Classics Challenge 2016: Three great works made better because they’re short

So, Classics Challengers. I haven’t abandoned you, but I’ve stopped announcing what books to read in what order because of my few readers, even fewer are playing. I’m trying not to take it personally.

Today, I’m knocking off three categories. I picked these three books because, well, time’s getting short and I’m still not even halfway through the shortened challenge my wife and I chose in January. It’s not that I haven’t been reading, as I’ve said before, it’s that I haven’t been writing. So here we go.

Because the works are brief, I will keep my comments that way, too.

apart.pngA classic by an author who is not white: People say they read to learn about others, to be part of the greater conscience that is the human species. (Don’t worry, that’s as deep as I’ll get.) That’s why it’s important to read books by people whose experiences and who tell stories outside of your own reality.

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s 1958 “Things Fall Apart” was my choice for this category. In many ways it reminded me of this novel in that it tells the universal story of a culture facing the scary prospect of change from the outside. Just to prove the universality of the story, there’s this book, that dissects the same theme in America at the end of the Gilded Age.

In “Things,” the march of time brings British colonialists and Christian missionaries to the fictional Nigerian village of Umuofia, where Okonkwo is a young, powerful leader. The first of the novel’s three sections detail the life and ways of the ancient village. It’s fascinating. Okonkwo refuses to give in to any weakness—physical or emotional—primarily because his father was a lazy ne’er-do-well. It will be Okonkwo’s tragic flaw.

Achebe writes in simple sentences that carry the reader easily on this journey, that often reads like a fable: “There was a wealthy man in Okonkwo’s village who had three huge barns, nine wives an thirty children. His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first seed yams.”

Perhaps this style is why Achebe is able to fit so much into this slim book that is often required reading in high school. It’s a beautiful book. As my brother-in-law said when he noticed I was reading: “That book has everything.” He was right.

wild.jpgA classic adventure: I had planned to read “The Three Musketeers” but time, as Okonkwo discovers, slips away, so I rummaged around in the book boxes in the basement and came up with another short work that fit the bill: Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” published in 1903.

I was surprised to discover it was about a dog. Yes, there’s a dog on the cover, but I thought it was about a human and his dog.

Buck is a pampered St. Bernard mix living the sweet life in southern California when gold is discovered in the Yukon and strong dogs are needed to get the humans out to the remote regions where they can strike it big. Buck—who’s a strong, young thing—is dognapped and sold to some miners who take him up north.

What follows is a brutal life that puts Buck in touch with the wild part of his DNA that had been bred out of him. Buck is worked like, well, a dog, and in between his grueling work, he faces beatings by humans (who are often more animal than their sled dogs), starvation, freezing temperatures and vicious fights with other dogs. One wonders how much an animal can take. London piles it on a bit thick.

I was also left wondering how much of London I could take. For instance, this discription of two of Buck’s long string of handlers: “They were stiff and in pain; their muscles ached, their bones ached, their very hearts ached; and because of this they became sharp of speech, and hard words were first on their lips in the morning and last at night.” (For the record, my objection is to the appalling punctuation.)

venice.jpgA classic with “death” or a synonym of it in the title: I created this category because I wanted to read Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella “Death in Venice” and not look like a perv.

The copy I read was in a collection called “Great German Short Novels and Stories” and was given to me by my father-in-law. My bookmark was a note from him included in the book that reads, “My favorite book. I hate to part with it!” It was given to him by his sister and her husband for Christmas in 1956. (I know because they included a short note on a blank page in the front of the book: “I hope these turn out to be what it says — ‘great.'”)

I don’t know why I was afraid of this work—more of a long short story than a novella. Perhaps it’s because I saw part of the movie when I was much younger and was disturbed by this demented old man’s fascination with a beautiful young boy he sees on a trip to Venice.

The man, Aschenbach, is a noted German writer whose work is well-respected even if it respected more for its workmanship than its passion. On a whim, though Aschenbach isn’t given to whims, he decides to visit Venice, a city he has visited before only to fall ill there and have a miserable experience.

This second visit to Venice has miserable results, too, but before those can happen, Aschenbach finds himself drawn to a 14-year-old boy, Tadzio. Is it sexual? From Mann’s long descriptions of the boy’s ethereal looks, it has to be. But it’s also about the loss of youth, which scares Aschenbach.

Mann explores the wide gap between the intellectual and the passionate parts of human nature. He also jam packs it with references to ancient Greek philosophy and mythology that mostly went over my head.

Readers bring to a work what they know, and despite all I didn’t know, I found this book quite lovely and sad and profound.

So now I have three categories to go and just over a month. I think it’s doable.

 

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