A Classic Post


If you’re anything like me (and I’m betting you are) you’ve got a huge list of books that you know you should have read but you haven’t. They’re the sort of books that you hear about (and are threatened with) in school. You might have been forced at far too young an age to read one of them and were bored to tears. You might see these books referenced in other, newer works and feel like you’re on the outside of an inside joke. You might hear them quoted by people who sound far smarter than you and you suspect that if only you’d read a few of those books you’d sound smart, too. This dreaded list of books probably includes names like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Melville, Milton, Dickens, Nabokov, Hugo, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. Over the years the weight of all those pages piles up and becomes so heavy that you fear you’ll never have the strength to turn them all. Let’s be honest, the Classics are scary. They are long, boring, hard to read, and scarcely relevant to the modern world.


Earlier this year I began meeting once a week with a couple of friends for the purpose of getting some of those books read–not read in an academic setting but read for fun, read for enjoyment, read because we wanted to rather than because we were made to. We started with Paradise Lost and we’ve gone through a variety of daunting books, finishing up A Tale of Two Cities a few weeks ago. The surprise of reading these classics has been how completely wrong most of our assumptions were. I wasn’t surprised that they were good books, of course they are, that’s why they’re still around. But what has continually surprised me is how contemporary they are.

Let’s take Paradise Lost, for instance. It’s an intimidating book, no doubt about it. It’s four hundred years old. It’s big. Its language is dense. It’s epic poetry. But the biggest hurdle for me was that I thought I knew the story–Adam and Eve. We all know what’s going to happen. What was the point of putting in the hours when I already knew the ending? Well, as with all great storytelling, the “what” is only half the fun. The”how” is where the magic happens. And in Paradise Lost the “how” is spectacular. There are passages so visual, so visionary, so cinematic that the pictures Milton paints are like scenes out of a comic book, or out of the Matrix. The action is vivid and epic in ways that can’t rightly be translated visually even in our age of digital cinema (although there’s a movie in the works that I have no hope will be any good.)

See for yourself. Read the following excerpt in which, after two days of war, Satan’s ranks assault Heaven with cannons and siege engines and the Lord’s army becomes enraged. The angel legions throw down their weapons in anger, and begin hurling hills and even the mountains themselves at the enemy:

Forthwith (behold the excellence, the power
Which God hath in his mighty Angels plac’d)
Their Arms away they threw, and to the Hills
Light as the Lightning glimpse they ran, they flew,
From their foundations loos’ning to and fro
They pluckt the seated Hills with all their load,
Rocks, Waters, Woods, and by the shaggy tops
Uplifting bore them in their hands: Amaze,
Be sure, and terror seiz’d the rebel Host,
When coming towards them so dread they saw
The bottom of the Mountains upward turn’d;
Till on those cursed Engines triple-row
They saw them whelm’d, and all their confidence
Under the weight of Mountains buried deep,
Themselves invaded next, and on their heads
Main Promontories flung, which in the Air
Came shadowing, and opprest whole Legions arm’d,
Their armor help’d their harm, crush’t in and bruis’d
Into their substance pent, which wrought them pain
Implacable, and many a dolorous groan,
Long struggling underneath, ere they could wind
Purest at first, now gross by sinning grown.

[Now Satan’s angels start throwing their own hills . . . ]

The rest in imitation to like Arms
Betook them, and the neighboring Hills uptore;
So Hills amid the Air enounter’d Hills
Hurl’d to and fro with jaculation dire,
That under ground they fought in dismal shade;
Infernal noise; War seem’d a civil Game
To this uproar; horrid confusion heapt
Upon confusion rose: and now all Heav’n
Had gone to wrack, with ruin overspread.

[Then the Almighty Father looks on all this and has had enough. He calls the Son forth and says. . .]

‘Effulgence of my Glory, Son belov’d,
Son in whose face invisible is beheld
Visibly, what by Deity I am,
And in whose hand what by Decree I do,
Second Omnipotence, two days are past,
Since Michael and his Powers went forth to tame
These disobedient; sore hath been their fight,
As likeliest was, when two such Foes met arm’d;
[. . . ]
War wearied hath perform’d what War can do,
And to disorder’d rage let loose the reins,
With Mountains as with Weapons arm’d, which makes
Wild work in Heav’n, and dangerous to the main.
Two days are therefore past, the third is thine;
For thee I have ordain’d it, and thus far
Have suffer’d, that the Glory may be thine
Of ending this great War, since none but Thou
Can end it.

