20 classics in 2011: blog project

I am going to read 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011.

All book-lovers have gaps in their reading – how could you possibly read everything? In recent years I’ve been fairly up-to-speed with newer books and Australian literature, but I’ll often find myself in conversation, saying ‘oh, I haven’t read such-and-such yet’. People often assume I would have, given my ‘literary-minded’ claims. I have to remind them I’m only 26. I read Shakespeare in high school, plus gothic literature, Jane Austen and a few other things; through my undergrad and honours (in film and literature) I was introduced to Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, JP Donleavy, Italo Calvino, Thomas Mann, DH Lawrence, EM Forster, Anton Chekhov, and many other writers of the modern and postmodern eras. Since then I’ve obviously discovered a lot on my own, but there is much ground left to cover. I’ve decided that this year I’ll dedicate approximately a quarter to a third of my reading (20 books) to classic, modern-classic or cult books.

I’ve already compiled a list – books I’m curious about, books I think will be fun to read, books I want to be able to talk about, books I can learn from. They are from all different eras and genres. I won’t publish the list in full but after reading each one I will write about it and let you know what the next one or two are that I’m going to tackle. That way you can read along with me, or come back and comment on previous posts. Many of you would have already read the books and can jump straight into the conversation (not just on here but through Twitter and the Facebook fan page).

The first classics I’m reading are The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. I’ve never read either author. I became interested in Isherwood after seeing the film of A Single Man. My lovely Twitter followers led me in the direction of The Berlin Stories.

Have you set any reading goals for 2011? Will you be joining me in mine?

Picture: Enjolras Delfin’s Young Woman Reading by a Window

44 thoughts on “20 classics in 2011: blog project

  1. I recall a conversation we had last year on this very idea! When I eventually end my blog hiatus, I’m only going to be reading books from the TBR pile as well. I have a list in my diary of books that certain people have recommended, and I’m going to go through that. Looking forward to your reviews.

  2. I’m setting a modest reading goal of 12 books, a novel a month. I realise everyone else reads much more than this but keeping up with regularly reading has been a weakness of mine. It helps that my partner has a similar goal so we’ve been reminding ourselves to keep on reading.

  3. Funny, I’m doing the exact opposite. I am a tad sick of chasing classics for classics’ sake, and have more and more been reading newer (and in my rightnow opinion better) books by contemporary authors.

  4. Elena – yes I talked about it a lot and now I’m doing it!

    Ben – great goal. I was originally going to do 25 but it’s best not to put too much pressure on oneself 🙂 Keep on reading!

    Philip – thank you! I’ve actually begun the Isherwood first, James to follow soon. Looking forward.

    Sam – true! I guess I don’t feel I truly can judge whether a new book is better unless I’ve read a few more oldies. And I’m loving Isherwood.

  5. I’ve set a major goal for 2011. Well, major for me anyhow …

    Given that much of my reading time is taken up with book of poetry and non-fiction, I have decided to read a novel-length piece of ‘major work’ by a major author from each of the countries I have visited in my life. Yes, I know poetry is fiction too, but I’m kicking my own arse in gear to read more novels.

    That makes 28 novels by writers native to their country. The novels don’t have to be about or placed in the country, but a notable voice from that country. Some nations like Monaco and Vanuatu pose a challenge, but it also creates an interesting hunt to find not only a work, but its English translation and any extant copies to get ones hands on.

    Ismail Kadare’s grandly scathing book, Agamemnon’s Daughter, started off the cavalcade of words. Written at the apex (or is it nadir?) of Albania’s totalitarian gov’t in the early 1980. Simply fantastic.

    Already, three books in, I have learned about some amazing writers that, well, I likely would not have sought out otherwise. I am still settling on a few entries to my plan of attack, but the spreadsheet is filling out nicely (yes, I am nerdy enough to use a spreadsheet).

  6. A fine set of books to start with Angela. In 2009 I set a book to read each fortnight, and I found the only drawback to this is how you tend to skip through books during the latter half of the year if you’re falling behind.

    So this year I figure I’ll read more short form, with the goal being to have a list of top 20 short fiction or non-fiction pieces by the end of the year. Seems that since I write short fiction, and most of my most memorable reads have been of the shorter variety, it makes sense that I should take more time enjoying the shorter things in literary life.

    Re: cult fiction. Just remember if you read House of Leaves by Danielewski, remember to turn the book, not your head.

  7. This year I am reading all of Graham Greenes.

    No deep thought as to why I am but have had a niggling thought I should for a couple of years

  8. Many classics have been destroyed as a reading experience after over-exposure in televised versions. Once a lover of Jane Austen, I now walk past my Austen volumes in the book case with eyes averted.
    As part of my research into early 19th history, I have found some interesting writers who were important during their era but have been largely forgotten now, such as Germaine de Stael, Maria Edgeworth and Fanny Burney.
    The one classic I have promised myself to read this year, which is outside my research period, is the new translation of ‘Dr Zhivago’. I have read and reread the 1958 translation many times and hope this new translation will bring both new insights as well as reinforcing remembered delights.

