Great books

Dot writes: Jake’s naming ceremony made me think what book one should give to mark such a significant event in his life. Perhaps we can get some reader comments on this one. If you had to choose a book that would be a cultural treasure, a source of mental and spiritual nourishment or imaginative delight, a representative of the literary heritage a boy could grow up with and grow into, what would you choose? Some suggestions:

The Bible – but this was an expressly secular ceremony so I thought it would be tactless, even though it lies at the heart of so much of Western culture.

Beowulf – as an Anglo-Saxonist I would obviously vote for the first great poem in English! I’d have to choose a translation, though; it would be a bit much to expect Jake to learn OE just to please someone his mum met at yoga. I’d go for Seamus Heaney’s version, even though a lot of Anglo-Saxonists hate it, because it is a cultural monument in its own right.

Malory’s Works – in Vinaver’s modernised spelling this is surprisingly accessible; and the stories of King Arthur have everything – love, treachery, power, passion, humour, magic, castles and the wilderness, nobility sharpened by loss. Malory’s is actually one of the later medieval Arthurian cycles, and although it’s extremely long it is a stripped-down Arthur, tough and simple in its telling.

Milton, Paradise Lost – I first read this embarrassingly late: in fact I read it to teach it to second-year undergraduates. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it up until then, but I think it is one of those works it’s good to read in a disciplined way, with opportunities for discussion. It is extremely intellectually rich and the language has a peculiar quality all its own.

Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings – some people really hate Tolkien, so I wouldn’t in fact choose this as a naming ceremony gift for fear of coming up against parental hostility. However, the droves of imitators have obscured what an original, complex and thoroughly-considered piece of literature this is. It’s odd that a book that was voted Book of the Century should be in some ways so reactionary: it is a book that looks back to our cultural past in its borrowings from medieval literature, and it is full of people looking back to their own past and facing up to irreparable losses. But you could say the same about The Waste Land. In fact you could make a surprisingly good case for LOTR as the best-selling modernist novel; for example, what other writer gets such energy out of the sheer thingness and crunch of words? – how about James Joyce?

Any votes/suggestions?

P.S. What we actually gave Jake was a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Some cultural treasures come in lockets not chests.


7 thoughts on “Great books

  1. The Odyssey, necessarily in translation… a story I read over and over again and never lose interest in. Like some of the titles you mention, it has a quality I find in most great literary works: they leave a deep impression on me but I am always surprised by the details when I read again. Another way of saying they are works that you can never fully know. There is always more to know. Also this is a great story for a young person. Adventure, danger, betrayal, pride, greed, desperation, revenge, love. It carries great messages… strength and bravery must be sought and asserted (Telemachos must look for his father not only in the world but within himself); love is indestructible if it based on sincere and respectful communication (Odysseus and Penelope go to bed and spend a great deal of time talking over everything that has happened to them during the years they have been apart); dogs are pathetically loyal (Argos); in general, men are, quite literally, pigs (Circe’s island); in general, women are traitors (Penelope’s servant girls). Just kidding about those last two. Also the poem influences so many stories that come after it, even if it was sometimes only through Romans who knew of it. And it has, arguably, one of the finest storytelling arrangements of its time, blending the Telemachos/Odysseus narratives the way it does. Anyway that’s my suggestion.

  2. Dot

    Good suggestion, Jeremy. One of my colleagues gave Hugh his own copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, so I should definitely get him Homer too. Personally I don’t like Joyce that much. Talking about Joyce is a lot more fun than reading him, though I enjoyed Dubliners. I prefer Tolkien.

    Ken’s response to this post was ‘Shakespeare, duh’.

    It’s a bit disturbing there are no female authors in my list. I was given Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre at significant moments in my life and loved both. There’s no reason why a boy shouldn’t love them too, but they tend to be packaged as girls’ books these days so they might take a bit of selling to Hugh or Jake.

  3. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of my favourite books, I received a very large edition of it for Christmas a couple of years ago (I’m 47). It’s about three feet wide.

    (In keeping with the Christian tradition of sacralizing otherwise secular symbols, we have used The Very Hungry Caterpillar in our church as a way of teaching the resurrection – the body remains the same, but is changed!).

    I think I should be very pleased to be a parent given The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

  4. Meri

    I’d like to put in a small uninformed bid for The Prophet. What I have read of it is beautiful and strikes straight to the heart.

    It is probably a little too early to start stocking his library with such heavy-waight classics though and may be best to start with children’s books. Things like swallows and Amozens are not a bad place to start- they have survived the test of time even if they are not held as the greatest pieces of literature.

  5. Yay for the Caterpillar ;-D

    I never read it as a child; in fact I still haven’t read it and we bought a copy for Lia when she was 4 days old (she was in a book shop at 4 days old – Jon and I being complete book-worms) she also has a very well stocked book case in her room.

    And later she will be able to appreciated Mitch Benn’s short rock opera performed on the Now Show of… The Very Hungry Caterpillar ;-D

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