Time to Read, to Know and Understand
Reading is always the way to knowledge and wisdom – often there is more truth in fiction than in anything else you read – especially in these worrying days of alternative facts and fake news. Yes in this post truth world you will find more honesty and truth in novels. So now is the time to remind yourself of the classics you should have read, or to reacquaint yourselves with those novels from your past that have – perhaps sadly – more resonance now than ever before. Here’s a rundown on some of the more pertinent classics that reverberate even today.
1984, George Orwell
Animal Farm, George Orwell
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
The Handmaiden’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Now, more than ever you need to take on the brilliance of Orwell – too much prescience for one writer. Return to 1984 and Animal Farm with horror at how the world changes and shifts and learns nothing. Too much has come true, too much of what we thought was outrageous fantasy is coming true. Revisit the under-rated Brave New World (an easier read that 1984, as I recall) and Atwood’s classic and tremble. There is, of course, The Hunger Games and many other novels who explore ideas of totalitarianism gone mad but these are excellent and relevant starting points.
What’s Love Got to Do With It?
Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Not going to say that these are my favourite reads of all time but they tell classic tales of desire, love, lust, abandonment, injustice and the excessive amount of suffering love causes us all. You need to know the classics of love and loss – at least they should make you feel better about your own love life. Emma Bovary will certainly cheer you up, as will Anna Karenina – none of us could be as miserable and bereft as those two, and you need to get over Colin Firth as Mr Darcy and actually experience the original 1813 version. And if you’re going to read only one Bronte, Wuthering Heights is the one: you need to see what a bastard Heathcliff is and how unworthy Cathy was too. You can’t go passed Great Expectations for one of the bitterest spurned lovers in literature – the demonic and manipulative Miss Havisham: if you want to know about revenge she is the go-to oracle. Poor Pip, he never had a chance with Estella. No, what we think love is from the classics probably isn’t …
Angry (lost) Young Men
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis
We have too many angry disenfranchised young men in the world at the moment – they’ve always been there, a lot of them going off to die in war, or flinging themselves about recklessly on the sporting field. Now they have grown up and are running the world. Remind yourself of what happens to boys alone on an island without rules, adults or girls in Lord of the Flies; how utterly bereft and miserable Holden Caulfield is, almost as mad as Hamlet, but none as mad as Patrick Bateman. Yes, American Psycho is a difficult and offensive read, but it shows a chillingly dark side of men gone seriously off-course and what damage can be done by those who think they are above the law!
Shitty Pointlessness of War
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
Catch 22, Joseph Heller
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Poetry of Wilfred Owen
Gallipoli – yes, I know it’s a film but it is bloody brilliant
War is shit, war is stupid, war kills and destroys and never solves anything, yet war is one of the enduring features of mankind. We are aggressive, destructive creatures, we would rather wage war that negotiate a peace. War rages on our planet still, we learn nothing from history and despite this literary collection from different wars and countries, we keep on going. Read and recoil with horror – war may have led to technological advances and helped the status of women in some countries (and absolutely screwed them over in others), but mostly it leaves a trail of intergenerational damage that echoes and reverberates over time and place. Watch Europe implode in the wake of Brexit, forgetting the very reason for the European Union in the first place.
Stolen Generations (Oz)
Capricornia, Xavier Herbert – don’t just watch Australia
Radiance, Louis Nowra – great play and excellent film too
Rabbit Proof Fence, Doris Pilkington Garimara – based on a true story, watch if you don’t want to read it
My Place, Sally Morgan – personal history but you need to read it!
All Australians need to know more about their history – yes we do have a shameful past and we need to know about it and acknowledge it. Capricornia is Xavier Herbert’s classic story of the far north, of how Aboriginals were treated, how we built our national character – the lone, tough bloke of the outback. Have a read, it’s not the novel you think it is. Radiance is a brilliant play about the complexities of the Stolen Generations issue, and Rabbit Proof Fence and My Place give the issue heart and substance.
The American Dream
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
We all need to understand the American Dream, it isn’t just part of the American consciousness but ours too, given how dominant American culture is. The American Dream is akin to the Oz idea about being The Lucky Country. It is a capitalist construct, a belief in the power of the individual – if he (usually it is he) is driven enough, ambitious enough and hard working enough then he can have the life he dreams of, no matter how big. America is built on being the New World, the place where you can begin again, re-make yourself and be whoever you want to be. Status and class (fixed entities in European and especially British society) do not matter: hard work and ambition does. Witness true life American Dream winner, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gatsby is the best known example of the AD, but you need to read Of Mice and Men too, it shows the other side of the coin; men with small dreams but destined for failure. Is the AD simply an illusion, something used by the powerful to beat the weak with? If you worked harder, believed more then you would be successful… so if you fail it’s your fault too, despite the massive amount of entities ranged against you. It takes away the responsibility of the state, of government to look after anyone. If your life is a failure it is your fault. Read both novels, they won’t take you long, but they’ll give you a handy insight into what makes large bits of the US tick.
The System Always Wins
1984, George Orwell
The Crucible, Arthur Miller
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Perhaps this is the nastiest reading list for modern times. Justice and fairness and the truth are not part of these sad stories. The hero loses, every time. The system is ranged against them – not interested in truth – definitely not in The Crucible, where hysteria reigns and common sense is outlawed, or in 1984 where there is only Double-speak, and the Ministry of Truth, simply isn’t. Fairness and justice is never on the table for Tess or the characters in The God of Small Things. Ivan Denisovich will die in the gulag, after being beaten, starved and worked to death. You just can’t stick it to the man, when he has everything on his side and you are the size of an ant.
There are other classics you should know and read – a whole raft of Shakespeare, one for every occasion! To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind as does Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. All relevant to the difficult times we are currently experiencing. This is just your set to start with.
What will you re-read to help you make better sense of our sense-less world? What would you add to this list? (Images from Private Collection)