Enjoyable Historic Literature
November 21, 2005 7:08 PM   Subscribe

There is so much literature out there. What are some of the highlights from the past 3000 years? My only requirements are that it's in English/English translation, and is generally though of as not depressingly boring.

Just learned about Don Quixote, and decided to see what other gems I've missed.
posted by parallax7d to Writing & Language (31 answers total)
The Harvard Classics are often cited as a good starting point.
posted by cyphill at 7:11 PM on November 21, 2005

This was a good metafilter thread on this subject. Of course, I have now read all of these books and am looking for more ....

not really, at all
posted by Catch at 7:12 PM on November 21, 2005

Lists of Bests might be a good place to start
posted by Robot Johnny at 7:15 PM on November 21, 2005

The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Marcus Aurelius' Meditations
Meditations fits your purpose neatly because it can be (mostly) be read out of sequence, and makes a good book to skim in quiet moments.
posted by boo_radley at 7:26 PM on November 21, 2005

Recently, I found Dostoyevsky surprisingly entertaining, though theological. Veeeery theological.
posted by Jeanne at 7:27 PM on November 21, 2005

Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is the best book I've ever read.
posted by metaculpa at 7:29 PM on November 21, 2005

Try Alexander Pushkin's short stories ("The Queen of Spades" will knock your socks off). His best known work is Eugene Onegin, a novel in verse.
posted by mogget at 7:32 PM on November 21, 2005

i second the votes for eugene onegin (remember, it's pronounced "on-yay-gin", otherwise the rhymes won't make much sense), and dostoevsky. another russian recommendation goes to nikolai gogol.

there are so many good books in the world, you can never hope to read them all. one of my favorites that might be fun to start with is proust's collection "in search of lost time"... starting with swann's way. a new translation of it by lydia davis just came out, and it's excellent and very readable.
posted by booknerd at 7:49 PM on November 21, 2005

In Don Quixote you can find a glowing book review for Tirant lo Blanc, a fine tale of derring-do from 1490. While I liked Don Quixote I found Tirant lo Blanc much more readable, and giving a real sense of the knight's life at the time.

(Said review is in the first 40 pages or so, IIRC, by a priest who yells at DQ "Why are you reading that crap? You could be reading this!")
posted by Aknaton at 8:03 PM on November 21, 2005

I wouldn't go for the russians straight off. I'm having more trouble getting through Dostoevsky than just about any American/British author (including Joyce [barring Finnegan's Wake, of course]).

For American authors, I'd look at Steinbeck (East of Eden), and Faulkner (Go Down, Moses is my personal favorite, but there are plenty of suggestions around this). For non-modern, Poe is good. Hawthorne is good (but depressing). Washington Irving is short at least, and the jokes in Catch-22 get much better.

A good translation of the Odyssey would be good.

Joyce is always a good choice (might want to start with Portrait if you're not masochistic).

Hugo has some serious classics.

At some point you should read some Dickens.

posted by devilsbrigade at 8:07 PM on November 21, 2005

Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz is an incredible piece of fiction (very dense and poetic). Can't believe it took me so long to discover this author. If you enjoy Schulz, Aleksander Hemon is an excellent new author heavily influenced by him.

I know some people will be put off by this, but I think Woody Allen's complete works are an essential read. He writes some of the best intellectual humor you can find, with tons of wit and literary references, of course.

Try Pale Fire by Nabokov if you're looking for a challenging yet very entertaining read. Complex metaphors abound (this took me several readings to grasp decently). I don't recommend Lolita because it's not nearly as good. So many people i've talked to are just fascinated by the general plot and have no idea of the real meaning(s) of the work.

Finally, any play or book (there's only one) by Oscar Wilde. I think that one speaks for itself.
posted by frankie_stubbs at 8:09 PM on November 21, 2005

The List of Books by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish (mentioned before in the green), though showing its age a bit for other purposes as it was published in 1988, would be a wonderful resource for you. A list of 3,000 books, many/most of them true classics, categorized by general subject (autobiography, drama, fiction, history, etc.) with brief descriptions that tell you why you might, or might not, want to read it. Lots of good stuff!
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 8:23 PM on November 21, 2005

The Canterbury Tales should be included on everyones list. And so should The Hitchhicker's Guide to the Galaxy series, for cultural context.
posted by kc0dxh at 8:29 PM on November 21, 2005

None of these suggestions are bad, but they are all over the map.

Parallax, what are you interested in? What kinds of movies do you like? (Helps indicate plot type and mood preferences). What historical time periods are kind of fascinating for you? What cultures do you dig -- Euro, Asian, classical, American?

I just fear that your question is so broad that you're going to get an unhelpfully general and heterogenous list.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on November 21, 2005

Regarding lists -- check out St. John's College Reading List and Mortimer Adler's The Great Books.

