Pros: Provides you with a fairly exhaustive list of history's greatest writers and thinkers...
Cons: ...and you think there could be cons to that?
Every now and then I come across a literary reference or stumble into a conversation that reinforces for me my appalling lack of erudition in the field of literature. This despite the fact that I read prolifically, and have at one time or another attempted a good two dozen of the classics. This lack becomes further highlighted as I attempt at least the rudiments of literary criticism in the forum afforded me by Epinions. Though I feel fairly comfortable in criticisms of my favorite light-reading genrefantasy and science fictionI believe myself to be woefully equipped when it comes to more monumental works of literature. For example, were I to assay an examination of Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Nietzsche, I would feel horridly pretentious and inadequate in the shadow of the literary giant I attempted to describe. This is not to say that with a little more education I could even begin to approach the level of these greatsfar from it! I merely wish to read more intelligently, to critique more deeply, and to converse more authoritatively on matters of art and culture. Given that I dont plan on attaining a liberal arts degree any time soon, I was immediately intrigued by the potential of Clifton Fadimans Classic Guide to World Literature to provide me with a reading list that might remedy my literary inferiority complex. Thus, one trip to Borders later, I found myself in possession of The New Lifetime Reading Plan (Fourth Edition).
The layout of The New Lifetime Reading Plan is quite simple, consisting of a chronological listing of the 133 most influential authors in history, as selected by Fadiman and his co-writer John S. Major. A brief perusal of the table of contents yields a veritable gold mine of literary greats: Aeschylus resides scant pages away from Sun-tzu, Saint Augustine next to Kalidasa, Darwin next to Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol. In the Preface, Major explains their choices as books that retain the capacity to speak directly to us across gulfs of time and space. Further on, in A Preliminary Talk With The Reader, Fadiman explains the purpose of The Plan: [it] is designed to fill our minds, slowly, gradually, under no compulsion, with what some of the greatest writers have thought, felt, and imagined. As a reading plan, it is undoubtedly epic in scale.
Not content to simply provide a listing, the authors take it upon themselves to write short essays on each writer included in The Plan. At the very least, a little biographical or historical information is provided, establishing the subjects place in both history and the literary tradition. A succinct exposition of each authors most worthwhile works follows, usually with some editorial comments. While the criticisms are of necessity concise, they are usually valuable primers on the subjects philosophy and thematic bent. Furthermore, the essays allow Fadiman in particular to elucidate the complex and often reciprocal lines of influence among the worlds major writers. Thus we can discern, for example, the influences of Laurence Sterne, Jane Austen, and George Eliots influence on Joseph Conrad, and Conrads subsequent influence on D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and others. Even in these brief treatments, one can appreciate the vast interconnectedness of the world of literature.
Unsurprisingly, The Plan is quite significantly skewed against 20th century authors, though almost half of the men and women mentioned lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Well aware of this dearth of modern writers, Fadiman and Major include an additional 100 of the most influential authors of the 20th century in a section entitled Going Further. Minimal notes on each inclusion accompany these listings, highlighting the most notable works and providing the barest of biographical information. The final pages of the book are given over to an extensive Bibliography and an easily accessible Index.
As a resource, The New Lifetime Reading Plan is of great value. For any who have an interest world literature, The Plan offers an excellent opportunity to meet some of the best minds in history, and to learn at least superficially how they have impacted the world we have inherited today. Even more than its value as a jumping-off point, The Plan offers a great deal of entertainment in and of itself. The essays by Fadiman, which comprise the bulk of the book, are wonderfully readable. He uses a firm, precise prose that is by turns illuminating, entertaining, and even downright funny. For example, in his essay on Laurence Sterne (author of Tristram Shandy), he mentions the fact that Sterne took holy orders, though of neither holiness nor orderliness did he ever possess a scrap. Even more biting is his evaluation of William Wordsworth: I know of no major literary figure who was so continuously and so favorably impressed by himself. This highly successful love affair dried up in him the springs of self-criticism; and as he had no humor to start with, four-fifths of his work turned out to be a crashing bore. Despite his feelings concerning the authors personalities, however, Fadiman never fails to adequately present their various geniuses, and always manages to highlight the best of their work (in his estimation) for inclusion in the Plan.
Majors contribution to the work consists in his essays concerning the works of Eastern authors. It is primarily due to his inclusion as a co-author that literature like The Bhagavad Gita and The Thousand and One Nights is a part of The Plan. I, for one, appreciate the expansion of the survey beyond the simply European realm. Now I am able to explore not only my own literary history, but that of my Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Arab acquaintances. It is a sad, but unfortunately true fact that I would not, in the absence of guides like Major, attempt these works; I am glad, therefore, of the prompting.
The Last Word
It is well that Fadiman, in his introduction, mentions that the list is not something to be got through. Being somewhat compulsive, I would naturally tend to make the reading of the list into a competition with myself, wherein I attempted to cram as much reading as possible into the least amount of time. After the leisurely approach taken by the authors of The Plan, however, I find myself more willing to linger, to attempt the books recommended by them at a slower pace. It is certainly true that some of the writers on the list cannot be sped through, at least not without missing broad points of symbolism and allegory that might otherwise be apprehended. I believe the most valuable characteristic of The New Lifetime Reading Plan is this: it motivates the reader to reevaluate the classics, and to regard them in a new light, not only as works of historical literature, but as documents that have spoken, and can continue to speak to us as products of our 21st century world. Will I, in my lifetime, read every book on The Plan? Perhaps not, but even the attempt will, I think, enlighten me. And that, if I read Fadiman and Major correctly, is the idea.
? SL, 2004