Jamelah Reads the Classics: 20th Century Edition

One of the reasons I started my occasional series, Jamelah Reads the Classics, is because there are all these books in the world that I want to read — I keep a running list in my head, appropriately titled Books I Want to Read Before I Die — and it is very long. So long, in fact, that I know I will never get all the way through it before I inevitably stop breathing, even if I happen to live for a very very long time, which I probably won’t because I have a thing for bad habits. My mortality notwithstanding, I am currently reading two books (and flirting with a third) and none of them are even on the list, but I like to be flexible about these things. Also, I already discovered that I’m never reading Anna Karenina, and that leaves room open for all kinds of books I can read instead. (Because Anna Karenina is long, see.)

Anyway, I figured that if I broke the Books I Want to Read Before I Die list up into chunks and worked through it that way, maybe I’d feel like I was accomplishing something. And I like that feeling. So, the first time around I mostly picked books at random, whereas the next group was more organized, in that it was all literature by women writers. While I was finishing that group, I was already looking ahead to what I’d do next (hey, sometimes I do plan ahead), and decided that I’d like to go for some more modern things that I hadn’t gotten around to yet. Believe me, this is a long, long list, so I focused it on things published in the 20th century that, for one reason or another, I hadn’t read. (Of course, one of the major reasons I haven’t read these things is that I seem to have a thing for books that are 200 or more years old.) After taking suggestions from friends and my smartypants mother, and thinking about books I always meant to get to, I chose seven certifiable classics from the 20th century. The long list was much, um, longer, and perhaps the books that didn’t make the shortlist cut will appear at a later time, but for now, here are the things that I’ll be reading and writing about here in the near(ish) future:

1927: To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

1929: The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

1931: The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck

1933: Ulysses – James Joyce

1952: East of Eden – John Steinbeck

1963: Sometimes a Great Notion – Ken Kesey

1967: One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

24 Responses

  1. Well, I figure that I will
    Well, I figure that I will either read it and like it or it will completely kick my ass. I don’t really see a middle ground.

    Either way, I will report on what happens.

  2. SuggestionsHaving read the

    Having read the books on your list, my humble suggestion (since time is short for us all) — I would skip The Good Earth, East of Eden, and Sometimes a Great Notion.

    Ulysses did kick my ass but, damn, it felt good! I have never been able to get through Finnegan’s Wake and have finally stopped trying.

    A great but much-neglected short book is Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell.

    Looking forward to your reviews of these books.

  3. I tried reading Ulysses when
    I tried reading Ulysses when I was in college, and it was my Anna Karenina, i.e. it kicked my ass. I am going to give it another shot before I die. Or maybe I’ll die while reading it.

    Sometimes a Great Notion is an excellent, excellent book.

  4. I loved (LOVED!) East of Eden
    I loved (LOVED!) East of Eden since the Cain & Abel/house divided/mama is a whore stuff appeals to the side of me who wants to watch Lifetime all day. Everything in it screams: dramatic mini-series.

    The classic that continues kicking my ass is Middlemarch. It’s not that I can’t finish it since I’ve read it twice, I simply don’t get why it’s considered such a great work of literature. I mean, it’s full of nothing but characters who make bad decisions because they’re stuck within the constraints of class or gender or the countryside or whatever. Couldn’t it all have been condensed into, say, 250 pages?

  5. Marquez, Steinbeck, FaulknerI
    Marquez, Steinbeck, Faulkner

    I just failed at ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE for the third time- I was sucked in by the desolate title. If you do read it, memorize the genealogy chart at the front of the novel. EAST OF EDEN is a big fat juicy read and definitely fun. One novel that I would recommend for any 20th century list is A LIGHT IN AUGUST by Faulkner. Some critics say his prose is opaque, but I found it to be a satisfying read.

  6. Seriously, Jamelah, I’d
    Seriously, Jamelah, I’d suggest you use some kind of guide with Ulysses. I tried the book once without a guide and didn’t have much success.

    Any Cliff Notes or online guide should do. Mainly it helps to see how each section maps to sections in “The Odyssey”, and to understand the very local Anglo-Irish political issues of the time, which are referenced in the book with no explanation.

    I don’t see you as the type of reader who enjoys using a guide, Jamelah, so I’m suggesting it in this case because otherwise you might have a really miserable experience with the book.

  7. I’m still working on ULYSSES-
    I’m still working on ULYSSES- i pull it off the shelf occasionally. The Orwell book is very good, too.

  8. Marydell, maybe you should
    Marydell, maybe you should switch gears to a different George Eliot. I couldn’t get into “Middlemarch” but had a fine old time with “The Mill On The Floss”. Try it!

  9. I read exactly half of
    I read exactly half of Ulysses, then moved on to something else. I actually followed it pretty well, because I had already absorbed other people’s commentaries (from Cliff’s Notes to online chats).

    I stopped reading Ulysses because I had an agenda that seemed more relevant to where I want to be as a writer. I designed a “curriculum” for myself, which included Kundera’s The Art of the Novel, selected works by Tom Bissell, and an overview of Cyberpunk from its early days to the present.

  10. Marydell, this goes to a
    Marydell, this goes to a question I’ve been wanting to ask on Levi’s paperback/hardback symposium. We keep seeing the term “literary fiction.” Isn’t there a fine line between literary and non-literary? For example, in which category would we put Gone With the Wind? It’s kind of like a soap opera, kind of like a mini-series.