You might enjoy reading about others with similar pursuit:
'Great Books' -- by David Denby

'The Know-It-All' -- by A.J. Jacobs

'The New Lifetime Reading Plan' -- by Clifton Fadiman & John S. Major

'The Well Educated Mind' -- by S. Wise Bauer & Susan Wise Bauer
posted by ericb at 8:35 PM on November 21, 2005

For more contemporary works, you might consider The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (a heartbreaking story set in Afghanistan) and just about anything by Alain de Botton.

I started with de Botton's On Love, just recently finished The Romantic Movement and am now onto Kiss and Tell. Yes, as the titles suggest, love and relationships are the main themes, but his background is in philosophy and he weaves it effortlessly into his fiction. He's also written quite a bit of non-fiction, including How Proust Can Change Your Life--you'll find this under self-help.
posted by phoenixc at 8:43 PM on November 21, 2005

I, too, recommend the lifetime reading plan. Whenever I reach a blank spot in my reading schedule (which isn't often), I pick up the LRP and just pick a book from there I haven't read. It's awesome. It does a great job of explaining why books are great and describing what it might be like to read them. Borrow it from the library. You'll be glad you did.
posted by jdroth at 8:48 PM on November 21, 2005

Ulysses changed my life. Read that, the Odyssey and Infinite Jest to get a whirlwind tour of classical, modern, and postmodern epic wankery.
posted by moift at 9:05 PM on November 21, 2005

(might want to start with Portrait if you're not masochistic)
oh sup Joyce buddy. Ulysses is not an overly hard book, just stay clear of Finnegan's Wake while you still have firm expectations about narratives. Also maybe check out the short(ish) story "The Dead" from Dubliners. Best. Short. Story. Ever. Imho.

posted by moift at 9:10 PM on November 21, 2005

When I'm looking for something to read (pretty much always), the Internet Book List has a TON of books listed by their genre and/or by author and popularity/rating. I find that I can pick up tips there for any mood that I'm in - mostly by picking my favorite books, seeing who recommends it, and then trying other books that they recommend.

Being the internet list, it's pretty skewed towards fantasy/sci-fi, but it has "classical" books and modern fiction too.

It really depends on what kind of books you like, though. I love everything from Chaucer to Dostoyevski to China Mieville to Piers Anthony, depending on my mood.
posted by gemmy at 9:18 PM on November 21, 2005

Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita fits the bill perfectly. It's brilliantly, laugh-out-loud funny and easy to read, and is one of the true classics of 20th century literature. Satan and his minions - including a giant smartass cat - set up shop in 1930s Moscow. Much hilarity ensues at the expense of bureaucrats, priests, party officials, literary snobs and, well, the rest of humanity.

Unpublishable in Stalinist Russia, it first saw print in the late 60s and quickly became a classic. It was the subject of a Mefi post a few years back, but that site's biography left out some of the most amazing info about Bulgakov's courage and persistence in the face of tyranny. From the introduction to the translation by Mirra Ginsburg:

Reduced to dramatizing the works of others...confined to frustrating work that robbed him of time and energy, and living much of the time in poverty and despair, he nevertheless refused to be broken. With remarkable moral courage, he persisted with his own writing, working at night. His sharp satirical eye, his comic gift, his extraordinary reserves of creative drive never abandoned him...

The hounding, the unremitting attacks, the humiliations and disappointments took their toll. Yet, without hope of publication, often ill and suffering from nervous exhaustion, Bulgakov returned again and again to his great work, The Master and Margarita, endlessly developing his ideas, changing the plot lines and characters, adding, deleting, revising, condensing, and refining...Bulgakov worked on the novel from 1928 to his death in 1940, continuing even in his final illness to dictate revisions to his wife.

If you want "enjoyable historic literature," you simply cannot do better than Bulgakov's comic masterpiece.
posted by mediareport at 9:31 PM on November 21, 2005

The Western Canon.
posted by bingo at 10:00 PM on November 21, 2005

Voltaire's Candide is a joyous and comic introduction to the Enlightenment.

Thoreau's Walden will either become a manifesto for the rest of your days or bore you silly. You'll know within a few paragraphs.

Robert Frost's various poetry collections. Read The Black Cottage and see what you think.

And Mark Twain! Roughing It might be a good place to start.
posted by LarryC at 10:01 PM on November 21, 2005

Twenty comments in and nobody has mentioned Shakespeare? What, too obvious?

And I hate to quibble with other folks' responses, but I feel compelled to observe that, in my mind at least, the best literature of the last 3000 years does not include The Kite Runner, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the works of Woody Allen.
posted by box at 10:15 PM on November 21, 2005

nobody has mentioned Shakespeare?

Ok, ok, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's Dream are both freaking brilliant. Bloody and goofy, respectively, and filled with major cultural touchstones. You can't go wrong with either.
posted by mediareport at 10:30 PM on November 21, 2005

Two "literary flights" you might enjoy.

Flight One:
I just read the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid in order, and it was pretty cool.

