Puget Sound English Department

June 19, 2009

Masterpieces That Deliver the Goods

Filed under: Literature — O. @ 6:14 pm

mobypeck_l(image: Gregory Peck, acting as Captain Ahab, in John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of you know what, and clearly Spielberg’s shark is an offspring of Huston’s whale)

A recent post concerned “the Shelf of Shame,” on which sit highly recommended and/or widely revered books that we haven’t gotten around to reading and, thus, about which we may feel reader’s guilt:


On my Shelf of Shame sit David Cannadine’s big biography of Andrew Mellon; The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz (but I’ve read and liked other books by him, including The Beggar);  Christopher Wolfe’s biography of Johann Sebastian Bach; and the relatively new Penguin translation of The Sagas of the Icelanders. Enthusiastically, I purchased all of these books, intending in good faith to read them.  Not yet! Shame!

Nearby is the Shelf of Satisfaction, on which sit ostensible masterpieces that have, in my opinion, lived up to the cultural advertisement. In my case, on that shelf sits Moby Dick. As Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost, “No one wished it longer,” and the descriptions of ships are bit tedious. Otherwise: oh my, what a great story, what a fine narrative voice, what a great cast of characters, and what a mischievous whale, for which, for whom, I find myself rooting.   Also on that shelf (again, only in my [book] case): King Lear; The Fire Next Time (Baldwin); Bleak House (more so than Great Expectations and David Copperfield, in my opinion); War and Peace; The Brothers Karamozov (more so than Crime and Punishment, in my opinion); Middlemarch; Beloved; Utopia (Thomas More); Pensees (Pascal); and Tristram Shandy–to name a few.

Of course, where one gets into deep trouble quickly is the point at which one confesses one’s lack of enthusiasm for an alleged classic. One is likely to be scolded or ostracized by other readers for being unable to recognize greatness or unwilling to join in what is supposed to be universal applause.

In my case, on that precarious shelf sit the following works: Hamlet (Great? Of course, but I don’t read it with anything approaching the satisfaction with which I read Lear); the Aenied; Clarissa (Pamela, I like); novels by Thomas Wolfe (such as You Can’t Go Home Again); The Prelude; the Cantos (Ezra Pound); The Charterhouse at Parma (Stendahl); The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe); The Republic (I’m biased in favor of Aristotle and prejudiced against Master P); The Golden Bowl (Henry James); Absalom, Absalom (I much prefer The Sound and the Fury and Light in August); The Savage Detectives (Roberto Balano)–a recent Big Hit (this is no doubt heresy, but the writing reminded me of Kerouac’s).

Before all sorts of virtual skirmishes about “the” Canon, ” define ‘masterpiece’,” and “you don’t like the Cantos–are you out of your mind?” break out, let me simplify things: Mea culpa. The fault lies in this reader, not in the stars, or however that goes.  More colloquially: “My bad.”  Moreover, and this will come as shocking news, I suspect the Aedied will somehow withstand my lack of enthusiasm for it.

At any rate, what’s on your shelf of  “Uh, Not So Much”–books (works) you feel you’re supposed to like but for which you can’t quite generate a reader’s adrenaline-rush?

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