It seemed like a good idea at the time. I consider myself well-read in the science fiction genre, but I’m certainly not in classic literature. So I decided to read a classic author I’d not read before each month of the year. It proved less successful than I’d expected. Which is not to say I think it was waste of time. Not at all. I’m glad I read the books, and it did introduce me to an author I fully intend to read further. This is how it went…
January: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith – I’d seen the film and enjoyed it, and I’d read in numerous places that Ripley was one of literature’s great anti-heroes. But I can’t say this book impressed me all that much. It struck me as mostly unremarkable.
February: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway is one of literature’s greats. He was awarded the Nobel in 1954. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that I couldn’t finish For Whom the Bell Tolls. I gave up about a quarter of the way in. Perhaps one day I’ll give Hemingway another try. But not this book.
March: Kim, Rudyard Kipling – I’ll admit I enjoyed this. Old-fashioned prose, yes; but a good adventure set in an exotic location. It was fun but hard to see as great literature. All the same, it was the first book of the challenge I was glad I’d read.
April: A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell – this was more like it. It was exactly the sort of fiction I enjoy and was hoping to find during my challenge. I’d like to read the remaining eleven volumes of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.
May: Orlando, Virginia Woolf – I’d seen and enjoyed Sally Potter’s film adaptation, so I had relatively high hopes for this book. But, oh dear. Self-indulgent tosh. Not at all to my liking. I’ll not be trying Woolf again.
June: Nostromo, Joseph Conrad – another one I couldn’t finish. Having said that, I’m more predisposed to give Conrad a second chance than I am Hemingway. Perhaps one day I will.
July: The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield – another one that, like the Highsmith, didn’t do anything for me. Moving on…
August: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell – I started to run a bit late on the challenge in August, and didn’t read this book until September. But it’s another one I’m glad I read. It was entertaining, very funny, and I was much amused by the characterisation of my favourite author, Lawrence Durrell. Not a book I’ll ever read again, but a good one.
September: The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott – I was still running late and didn’t read this until October. But it was definitely worth the wait. The best book I’d read so far in the challenge by a long, long way. Scott’s writing is precisely the sort of literary fiction I enjoy and admire most. It was also about British expats, a subject which resonates with me. As soon as I’d finished it, I moved the rest of the Raj Quartet further up the TBR pile. And I stuck all of Scott’s other novels on my wants list.
October: The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford – I was slowly beginning to catch up, although once again I read this a month late in November. It was… okay. Although it’s easy to see how it was a seminal work, it’s been overtaken by so many subsequent novels that its appeal seems chiefly historical. While not as much fun as Kim or My Family and Other Animals, nor as good as A Question of Upbringing or The Jewel in the Crown, I’m glad I read it.
November: On the Road, Jack Kerouac – at last, back on track: I managed to finish this before the end of November. Sadly, it was one that did nothing for me. The “spontaneous” prose more often than not read like prose that hadn’t been edited, the characters were unlikeable and spoke mostly pretentious bollocks, and I couldn’t understand the appeal of the book’s premise.
December: The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand – what a silly book. Clash of the Titans, except the titans were… architects. All the characters were such brilliant paragons, and Rand’s only means of getting this across was by telling us so repeatedly. As for the philosophy… I can see how it might appeal to callow youths, but it’s nonsense. Not that Rand makes any real attempt to justify it. The hero represents Rand’s Objectivism, while the villain – who’s a real nasty piece of work – is a collectivist. So The Fountainhead is not exactly a considered presentation of Rand’s ideas. It wasn’t the worst book I read for my challenge, but it was definitely the unintentionally funniest (My Family and Other Animals was the intentionally funniest, of course).
So, an interesting result: one I loved, one I thought very good, two I enjoyed, three were merely okay, two were rubbish, one was extremely silly, and two I couldn’t finish.
It was, on reflection, a somewhat idiosyncratic choice of classics. That was partly because of what was available – i.e., what I found cheap in charity shops, or could mooch from bookmooch.com. The only book I’d actually had on my book shelves already was the Woolf, and I’d had that for years and failed to read it. In fact, I think it was Orlando that partly inspired me to choose classics as my reading challenge matter. Which is somewhat ironic, given that I disliked it so much. Ah well.
I plan to read more by Paul Scott. I’d also like to finish Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. And I feel I should give Conrad another go one day. And perhaps Hemingway too. But Conrad more than Hemingway by quite a margin. As for the rest… they’ll be going on bookmooch.com, in the hope that someone else will enjoy them more than I did.