[. . .]

Go then thou Mightiest in thy Father’s might,
Ascend my Chariot, guide the rapid Wheels
That shake Heav’n’s basis, bring forth all my War,
My Bow and Thunder, my Almighty Arms
Gird on, and Sword upon thy puissant Thigh;
Pursue these sons of Darkness, drive them out
From all Heav’n’s bounds into the utter Deep:
There let them learn, as likes them, to despise
God and Messiah his anointed King.’

[. . .]

So said, he o’er his Scepter bowing, rose
From the right hand of Glory where he sat,
And the third sacred Morn began to shine
Dawning through Heav’n.

. . . and then it starts to get good.

All throughout these scenes of staggering breadth, beauty, and sheer, gosh-wow, eye-popping action (written by a blind man no less) is the gospel—the gospel in ways that you’ve scarcely imagined. A gospel in which Christ is envisioned as Heaven’s greatest champion, charging across the empyrean on a great chariot, the enemy fleeing before him, preferring to cast themselves voluntarily into the gaping abyss rather than risk the fury of the Son. You may have heard that Satan is portrayed as a sympathetic figure but that’s a claim that embraces a vulgar misreading of the story. Milton leaves no doubt that Christ is the hero of creation.

So here in a book that predates cinema by three hundred years, is an adventure so grand that nothing I’ve ever seen with my eyes can match it.

Another example of how wrong assumptions can be comes from Tolstoy. I haven’t read his novels yet but after reading two of his short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Master and Man, I’m aching to. What I expected was stuffy Russian society, clunky, boring prose, and perhaps a few insights into the time period. What I got were stories that read as if they’d been written yesterday in America. In fresh, lively, and often hilarious writing, Tolstoy points out the emptiness of consumerism and materialism and corporate ladder-climbing. When the vain Ivan Ilyich decorates his new house, Tolstoy tells us that the result was a house that was made to look somewhat richer than it was, yet never so rich as to be actually so, the result being that in Ivan’s effort to distinguish himself from (and look richer than) his neighbors, he invariably looked exactly like them. Tolstoy could be describing any suburb in America. The story is 150 years old and yet thoroughly contemporary.

One more example and I’ll wrap this up. A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’ style is incredibly cinematic. He turns his environments themselves into actors, infusing them with character and vivid color. The ever-present mob of Paris revolutionaries becomes a raging ocean surging and breaking in the streets. The district of St. Antoine, at the center of the revolution, becomes a bloodthirsty giant described as a madman who’s got his blood up and has gone in search of vengeance. And worst of all, La Guillotine, the dread mistress, insatiable and requiring of Paris her daily wine. Everything is alive. The city. The streets. The grindstone and the Bastille. And amid the seething madness of the Reign of Terror, a small family is caught in the swift current, swept along, and saved by an unlooked for savior. We all know the last lines of the book, but what a journey it is to get there. So, so good. “It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done . . .”

The thing about a good ending like that is that it’s got to be earned. And maybe that’s what classics do best. They earn their status, and they force us to earn their rewards. Are they hard to read sometimes? Yep, you bet. They make you work for it. But they deliver. The last chapter of A Tale of Two Cities might be one of the most beautiful there is. I’m glad I put in the hours and earned the right to appreciate it. Boring? Stuffy? Irrelevant? Nonsense. Do yourself a favor. Find a friend or two. Pluck one of those musty old books off the shelf, you know the ones I mean, the good ones. Start turning those pages. You might be surprised at what you find.

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


  1. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    This is a great post though I’m still intimidated by the books you mention. I had to be gently encouraged to read some modern classics this year, such as Gone with the Wind, a book I thought I’d have no use for since I’ve seen the movie so many times. Was I ever wrong. It is now one of my favorite books of all time and sometimes I feel rather obsessed with it. Like you mention, there is much to be said about the relevant nature of it to issues today, but you do have to wade through 300 pages of characterization to get to the good part. And then it’s nonstop fun. I do feel a little embarrassed to be mentioning it on a post about older classics, but I hold firm that it’s not a fluffy book, a claim made I believe because it’s a book written by a woman about a woman and has quite a love story in it. 🙂

    Maybe one day I’ll be able to touch those European classics–maybe like one a year!

