My education in the value of the personal essay probably began in a time and space I don’t recall. But I was compelled to appreciate this specialized form of literature most memorably during my reading of Philip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The enthusiasm inspired by his anthology resulted in a welcome appetite for more of the same. Lopate’s genius for selecting the best of the breed was proven by the difficulty I experienced during my search for collections of comparable value. The annual publication of books in The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan, sometimes approximates the Lopate standard. And there are other worthy collections. Thankfully, my quest for the best has put me in touch with individual authors, contemporary essayists of the first rank, whose writing is consistently creative, wise, and ennobling.
My favorite contemporary essayists include Michael Dirda, Joseph Epstein, John Updike, and many others. This post loiters in one section of one essay from Michael Dirda’s book Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. The essay is titled “The Pleasures of Learning,” and the section I’ve isolated for consideration here is called “The Knowledge Most Worth Having.” This section consists of seven sentences, followed by a list of sixteen items, and a concluding sentence that reads:
Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.
Clearly, Dirda’s reference to “the knowledge most worth having” is circumscribed by a specific purpose. He doesn’t mean to catalog all that it is most important to know. More precisely, he asks, “What should a person know of the world’s literature?” This question presupposes that some works are more worthy of our time and meditation than others, and that if we are to have a “structured reading program” we must have a criterion for determining which works are most deserving. Dirda gives us a criterion and then “a roughly chronological short list of those that the diligent might read in a year or two.” Both the criterion and the list are interesting.
Dirda’s criterion—the test he uses in deciding which authors and which works are most rewarding for the reader who would attain a knowledge of the world’s literature—is simple. Devote yourself to those works “that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against.” Dirda does not elaborate on the principle, except to bestow a name on works that meet this condition; they are “the great patterning works.”
For further insight into the principle, we might consider Dirda’s list. He does not claim that it’s exhaustive. Actually, he implies that it is not. It’s a place to begin. Still, it’s a comfort to hear that “there aren’t many of these key books,” and it’s enticing to be told that “they aren’t all obvious classics.” One might spend a year or two in the company of these books, and then move on to others.
Before I reveal the list, I want to ask, again, what is the point of the list? It is to commend works with the potential to crack open the world of great literature. These works have this power because other authors have built on them, alluded to them, and worked against them. They are, in other words, touchstones for so much great literature that our capacity to appreciate and know the greatness of other works is unlocked by our acquaintance with these.
Now to the list. It is no surprise that it begins with
- The Bible (Old and New Testaments)
Dirda recommends the Authorized, or King James, Version because it’s “the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of English prose.” As a kid, I attended a Baptist Sunday School that used the King James Bible in Bible lessons, Scripture memory, and “sword drills.” (Incidentally, I never heard anyone seriously proffer a defense of the KJV on the grounds that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” My Sunday school teachers were far more sophisticated than that.) In the third grade, taught by my mother, we children were awarded Bibles of our own—the King James Version, of course. Shortly after that, the production of new English translations began in earnest, and today the original KJV of 1611 is little known, even by those who know the Bible. I’m a proponent of the multiple versions doctrine, that individual versions or translations have their distinctive virtues, and that more than one should be consulted in the serious study of the Bible. But Dirda is hardly alone in proclaiming the incomparable linguistic beauty and legendary influence of the KJV, and I do not disagree. (For those interested in the translation debate, I recommend D. A. Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.)
Next on the list:
The items listed by Dirda are not annotated. He doesn’t say why an entry meets the criterion he’s adopted. But some source containing the ancient myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse provenance is a no-brainer, and Bulfinch’s is the industry standard. Oddly, my copy of the generally reliable Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (mine is the 3rd edition) has no entry for this classic collection. But then, neither does my handy paperback copy of The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. No matter. The important thing is that allusions to mythologies abound in acknowledged “great literature.” The reason for this is worthy of contemplation, but beyond the scope of this post.
Fine. If ancient mythologies must be known on the grounds that they are sources for innumerable allusions, then Homer’s influence is no less significant. The Ionian poet as a man is a mystery. Even his actual existence is doubted. The story of the composition, preservation, and function of “Homer” among the ancient Greeks is interesting in its own right, and is told with clarity uncompromised by brevity in . . . Benét’s.
We begin to suspect that the influence of the ancients runs deep in our literature. Plutarch, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, is best known as a biographer. It’s an irony of history and of literature that little is known about Plutarch himself—no biographer for the biographer. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch in two of his great plays. (Plutarch was, by the way, a master of the personal essay, and his compendium, the Moralia, has survived to please readers to this day.)
So far, Dirda’s choices are obvious. Of course Dante. But why the Inferno and not the whole the the Divine Comedy? Dirda doesn’t declare. So let’s speculate. The Inferno is the first part of the Divine Comedy. So maybe you read the first part and can’t put it down. Or you do put it down, but you’ve had enough Dante for the purposes envisioned by Dirda. Imaginative writing about hell does make for scintillating writing. For some, heaven is boring in comparison, and a proffered reason for indifference about the soul’s destiny. Strange logic.
Next in line:
I confess that I was initially surprised by this entry from the early Middle Ages. But I shouldn’t have been. This is our source for Ali Baba, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and the phrase “Open Sesame” (which appeals to our get-rich-quick aspirations). The story of Sultan Shahriar and his clever wife Shaharazad is endlessly intriguing. But a guide to The Arabian Nights would be useful, if only because of its length.
