Miraculously preserved on clay tablets dating back as far as four thousand years, the poem of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, predates Homer by many centuries. The story tells of Gilgamesh’s adventures with the wild man Enkidu, and of his arduous journey to the ends of the earth in quest of the Babylonian Noah and the secret of immortality.
He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation, [who knew the proper ways,] was wise in all matters!
It’s been a rough weekend chez Tangled Skein, but I’m determined to get a blog entry up today.
This is one of those books I’ve heard referenced many, many times, but I’m pretty sure was not part of the Comparative Literature course I took in college. I think Ancient Near East was on a different syllabus.
For a first reading, I wouldn’t recommend this particular edition. While some translations blend the multiple extant versions of the text into a single work, this approach is more academic. Various iterations – “Standard Version of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic”, “Sumerian Poems of Gilgamesh”, “Fragments of Old Versions of the Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic”, and “Miscellaneous Babylonian Fragments” – are presented as separate chapters. Specific markers denote when text is restored from multiple sources, as well as indicating text missing from the available tablets entirely. A lengthy introduction explains all of this, and sets the poem in context for the modern reader.
This format provides an excellent study of what is available, what is missing, and how the text may have changed over time. For a reader completely new to the epic, it is a lot of detail to take in while simultaneously just trying to follow the plot.
With its ‘light and bright and sparkling’ dialogue, its romantic denouement and its lively heroine, Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen’s most perennially popular novel. The love story of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, who misjudge, then challenge and change each other, is also a novel about the search for happiness and self-knowledge in a world of strict social rules, where a woman must marry well to survive.
Penguin Classics edition
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
That has to be one of the better-known opening lines to a novel in the English language, no? This is the first time I’ve read Pride and Prejudice (or any other Austen, for that matter), and I knew that was the first sentence.
What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I don’t know how I was never assigned this book in high school or college. I had a high school English teacher who said Austen was her favorite author (which is why I’m claiming this for Read Harder #16: “Read a book recommended by a friend with different reading tastes”).
I can see why so many people adore this book. These are people and situations we recognize: family drama and romantic misunderstandings are timeless. Elizabeth Bennet is clever and witty, and subject to the same blunders as anyone else.
The Penguin Classics edition includes an introduction that explores the context in which the novel was written and would have originally been read. I appreciated the explanatory notes, as well, which briefly covered topics such as what the “entailment” meant, the various types of horse-drawn conveyances, and how much the specified amounts of money would have meant at the time.
The notes make frequent reference to other relevant contemporary works. Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of them, so I think that might be on my list next.
Source: Purchased somewhere at some time, but the details are hazy.
Challenges: Back to the Classics: A 19th century classic; Read Harder: Read a book recommended by a friend with different reading tastes; Mount TBR; and Classics Club.
Composed around 730 B.C., Homer’s Iliad recounts the events of a few momentous weeks in the protracted ten-year war between the invading Achaeans, or Greeks, and the Trojans in their besieged city of Ilion. And, as told by Homer, this ancient tale of a particular Bronze Age conflict becomes a sublime and sweeping evocation of the destruction of war throughout the ages.
Carved close to the original Greek, acclaimed classicist Caroline Alexander’s new translation is swift and lean, with the driving cadence of its source—a translation epic in scale and yet devastating in its precision and power.
Wrath – sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans, hurled forth to Hades many strong souls of warriors and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs, for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished; sing from when they two first stood in conflict — Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.
Homer’s Illiad is a Classic-with-a-Capital-C. I think I must have read some of it as part of a comparative literature course in college, but I don’t remember it at all, so aside from vague recollections of Greek mythology and a middle school play about the Trojan War (mostly memorable for a joke that none of us understood at the time), I came to it without any background.
I really appreciated Arnold’s introduction, which went over what is known about Homer and the Epic Cycle, as well as the historical setting and the major players in the drama. The map and family trees provided were a helpful reference – for some reason, I had particular difficulty remembering that Alexandros is Paris, and who was related to whom on which side of the war.
