Winter Recommendations – The Classics

With winter here you now have far more time to cozy up indoors with a good book. I have three recommendations of classics that I’d like to make…

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace is set in early nineteenth century Russia. It spans fifteen plus years and has just over five hundred characters, most of whom have difficult to pronounce Russian names. My copy of the novel is 1,361 pages long. Now, I realize that, at first glance, these facts can be absurdly intimidating. Yet, my experience reading this novel was one of astonishment. Tolstoy has a way of rendering his characters into heartfelt individuals who deeply express every emotion. Often, they’re so vivid it’s as if they’re spitting water right in my face. Due to the novel’s time span, we get to see some young members of the Rostov family grow into adults (e.g. Natasha & Nicholas). No novel that I’ve read has done this as realistically as War and Peace; some change so much that, by book’s end, they become entirely different people.

Since the novel was originally written in Russian, I’d like to note who I believe to be its superior translators: Louise and Aylmer Maude. Both were close friends of Tolstoy’s and lived near him while in Russia. What their translation has to offer is a smooth, natural flow that does not compromise in its directness. Tolstoy himself said of their work, “Better translators could not be invented.”

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Herman Melville once commented that the day he first set foot on a whaling vessel was the day his life began. Moby Dick is a testament to his lively obsession with his new career. I found a cheap little paperback version of the novel that’s a score. Not only does it have Ahab’s mad whaling hunt for the vicious white whale, but it also has lots of fascinating historical anecdotes and criticisms. There are a number of letters Melville wrote around the publication of Moby Dick, a handful of which are addressed to Nathaniel Hawthorne. What I found most interesting—second to the novel itself—were the reviews written during Melville’s revival in 1921. Even the cover photo is discussed. It’s an engraving by Ambroise Louis Garneray—a whaling man himself!

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Joad family have one tough road ahead of them; they’re forced to leave everything behind in Oklahoma after drought and economic hardship set in. They sell off their farm, buy a beater car, pack up and head out west to California where there is talk of work. The difficulties they endure are severe. What struck me while reading this novel were the ways in which different members of the Joad family responded to their plight. Some cave in and ditch the family, while others stick it out even as conditions get worse. It is here that the men are separated from the boys. –Jake