Category Archives: Great Books

What I’m Reading Now: July 31, 2018

Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, translated by G.H. McWilliam (Penguin Classics, 1995, 909 pp.)

The latest entry in the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written” is Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Written between 1349 and 1352, it’s one of the most important works in Renaissance literature. This is a big book, with enormous influence on everything that came after.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book, however, or the fact that it was written over 650 years ago—it’s great fun to read. With the Black Death—the bubonic plague—rampant in Florence in 1348, ten young people (seven women and three men) flee to a country estate and settle in to wait out the scourge. To entertain themselves, and with no Wifi, they each tell a story with a different theme every day for ten days—hence the title.

The Decameron is a group of tales united by a frame story, a literary device familiar to anyone who ever took a high school lit class and had to read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written forty years later. Chaucer’s pilgrims, like Boccaccio’s young folks, each take turns telling a story on their journey.

One of the most famous examples of a frame story is The Thousand and One Nights (or The Arabian Nights), which precedes both Boccaccio and Chaucer by centuries. This collection of largely Middle Eastern and Indian stories is told by Scheherazade, married to a king who puts his wife to death each night. The heroine avoids death by telling him a different story every night and leaving her tale incomplete till the next day, thus avoiding her cruel fate.

The one hundred tales that make up The Decameron are by turns funny, bawdy, tragic, heroic, and of course romantic. The work was first circulated in manuscript until the invention of printing in the 15th century with Gutenberg’s press, and the first printed edition appeared in Florence in 1469. It’s never been out of print and influenced humanist Renaissance scholars for centuries after.

As with all books like this, the proper translation is everything. If you’re reading Homer’s Odyssey, try the translations by three classical scholars of towering reputation: Robert Fagles (1996), Robert Fitzgerald (1961), and Richmond Lattimore (1967), all still available and all elegantly written. Better yet, check out the newest translation by Emily Wilson, who made history in 2017 as the first woman to publish an English translation of the Odyssey after more than 60 translations by males since the first appeared in 1615.

G.H. McWilliam’s translation of The Decameron in this Penguin Classics edition, first published in 1972 and updated in 1995, is perfectly pitched to entertain and delight. The tales are translated into modern English, and though he no doubt takes some liberties, the result stands as a modern classic. It’s little wonder they’ve been continuously read for six and a half centuries.

What I’m Reading Now: July 10, 2018

Lord Jim: A Tale, by Joseph Conrad (1900; Easton Press Edition, 407 pp.)

I was reminded very recently that fifteen years ago, when one of my colleagues first came to work at the Georgia Historical Society, I asked her what she was currently reading. She told me, and—according to her—I responded with just two words, dripping, she says, with judgment: “Ah. Fiction.”

I’d like to be able to deny this as wholly out of character for me, but alas, I cannot. At that time and for the preceding fifteen years at least—through all my years in graduate school—I read non-fiction almost exclusively, usually history or biography. It wasn’t that I looked down my nose at fiction, there were just too many non-fiction books that I felt I had to read. So many books, so little time.

Five years after that—about ten years ago—I was reading one of Nicholas Basbanes’ books about book collectors and the treasures they sought, when I finally realized that my reading life and education were woefully deficient because I’d never read most of what are considered the “great books,” almost all of which, incidentally, are fiction. I had read a few in high school, but that hardly counted. That had to change.

Being very deliberate about such things, I wanted to go about the task systematically, so I subscribed to the Easton Press list of the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written.” Starting with Huckleberry Finn, I began receiving a handsome, leather-bound volume—complete with moiré endpapers and silk bookmark—in the mail each month. They made a handsome new edition to my library too.

Thus began a new chapter in my reading life. What might have seemed like drudgery in my teens has been one of the most enjoyable experiences imaginable.

The list was of course highly subjective and carried the usual caveats, being heavily Euro- and male-centric. If I had to rank them in terms of how much I enjoyed them, I’d put Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones somewhere near the top, while some of the titles I wouldn’t have placed on any list of “great” books, if by “great” we mean outstanding works of literature or works of art. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is undoubtedly an influential book, but in my uninformed opinion it is not a great work of literature–not because of the subject but because it’s too bloody hard to read. It’s like trying to read Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica or Christiaan Huygens’ Treatise on Light—both are very important books, but not books you’d give to Uncle Murray for Christmas.

After a decade, I have only thirteen more to go. It should go without saying that I won’t stop reading the great works of literature when I’ve read all 100. This is just the beginning.

Number 88 on the list (and they are sent randomly, not ranked) is Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Conrad was born in the Ukraine, and the man hailed as one of the great English novelists didn’t learn the language until he was 21. He wrote Lord Jim when he was 41.

The story is a simple one, yet it goes to the heart of what it means to be human, and which we’ve explored in other books this year: What is it that creates our identity? Are we bound by the events of our past, doomed forever by the mistakes we’ve made, or can we begin life anew by force of will?

Jim is the first mate on board the steamship Patna, carrying 800 pilgrims of faith to a port in the Red Sea. After the ship hits an object and begins taking on water, Jim and most of the crew abandon ship, leaving the pilgrims to face a watery grave. After the crew is picked up a few days later, they learn that the Patna didn’t sink and was instead brought safely into shore. The crew are all vilified, the captain commits suicide, and Jim spends the rest of his life trying to live down the shame of what he’s done. It defines him for the rest of his life.

Jim drifts from place to place, finding work here and there, but always having to flee in disgrace after meeting someone who knows about the Patna. “To fling away your daily bread so as to get your hands free for a grapple with a ghost may be an act of prosaic heroism . . . all his recklessness could not carry him out from under the shadow. There was always a doubt of his courage. The truth seems to be that it is impossible to lay the ghost of a fact. You can face it or shirk it—and I have come across a man or two who could wink at familiar shades.”

His misery follows him relentlessly until he lands on a remote island, where the natives call him “Tuan Jim” or Lord Jim. Does he at last find a measure of redemption before his death?

Conrad in all of his work was deeply pessimistic about human nature, and though he wrote quite a few sea stores, this one is at its heart about what happens to a man with a haunted and hunted soul who is ultimately running from—and warring with—himself.

It is one of the themes that runs throughout the Great Books. Perhaps another novelist, Nancy Wilson Ross, herself an expert on Eastern religions, framed this eternal dilemma best: “When man conquers space, his ancient, universal and perpetual problem will remain the same as it has been from the beginning—to conquer himself.”