  2. Jodi K

    This year I read Alexandre Dumas for the first time and was pleasantly surprised. He seems like an author you would enjoy. The Count of Monte Cristo is my favorite, but it’s Tolstoyishly long. My second suggestion is the action-packed and hilarious The Three Musketeers. What’s even more interesting is to read these books back-to-back, because they present such a contrast it is hard to imagine them coming from the mind of one man.

    I’m trying to gather the courage to attempt Paradise Lost. Thanks for the nudge.

  3. Shostagirl

    Ooh, I like Becca’s idea. I’ve been looking for a good book reading group!
    Tolstoy is my favorite. I studied history in school, and Russian history is particularly fascinating. War and Peace does have a LOT of history in it… hundreds of pages at a time of it! It’s such a great read though.
    I would recommend beginning with Resurrection. I love how Tolstoy always illustrates redemption in powerful and unexpected ways. Resurrection is also less intimidating than Anna Karenina and War & Peace because it’s a much more expected length.
    I haven’t read Paradise Lost or A Tale of Two Cities though, so I’ll work on those!
    Thank you for bringing up this discussion!

  4. Dan Kulp

    Might I plug Librivox.org.
    For my work commute, I listen to many more than I read. I’ve recently wrapped up listening to “A Tale of Two Cities” I struggled for the 1st third of the book. Once I understood the story more, it was tremendous. The last chapter is terrific.
    “A Christmas Carol” – I thought I knew the story and then was floored by the message that poured through. Such a short story I should have read it long ago.

    Little Women. My wife asked me to give this a listen & I’m glad she did. So much of this story will hang with me for a long time.

    “Treasure Island” by R.L. Stevenson. He is just a masterful story teller.
    “Kidnapped” also by R.L. Stevenson. I picked this up because it was one of his few popular stories during his time. I just wanted to drive in circles to hear more.

    Someday (soon?) I want to tackle “Don Quixote”. 42hrs of listening is intimidating though.

    Thank you for the tips on a few others (Tolstoy, Dumas, “Paradise Lost” – may be tough as a listen).

  5. Jazz

    Becca’s idea is really cool. My big sister kept tellong me that I should read Jane Austen, but I never did because I didn’t have anytime to read anything and I’m not the romantic type. Then one of our friends lent us a movie based on Sense and Sensabilty, Written by Jane Austen, with Alan Rickman in it playing a good guy. Being the Harry Potter fan I am, and having never seen this actor play a good guy, I decided to give it a go. And I loved it!!!! So then I got a Jane Austen app on my itouch and read it when ever I can.

  6. Micah

    I’ve got to admit, Tolstoy, Dostoyesvsky, Faulkner, and Hugo are all some of my favorite authors. But man, I just can’t do Dickens. I read A Tale of Two Cities last month, and I found it extremely pretentious. Listen to this scentence:

    “Some months had passed, the number of which was twelve…”

    It took me a week before I could get past that one scentence, everytime I would pick up the book where I had left off and I would read it I would be so annoyed that I would put the book right back down. Sure, the ending made the book worth reading, but with scentences like that, and its not the only one, I felt like I was reading a work by a student trying to achieve a word count.

  7. Shostagirl

    Dan- Don Quixote is totally worth it. It’s a great one to process in pieces as every time Cervante involves one story, his characters begin a story within a story. Occasionally that happens in many layers at once, and you forget for a moment which story you are in. It’s hysterical though! It would be great to listen to. I’m going to try that! Thanks for telling us about that site!

  8. Dave

    Great post, Pete. It made me want to read Paradise Lost, though I’m not sure I’d want to tackle it alone. I read Brothers Karamazov earlier this year and the whole time I was wishing I could share the journey with someone else to discuss the themes. These classics, I think, were written to be discussed with others. At any rate, I would also be interested in a reading group with RRers. Peace!

  9. Word Lily

    I loved Tale of Two Cities when I read it in school (the only Dickens I’ve enjoyed, though), and War and Peace is one of my all-time favorite books. Paradise Lost has never really interested me before, but this post is drawing me in! I really want to dig into the Russians more. But in 2011 I’m reading Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, and Les Miserables.