  9. Some classics become classics because of their influence and not because they’re any fun to read.

    So here’s a list of my favourite NON-boring classics:

    1. Middlemarch – George Eliot is, um, The Man
    2. Lolita – best novel of the 20th century until proven otherwise
    3. Gulliver’s travels – hilarious and weirdly erotic
    4. Love in a cold climate – you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and so forth
    5. Brideshead revisited – see Love in a cold climate above
    6. A clockwork orange – spooky and cool
    7. Candide – a philosophical romp around the world
    8. The Monk – sex and devil worship
    9. Frankenstein – exquisite (Dracula is crap)
    10. Heart of Darkness– a boy book according to Nick Hornby, but what a boy

  10. kmaccarter – that sounds utterly brilliant. I might even do that myself one year. I think I’d have about 15 or 16 countries to do? Sounds reasonable. Are Iran or Norway on your list? I could suggest something for those. And Kafka for Czech Republic, of course! But something newer would be really interesting. Are you blogging about this or keeping a public record anywhere?

    Mark – sound advice 😉 And that sounds great. I love short stories. Have you read Richard Yates’ short stories yet? Definitely add them to your list if not. And Janet Frame’s too. And I’m sure you’ve read Chekhov. Do you follow Laurie Steed’s blog The Gum Wall? Or read The Short Review (which reviews short story collections). You should.

    David – sounds great. Another I haven’t read.

    Mahaut – sounds brilliant. I haven’t read Dr Zhivago and it would be super interesting to compare translations, too.

    Piers – Thank you. I absolutely want to read enjoyable books! As for your list, I have read Lolita (it’s probably my all-time favourite book), A Clockwork Orange (brilliant), and Frankenstein (another favourite). And two others there are already on my list for 2011.

  11. I didn’t realise Yates had shorts – Revolutionary Road is one of my all time favourite books. Thanks for the heads up on the other two, was exactly what I was looking for. Good luck in your quest!

  12. I had a fantastic 2010 indulging in some science fiction.

    Heres my list minus one month that i could not be bothered : )

    1. Ringworld Larry Niven
    2. The Forever War Joe Halderman
    3. The Left Hand of Darkness -Ursula k.Le Guin
    4. Cats Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
    5. Flow my tears the policeman said – Phillip.K.Dick
    6. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Phillip.K.Dick
    7.Ubik- Phillip K. Dick
    9. The Invisible Man –H.G wells
    10. The Complete Robot – Issac Asimov
    11. 2001 A space Odyssey – Arthur.C.Clarke
    12. Do androids dream of electric sheep – Phillip.K.Dick

    Where to next? Fantasy maybe..any suggestions?

  13. Tim Nash – for sci-fi may I suggest Iain M Banks, esp the Culture series, though his others are equally good. A stand alone, “Against a Dark Background”, ended with the saddest & most desolate paragraph I’ve ever read. (This Iain Banks, the author of Wasp Factory, Crow Road etc, but he uses the M to distinguish his sci-fi works.)
    Also re “Left Hand of Darkness”, Le Guin recently wrote an extra chapter, fitting in the middle, which is quite stunning. She introduced it with a long explanation of that really clarifies what she was trying to do with the genderless characters twenty years before. It’s included in a short story collection “The Wind’s Four Quarters”.
    Apart from sci-fi, and the inimitable Terry Pratchett, I find myself unable to read fiction, esp with contemporary settings as it is usually stupid people doing stupid things.

  14. I am planning on doing the same in 2011. I tend to get bogged down when I’ve got too much on at work and end up re-reading the books I love.

    I was lucky enough to receive a Kindle for Christmas, so I have decided to use that in my quest to read more of the classics. That said, I’ve had Portrait of a Lady and Anna Karenina on my bedside table to be read for far too long!

  15. Mark – Oh! You love RR, that’s awesome. Then you will adore his short stories.

    Tim – thanks for sharing. Many of those on my to-read list, and I’ve definitely got one or two sci-fi books on the list for 2011. A year of fantasy sounds like a good plan. Wouldn’t know where to start with suggestions but there are plenty of online forums that would be able to help, I’m sure. I read one of Kim Falconer’s books last year and really enjoyed that.

    Troy – great! Reading the same as me or 20 classics of your own choice? If you read any of the same authors, leave comments, and otherwise keep me updated on your own journey.

