paradise Lost.
Canterbury Tales in Middle English.
posted by sonic meat machine at 2:33 PM on July 28, 2010

Ezra Pound's The Cantos.

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. (Not so sure if it's worthwhile to get through, as it was one of the few lit books that I simply refused to finish reading. Normally I'm ambivalent about Hemingway, but that book I wish to die a million fiery deaths.)
posted by paisley sheep at 2:35 PM on July 28, 2010

Fielding's Tom Jones was brutal for me.
posted by Skot at 2:44 PM on July 28, 2010

I felt a lot better about absolutely hating The Faerie Queene when I found out that Spenser, who had an estate in Ireland, favored solving the 'Irish Problem' by extermination.
posted by jamjam at 2:44 PM on July 28, 2010

Oh, and you know what? That pinnacle of modern poetry, "The Waste Land"? That fucking thing is duller than shit.
posted by Skot at 2:46 PM on July 28, 2010

Tristram Shandy.
posted by superlibby at 2:48 PM on July 28, 2010

Don Quixote.

Also, I would replace The Odyssey with The Iliad. I the The Odyssey is actually fairly accessible, especially compared to the behemoth that is The Iliad.
posted by just_ducky at 3:05 PM on July 28, 2010 can't get a foothold in Finnegan's Wake. Probably my fault, though.

Also, the rest of the Divine Comedy, after Inferno. I mean, once you find out everything's going to be all right, what's the point?
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:10 PM on July 28, 2010

Also, the rest of the Divine Comedy, after Inferno. I mean, once you find out everything's going to be all right, what's the point?

Psh. Don't let Virgil hear you say that.
posted by The World Famous at 3:11 PM on July 28, 2010

I read Les Misérables just recently. It was hella long, but also deeply enjoyable.
posted by shii at 3:18 PM on July 28, 2010

the Anatomy of Melancholy
Vanity Fair
posted by minkll at 3:18 PM on July 28, 2010

Definitely The Iliad or Aeneid instead of the Odyssey. I love 'em all, but the Odyssey is definitely the most accessible of the bunch.

I went to a weird high school that forced its students to read a metric ton of Ayn Rand, so this may not be common enough, but good lord, did I ever despise her work with a fiery passion.

For sci-fi, Stansilaw Lem's Solaris is a pretty dense read. Same goes for Philip K. Dick stuff like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Also, and again, I'm not sure how many students get assigned this as literature, but perhaps The Bible?
posted by Diagonalize at 3:40 PM on July 28, 2010

It took me several tries to read Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," but when I finally really got through it, it blew my mind.
posted by SamanthaK at 3:48 PM on July 28, 2010

Peer Gynt by Ibsen
posted by Jagz-Mario at 3:51 PM on July 28, 2010

Ugh. It's been noted before but the one that stopped me dead in my tracks: Gravity's Rainbow. I think I not only never finished it, but threw it away.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:51 PM on July 28, 2010

Many early novels are killer for undergrads, such as Joseph Andrews and Pamela.
posted by synecdoche at 4:10 PM on July 28, 2010

I came here to second Heart of Darkness. It's supposedly a novella, it just feels like an epic. I'm pretty sure everyone else in my Short Stories class burned it after the final exam.
I myself love it. Call it a fascination with the abomination.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:13 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by sciencegeek at 4:24 PM on July 28, 2010

Tale of Genji
posted by sciencegeek at 4:25 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh man, I am going to throw in some world literature. The term epic should not be used unless it includes the Mahabharata of which the Bhavagad Gita is a subsection. Be good and get the multi-volume version and not the Buck translation. University of Chicago is still translating a set so you will have to roll with an older translation.

Talking novels? Well then, we have to throw in The Tale of Genji rolling out of the 11th century. I have a preference for the Seidensticker translation. Now if you are down for more Japanese literature then the Tale of the Heike is another one I would throw in.

If you are looking for Chinese epic action then you will need a copy of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Heroes of the Marsh.

