No sooner do we claim to be dealers of the “gateway drug to literary fiction,” than one of our readers calls on us to prove it. In response to yesterday’s post, ElizabethR writes the following:
“Will you recommend a book for one who has never read any of the classics or contemporary greats? I find the thought of reading literature daunting. I'd need a book that would not send me to sleep by the fourth page. Because I literally fall asleep while reading.What would you recommend as my first piece of great literature? And how would I go about staying awake?”
First of all, you’re not alone in being daunted, Elizabeth. Great literature is almost universally seen as an impenetrable beast. The trick is finding the soft underbelly that will allow you to attack the fierce beast and find your own niche within.
And just so you know, I came late to the game myself. I detested having classics shoved down my throat in school. I scraped by in my high school English classes using a hackneyed amalgam of Cliffs Notes, film adaptations and a lucky knack for turning in-class discussions into serviceable essay answers. I think the only three assigned books I actually read during those four years were Great Expectations by Dickens, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. (All three are fantastic, by the way.)
The turning point for me came years later when it occurred to me that I had really loved each of the “great” books I had taken the time to read. They had all stuck with me in ways that riveting reads like Grisham’s The Firm, or Crichton’s Jurassic Park, hadn’t. It caused me to wonder what else I might have missed by turning my nose up at my schooldays literature syllabi. And as I explained yesterday, I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
Sometimes a book will hit me like a ton of bricks, and sometimes a revered classic will just fall flat. On very rare occasions I’ll hit the eject button before I’ve even given the book a fighting chance. (I’m looking at you, Homer’s Iliad) Like, multiple times.
The final caveat I’ll share is that I don’t believe in the existence of one perfect book that will captivate every reader from the first page to the last, and inspire a lifetime devotion to literary fiction by force of its sheer awesomeness. If such a thing did exist, it would be entirely dependent on the personal tastes of each reader. But here are ten books that can serve as your Trojan Horse into the daunting world of classic literary fiction. (And I use the word ‘classic’ here as Italo Calvino defines it: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.")
This isn't meant to be a top-ten list for entry-level classics, but you'll find that all ten books are either extremely short, or extremely approachable works of great fiction. Any of them would be a good place to start.
The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway
Cry the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton
As for staying awake,that’s for due dates and homework assignments. Hopefully the reading is compelling enough to hold your eyelids apart, but if it isn’t, enjoy the rest. It sounds like you could use it.
How about the rest of you? What recommendations would you make to a hesitant beginner?