mini-review · stuff I read

Practical Classics

Summary from Goodreads:
What do the great books of your youth have to say about your life now? Smokler’s essays on the classics—witty, down-to-earth, appreciative, and insightful—are divided into ten sections, each covering an archetypal stage of life—from youth and first love to family, loss, and the future. The author not only reminds you about the essential features of each great book but gives you a practical, real-world reason why revisiting it in adulthood is not only enjoyable but useful.

Remember all those books we had to read in high school English?  The Great Gatsby, Jonny Got His Gun, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Grapes of Wrath, Oedipus Rex, Cry, the Beloved CountryOne Hundred Years of Solitude, 1984, Brave New World, Catch-22, As I Lay Dying, Ethan Frome?  I do, a bit, since I know that I was assigned more books than the ones I listed here.  Well, Kevin Smokler decided to go back and take a look at pieces that were assigned as high school reading and give them another shot.

The result is an eclectic collection of recommended reads. Some, like David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” and Amy Tan’s The Joy-Luck Club, were published just as I finished high school (Smokler is a few years older than I am, so we are in the same boat here). A few others, like Walter Benjamin and Annie Dillard, I didn’t read until assigned as post-grad reading. But a good chunk of the books Smokler re-read (Animal Farm, Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, etc) were and still are mainstays of the HS curriculum (he did not revisit Hemingway or Faulkner, though, which is fine but I would have liked a few more of those and less of the newer works).  There is a good variation in the chapter formats: some are more like fan letters, some are outlines, and a few are straight-up short essays. All chapters are short so the book is easily read in small bites.

A note about an annoying mistake:
On page 138, it is noted that Leslie S. Klinger created the feminist character of Mary Russell to rescript the Victorian Holmes. The citation is from an NPR article (link to article). However, the quotation given by Klinger is conflated with the actual author of the Mary Russell series, Laurie R. King (or, in Miss Russell’s opinion, Ms. King is Miss Russell’s literary executor) who is also interviewed in the article. Simple fact-checking. I happened to notice the error because I’ve read 90% of the Mary Russell series and I’m a bookseller besides. A reader unfamiliar with the series might not notice. I hope the error is corrected in the next printing.

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