War is the center of this poem, and it is not pretty. There is chapter after chapter of This-Guy-Son-of-That-Guy-Brother-of-This-Other-Guy-King-of-That-Land slew That-Guy-Son-of-This-Guy-Nephew-of-That-Other-Guy-Ruler-of-Such-and-Such-People in graphic ways that emphasize the absolute brutality of battle (even if the grasp of anatomy is questionable). And there are lots of animal sacrifices described in detail.
The sacrifices are meant to keep the favor of the gods, who are busy squabbling amongst themselves on Olympus. That both sides are performing sacrifices and praying to the same fickle gods is also a factor, it seems.
The last few chapters, in which Achilles is finally prodded out of his truly epic sulk and joins in the fighting, take the stakes up a notch, but in the end, the war still hasn’t reached its conclusion. So much horrific bloodshed, and this is only a tiny portion of the Trojan War.
The Iliad is one of the books on my Classics Club list, which I have been neglecting. It’s one of the earliest works on my list, and an important text in Western Literature and History, but I suspect it’s never going to rank among my personal favorites.
Source: Purchased at The Last Bookshop, Los Angeles, February 2020
Challenges: Back to the Classics: Classic Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit (we’re going to assume visiting the modern-day site counts, since I don’t particularly wish to visit the last year of an epic war, thanks); Official TBR Pile Challenge; Mount TBR; and Classics Club.
I actually started this post in December, which might say something about how this is going already.
I’m signing up for four reading challenges this year, along with my ongoing Classics Club list, which is going to play a large part in three of the challenges.
My 2022 Reading Challenges:
Read Harder 2022: From the folks at Book Riot, this challenge (now in its 8th year) is “designed to help you break out of your reading bubble and expand your worldview through books.” I managed 22/24 tasks in 2021, largely thanks to a big push in December. Goal for 2022: spread the effort out a bit more.
Mount TBR Challenge 2022: Another one I completely dropped in 2021. One thing I did do last year, though, was purchase several of the books I want to read from my Classics Club list, which means they all count toward this goal. I also have at least half a shelf of books received when I was part of a mystery-of-the-month club that I would like to read and then probably donate to the library.
On May 30th, 1887, Julian West closes himself in his sleeping chamber, a hermetically sealed, asbestos-coated underground vault. He has such difficulty sleeping that even in this dark and quiet space, on occasion, he calls in a hypnotist to put him into a trance, with the expectation that in the morning, his servant will bring him back to full consciousness.
This time, that doesn’t happen. Instead, Julian West is woken up by strangers. They inform him that is now September of 2000, and the world is a very, very different place from the one he knew. All industry is run by the government, which pays every worker conscripted into its industrial army at a set rate. Goods for purchase, too, are standardized, distributed across the country to stores where citizens use a “credit card” instead of cash.
It’s an interesting vision of a possible world, rooted in Bellamy’s own philosophical convictions about “Nationalism” (read: socialism) as the way for society to move forward.
There are plenty of flaws in this “utopian” world, most of which are immediately glaringly obvious to anyone who isn’t an able-bodied white Christian male, but I was struck not only by how different our current 21st-century America is from Bellamy’s construction, but more so by how familiar Julian West’s description of nineteenth-century America is:
By way of attempting to give the reader some general impression of the way people lived together in those days, and especially of the relations of the rich and poor to one another, perhaps I cannot do better than to compare society as it then was to a prodigious coach which the masses of humanity were harnessed to and dragged toilsomely along a very hilly and sandy road. The driver was hunger, and permitted no lagging, though the pace was necessarily very slow. Despite the difficulty of drawing the coach at all along so hard a road, the top was covered with passengers who never got down, even at the steepest ascents These seats on top were very breezy and comfortable. Well up out of the dust, their occupants could enjoy the scenery at their leisure, or critically discuss the merits of the straining team. Naturally such places were in great demand and the competition for them was keen, every one seeking as the first end in life to secure a seat on the coach for himself and to leave it to his child after him. By the rule of the coach a man could leave his seat to whom he wished, but on the other hand there were so many accidents by which it might at any time be wholly lost. For all that they were so easy, the seats were very insecure, and at every sudden jolt of the coach persons were slipping out of them and falling to the ground, where they were instantly compelled to take hold of the rope and help to drag the coach on which they had before ridden so pleasantly. It was naturally regarded as a terrible misfortune to lose one’s seat, and the apprehension that this might happen to them or their friends was a constant cloud upon the happiness of those who rode.
