Last summer, I gave myself the big reading project of reading Moby-Dick for the first time, and the book shaped my summer. I loved the expansive sweep of it; I loved the sense that the book (and that world) it was always there that summer, whenever I had the chance to turn to it. I remember waking up at four in the morning and instead of worrying about going back to sleep, I’d simply get up and read about whales. It was the kind of book that you feel inhabited by.
In a less of a project but more of a whim, I recently picked up The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I had read in college. I remember feeling a certain sense of sloggishness about the reading experience, but also that things added up in a very remarkable, worthwhile way, and when I recently discovered my notebook of “important quotations” that I’d kept in college, there were several from The Portrait of a Lady.
I’m only about a third of the way through—so DON’T GIVE ANYTHING AWAY!—but I’m having the same sensation of feeling inhabited by the book. It’s a story about a girl growing up, but it’s about culture and class and freedom and gender and so on. The prose style isn’t as scary as one might believe, given the reputation James has for being dense. Lots of snappy dialogue helps! The characters are so well-drawn, with such pleasing complexity. I worry about Isabel—she’s about to head off to Florence, and I’m pretty sure she’ll get into some trouble there. (Of course, I would have married the fun, rich lord immediately, which would have made for a much shorter book.)
I guess I’m babbling away as a reminder that in our hurry-up lifestyle that values the new, it’s pleasant to be reminded of the pleasures of the old. I can’t think of a single classic book that I have either approached or revisited in recent years and not felt rewarded.
My off-the-cuff list of recommendations, if you’re looking for a meaty classic that will take over and change your life:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
(I assume it’s understood that The Great Gatsby is a great classic that obviously--!!—will change your life, just that it’s not long and sweeping in terms of page-length. Plus, I assume it’s understood that anyone reading this blog already knows they have to read Gatsby if they haven’t.)
In the end, Faulkner (maybe next summer!) had it right, that it’s “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”
Back then, now, and always.
(Read the rest of Faulkner’s Nobel speech here: http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/lit.Faulkner_speech.html )