The Middle Ages brings to mind the next fairly obvious choice:
- Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)
Seeing the Monty Python movie is no substitute for reading the book. Take my word for it. But it does give a sense of the book that is somewhat surprising. (Take that with a grain of salt.) The written tales were probably composed in prison by a chap who commended the ideals of chivalry and was notorious for violating those same ideals. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was very much taken with these tales, and transcribed them into epic poetry in his Idylls of the King. Here is a clear case where one legendary author, the Victorian poet Tennyson, is understood better against background knowledge of a 15th century author of legend.
You knew he had to show up on the list eventually, and if you’ve been following the chronology, you may have suspected his appearance at any moment—William Shakespeare.
Some of these have been quite respectably adapted for film. Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990) finally made sense of “words, words, words” to me. The Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight (1965), featuring Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, was a favorite of Welles and is generally thought to be one of his greatest movies.
There have been a dozen or more adaptations of King Lear. Most celebrated is the 1983 version starring Laurence Olivier and Dianna Rigg. Another cinematic reprise is planned. How would you like to see Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the three daughters of King Lear, played by Anthony Hopkins? It’s in the works. So now is an especially auspicious time to have a read of the original King Lear.
Film or television adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were released in 1935, 1968, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Enough said.
An adaptation of The Tempest is said to be in production. It won’t be the first. The Tempest was first “screened” in 1905, in a two-and-a-half minute production. The play enjoyed a science fiction adaptation in 1956 in the film The Forbidden Planet. Other adaptations were screened in 1982, 1991, 1992 (in animation that is faithful to Shakespeare).
These works by Shakespeare are immortal. The enjoyment of a worthy film adaptation is enriched by a reading of Shakepeare himself.
Michael Dirda’s list continues. But here the entries shade into the controversial.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra introduced his dubious but endearing hero, the Man of La Mancha, in two volumes (1605 and 1616). Cervantes is credited by many as the first modern novelist. Since he died in 1616, that’s quite a distinction. The only thing controversial about including Don Quixote on Dirda’s short list is that the list is so short. Some would argue that the inclusion of Don Quixote obliges the inclusion of some other great work not on the list. But the fact is, this grand novel supremely fits Dirda’s criterion. If you disagree, you’re tilting at windmills.
A shade more controversial are
Defoe wrote something like 250 works. They call that prolific. Businessman, journalist, government representative, spy, possibly even double agent, but best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Through this depiction of a solitary figure stranded on an island, we learn how noble men might conduct themselves under such conditions. Crusoe is an admirable figure, with lessons to teach us all. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like, what we would do, what we would become, if we were to live in such forced seclusion?
Swift was a genius. As evidence for this, I take the liberty of quoting:
Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the sole major work in all English literature that has continuously led a double life: it has been at once one of the most glamorous of children’s adventure stories and one of the most pungent critiques of humanity addressed to the mature imagination. This almost incredible marriage of opposites is possible because in the main the disturbing satire for adults lurks inconspicuously behind the pleasantly exciting façade of the explorer’s tale; the child can rarely see behind the façade, and the adult can never cease seeing behind it or trying to pierce through it. Further, there are times when Swift is entirely concerned with the façade—of the elaboration of the details of the story for its own sake . . . and the presence of such passages assists the young reader—or the unperceptive reader generally—to take the whole story at the simplest level of meaning. . . . Swift’s obvious enjoyment of playing the game—of unusual sizes, mysterious phenomena, and strangely shaped creatures—gives zest to his narrative without in any way impeding him when he chooses to make the game philosophical. (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 226)
Dirda’s inclusion of Gulliver’s Travels is vindicted by the suggestion that this satire “draws upon at least five traditions of world literature,” and the claim that “the use of fantasy for serious statement, virtually eliminated by two centuries of emphasis upon realism, is reappearing in our own day” (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 229).
Dirda goes on to add items undeniably suited to his premise. But these, I confess, lie at the periphery of my own reading interests:
Fairy tales and folk tales. Their influence has been great. My interest is negligible. For the record, the noted study of folklore and human society is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
The final three works are perhaps the most controversial choices. Again, one could argue that some other work is more worthy of inclusion on such a list.
I believe a rationale may be built for each of these entries. Notice, Jane Austin is the only woman to be valorized on the basis of Dirda’s criterion. Some readers might object to this. I know some writers would have filled in with other great female authors just to avoid the appearance of impropriety and escape censure by enforcers of political correctness. But this is Dirda’s list.
There should be considerable pride in and no prejudice against the admission of Jane Austin to the august company of writers of seminal importance. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a bad pun or a contradiction in terms.) In 2003, the BBC sponsored a program called The Big Read, in quest of “the nation’s best-loved novel.” Pride and Prejudice was voted #2, after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect many titles voted onto the Top 100 list for The Big Read found their way there with the help of recent cinematic adaptations. But Dirda’s basis for including Jane Austin’s novel isn’t current popularity but lasting influence in the field of literature.
Lewis Carroll has to be acknowledged, even by someone without predilections for his plotting and style. Alice in Wonderland falls into that class of fairy tales and folklore that have little appeal for me.
As for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m completely sympathetic with ranking it high on a list of entertaining and well-crafted fiction. I would even consider bringing Holmes along for my island exile. I’m less sure of the application of Michael Dirda’s criterion for educating ourselves in preparation for mastery of the world’s great literature. Doyle’s imagination, plotting, and writing style are both creditable and inimitable. But there are others. Agatha Christie has sold better—much better, in fact. Edgar Allen Poe is the acknowledged inventor of the mystery story, and is the namesake for the Edgar Award in mystery fiction. I suppose that Doyle gets the nod because Sherlock Holmes is the paradigmatic sleuth, the one who comes to mind first when that special expertise is needed. Fair enough.
So there you have it. A criterion and a list. I’ve tried to make sense of Dirda’s choices. Using his criterion, and limited to sixteen items, I think he succeeds.
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