Unfortunately, my exposure to Persian literature is limited to poetry and a history of the Shahs.

Oh, let us not forget that body of Germanic literature like the various sagas and romances such as, Tristan and Isolde. Now I totally dig Icelandic family sagas so Njal's Saga is good and for sheer fun Egil's Saga.

There will be other people chiming in I am sure.
posted by jadepearl at 4:34 PM on July 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Definitely Gravity's Rainbow, Finnigan's Wake and Ulysses. More recently Infinite Jest, and 2666. I'm surprised to see One Hundred Years of Solitude mentioned, it's definitely an ambitious narrative, but I remember it moving pretty quickly. Also A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is Joyce's easiest read by an order of magnitude. I'm incredibly intimidated by any Tolstoy.
posted by ryaninoakland at 4:52 PM on July 28, 2010

With all due respect, your original list seems to be basically a random selection of classics.

If your main focus is works of literature that are a) frequently assigned and b) really hard to get through, you've got a fairly small list of things that qualify. Works such as Beowulf, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost and the Canterbury Tales are pretty easy to get through, all told. I think the big works that fulfill your criteria are À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Moby Dick and Ulysses. These three books are agreed upon straight-up classics, and would be hard to avoid as a lit student. Less often, you might encounter some Tolstoy (the big books won't be read outside of a specific seminar class, generally) or Pynchon. You might see Gargantua and Pantagruel in a historical context, but unless you're French you probably aren't ever expected to read it all. If you're lucky, you might get Infinite Jest, but it takes an ambitious prof and it will also probably be in a smaller advanced-level seminar setting.

Books like Anatomy of Melancholy or the Les Essais may well be transformative, but they're also not things that you'd read in a lit class.

If you were looking for non-lit books, you'd have a much larger list, but it's a big limiting factor. Lit books that are also taught in college limits it significantly further.

my own outside suggestion would be Müsil's The Man Without Qualities, or some Gaddis (who was on the blue yesterday) but neither writer is likely to be encountered in an undergrad lit setting.
posted by cmyr at 5:16 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson spent an entire semester on this one book in grad school. I want my money back.
posted by govtdrone at 5:34 PM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill. 560 pages of epic poetry, largely produced via Ouija board, involving atomic peacocks, bats, ancient Jews...

...even if you're a comic book geek and are full-on down for atomic peacock poesy, that's a tough assignment.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 6:42 PM on July 28, 2010

I agree with cmyr--most of the books on that list are either not hard or infrequently assigned--and I also agree with his listing of the books from it that really do meet the criteria.

The roughest thing I ever had to read as an English student that hasn't already been mentioned is Piers Ploughman in the original Middle English, although that was totally my own fault for enrolling in a Medieval Lit class; I doubt it's assigned much in survey courses. Middlemarch has been mentioned above and definitely meets your requirements--I loved it, and for some reason it was required reading for English majors.
posted by phoenixy at 7:20 PM on July 28, 2010

Seconding Anna Karenina.

I don't know if you would consider this epic, but when I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher was very into ancient Greek drama, so we had to read a lot of that.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:24 PM on July 28, 2010

John Berryman's long collection of poems, The Dream Songs

Dune, the most canonized of sci-fi sagas

William Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down (the multi-volume original version, of course)

Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers (woefully under-appreciated in the US, but a masterpiece nonetheless)

William Gaddis's The Recognitionis

Don Quixote

Man, there are so many more. I'm away from my bookshelf, though

/Lit major
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:22 PM on July 28, 2010

Seconding Tristram Shandy
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:48 PM on July 28, 2010

Good suggestions -- although the point is, hard-to-get-through-but-worth-it, rather than just awful-and-hard-to-get-through, right?

But I'm amazed to see Bleak House on your list. That book was written as popular literature, and it just grabs the reins and starts going.

