I tend not to read the books everyone else is reading. At least, I don’t read them while they are being talked about. Years after the fact, I might grab an “Oprah’s Pick” or a “Now a Major Motion Picture” paperback at the thrift store. Usually, I discover that everyone else was on to something good.
Still, this contrary streak persists.
I may not read the cocktail-party-conversation books, but I do read the The Big Conversation classics.
Of those, I re-read an even smaller selection.
Here are a few classics you may have missed. These aren’t the books to check off some must-read list (though if I had to recommend one of that sort, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, just fyi).
These are the books to read and read again.
These are books like old friends and crocheted afghans and steamy cups of tea.
First, there is The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. No doubt Oprah’s Victorian equivalent would have splashed her name all over the cover of this page-turner. Here is mystery, crime, intrigue, and atmosphere like only the English Victorians knew how to do.
My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody. – Wilkie Collins
For those of you whose appetites for emotional dramas set during the French Revolution have recently been wetted, I recommend A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
With all of the narrative padding that makes nineteenth-century fiction so maddening for some and so enjoyable for others, this is my favorite Dickens. That admission probably doesn’t say much about my critical prowess, but, remember, these are the classics we want to read, not the ones we must.
Not only do we have the French Revolution and a famous opening line, but, in hero Sydney Carton, we have a Christ-figure par excellence.
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known. – Charles Dickens
Last, but, whoa-nelly, not least (this one’s a doorstop, folks), is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. If you want to impress people on the subway, el, or metro, then Eliot is your girl. But don’t let the length discourage you. The long length is one of my favorite things about this book. This is the kind of book that is most enjoyable while there are still lots of pages to go. It’s a sad day when the last page is turned and you must leave Eliot’s masterfully created world and the wonderful characters who populate it.
Middlemarch is Serious Victorian Literature, and so it is also Serious Reading Fun. I mean, there are so many words! so many characters! so many hyper-realist details! Open to the first page, read slowly, and do not worry about when you will reach the end. This one is all about the journey (and Eliot’s is a very impressive journey). Enjoy.
It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view. – George Eliot
P.S. I googled Sydney Carton’s name to check the spelling and discovered that A Tale of Two Cities was once an Oprah Book Club Pick. My mind is blown. I had no idea. How did I ever miss a televised interview with Charles Dickens? Someone, please tell me, did he jump on the sofa?
We don’t read poetry any longer, do we?
Oh, a bit here and there, and some of us more than others, but we’re much more likely to end our days with reality television than The Oxford Book of English Verse, aren’t we?
I often wonder why this is. Is it because we are so accustomed to the easy and comfortable we avoid using our spare time for anything that requires real effort? And I won’t fool you. Poetry requires effort. It asks that we meet it at least halfway.
We must quiet our minds (and our stereo speakers). We must slow down (no one ever speed-read a poem). We must re-read (a good poem can’t ever be checked as “read” on our reading lists and tracking apps; poetry happens in the re-reading).
All I really know is that I’ve hesitated to recommend poetry books in this space. I want to make you happy, and I’ve decided happiness means novels, memoirs, cookbooks, and picture books.
I read this article and realized that poetry is worth more than life to some people. They will risk everything for what it gives.
The least I can do is share a few recommendations with you.
Also, I can make this promise – tonight, when my children are (finally) asleep, I will not turn on my television. I will not pick up my big, fat novel. Instead, I will re-read, and I will remember. I will remember that my life is something different, something better, because I have read Yeats and Auden, Bishop and Heaney.
And these. I have read these:
I have read George Herbert.
One of the great English metaphysical poets (poets known for their elaborate imagery), Herbert was a priest in the Church of England and a friend of John Donne. His religious poetry is beautiful, desperate, and honest. But this is not confession (or not merely); it is art. It is art that dramatizes and explores the encounter between the flawed, sinful self and a God who is Love.
Herbert’s poems are intricately crafted. They reward the time we spend with them.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies, / And turn delight into a sacrifice. – George Herbert
I have read Eavan Boland.
I can’t recommend poetry without recommending the work of this contemporary Irish poet. Boland writes about home, about motherhood, about what it means to create beautiful art out of the raw materials of violence, loss, and the various troubles of history. Her work is accessible, but it is not superficial. It rewards our first reading, but it gives more with subsequent readings.
I suggest picking up a single volume of her work (rather than a collection or the few poems you might find in an anthology). Reading poetry is like music in this regard – poets write poems the way musicians create albums. It is one thing to know a hit single in isolation; it is entirely another to know what has been created when the artist gathers their work into a whole.
I often return to her volume In a Time of Violence. You might start there.
Write us out of the poem. Make us human / in cadences of change and mortal pain / and words we can grow old and die in. – Eavan Boland
I have read everything ever published by T. S. Eliot. But, always and especially, I have read Four Quartets.
Eliot was the first poet who ever made me love poetry. I was a teenager, and I was mesmerized by the rhythms of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Now I don’t often go back to Prufrock and his coffee spoons (though the first lines of that poem are impossible for me to forget), but I return, more and more often, in fact, to Four Quartets.
There are times when an imperfect little art (like a quirky little poem) will suffice. It is like us: small yet precious, strange but lovely. There are other times when we need an art that hints at something much bigger and more perfect. Four Quartets is like that for me. It is big enough to move in, big enough to dream in, big enough to inspire your own creativity. It is Art-with-a-capital-A, and some days that is what my own little life needs most of all.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling // We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot
Do you read poetry? Why? Why not? I’d love to know.