  10. Barbara

    I have an uncle who was forced as a boy to eat a bowl full of peas. Some fifty years later, he still can’t stand the sight of them and the taste makes him sick. I wonder if the way these classic texts are assigned and taught in academic settings is something like force-feeding peas 🙂

    The first book I thought about as I read this post was The Brothers Karamazov. Glad to see you enjoyed it, Dave, but it was one of my painful academic experiences. Lord, I thought that book would never end. But that’s been a long while back…I’ve since considered having another go at it. As others have said, though…the idea of taking up the classics in community is far more appealing.

  11. Fellow Traveler

    Really interesting post, and great recommendations!

    I read Paradise Lost twice, once in highschool and again in college, and it’s quite a poem! I will say that speaking in sheer “poetic criticism” terms, Milton is not the greatest poet ever. Oh, no denying he had a tremendous gift, and he has his great moments in this poem, but parts of it do get somewhat clunky. Believe it or not, I actually think the battle scene is one of the weakest parts of the poem–to me it comes off a bit cartoonish. Angels throwing mountains on top of each other? Really? But hey, if that’s what leads somebody to pick it up, rest assured that it gets much better than that. 🙂

    The character of Satan is fascinating to watch as he develops throughout the poem. When you first see him, he seems like this grand, heroic figure (which is what has led people to think Milton intends to portray him sympathetically). But it’s all downhill from there…

    For those who are thinking of tackling the poem, I highly recommend you pick up Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost first. It’s an invaluable resource and will help guide you through what could seem like kind of a daunting literary excursion.

  12. Aaron Roughton

    I haven’t read a piece of classical literature since AP English in the 11th grade, but I’ve been wondering about it again. No joking, the RR has re-awakened my love for reading in the past few years. Thanks for this post Pete.

  13. Jen

    I seriously believe The Death of Ivan Ilych is the story that made me fall in love with literature. I wrote a paper on it in my freshman year of college (which probably should have ruined it for me) and after I started picking it apart, I was so captivated by the story, the characterization, and all the deeper ideas and symbolism woven into it. The ending still haunts me. I love Tolstoy’s short stories, but I haven’t worked up the nerve to read one of his novels yet.

    Come to think of it, that particular class is what made me finally appreciate Shakespeare and turned me into a book nerd… thank God for awesome English teachers! 🙂

    I also think a RR reading group is a fantastic idea! I hope you seriously consider that for the new year. I missed a lot of classics in high school and college, and would love a little motivation from some bookish friends.

  14. Laura Peterson

    It’s the latter. Strange. Basically what I had to add was – the DailyLit website is great. Small snippets of the classics for free in your email once a day. Makes coffee breaks more fun.

  15. Shelley

    I was/am the odd duck.

    In 7th grade AP English I asked my teacher if I could read Dante’s “Inferno” for my extra reading pages. He moved his eyes to awknowledge me, not his head, and without a smile said, “Suit yourself, just write me a summary in your own words so I can count the pages of reading toward your total for the month.” I wonder (now) if he actually believed that I would complete the reading, let alone follow the complex themes. But I did as best I could and earned those pages! That was that, and after the journey, I became an avid hiker through the world of classic literature.

    Many have noted The Brothers Karamazov. I fortunately waded through the novel with a group of amazing people and professors in the mountains near Ashland, OR. We also read David James Duncan’s novel “The Brother’s K” which parallels themes of Dostoyesvsky’s but takes place in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. I recommended reading both and searching for those connections.

    Thank you for reminding me of the richness held in the classics.

  16. Becca

    I should have included this earlier… but TODDLER! This website shows some of the books recommended by _A Well-Educated Mind_. It looks only partial, however.


    Bauer’s book is more helpful than a book list, because it provides a synopsis with each book, describing how each book fits into the context of history (philosophically and sociologically). It is almost like a survey of literature and history through the ages. (Though primarily Western.)

    Bauer’s a prof of literature at William and Mary – and a former homeschooler. Her hubby is a pastor, I think. Sharp gal.

    She offers a summary of five literary genres: fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry, along with tips for how to read each of those types. And she gives encouragement and advice for those who are not accustomed to this type of reading.

    I particularly appreciate Bauer’s additional material that shows the progression of thought through history. (Ancient, to Medieval, to Renaissance, to Enlightenment, to Romanticism, to Relativism, to Skepticism, to Postmodernism, etc.)