    AR – thanks for those suggestions for Tim (and us all). I agree there are a lot of contemporary novels about stupid people doing stupid things. Sometimes I still find that fascinating though – depends if it’s engaging and well-written and has some meaning to it (socially or politically, for example). Or if they’re so stupid or out-there that it’s hilarious.

    Emma – Anna Karenina is one I have read, and it’s definitely worth it. Took me a few months, though! Downloading some classics onto the Kindle is an awesome idea.

    Susie – lovely to hear. Will you read the same books as me, or do you have your own list of classics you want to get to?

  16. This is a great idea, a little like a Christmas gift idea a friend and I just had. We decided we would get each other a book that had been published in the last century, but I could not stop at just one and so I got him 10, 1 book that was published in each of the decades from the last century. It was such good fun to do, the woman in the bookshop and I spent hours deciding which book would be best from each decade. One of them was a Faulkner. ‘As I Lay Dying” which my mate loved. It was the first of his books he had read and is now a big fan.

    Look forward to hearing how you get on

  17. Pingback: 2011 Goals are good | troy martin

  18. Great idea and something I’ve been meaning to do for a while too but the regular oo-ah distractions from the weekend book review pages leave me skittering around aimlessly. I would like to join in with you if I may? I started Portrait of a Lady a few years ago but didn’t get anywhere; would like to go back to it as it’s been glowering at me from my to-read shelf ever since. Have always meant to read some Isherwood too.

    I dropped by this blog to get some ideas for a week’s holiday away next week – I was looking for some ideas for a rambunctious compelling read – but am satisfied with these books now! Thanks.

  19. Admire your reading goals for 2011 Angela. Inspiration abounds.
    May I also share with you that I was also impressed to hear a positive comment made about your blog on Radio National the other day too. Hilary McPhee, Rebecca Starford, Gideon Haigh and Peter Craven were discussing the state of book criticism and reviewing here in OZ at the Wheeler Centre and your wonderful (& praiseworthy) blog was mentioned. In (the unlikely) case you and your followers missed it;


  20. I have never understood why Henry James is so celebrated. His contemporary Edith Wharton’s books are insightful, well written and far more pleasurable to read. To Anna La Masurier, life is too short to dutifully read a book just because it supposedly has merit. I think certain authors achieve sacred cow status and are widely bought but rarely read.

  21. macarthursmutterings – that’s so lovely that you ended up getting your mate 10 books! It’s so great when you do find something that truly clicks with them, too. Giving books as gifts is the best.

    Anna – give Isherwood a go, but by all means, if you didn’t dig Portrait, don’t feel bad about it! Not all classics are going to be for everyone anyhow 🙂

    Craig – cheers! And *blush*, I was in the audience (and I did blush). Was on quite a high after that. Thanks for your continuing support.

    Margaret – I’ve only just begun Portrait, so I can’t weigh in on that yet, I’ll note that down about Wharton. I am reading James, though, on a personal recommendation from an author friend. If I don’t like it, I’ll admit it! 🙂

  22. Tim Nash re fantasy novels:

    I loved the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant ( and the second chronicles) when I read them twenty years ago. I recently discovered that Donaldson is revisiting The Land with a tetralogy , two of which have already been written. Cant wait to get those for summer beach reading.

    Also Julian Mays “Saga of the Exiles” left an impression on me when I was a young lad. Sort of sci-fi that morphs into fantasy. With BOOBS!!!!

    Also Raymond E Feists “Riftwar saga” is good. But alas no boobs.

    And of course you cant go wrong with China Mievilles “Perdido Street Station” novels.

    For modern sci-fi I recommend Richard Morgan , Alistair Reynolds , Ian M Banks (as mentioned above) and Peter F Hamilton for epic space opera.

  23. Pingback: 20 classics in 2011 #1: The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood – LiteraryMinded

  24. I’m doing a book club with my godson to try to enhance his interest in reading as he enters the teenage horror years of gaming. He’s 13 but with a very high reading level. I’ve agreed that I’ll read something he recommends, then we’ll read my recommendations in alternate months. He started first with Hunger Games – which was excellent and I ended up reading the trilogy. But my first was Cannery Row which I remembered as a highly enjoyable – and short – introduction to Steinbeck. On rereading it, I find it full of words he’s unlikely to know so I’m concerned I may have set the bar too high.

    I’m trying for books that are well-written (literary if you like), short (he is 13 after all) and by people he might want to read more from in the future. My list so far for this year is (I know he likes SF and plot-driven books):
    To Say Nothing of the Dog: Connie Willis – I haven’t read but I’ve been told it’s very funny
    The Big Sleep: Raymond Chandler
    Foundation: Isaac Asimov
    Maltese Falcon: Dashiel Hammet
    Martian Chronicles: Ray Bradbury

    Any suggestions of which to leave out and what to replace them with?

