BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
CLASSICS: 62 Great Books from the Iliad to Midnight's Children, by Jane Gleeson-White
, February 16, 2008
How do you define a classic?CLASSICS: 62 Great Books from the Iliad to Midnight's Children
by Jane Gleeson-White
(Sydney: Random House Australia)
Paperback: 403 pages
Rec. price: $24.95Readers who have been following the educational debates in the media for the past couple of years are more than aware of the controversy as to which texts should be set reading for students.
Many commentators have renewed their call for a return to studying the literary canon. Public interest in literary texts considered to be classics is not waning. This can be seen in the continued production of television and film adaptations of such texts, recent offerings including serialised versions broadcast by ABC television of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre
and Charles Dickens' Bleak House
This naturally raises the question of which texts constitute the literary canon.
Sydney writer and book editor Jane Gleeson-White has written a short introduction to 62 texts she believes have exerted a powerful influence upon our culture.
Each article is approximately seven pages long and includes a discussion of the author's life, a summary of the text and references to other texts by the author and the impact of the author's work.
Naturally, compiling a list is challenging and there will always be questions as to why certain texts have should have been excluded.
Gleeson-White has included familiar texts one would expect to find on such a list, beginning with Homer's Iliad
and Virgil's Aeneid
before proceeding to more modern texts such as Don Quixote
, Robinson Crusoe
and Moby Dick
Often the work she discusses is not necessarily the author's best-known one, but rather is judged to be the best quality one, for example, Dickens' Bleak House.
It is pleasing that Gleeson-White analyses many great works of literature that are often overlooked or little known by Australian readers, such as Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter
and Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March
Texts by Australian authors, such as Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and Patrick White, are also represented. At the end of each section is a reflection by a well-known commentator on the texts or on a short list of favourite texts, which serve to complement Gleeson-White's analysis.
Included in this list are a few controversial works, such as Nabokov's Lolita
, which, however objectionable their content, have nonetheless influenced ideas and social trends.
However, Gleeson-White's emphasis is on other recent texts, two thirds of those being chosen from the 20th century. By contrast, there are no texts between Virgil to Cervantes, which means that neither Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
nor any work by Shakespeare is included!Classics
is thus an interesting overview of many significant works of literature. The articles are generally well written and provide a good introduction to the author and the work being considered.
However, the list of works examined therein can by no means be considered exhaustive.