If you are like me, you have spent much of your adult life as a reader catching up on a severe lack of education. It is common that I am out with friends and when the topic of books comes up, I’m forced to admit that I haven’t read this book or that–books that everyone else has read, obviously, but not me. My whole blog could be a confessional. I have never read Jane Eyre or Slaughterhouse V or the Foundation series or 2001: A Space Odyssey or King Lear or Faust or that volume of the History of Middle-earth that you think is that absolutely essential one. Shocking, I know. And yet I like Charlotte Brontë, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Shakespeare, Goethe, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I have never read Jacob I Have Loved, Rob Roy, Don Quixote, The Last Unicorn, or War & Peace–and I probably have never read Virgil’s Aeneid all through.
Not to mention the hundreds of books that are worth reading today by living authors who have shaped wonderful worlds for us–including the one you are thinking about right now that I really should have read already.
But I want to read them. Over the last decade or so I have been slowly collecting lost authors, slowing filling my internal bookshelf with the canons of great fiction. In the last year or so I have encountered a number of essential authors for the first time, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charlotte Brontë, Octavia E. Butler, J.G. Ballard, David Lindsay, Nalo Hopkinson, and some of the modern poets. And I have pressed in on some of the other greats, like Stephen King, William Morris, Charles Williams, J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, Margaret Atwood, Terry Pratchett, H.P. Lovecraft, Virginia Woolf, Robert A. Heinlein, C.S. Lewis, A.A. Milne, Samuel Johnson, and L.M. Montgomery. All to my great delight.
What has surprised me about my slow gathering of scattered literary pebbles is how good some of these books are to read. Anyone can see how narrow my reading list is there–so very English and North American and limited to such a tiny corner of the universe. But in that narrow band, so much of what I have read has been worthwhile. While some of it is a challenge–I am not a great reader of poetry and struggle with archaic prose, even when it is well done (like Morris)–most of it was delightful and rewarding. And, often enough, that book or story or poem I always meant to get go wasn’t very long and was already on my bookshelf.
So I began to think about a literary challenge. I have often written NaNoWriMo or the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest, carving out space to write 35,000 words in a weekend or 50,000 words in a month. What about the idea of 3 Day Novel Reading Contest or NaNoReadMo? The idea would be to read for 48 hours over a long weekend, or to dedicate two hours a day of reading for a month. My thesis is that combining a weekend of intensive reading or a month of evenings in your favourite reading chair–with an audiobook for a walk or run or hour in the garden or making meals–would go a huge way to filling in the missing canon of great books. The reading list would be your own, but for this project I think they should be pieces that are largely new to you but fit this criteria:
- Canonical (see fantasy canons, Bloom’s canon, and Lewis’ canon);
- Approachable (i.e., books that are not too difficult);
- Available broadly (library, ebook, online, audiobook);
- Short (you are skimming stones on the water not setting an anchor); and
- Rewarding (fun, enjoyable, uplifting, challenging, etc.)
This will be your own list, but here are some “classics” that fit the bill, with the average reading times according to audible as a rough guide to a start:
- Beowulf: The great epic of the Old English tradition, Beowulf is a heroic adventure if you can find the rhythm. There are a few moments that might slip by, but I loved it when I finally sat down to read it. I recently enjoyed the Seamus Heaney translation (3-4 hours).
- The Song of Roland: Perhaps the other foundational medieval European epic poem, this is the story of Charlemagne’s nephew, a tragedy in 4000 lines of verse (4-5 hours).
- Voltaire, Candide: I love this skeptic’s progress, a satirical and ridiculous adventure that pokes fun of the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Librivox has a great free reading of it, and I have a Jack Davenport narration on queue in Audible when I have time. This book appeared coincidentally with a Christian version of the same project by Samuel Johnson. While Rasselas is a literary classic, I prefer Candide (3-4 hours).
- T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”: One of the classic “modernist” texts that shaped poetry in the last century, it is a critical addition to your list. You can read this brilliant poem in about half an hour, though it took Eliot years to write it. You have to read it imagining you are on a busy London street in the 1920s with people pressing against the stinging rain as barmen shout out their last call, and you may not get it fully in the first reading (.5 hours).
- Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis: Kafka is weird, as you will see in this most Kafkaesque of modern tales. Poor Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant insect, which proves to be very inconvenient as a young German working lad. Benedict Cumberbatch’s reading for the BBC is perfect, and it is a quick way into Kafka’s weird brain (1.5-2 hours).
- Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own: Though I think her classics are Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, her fictional series of lectures written up as “A Room of One’s Own” makes for a compelling story of what women’s experiences of fiction have been in the modern world (5 hours).
- Dante‘s Inferno: No doubt the idea of reading Dante is a bit intimidating, but there are a lot of ways into the greatest work of the Western world, The Divine Comedy. There are accessible prose translations as well as literary poetic ones, but almost any good translation will give the reader Dante’s profound ability to write science fiction in The Inferno–not to mention his knack for capturing the plight of the human soul (5 hours).
- Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: It would take half your weekend to read through the entire Tales, but there are places you can dip in for fun. “The Miller’s Tale” is a fan favourite, often used for teaching undergrads and about an hour’s reading. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” is an unusual animal fable, and “The Knight’s Tale” may already be familiar to readers in modern retellings. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is both brutal and fascinating, though it is the Wife who shines in the telling (1-2 hours).
- Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: I have some allegiance to J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation as the first I read of Gawain’s tale, but Simon Armitage‘s translation won me over for its alliteration (as it did with his Morte Darthur). In 2-3 hours you can get the whole flavour of the late medieval Arthurian world (2.5 hours).
- William Shakespeare: None of Shakespeare’s plays are very long as novels, but they can be lengthy as plays. Of the longer plays, full cast-full script performances are rare, but can run up to 12 hours. Some of the shorter plays, however, are quick moving, a lot of fun, and can get you a taste of Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a great, short, funny play, though a bit weird. Julius Caesar is often used for younger students as a pretty accessible play. But of the shorter ones, The Tempest and Macbeth are both short and resonant as plays (2-4 hours).
- John Milton, Samson Agonistes: Milton’s classic Paradise Lost is a solid read, but his play Samson Agonistes is quite brilliant and much shorter (2-3 hours).
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: This book pushes the lengths at close to 10 hours, but you need not read it all. There are movements in his story, and once you get the flow of it, you can read a couple of hours anywhere and get the humour and joy of his world (2 hours).
- Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: This is a brilliant novella that almost single-handedly captures an entire genre of literature (3 hours).
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: Is this the best poem of the English tradition? Perhaps. Haunting and beautiful, it is a short poem worth reading (.5 hours).
- Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock: Satirical yet classical, this book mocks and still lifts up the poetic tradition (2 hours).
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Grand Inquisitor”: One of my favourite stories-within-a-story, this amazing parable is one of the great thought experiment within what might be the most important novel of Western world, The Brothers Karamazov (1 hour).
- H. G. Wells, The Time Machine: Wells’ novels are not very long, but for this project his novella The Time Machine is a great thought experiment and an important moment in science fiction history (3-4 hours). If you can’t fit this in, C.S. Lewis recommends the short story, “The Door in the Wall” (1 hour).
- Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”: Not his only or perhaps even his best work, but interpretations of this short classic poem abound (.25 hours).
- Henry James, The Turn of the Screw: I am not a great lover of James, but this spooky tale fits well for lovers of the Gothic tales, for lovers of the 19th-century novelists, and for those looking for a little background to great vampire stories of the past (4-5 hours).
- Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths”: Borges was a poet and critic, and this fascinating and intelligent story will bend the mind and prepare the reader for the generation of literature to follow (.5 hours).
- Jane Austen’s letters in Pride and Prejudice: Begun as an epistolary tale, Pride and Prejudice is one of my favourite books. Far too long for this project, I would recommend leafing through a copy and reading the letters if you already know the story. The letters are funny, moving, and literary gems–not to mention their role in tilting this classic story forward (1-2 hours).
- Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol: Dickens’ greatest work is quite long, but in a short evening or a long lunch break you can read the book behind the beloved film (2-3 hours).
- L.M. Montgomery: While we read Montgomery as a novelist with her Anne, Emily, and Story Girl books, she truly excelled as a short story writer. Indeed, some of her later Anne books are really a string of short stories around a setting or a cast of characters. You can find most of her short stories in their original settings at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s “Kindred Spaces” page. Perhaps the place to begin would be “Each in His Own Tongue,” a lovely Avonlea story where plays with genre a bit (.75 hours).
- Elie Wiesel, Night: Not fiction but a compelling story, this is a hard read, but essential (4 hours).
- J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” and “Mythopoiea“: Undoubtedly, The Lord of the Rings is a classic text, though only a few decades in print. For our experiment, though, we need something shorter. The creation myth in The Silmarillion is a good candidate, or the Beren and Lúthien story–each which can be read in an hour or two. But I would suggest two autobiographical pieces that place the reader into the mental background of Tolkien’s imaginative world. “Mythopoeia” is the poem written to convert C.S. Lewis to a fuller view of myth, while “Leaf by Niggle” is Tolkien’s only allegory, written to show both an image of purgatory and of what it means to work as a subcreator in this world (1 hour).
- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters: This was the book that first gave Lewis a name, and it still is read by smart people who follow its spiritual advice or simply enjoy the satirical writing. As his other great works–Till We Have Faces; Perelandra; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe–are too long, Screwtape is a great, quick read–and even better if you can find John Cleese’s reading (3.5-4 hours).
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther: You probably don’t have time to read all of his class Faust, so this short epistolary novel that launched Romanticism will do. This passion narrative is sad and endearing and frustrating, and became an immediate cult class (4.5-5 hours).
- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest: What a great play! See it live if you can, but if not it makes a brilliant read (2 hours). Other great 2-hour plays include:
- Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
- Arthur Miller, Crucible
- Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
- Sophocles, Oedipus Rex
- Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House
- Ray Bradbury, “All Summer in a Day”: A tragic and beautiful sampling of a 20th-century genius (.5 hours).
- Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God”: While Clarke gave us some of our most important classic hard SF novels of the mid-20th century, you can find in this well-anthologized story a lot of his interests, including algorithmic thinking, eastern religion, and human nature as it foibles its way into the future (.5 hours).
- Stephen King, “The Body”: Certainly not the typical tale to choose from this genius of supernatural literature and horror stories. Still, this is a brilliant novella has become the movie that we love, Stand By Me, and is part of the Different Seasons collection that has “Apt Pupil,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and “The Breathing Method.” Still, I keep going back to what was for me a coming of age tale, “The Body” (4-5 hours).
- George Orwell, “Animal Farm“: One of the only stories that survive well into our post-allegorical age of two genres that are lost to us: the philosophical novella and the allegory. Though cloaked as a children’s tale, adults read it as a foundational story to challenge the tyranny of the generation (2-3 hours). Other books that fit in this kind of approach that are worth reading:
- Ernest Hemmingway, The Old Man and the Sea: Perhaps the most influential American novelist and a core member of the Paris expats, this books fits great not only as a modern classic, but a book that evokes greater stories that came before. And it is short (2.5 hours).
- John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men: Not my favourite, but an important American book from an essential author. Like The Old Man and the Sea, it is classic, evocative of great stories, and short (3 hours).
- Lois Lowry, The Giver: I have largely left off children’s literature, but I think this one of the most perceptive books of the generation
- Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan: A dark, powerful book that starts the tilt of her Earthsea Cycle. While her classic books will turn out to be The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, this was my first Le Guin book and my favourite (5 hours).
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: Pushing
- our definition of short, this book is great for not just getting an author’s voice, but for capturing an age (5 hours).
- George MacDonald, “The Golden Key”: Selecting only one thing from MacDonald is tough, though it would probably be Phantastes. As that piece is far too long, we turn to the more child-centred stories. The Princess and Curdie stories would take about 5 hours to read, and The Light Princess an hour or two. “The Golden Key,” though, is an intelligent, softly allegorical tale that has its own richness (1 hour).
- H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”: The classic horror writer of the early 20th century, Lovecraft’s imagination and ability to create an atmosphere for readers far outstripped his prose ability. The Cthulhu myth goes down as masterful chilling tales, so begin there (1.5 hours).
- Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: A brilliant southern Catholic storyteller, I’ll leave you to O’Connor’s voice below to introduce you to her peculiar ability to form characters (.75 hours).
The reading challenge, however, should also include lyric poetry. These aren’t as easy to time, and there are hundreds of great poems to recommend, but a number of poems should be sprinkled into the reading.
- John Donne: I would spend your weekend/month sprinkling Donne into the mix. Bloggers and anthologists through the ages have done my job for me and selected out the great ones, but a reading of a couple dozen John Donne popular poems will let you know how his words keep popping up in the works of later novelists. Don’t leave out “Death Be Not Proud,” The Sun Rising,” “The Apparition,” “The Flea,” “The Good Morrow,” and some of the elegies and holy sonnets (like, don’t miss the “little world made cunningly” sonnet).
- William Wordsworth: A great Romantic poet, there are lots of lists online, but don’t miss “Michael,” “Tintern Abbey” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” “London, 1802,” and “Surprised by Joy” and some of the other sonnets.
- John Keats: Don’t leave out “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” some of the odes, and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (perhaps reading also some of the “Belle Dame” stories that followed).
- Lewis Carroll: If you haven’t read “The Hunting of the Snark” now’s your time (.25 hours).
- Gerard Manley Hopkins: A metrical genius, Hopkins just has that great sensitivity to language that makes lyric poetry brilliant. I don’t know where to start, but make sure you read “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” “God’s Grandeur,” “The Windhover,” and “The Wreck of the Deutschland.”
- Walt Whitman: America’s poet, Audible tells me that the original 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass is a 5-hour read. As this essential collection began with 12 poems and ended in 400 or so, it is no longer that length. Whatever you do, read “Song of Myself.” I read “A Noiseless Patient Spider” almost every day (5 hours).
- Emily Dickinson: Dickenson never fails to reward the reader who dips in at almost any point or reads the Collected Poems through.
Of course, there is also Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, W.H. Auden, Wendall Berry, William Blake, Robert Frost, Sylvia Platt, Ezra Pound, Christina Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Charles Williams, William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, and W.B. Yeats. They are each worth spending a few minutes with if you take on the #NaNoReadMo challenge.
And, of course, there is your own list. Why not share it here while you point out what is missing that meets the 5 criteria?