    I haven’t tried anything like this before so would be grateful for suggestions.

  25. Hi db – I reckon’ you’re going okay there with the sci-fi and crime. What about some adventure, too? Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island? I’m really not an expert on that age but I’m going to go on Twitter and ask if anyone can come and comment! It depends what his interests are, too, I guess. My boyfriend said he read Frankenstein at that age – I love that book but I thought it might be too advanced, but give it a go! Animal Farm by George Orwell would be a good one. Maybe Brave New World (I’m reading that this year, finally). Maybe Dracula. Some Edgar Allen Poe? Sherlock Holmes? Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Alice in Wonderland?

  26. db042042 –
    I came here following the twitter call-out. I’m not to good on old classics and you seem to want to choose more “adult” books, but if you want some good quality books for a 13 year old, a few I could recommend are:

    Some of Steven Herricks work (maily in verse form)
    Neil Gaiman – The graveyard book, Coraline
    Brian Selznick – The invention of Hugo Cabret (for something a bit different)
    You could also try Shaun Tan’s The arrival (wordless graphic novel)
    Anthony Eaton – Into white silence
    Meg Rosoff – How I live now

    Jonathan (@bookboy)

  27. DB, try Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. It’s about a 13 year old boy surviving alone in the Canadian wilderness after a plane crash and is AWESOME. It was so popular Paulsen wrote a bunch of sequels, but I haven’t read any of those. Also, has he read any of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series? Or I read a lot of Alan Dean Foster at that age (he writes a lot of novelisations of movies but his Spellsinger series is particularly good fun, about a young guitarist who ends up in another dimension where he has to defeat beasties by playing guitar riffs). Also, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels? Or what about The Hobbit? Lord of the Flies? Tomorrow When the War Began? Graphic novels like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen or 100 Bullets? I could go on all day, methinks.

  28. db042042 – some suggestions:

    Frankenstein (wonderful… just wonderful!) by Mary Shelley

    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a little confronting, but a nice short, beautiful story.

    The Millenium series by Steig Larrson is long, does have few inappropriate scenes, but probably nothing he hasn’t seen or heard before, and it is truly captivating.

    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon is a really cute, insightful book about children with Autism – very enjoyable and nice.

    And obviously, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings books if he hasn’t read them…

  29. In no particular order:

    The Princess Bride – William Goldman, Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein, Hornblower Series – C.S. Forester, anything by John Marsden, Chasing the Bear – Robert B Parker, Ivanhoe – Sir Walter Scott, Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee, I Robot – Asimov, Lord of the Flies – William Golding, Shane – Jack Schaefer, The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham, Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

    And then?

  30. Great idea, Angela.

    My picks for db’s 13yo boy:

    Animal Farm, definitely
    ditto Of Mice and Men
    then finish with Ivan Denisovich and All Quiet on the Western Front.
    He should also give The Diary of Anne Frank a go.
    And if he hasn’t ever read Bridge to Terrabithia, he must!!!

    whew, that’s all pretty heavy going!

    Ok for fun… hmmm

    Try The Hobbit, Tom Sawyer and then (maybe) Huck Finn.

    Is 13yo too young for Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha? Maybe, but it’s about as a good a book about adolescence as there is.

  31. Pingback: Things to see, bits & bobs – LiteraryMinded

  32. Hey – I’m doing a wee bit of travelling and have ended up in Melbourne and decided to try and read some of the local fare. I started off with Nick Cave’s Bunny Munro but I reckon he’s a long time out of Australia plus its guff. Currently reading The True Histroy of the Kelly Gang – any other Australian classics anyone could suggests I take a look at?

  33. Pingback: 20 classics in 2011 #2: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James – LiteraryMinded

  34. Pingback: 20 classics in 2011 #3: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – LiteraryMinded

  35. Pingback: 20 classics in 2011 #4: Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter – LiteraryMinded

  36. Kmaccarter, what a brilliant idea. We are all very anglo-centric in our readings and I would love to follow your readings. I’m currently in Europe and am reading The Plague by Camus. It has parallels with people’s reaction to climate change and is fantastic to re-read after many decades. Can’t think of what I got out of it as a school girl but now after a lifetime of experience it’s fantastic reading.

    What cones first, the country or the book? I went to Colombia because I loved Marquez but then I went to Argentina and read Borges while on the trip.

  37. Pingback: Summer classics from the bookshelf | The Other Parts

  38. Pingback: 20 classics #11: Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett | LiteraryMinded

  39. Pingback: 20 classics #12: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen | LiteraryMinded

  40. Pingback: 20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson | LiteraryMinded

  41. Pingback: 20 classics #14: Mathilda by Mary Shelley | LiteraryMinded

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