    One of my favorite profs used to constantly urge us to know where we were in time. I think this book does a decent job of providing that. Not just suggesting reading, but also reading in the context of the movement of history. I love it. And would love to find some others to go charge through it with, because I have intended to tackle this book for years but haven’t had any accountability. 🙂

  17. Ebookwormy

    i would love to endeavor tackling Susan Wise Bauer with you. Are you perhaps on Goodreads.com? a reading group can be set up there.

  18. Brad Griffith

    This post comes at a good time for me. Some friends and I plan to start a book club in the new year: “A Year with the Classics.” Definitely see some titles here that we should cover. Any other suggestions would be helpful, too.

  19. J. A. Roelfsema


    I’ve got to recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy if you loved Paradise Lost. Epic poetry, vivid scenes, centered on Christ (He it was who has riven hell, as Dante sees it), and poetry at its finest earn such recommendation. But, should your group select it, you must not stop after only Inferno as too many have done, but must read the entire “trilogy”. I recommend Anthony Esolen’s translation available from Random House.

    Thanks for the post, a great reminder.


  20. Toni W

    And might I add to all of the above that most all of the classics are available for free download at Amazon. Something to consider, as some of these books could be used to anchor a small boat in a storm.

    Love the classics!

  21. Fellow Traveler

    In my opinion, Dante’s Divine Comedy is better as poetry than Milton’s Paradise Lost. Great stuff. If you do tackle it though, be prepared for some HEAVY Catholicism. 😉 Also just a lot of “Roman” stuff in general. Dante had a thing about Rome.

    But I echo the previous commenter, don’t stop at the Inferno.

  22. Leigh Mc

    Several years ago I read Paradise Lost ALOUD w/ a group of friends. We met for several weeks and took turns reading and listening. I loved it, but I’m not sure I would have finished without “the brotherhood.” And Faulkner. Well. I read “As I Lay Dying” as a 10th grader and I think that cured me…for life. If anyone out there would like to put in a good word on his behalf, speak now, or…well, you know.

  23. Kenny Clark

    Rats! And I just got my copy of Fiddler’s Green in the mail today. Guess it’ll have to wait…


  24. Becca

    Yoyo, ebookwormy. Are you talking about the “goodreads” on facebook or the independent site? Also, do you know if those two interconnect? (I typically use weRead on FB, but I could switch.)

    I’m game for trying. If Pete or another RR Captain wants to champion the book club cause within the RR, I’m actually more eager to follow than lead. 😉 We just adopted a little three-year-old (plus we have two older kids), so I’m a little frazzled of late. But I can pick up the baton if necessary. Or, I’m game to follow you.

    I’ll post my email on the blog link you can find by clicking on my name. Hurrah! I’m excited!


    P.S. Ideally, I’d like to mix in some of the books the RR authors are writing in with the classics. If that sounds good to everyone else.

  25. Heath Croft

    Surprising discussion because Oprah just announced today that “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Great Expectations” are the new book club selections for the winter. Maybe Pete was on to something last night.

  26. Pete Peterson


    Oprah always calls me before she makes these decisions.

    You guys are welcome to do the book club thing but it’s not something I’ve got time to set up or lead. Let us know where you discussion is, though.

  27. Amy @ My Friend Amy

    Kate and I have an unofficial “discuss the RR authors books” bookclub on facebook, we recently discussed The Charlatan’s Boy: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=359300763404

    Just an FYI–this is the perfect crowd for the club. And just because I can’t resist there are tons of bloggers who host readalongs for various classics or reading challenges that encourage you to read different kinds of books. I’m not saying this to discourage the Rabbit Room starting a book club (because I think that would be awesome!), just that some people might be interested in knowing another source where you can find people interested in books and companionship for the journey of undertaking them.

    The Novel Challenge blog is a good source for finding a lot of this stuff: http://novelchallenges.blogspot.com/

  28. Becca

    ebookwormy, how does that site work? Could a different volunteer lead each book, or is there one permanent moderator? The thought of leading something like that long-term might be too much for any one person, unless there’s a lit prof among us.

