Five Books Published Before 1900 I Love

Occasionally I write lists of five things (see Five Plays I Love and Five Poems I Love) because I like writing numbered lists, and five is a good number. Now, seeing that I’m a big fan of the classics, I thought I would do a list devoted to literature of centuries past, so, in sort of chronological order, here it is.

1. The Iliad – Homer
Depending on your translation (mine is by Richard Lattimore), the phrasing of the first line of this epic differs, but it’s a good one, as far as first lines go: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus.” Yes, an epic poem about Achilles and his anger issues. Among other things, like the Trojan War. It’s been several years since I’ve read this, but I enjoyed it a lot, because it’s a classical literature version of an action movie, and I’ll admit that I sometimes really like action movies, so you can start calling me a rube now.

2. Beowulf – Anonymous
Who wrote Beowulf? I don’t know and you don’t either, but even though it’s really old and it was once assigned to me for a class, I sat down and read it pretty much in one sitting. Among other things, a badass named Beowulf kills some monsters. What more can I say about it? It’s a good time. No, really.

3. Paradise Lost – John Milton
I know, I know, I am all about the epic poetry. Many people think this is the most boring thing they have ever been forced to read by an educator in their lives, but because I am a big weirdo nerd, I actually like this poem a lot. An epic created from the Bible (which is a source ripe with material for epic poetry), with a sneaky, devious Satan who is a villain (or, if you’re Byron, a hero) who makes the whole thing worth reading. Milton is considered one of the big daddies of English letters for many reasons, but this is most definitely the greatest of them.

4. Emma – Jane Austen
I’m skipping over some famous work from the 18th century, like Robinson Crusoe (because I hate that book) and Gulliver’s Travels (which I don’t hate, but don’t love either) to get to the 19th century, which contains some of my all-time favorite literature. You may or may not be aware of the fact that I am a big fan of Jane Austen, and this novel, about meddling Emma Woodhouse, is easily my favorite. Funny and occasionally dramatic (as far as Jane Austen gets dramatic) with a heroine I alternate between loving and wanting to strangle, I love this book in a deep and lasting way. And even though I’m no longer a teenager, I also love Amy Heckerling’s film adaptation, Clueless, which I maintain that I like because it is a clever retelling of Austen’s classic, and not just because I have a long-standing schoolgirlish crush on Paul Rudd.

5. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
I’m just barely squeaking by with this one, which was originally published in 1899. When I was a senior in high school, my English teacher loaned me a copy of this book because she thought I’d like it. I thought it was okay — I didn’t quite get it then — but when I returned to it a few years later, the power of the book hit me full-on and I adored it. It’s a book about a woman realizing herself as an intellectual, sexual being and about power and making choices. When it was published, it was considered shocking and outrageous, and it is still strong and fresh more than 100 years later. It’s a great book, and perhaps my favorite one on this list.

15 Responses

  1. My Five”The Sorrows Of Young
    My Five

    “The Sorrows Of Young Werther”
    “Don Quixote” (which I’m currently reading)
    “Notes From The Underground”
    “Crime And Punishment”
    “The Divine Comedy”

    I said good day.

  2. My FiveSome people might
    My Five

    Some people might pooh-pooh a couple of my choices for not being highbrow enough. Nevertheless…

    Candide by Voltaire

    Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky (and a good day to you, kkizer!)

    McTeague by Frank Norris

    Most of Poe’s stories were published in magazines, but in 1850, a book was published in two volumes called The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, With Notices of his Life and Genius by N.P. Willis, J.R. Lowell, and R. Griswold. Besides commentary on Poe’s life & work, this contains all his classics: The Fall of the House of Usher, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Purloined Letter, The Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar, etc. as well as his poems: The Raven, A Dream Within A Dream, Annabel Lee, etc.

    Frankenstein – Mary Shelley

    Jamelah, did I ever mention that you have a fun, fresh way of writing about the classics? You have given me an idea for a blog name: The Nerdish Rube.

  3. Before 1900? Ok:1. Gargantua
    Before 1900? Ok:

    1. Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. Over the top medieval hijinks.
    2. The Illiad. Rosy fingered dawn and the wine dark sea.
    3. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky. Raskolnikov wandering the streets in delirium.
    4. Madam Bovary, Flaubert. Bourgeois chick gets bored with bad consequences.
    5. Tales of Mystery and Horror, Poe. Southern gent puts short story on map.

  4. Highbrow, shmighbrow. Give me
    Highbrow, shmighbrow. Give me Poe any day of the week!

  5. me too! pick me, pick me!In
    me too! pick me, pick me!

    In order of importance:

    1. Dante, “The Divine Comedy”
    Especially “Purgatorio,” which provides essentially a verse summation of Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica,” only with some incredible jokes and lots of mind-bending imagery thrown in to break things up. Two anecdotes: 1. I actually stole a beautiful copy of the “Commedia” from a church library in Northern Italy. It’s the only thing I’ve ever stolen in my life, and I love the fact that the one item I’ve stolen tells me, in gory detail, the punishments that shall be inflicted upon me for stealing it. 2. I first read Canto XXVIII of “Purgatorio” (one of the most beautiful things ever written in any language, in which Dante finally reaches the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain), while lying on the beach near Big Sur in early spring, watching the sun break through the clouds and forming a brief rainbow – it very nearly inspired me to convert to Catholicism.