The Iliad is this epic story passed down verbally for generations then eventually transcribed and attributed to a blind poet named Homer. It's a bloody story about the Trojan war. The gods and their offspring play prominent roles. It's good to have a copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology while reading the Iliad, because she'll explain all the gods.

The Odyssey is a postscript to the Iliad. It tells of the post Trojan war two-decade-long journey home of Odysseus, a minor character in the Iliad. Odysseus runs into many obstacles because he made a couple of gods mad, but his cunning and the help of Athena bring him to an exciting climax.

The Aeneid is very different than these two stories. It's a mythical telling of the founding of Rome, written by Virgil in the last hundred years before Christ. This story, like the Odyssey, takes place after the Iliad. It introduces a character, Aeneis, who was a loser in the war with the characters in the Iliad and the Odyssey. He begins in defeat, and has to run to a new country after the war. The story is very similar to the Odyssey in structure, but Virgil throws in a lot of stuff that had political relevance during his day.

These stories are a lot of fun to read, and when you read more contemporary books after reading these you pick up a lot of literary allusions you might miss otherwise.

Flight Two:
Another fun sequence exists in the realm of theater: The Frogs (by Aristophones), Lysistrata (Aristophanes), the Oedipus trilogy (Sophocles), then Hamlet (Shakespear), Waiting for Godot (Becket), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard).

The Frogs is a comedy about a trip into Hades (the underworld, the world of death). It's a comedy with a lesson at the end, and was performed in around 400 BC in Ancient Greece. Plays were different in those days.

There were choruses that act kind of like narrators. They were groups of actors that spoke or sang to advance the action, and also to provide context or moral insight. Also, really gruesome action was only implied or explained, it wasn't shown on stage.

Lysistrata was another comedy by the same playright. It's really raunchy and a little moralistic. Basically, all these women decide to deny their husbands sex until they agree to stop waging war. Wacky hyjinks ensue.

Lysistrata and The Frogs provide a good introduction to the concept of comedy in a play.

The Oedipus Trilogy is a series of dark stories about incest, betrayal and death, and also has a lot of classic Greek tropes in it. It was written around the same time as Aristophones' comedies, but is very different -- an introduction to tragedy.

If you want to understand these early plays a little better, get a copy of Aristotle's Poetics, which does as good a job as anyone has ever managed at explaining art and goes into a little detail about threater/drama.

Next read Hamlet. Hamlet echoes some of the darkness of Sophocles, but Shakespear is clever and lets you delight in the play as much as you might delight in a comedy. He also introduces a new level in realism, with characters really relating to each other in an emotionally more nuanced way than any playright ever to come before. Hamlet is an indecisive character with a full personality.

Waiting for Godot will introduce you to existentialism. There are other good existentialist plays, including those of Satre and Ionesco, but Godot is a good introduction to the basic concepts. Life is meaningless, hell is other people, nothing happens. It's bleak.

Finally, read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. These are characters from Hamlet's tragedy living in an existentialist world that will feel familiar to the reader of Godot. But lo! There are hints of Socophles and early humor as well. It's not particularly deep, but it's fun.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:25 PM on November 21, 2005

1 vote for modern poetry: gertrude stein & t s eliot.
as for shakespeare, I recommend Lear over hamlet/midsummer night's/macbeth, but ymmv.
posted by juv3nal at 1:31 AM on November 22, 2005

I've never read any, but the Flashman series of historical comic (as in comedy, not cartoon) novels by George MacDonald Fraser might be just what you're looking for. I know several people who love them, and they're on my "to read" list. A search for "flashman" on Amazon.com lists plenty.
posted by ajp at 5:14 AM on November 22, 2005

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Many claim it as the first real novel ever written. Great Japanese literature from the Heian court era. Lots of fantastic poetry.
posted by Ekim Neems at 7:04 AM on November 22, 2005

I've never read any, but the Flashman series of historical comic (as in comedy, not cartoon) novels by George MacDonald Fraser might be just what you're looking for.

There's a further benefit in that some of the Fraser's novels point the reader to other texts. For instance, I probably never would have bothered to read Tom Brown's School Days or The Prisoner of Zenda if they hadn't been woven into the first two Flashman books.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 8:33 AM on November 22, 2005

Anthologies can be a great place to start. I'm particularly familiar with the Norton anthologies. They offer them in diverse areas that I've enjoyed, including English literature, the Introduction to literature, and American literature, world literature, poetry, ad infinitum.

I was an English major in undergrad and have always loved reading, but I was impressed every time one of their titles made it into required reading. The great thing about an anthology is that it generally brings together a wide assortment of literature that is currently considered "worth reading" and pairs the selections with commentary by experts in the area. I re-encountered well-loved pieces and found new ones in each anthology we read through.

So, my final answer is that you should look into anthologies for genres you are interested in. It's a great starting place if you want to be exposed to a wide variety of writers and time periods, and at some point, you may decide to settle into some arcane and narrow topic like I did. :-)
posted by bloggerwench at 6:35 PM on November 22, 2005

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