That comes near the beginning of Julian West’s narrative, which is presented as being a book about the past America that the advanced 21st-century industrial army folk have difficulty believing was real. He imagines them asking if his fellows had no compassion and says:
Oh, yes, commiseration was frequently expressed by those who rode for those who had to pull the coach, especially when the vehicle came to a bad place in the road, as it was constantly doing, or to a particularly steep hill. At such times, the desperate straining of the team, their agonized leaping and plunging under the pitiless lashing of hunger, the many who fainted at the rope and were trampled in the mire, made a very distressing spectacle, which often called forth highly creditable displays of feeling on the top of the coach. At such times the passengers would call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience and holding out hopes of possible compensation in another world for the hardness of their lot, while others contributed to buy salves and liniments for the crippled and injured. […] It must in truth be admitted that the main effect of the spectacle of misery of the toilers at the rope was to enhance the passengers’ sense of the value of their seats upon the coach, and to cause them to hold on to them more desperately than before.
The metaphor is still depressingly applicable these hundred-plus years later.
I read the novel back in September as my Classics Club Lucky Spin. I then went back to read Dr. Cecelia Tichi’s introductory essay, which takes a look at Bellamy’s life and philosophy, and how those are reflected in his writing. (And now I’ve gone and added Dr. Tichi’s Civic Passions: Seven Who Launched Progressive America (and What They Teach Us) to the TBR, because I’m interested in seeing what she has to say about some other figures of the time who got brief mentions in relation to Bellamy.)
I’m almost certain I read the book once before. I took a class on Utopian Thought in college, in 19-mumble-mumble. I really wish I had a copy of the reading list from that class. Not least because there was another book we read that I remember a fragment of, and not knowing what it’s from is really annoying. But all that stuff is long gone, and I don’t even remember what my 22-year-old self thought about this book, if it happened to be on the syllabus. Which is probably for the best, really.
It is the year 2000-and full employment, material abundance and social harmony can be found everywhere. This is the America to which Julian West, a young Bostonian, awakens after more than a century of sleep. West’s initial sense of wonder, his gradual acceptance of the new order and a new love, and Bellamy’s wonderful prophetic inventions – electric lighting, shopping malls, credit cards, electronic broadcasting – ensured the mass popularity of this 1888 novel. But however rich in fantasy and romance, Looking Backward is a passionate attack on the social ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and a plea for social reform and moral renewal.
I may have read this book in college, when it was still the 1990s, but the year 2000 was coming up fast. I took a class on Utopian Literature, and I’m pretty sure this was on the syllabus. We read some interesting work for that class, and I wish I still had the reading list, but since there’ve been 25 years and a 2,000-mile move between then and now, it’s not surprising that I don’t have it anymore.
If we did read it, I don’t think I remember anything about it. It’s always possible, though, that one of the “I know I read that somewhere” fragments in my brain will be found inside.
The Classics Club have issued their latest challenge for another Classics Club Spin! Did I complete my challenge for the last spin? No, I did not. Am I going to try again? Yes, I am. Am I using the same list as last time except for the book that I was supposed to read for June? Again, yes, I am.
The idea is for members to select 20 books from their list of 50 classics which they have challenged themselves to read within five years, then read the selected book before 30 September 2020.
My Spin list:
Iliad by Homer, translated by Caroline Alexander
Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Aenid by Virgil, translated by Sarah Ruden
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Dorothy Sayers
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Tales from Shakespeare by Charles & Mary Lamb
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johnn D. Wyss
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Devil’s Pool by George Sand
Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Villette by Charlotte Brontë
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
The Time Traveller (for so it will be convenient to speak of him) was expounding a recondite matter to us. His grey eyes shone and twinkled, and his usually pale face was flushed and animated.
Chapter 1: Introduction
So begins Wells’s classic “scientific romance”, published serially in The New Review in 1895 (and in revised novella editions after that). Over drinks with some gentlemen friends, including the narrator, the unnamed adventurer shares his theories on the nature of time as a fourth dimension in which one can travel. His friends are skeptical, even after seeing a demonstration using a model he has constructed.
