I don’t think that I’ve blasted through a book, and definitely not what is essentially a glorified anthropology of fabulous book reviews, that quickly. But Kevin Smokler is absolutely fantastic in Practical Classics, to the point that I don’t think that I am worthy of writing a pittance of a book review of that masterful work.
But I shall take my feeble attempt!
Essentially, Kevin explains his own hatred of the “institutionalization” of literature found in high school and college, and how pointless it all seemed to the rebellious teenage self. But as he became an accomplished writer, he found more and more reasons to revisit such books not just for their plot appeal, but for the joy in reading such works deemed as classics.
The list that he picks is certainly not exhaustive, although it is interesting how he includes Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? while omitting Asimov’s works, or perhaps his choosing of Animal Farm over 1984. But wow, what a list. Choosing from a nation of reluctant readers, and the mandatory summer lists that come with, he assembles such a beautiful landscape in literature that no modern reader can ever ignore.
And his style in introducing those books are just so amazing! His way of presenting both non fiction, while tying in fiction in an easy to read method, strikes me as the type of writing style I hope to one day be half as good as. To be fair, not all of it is clean, with the number of “sh**”s breaking a record for anything that could have ever described The Stranger, and some of it is just confusing, but he writes in such a masterful voice. With each of these 4-6 page sections of book reviews, he introduces both the style of the writer, provides just enough background information to whet our appetite, and then slams it down with exactly why it is a masterful read. Honestly, reading through it was like a wild gallop through every single category of books I have ever seen. I don’t think that I have laughed so hard at such a masterful placement of the word “horses***” ever before (why is that so much funnier than bull?), and I don’t think that I have gotten such chills from reading that last chapter summarizing The Great Gatsby than reading Fitzgerald’s work itself.
Even with what I would consider a rather decent public schooling opportunity, I was somewhat surprised at only have read about 1/5th of the books that were highlighted by Kevin, although his list only gives me reasons of joy, not despair. The volumes that he mention seem to have such great merits that I can almost see the rest of my (ideal) summer. And besides the 50 greats, there are footnotes, mentions, and casually tossed references to a whole other library of books that one can only wonder at for the moment.
Writing from a stance that only a seasoned author and professor of his caliber could obtain, it provided me, this awkward 16 year old still on the path to discover many of these books, with an entirely different perspective. Several of his summaries, particularly the ones for Animal Farm, The Stranger, and The Catcher in the Rye, almost seem overwhelmed with youthful foolishness. And while I may one day take up a very similar view, for now I enjoy my period of absurdism and questioning, not having reached the power of a middle aged man. His perspective, as jarring as it may be, does open up books like Fahrenheit 451 to a completely new perspective.
With just enough wit and random information to make the dullest of books exciting and eye popping, Kevin even persists in creating perhaps one of the most interesting literary shipping diagrams I have seen, a extended analogy of Dickinson/Whitman w/ Frost, Eliot, and Giovanni as kids, greatly surpassing my expectations for an editor/journalist.
So even if you disagree with his assessment of The Scarlet Letter (hey, I actually liked that book!) or can’t believe that The Lord of The Flies wasn’t included (how dare he!) or perhaps think that his analysis of The Joy Luck Club, is at best, lacking, you just can’t help but grin at those finer days of The Phantom Tollbooth or guffaw at Chapter 23, something I’ll allow you to discover yourself. And if you weren’t moved by The Letter, a summary of The Great Gatsby, I think that our friendship might be really questioned.
So go out there. Revisit some old favorites, or find some fascinating reads. I know that if nothing else, I’ll be visiting the world of David Foster Wallace very very soon. Go, disperse, and read!