  29. Shelley

    Whoa, it’s been a long day. (Becca…. kids:) I did tackle the entire Divine Comedy way back when, I’m so grateful my teacher ws supportive of my endeavor and helped me to comprehend much of Dante’s themes. I think “Inferno” stuck with me for two years later I revisted Dante when our Concert Band played “The Inferno” from Robert W. Smith’ Symphony No. 1 “The Divine Comedy” (as well as the rest) for competition.

    The link to Novel Challenge has my mind ignited, I would lean more toward participating through a blog rather than Facebook since I choose not to utilize the later. Becca… I admire your ambition and excitment, it’s contagious!

  30. Heath Croft

    @Amy. I’ve waited my entire life to read “Gone With the Wind” and every year I say the same thing. “This year I’m going to read it.” For some reason, it’s just always been such a daunting task to me. I was able to get a little over 100 pages once and then I quit. I’ve read longer books than that so I don’t think it’s just the length that frightens me. I had a high school teacher once that I promised that I would read it someday and find her and let her know. She passed a couple years ago and I even think about reading it in honor of her. So, maybe 2011 will be the year. As for now, I’m a big Oprah person when it comes to books so I’m gonna start “A Tale of Two Cities” and see what’s in store.

  31. Canaan Bound

    I especially ove these lines: “‘Effulgence of my Glory, Son belov’d / Son in whose face invisible is beheld / Visibly, what by Deity I am…” Thanks, Pete!

    Has anyone seen the movie The Last Station? Wondering if it’s true to the writings and life of Tolstoy…????

    Also, I just ordered Dickens’ Little Dorrit a couple of days ago. I was drawn in by the BBC mini series (SUPERBly done, in case you were wondering) and can’t wait to get my hands on the book!

  32. Fellow Traveler

    “If Jesus came back today/They’d try to book him on the Oprah Winfrey show…”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.


  33. Jill

    woah. pete, you lost me as soon as you inserted the excerpt from Paradise Lost.
    I’ll be doing my best with ‘the classics’ if I would just go ahead and order your books to read.
    That’s a start anyway, right?

  34. Dryad

    Jazz, that makes me happy.
    Also, the Rabbit Room bookclub would be awesome.
    Has anyone noticed that most bookclubs for college age and younger revolve around popular tripe? (for want of a nicer word)
    Is it the same for adults?

  35. Becky

    I have only read excerpts of Paradise Lost, but I will have to add it to my “To Read” list. I also have never read any Tolstoy, but I think starting with short stories is within my realm right now.

    I really enjoyed “A Tale of Two Cities” when I had to read it in high school. Some day I may reread it, but there’s so many good books and so little time.

    One other book I would suggest is “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky (yes, I had to look up how to spell his name). It is another book that I read in high school and thought was very good, though I’m sure many parts of the book went over my head.

  36. Nicole M

    Oh I love this post!! I have read and love a good number of the classics (yay for Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Bronte Sisters!!) but I’ll be honest, the Russian authors and Paradise Lost have been on my “to read” list for a very long time because they frighten me so much. I think I probably need a reading group to help keep me accountable. Besides, it would be super fun to talk about the book with them.

    Similarly to Word Lily, Tale of Two Cities was the only Dickens I’ve really enjoyed. I’ve read David Copperfield and Great Expectations just seemed to drag. Although, now that I think about it, I listened to Oliver Twist on my commutes to and from work and school and there were several times I stayed parked in my driveway “just to see what happened”.

  37. Word Lily

    I did enjoy the BBC miniseries of Little Dorrit, mentioned above. I think a huge part of that enjoyment resulted from watching it with people smarter than me, who’ve read a lot more Dickens, though.

  38. Benjamin

    Shelly- The Brothers K by David James Duncan is one of my all time favorite books. Love to see it get mentioned here @theRR.

  39. Shelley

    Becca… thanks for the non-Facebook link! I’ll dig in when I’m not on a break between instructing sessions at home. And Benjamin, always a welcome to discover a kindred spirit regarding favorite books!

  40. Becca

    No problem, Shelley. I tried to adjust our goodread.com settings so anyone could add books and start discussions. That way conversations about multiple books can take place simultaneously.

    If you guys run into any problems, please let me know. I don’t have a lot of time to lead the group, so volunteers willing to co-moderate are welcome. Or, if one of the RR leaders wants to just take the reigns completely, let me know.