  11. Paul de Cock, nice name he
    Paul de Cock, nice name he has

    You’re absolutely right about “Ulysses” — you’ll either hate it and throw it to the floor exhausted and irritated, or it’ll take over your entire literary life, leaving you exhausted, irritated — though pleasantly so — and a total drag to be around at parties whenever the words “Ireland,” “book,” “reading,” “usurper,” “ashplant,” or “mackintosh” come up. I’m decidedly in the latter category, so I speak from experience.

    “Down and Out in Paris and London,” which was suggested previously, is fantastic and totally worth your time. I found “East of Eden” to be pretty rough going, despite my predilection for long, difficult 20th century lit.

    As for significantly shorter stuff, and since you mention lists of women writers, I consider Jean Rhys to be among the most criminally neglected novelists of the 20th century, female or otherwise. (Okay, yes, “Wide Sargasso Sea” got a lot of press, but she was way past her prime by then — judging her by that book would be like only hearing Pavarotti on the “Three Tenors Christmas Album” and wondering what the big deal is.) She was a bit too late to joust it out with the other modernists, and too early to gel with the women’s movement, but she kicks so much ass nonetheless. “Good Morning Midnight” knocks me on my back every single time I re-read it, and then “Quartet” and “Voyage in the Dark,” and then the short stories…

  12. Steinbeck met Faulkner and
    Steinbeck met Faulkner and had dinner together at one point in their careers. Despite the fact that Faulkner drank heavily, they became friends.

    Steinbeck also met up with Hemingway and concluded he was ‘boorish’.

    Gotta love it! Wish I was there…

  13. Tough question, Bill. I
    Tough question, Bill. I prefer to think that, yes, Gone With The Wind is literary fiction. Perhaps we can think of “literary fiction” as a catch-all for any human stories that don’t fall into more specific genres such as horror, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, young adult, etc.

    But any categorization scheme is likely to be false (as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein aptly proved). Poe wrote mysteries but is always considered literary. And there are novels that don’t fall into more specific categories that can’t be called literary just because they’re so bad, but it’s pretty hard to codify why this is so.

    I’ve been known to say that literary fiction, in the real world, refers to the type of fiction that’s likely to get reviewed in the major publications like New York Times Book Review, etc.

  14. Levi, I’ve also read Mill on
    Levi, I’ve also read Mill on the Floss (twice) and Silas Marner (once), and also keep telling myself to hit Adam Bede at some point. My problem, I think, is not so much with Middlemarch but with George Eliot. She’s considered one of the greats but I simply don’t see it. As a result, I keep reading and rereading her work because I’m convinced there must be something wrong with me.

    Bill, like Levi, I also think of literary fiction as anything that won’t fit nicely into a specific genre. But, unlike Levi, I wouldn’t necessarily throw certain books out of the literary fiction category just because they’re bad. We tend to misuse “literary” to describe books that are written at a higher standard than genre, but it really is only the adjective form of “literature.” Technically, all novels are literature regardless of genre.

    I’d also have to put Gone with the Wind in with literary fiction. Although the main storyline is a soap opera romance, there’s so much more to it. War, class, race…it’s simply too epic and too much of a historical document to be lumped in with other bodice-rippers. Scarlett, by the way, sucked.

  15. I’m already a big Faulkner
    I’m already a big Faulkner fan, and yes, Light in August is a spectacular book.

  16. I’m really looking forward to
    I’m really looking forward to Ulysses, at least partly because every time I mentioned that I was trying to figure out what books to put on my list, other than Ulysses people would say “You are so not going to finish that” and I am a sucker for a challenge.

  17. I also put the works of
    I also put the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in the bucket of literary, because of the quality of writing. Whereas to me, John D. McDonald is a genre writer.

  18. For Faulkner check out the
    For Faulkner check out the novels about the Snopes family, e.g. The Hamlet. It is good stuff!

  19. Jamelah, if anyone can finish
    Jamelah, if anyone can finish Ulysses, it’s you. I believe you’ll read it and I’m looking forward to your review.

  20. Thanks for the replies, guys.
    Thanks for the replies, guys. I guess in the long run, one has to write from the heart and let the reader sort it out.

  21. It’s not a review. I’m was
    It’s not a review. I’m was using this list as a guide, trying to read at least one book by each author. Kind of like a home-schooled college course.

    And this.

  22. HalfThats a nice list. In

    Thats a nice list. In fact, it makes me feel a little self-conscious about some of my reading lists scribbled down on torn pieces of receipts and wasted printer pages. Especially since by the time I finish one of the books, I always find about 3 more on the list than when I started. They grow like weeds.

    That being said, damn what people say about Ulysses. Throw another Irish novel on before it to get in the mood (may I suggest The Third Policeman?) and you’ll love it. Going from Hammett to Joyce might be a bit weird. Sometimes a Great Notion is amazing and 100 Years of Solitude is better.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What we're up to ...

Litkicks is 26 years old! This website has been on a long and wonderful journey since 1994. We’re relaunching the whole site on a new platform in June 2021, and will have more updates soon. We’ve also been busy producing a couple of podcasts – please check them out.

World BEYOND War: A New Podcast
Lost Music: Exploring Literary Opera

Explore related articles ...