The Scarlet Letter (1850)

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In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino’s first definition of “a classic” is a book “about which you usually hear people saying, “‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading….'” (3). By this he essentially means that, if one were to read, say, The Scarlet Letter outside of high school, one would never admit to having never read it before, especially if one were held in high esteem for literary knowledge. I, however, choose to shed all pretensions and fully admit that, though I had read Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (in many ways similar to this novel), before this past weekend I had never read Hawthorne’s magnificent allegory. And I’m glad for it.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

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I’ve heard about this book for years, but never found the prospect of reading it appealing. The hardcover from William Morrow and Company sat on my shelves for years, collecting dust and staving off inferiority complexes against its oft-picked neighbors. What do I know or care of motorcycles? Why do I need to read another book about a practice (Zen) that prides itself on being ineffable? A few Zen koans and some of D. T. Suzuki’s treatises and that’s enough for me to get the gist. Anyway, the title, the unremarkable blackboard binding, the lack of public representation (today), and, well, my own circumscribed thinking kept the book from my mind. Until the recent news of Pirsig’s death.

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Wuthering Heights (1847)

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The blurb on the back of my Vintage Classics paperback edition presents Wuthering Heights as “[p]erhaps the most haunting and tormented love story ever written….” While I usually recoil at the whimsical descriptions publishers use to wrap (and sell) classics, this statement is particularly accurate. The characters we encounter in this book are highly caustic. The themes we encounter are sickness and death, passion and haunting, and generational curses—which find their pitch in light of their author’s tubercular death a year after the book’s publication. Indeed, it is a dark novel. In the first paragraph alone one finds the words troubledmisanthropistdesolation, and black eyes (not as a result of punching, by the way). But one must not get too hung up on the well-trod ground of the novel’s gothic themes. Let’s look at some other dimensions.

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Moby-Dick (1851)

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And the only mode in which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

Melville employs a fragment of Job 1:15 for the epigram of the epilogue: “…and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” In the same way, the reader, after 625 pages of pure sublime masterwork, escapes alone to tell others of the experience. And it is a large, profound experience. As Melville says himself, through his surrogate Ishmael, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme” (497). Having found success with his first two novels, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas, and then failure with his third, Mardi and a Voyage Thither, a dense philosophical work, Melville seems to have found the Aristotelian golden mean in the Genesis of American literature: the mighty Moby-Dick or, The Whale.

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