I don't know how often they're assigned, but I've found that almost everything by Joseph Conrad takes extra effort and attention from me, but is always worth it in the end.
posted by kestralwing at 9:47 PM on July 28, 2010

Piers Plowman. Gruelling but rewarding.
posted by somergames at 1:51 AM on July 29, 2010

I didn't take literature in college (the 'hard books' on my course were Bourdieu and Naomi Klein) but one of the books people struggled with was White Noise. Not really an epic, though. For modern syllabi you could add Midnight's Children, A Suitable Boy, and probably White Teeth is on the post-colonial canon list by now.

Possibly Infinite Jest.

We did Canterbury Tales for A-level - the hardest part of it is getting to grips with the language, then, it's easy. (My friend's class reacted similarly to The Color Purple.) Trainspotting would be a modern equivalent, as would James Kellman's How Late It Was, How Late - both texts we covered in part in my Literary Stylistics class.

For high-schoolers, any Shakespeare seems epic and tricky.
posted by mippy at 5:59 AM on July 29, 2010

In high school, I took a class called "Melville and Steinbeck." During the first half, we read Moby Dick, and during the second half, we read East of Eden. I summed up the term by saying that it was almost worth having to slog through Moby Dick in order to get to read East of Eden (but YMMV- I still think of MD as a long, overly-graphic description of whale gutting techniques).
posted by casualinference at 9:35 AM on July 29, 2010

posted by lesli212 at 12:17 PM on July 29, 2010

oh haha, read the list first....
posted by lesli212 at 12:17 PM on July 29, 2010

At risk of being labeled a philistine:

Tropic of Cancer pissed me off. I never finished it. At some point I couldn't see the pages through my anger. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle isn't really what you want but probably will be in a few years. Just thinking about that makes me launch into a "What's up with that?" rant in my head. And I finished it too.

The Odyssey is great as long as you have a decent translation. I don't think it belongs on your list.
posted by chairface at 3:48 PM on July 29, 2010

This may be too modern but Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
posted by leeconger at 5:41 PM on July 29, 2010

Oh man, Absalom Absalom, or anything by Falkner...
Death in Venice by Mann
posted by stratastar at 9:53 PM on July 29, 2010

Faulkner's a good one. I'd go with The Sound and the Fury, myself--it's amazing, but quite a slog if you're not already convinced.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:04 PM on July 29, 2010

Late to the party. Well, here's the required reading list for every student at the school I went to, in the first two years:

The Illiad
The Odyssey
The Aeniad
The Old Testament (genesis, exodus, job, and a few other books)
The Gospels of the New Testament + Acts and Revelation
The Koran
The Homeric Hymns
The Oedipus Cycle
The Oresteia
The Decameron
Don Quixote
Notes from Underground (Dostoevsky)
Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky)
Pride and Prejudice (Austen)
To the Lighthouse (Woolf)
Plato's Republic
Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Ars Poetica
City of God (St. Augustine)
The Confessions (St. Augustine)
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
The Prince
Montaigne Essays
Wealth of Nations (Smith)
Plato's Symposium
Democracy in America (De Tocqueville)
Aquinas (various)
Al Ghazali
Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (Kant)
Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant)
Perpetual Peace (Kant)
Descartes Meditations
The Protestant Reformation (Luther, Calvin)
Hobbes' Leviathan
Locke, Treatises on Government
Feminism Unmodified, MacKinnon
The Federalist Papers
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Dante's Inferno

There were probably more, but that's the gist.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:33 PM on August 3, 2010

Lutoslawski: but which ones (if any) did you find excruciating? And why didn't you include Mrs. Allenbrook's music manual?
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:37 AM on August 4, 2010

Erm, thanks, toodley. I guess, in their own ways, each was kind of excruciating. Except maybe Lysistrata. The Bible, actually, is probably one of the more excruciating that I think every college student should read. And the Kant. Excruciating and philosophically epic, but man, worth it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:04 PM on August 4, 2010 [1 favorite]

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