For my own part, I was particularly preoccupied with the trick of the model. That I remember discussing with the Medical Man, whom I met on Friday at the Linnaean. He said he had seen a similar thing at Tübingen, and laid considerable stress on the blowing-out of the candle. But how he trick was done he could not explain.
Chapter 3: The Time Traveller Returns
A week later, the narrator is again at the Time Traveller’s home for another dinner party. The Time Traveller appears after his guests have arrived, and the details of his adventure form the main narrative. He has gone hundreds of thousands of years into the future, where he encountered the Eloi and the Morlocks, apparently the two strains of humanity left at that time.
The Eloi are small, delicate, and child-like. They spend their days playing in the sunshine, picking flowers, and eating fruit. They do no work, the genders appear nearly identical, and there is little difference between the children and the adults. They sleep in groups in large structures. They seem to be unafraid, in the way of those who have never encountered anything of which to be afraid.
“Seem to be unafraid,” because the Time Traveller eventually learns that the Eloi are scared of the dark. They stay away from shadows and refuse to venture out at night. After nightfall, the Morlocks – pale, large-eyed, and ape-like – come out their underground tunnels, and they are on the hunt.
Now, indeed, I seemed in a worse case than before. Hitherto, except during my night’s anguish at the loss of the Time Machine, I had felt a sustaining hope of ultimate escape, but that hope was staggered by these new discoveries. Hitherto I had merely thought myself impeded by the childish simplicity of the little people, and by some unknown forces which I had only to understand to overcome; but there was an altogether new element in the sickening quality of the Morlocks — a something inhuman and malign. Instinctively I loathed them.
Chapter 10: When the Night Came
My first encounter with The Time Machine was with a Moby Classics illustrated abridged edition when I was in elementary school. I mostly remember the Morlocks being very, very creepy and scary. Having read the full text, I still think the Morlocks are very, very creepy, but also very sad. As a child, the life of the Eloi was appealing: play all day and eat lots of fruit. Aside from, you know, the terror of what might happen at night, it looked ideal. As an adult reader, I was struck by the horror of the exact circumstances under which the Time Traveller meets Weena. (No details, because I’m still glad it came as a surprise to me.)
The entire vision of the future of humanity presented here is disturbing. There is the vacuous beauty left above ground and the terrifying existence below. No wonder the Time Traveller was delighted to find himself back at his own table. And yet, he clearly still has questions. He clearly still wants to explore. So, maybe, he even still has hope.
The narrator asks us to deny the implications of the narrative he has just recorded. It is a striking way of ending this little puzzle of a book, an appeal that seems to throw into doubt everything that we have just read. What a perverse start to a literary career!
Roger Luckhurst, Introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition
For this reading, I borrowed the Oxford World’s Classics edition of The Time Machine from the library. The supporting material is excellent. The “Chronology of H. G. Wells” includes significant personal events and world events, as well as noting the publication of various influential works, giving context on multiple levels. The expanded version of the chapter “The Further Vision” is included as an appendix, as are two scientific essays published by Wells in 1891 and 1893.
Roger Luckhurst’s introduction expands on some of the ideas Wells engages with in the novel. Evolutionary theory – both biological and social – was very much in the public consciousness. Would people and society forever march toward perfection, or would both reach a zenith and then inevitably deteriorate? The utopian fiction of Bellamy and Morris get satirical jabs in the Time Traveller’s description of the future. Luckhurst provides pointers to further reading on all of these and more. I appreciated the very helpful and engaging explanatory notes, as well as the fact that the introduction begins with a note that there will be spoilers, so newcomers might want to read it as an afterword, instead.
The Reading Challenges haven’t gone so well for me the last two years. But I’ve once again succumbed to the promise of a brand new year and brand new challenges. Here’s what I’ve got lined up for 2020:
Back to the Classics is hosted by Books and Chocolate. I read two out of 12 last year (and failed to post about either one). Some of the titles I’ve picked for this year are carry-overs from last year’s list.
The Georgian Reading Challenge is hosted by Becky’s Book Reviews. The goal is a minimum of four books – fiction or non-fiction – related to the Georgian era (I’m using the 1714-1830 period – sorry, William IV). I’ve earmarked some possible titles, mostly the same as last year, since I read exactly zero books from the list in 2019.