Little Women by Louisa May AlcottSummertime is classics TBR time for me. That is, a time to dig into those “to be read” books from the past. Maybe it’s the long summer days hearkening back to the childhood time of summer reading lists for school or reading on the porch at night to the comforting sounds of the cricket and cicadas that call me toward the classics. I don’t get to a lot of books published in the past – new books demand I keep up with them — but just a few classics is a enough.

The other day I came across the Penguin Random House list of “21 Books You’ve Been Meaning to Read.” It’s one of those lists that are fun to scroll through and see what you’ve already read. And of course, it will entice you to pick up the ones you haven’t read.

If anything, check out the Penguin Random House list for the beautiful and intriguing cover illustrations, such as the one you see here for Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women.

The following two books aren’t on the Penguin Random House list, but they are on mine and now checked off. I recommend both of them.

The Optimist's DaughterThe Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
I could’ve read this short novel in a day, but I held onto it for a second day because I didn’t want to reach the point where I had to leave the story. Welty’s characters grapple with the untimely death of Judge McKelva, notably his daughter, Laurel McKelva Hand, and the Judge’s young second wife, Fay. Welty won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1973, and deservedly so. The Optimist’s Daughter is fine literature and a memorable story told with undeniable talent. Welty profoundly captures Laurel’s shock, loneliness and courage as she tolerates her father’s crude, second wife behaving selfishly (and ignorantly) at the Judge’s deathbed and funeral – and also as Laurel recognizes she must let go of the past. Mississippi writer Eudora Welty is known for her southern settings, themes and characters. She’s highly acclaimed for her short story collections.The Guardian wrote in her obituary: “In spite of the countless accolades and awards her work garnered, both in the United States and abroad, she remained a regional writer, whose quietly magnificent short stories and novels are suffused with Chekhovian wit and clear-sightedness.”

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtryThe Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
This year marks the 50th anniversary of this classic McMurtry novel, first published in 1966, a coming-of-age story about two boys, Duane and Sonny, graduating from high school in a go-nowhere small town, Thalia, Texas. Atmospheric, populated with quirky, memorable characters, The Last Picture Show took hold of me and reminded me why I love to read books rich in storytelling about ordinary life. Duane loves Jacy, who’s the popular, rich girl, whose parents don’t want her to marry Duane; Sonny yearns for Jacy at a distance while getting sexually involved with the high school coach’s wife. Fist fights and football games; a local café diner, pool hall and movie theater; big cars and pick-up trucks; and a lot of sex and drinking (what else is there to do?) fill the time for Duane, Sonny and Jacy. But there also are kind, wise, tired small-town folk in this wonderful book that was made into a movie in 1971 with Cybill Shepherd (Jacy), Jeff Bridges (Duane) and Cloris Leachman (coach’s wife).

If you need assistance selecting classics you might want to read, I highly recommend Michael Dirda’s Classics for Pleasure. As the dust jacket says: “This is not your father’s — or your mother’s — list of classics. In these delightful essays, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda introduces nearly ninety of the world’s most entertaining books.”



The New York Review of Books Classics is celebrating 10 years of publishing. During that decade, one of its best sellers has been The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton. Every time I read or hear about this 17th century tome, there’s exceptional praise. But I can’t imagine heading in for the read. Not only is this compendium of melancholia’s many dispositions composed of dense prose, it’s written in 17th Century style, using the likes of “doth” and “hath.”

Last year, I urged my friend BE, a voracious reader, to read it for my vicarious enjoyment.  He has yet to reach the last page. I’m not sure he’s even passed page 200. What is it about The Anatomy of Melancholy that sets it apart?  viaLibri prices earlier copies ranging from $40 to $272 (as of this date). Echo Library, a print-on-demand publisher, offers it in two volumes. (The NYRB Classics version comes in one volume.) Michael Dirda writes in Classics for Pleasure, “…surrender to its seemingly wayward rhythms and you will understand why Samuel Johnson used to say that it was ‘the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.'” Dirda also writes, “The Anatomy of Melancholy is not, in fact, a volume to read through so much as to live with.” I might add for a long time, considering it’s 1,392 pages.

Michael Dirda reviews Jayne Anne Phillips Lark and Termite in the current New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009). His exceptional analysis of this dreamy, multi-narrated novel unravels the complexity that IMO makes the story less accessible to all readers.

Anyone who’s already read the novel or who plans to read it will find Dirda’s review providing helpful revelations about Phillips’ recurrent themes, the novel’s structure and what Dirda describes as Phillips’ “meaningful meandering.”

It’s impressive when Dirda connects a remark by the character Leavitt – saying he used to perform the song “My Funny Valentine” – to Phillips’ mention later in the book that Chet Baker is playing on the jukebox. Dirda points out that Baker’s signature song was “My Funny Valentine.”

I heard Dirda read from his book Classics for Pleasure, and his mind is a steel trap for literary detail. His references to characters, scenes, plots, authors and more are astonishing for books read years in the past. Oh the envy.

BTW, Classics for Pleasure offers a great reading list written by “Dirda as passionate reader” rather than “Dirda as passionate critic.” His insights and summaries drove me to make a list that include Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy; W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland and his Selected Poems edited by Edward Mendelson; and Akhmatova’s early love poems. Even, as an adult, to reread The Secret Garden.

Dirda grew up in Lorain, Ohio. He is a writer and former senior editor for The Washington Post Book World. He received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism in 1993. His memoir about growing up in Lorain is An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland.

Here’s a fun glimpse inside An Open Book:

“Though my father had encouraged early reading by taking me to the library, he never wanted a bookworm in the family. Instead he envisioned a Super Son, adept with every known hand tool and eager to transform 1031 West 29th Street into an edifice that even Frank Lloyd Wright might envy or, alternately, a son so financially savvy that he would be hired at age eleven to manage J. Paul Getty’s investments. Having read a news story about Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance in Borneo, he commanded me to write to the Rockefeller family and offer myself as a replacement son. He wasn’t kidding. Not a bit.”

Post updated 10.16.10 with improved book photos.

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