    2. Homer, “The Odyssey”
    Because it’s just so much fun, and provides the template for my favorite novel of all time.

    3. Emily Bronte, “Wuthering Heights”
    I’ve written about this before on this site, but I don’t want to get into another fight.

    4. Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov”
    One of my two favorite books about which to argue with my father. He’s a minister, I’m an atheist, and we both find plenty of textual support for our respective belief systems here.

    5. J-Hova (H to the Izzo), “The Bible”
    Please see No. 4 above.

  6. Ahhhh, yeeeaaahhh . . .A
    Ahhhh, yeeeaaahhh . . .

    A Dream Within A Dream
    by Edgar Allan Poe

    Take this kiss upon the brow!
    And, in parting from you now,
    Thus much let me avow–
    You are not wrong, who deem
    That my days have been a dream:
    Yet if hope has flown away
    In a night, or in a day,
    In a vision or in none,
    Is it therefore the less gone?
    All that we see or seem
    Is but a dream within a dream.
    I stand amid the roar
    Of a surf-tormented shore,
    And I hold within my hand
    Grains of the golden sand–
    How few! yet how they creep
    Through my fingers to the deep
    While I weep–while I weep!
    O God! can I not grasp
    Them with a tighter clasp?
    O God! can I not save
    One from the pitiless wave?
    Is all that we see or seem
    But a dream within a dream?

  7. ” Rosy fingered dawn and the
    ” Rosy fingered dawn and the wine dark sea” – nice quote, Doc.

    And re Crime and Punishment, the part where Raskolnikov is telling someone what he has done, but they don’t take him seriously – remember that part? – man, that had me on the edge of my seat!

  8. What about that one book by
    What about that one book by Posh Spice you were reading?

  9. Hey, FC, you’re the one that
    Hey, FC, you’re the one that posted that Halloween quote from Poe about a grisly walking corpse.

  10. If I understand correctly,
    If I understand correctly, you like the Bible as literature, but not in the literal miracles and so forth? Correct me if I’m wrong.

  11. 5 I readI like contempary
    5 I read

    I like contempary stuff, especially Ray Carver and Tobias Wolff but Nietzsche’s Gay Science is timeless as is Conrad’s Lord Jim. Stevens’ Treasure Island was a seminal breakthough that became an archetype. The Double by Dostoyevsky and Dickens’ Hard Times are the last two of my five. Laozi’s Daodejing is worth a scan and I will check out the compilation of Wen Tzu today. I’m working with Epictetus’ Handbook now.

  12. Lists are always toughbut
    Lists are always tough

    but choosing five today I would pick:

    1-Hamlet: I never tire of this play or its themes. Still the greatest of The Bard’s works for me and the best single piece of literature.

    2-The Divine Comedy: I disagree with much of Dante’s narrow view but admire his passion and spirituality a great deal.

    3-The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: I love Twain’s use of satire and dialect and it is a brave work that is quintessentially American as few other works can claim to be.

    4-The Brothers Karamazov: One of only two novels that has moved me to have a cathartic cry and always a great debate.

    5-A Christmas Carol: I wanted to choose Paradise Lost for how engrained Milton’s view is in our collective psyche or Pride and Prejudice for striking a blow for feminism and because Austen’s powerful characterization rivals Shakespeare and Dickens but this simple carol by Dickens is such a heartfelt protest and plea both then and sadly still that I am compelled to opt for it.


  13. five classicsI grew up with
    five classics

    I grew up with the E. V. Rieu translation of The Iliad for Penguin, and I loved it. Then the BBC did a frankly stunning radio version of Christopher Logue’s version, and I felt a renewed interest. I bought the Logue in its various episodes, published over a long period. Now, I think I would put this as number one if I wanted to excite young readers. The classic faithful voice still has its place, and always will, and we have been fortunate to have Fagles version, well within the tradition but vigorously original. But I’d like to suggest you try Logue, with his contemporary take on Homer. It illuminates the timeless horrors of war, makes you sweat with horror at its endless repeats in history, and even raises the odd smile.

    Beowulf is another story constantly benefiting from rewrites. The Seamus Heaney version is the most thrilling because it roars along, dragging you way beyond other versions that can get mired in dullness or too much exegesis.

    Paradise Lost is a work that transcends its theology, thank whoever. And in Milton’s vision of Satan we have the supreme Dark Lord in literature. Evil fascinates more than good, and always has, and although I doubt I could ever read this book again, I have never forgotten its impact forty years ago in my sixth form, shortly after I had become an atheist.

    Jane Austen I will pass on. I have never got beyond the first few chapters of any of her books, which says more about my shortcomings than hers of course. Frankly I prefer her on film any day.

    I’m ignorant of Kate Chopin too, so let me mention my favourite woman writer, George Eliot, and her masterpiece, ‘Middlemarch’. While it undoubtedly illuminates the period it depicts it has the most contemporary relevance. It locks you in early, and at the end you may well wish George Eliot had continued into several more volumes.

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