    Method-wise, if folks want to post whatever they are reading and take the lead on discussing that particular piece, that would be great. (I don’t think the group should be limited to classics. I’d like a place to discuss other reads as well.)

    Don Quixote is the first book listed in the Well-Educated Mind. I’m probably going to start that in January. (Unless you guys don’t hush about the Russian authors. They are some of my favorites, and the temptation is growing to wander.) Also, I added some RR books to our shelf. Because they are classics waiting for age. 🙂

    Anyway, welcome aboard. Here’s the link again, if needed.


  41. luaphacim

    Dittos, Pete! (Post)Modern critics tend to kind of ravage Milton, but my only real complaint on Paradise Lost is that it makes Satan a little too sympathetic. Which is great literature, really, but wasn’t too great for my soul when I read this poem in grad school…


  42. Fellow Traveler

    Actually, if you read Lewis’s Preface, you’ll see that Milton is actually pretty clever in the way he does Satan. It’s a brilliant portrait really. Satan only SEEMS to be grand and lofty at the beginning, but he chooses his own fate, and throughout we see him become gradually baser and pettier. At the end of the day, in Lewis’s word, “the devil is an ass.” 🙂

  43. Jonathan Rogers


    Fellow Traveler, I’m glad you brought up CS Lewis’ Preface to Paradise Lost. There’s no better starting place for anybody who wants help making sense of Paradise Lost.

    luaphacim, I don’t think you’re off-base when you say there’s something sympathetic about Satan in PL. But that doesn’t make him the hero, nor does it suggest that Milton was “of the Devil’s party” as Blake (wasn’t it Blake?) said. In his remarkable book Surprised By Sin, Stanley Fish makes the case that Milton, in making Satan sympathetic, springs a trap for the reader. We realize that we are drawn to this figure, and that gives us reason to examine ourselves. Realizing our own sinfulness is a first step toward turning toward the Christ who is the real hero of PL.

    Which is to say, luaphacim, it might not have been a bad thing for your soul to realize that you admired the Satan character more than you thought you should have.

    Milton’s theology can get goofy, but, as far as I can tell, his making Satan somewhat sympathetic isn’t an example of his heterodoxy.

  44. Fellow Traveler

    Yeah, Milton was an Arian, but just pretend you don’t know that, because he hides it fairly well here. The one slip is that he kind of sets up the Son as Satan’s natural opposite in the heavenly war, when really that role should be filled by Michael the Archangel.

  45. Pete Peterson

    “The one slip is that he kind of sets up the Son as Satan’s natural opposite in the heavenly war”

    Milton goes to great lengths to demonstrate the absolute superiority of Christ at every opportunity. When Christ sets foot on the battlefield there’s not even a fight. It’s a rout. The satanic army simply flees. Satan tries to sell himself as Christ’s equal but Milton never does and he goes out of his way to make sure the reader knows it.

    “really that role should be filled by Michael the Archangel.”

    Not sure what you mean by that.

  46. Jonathan Rogers


    It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything resembling Milton scholarship, but as I remember, Fellow Traveler has it about right. By “that role should be filled by Michael,” FT is saying that because Satan was a fallen angel, his natural opposite should be an unfallen angel–Michael. To set Satan up as the opposite of Christ is a theological error. I don’t remember the details of the reasons why, but the position that FT expresses–that Milton’s Aryan undergarments show when he sets up Satan as the Son’s opposite–is pretty standard among Milton scholars. Maybe FT can give some of the details.

  47. Pete Peterson

    In that context it seems like that’s exactly what happens in the war.

    Satan and Michael meet in single combat. Michael wins. The armies meet and fight to a standstill. On the third day, God sends Christ in to resolve the situation decisively.

  48. Fellow Traveler

    I think I have Lewis on my side here… as I recall he makes the same point. 🙂

    But the thing is that even though Michael beats Satan in their little combat, Satan heals right up and comes back for the next round. The battle isn’t over. The Son has to come and do what Michael by himself apparently was unable to do.

    But in Revelation 12, there’s no implication that Michael needed any help whatsoever. Granted, the account is a bit spare, but this is how I have it in my KJV:

    7. And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels,

    8. And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven.

    9. And the great dragon was cast out…

    The most natural interpretation seems to be that Satan and his minions warred with Michael and his angels, and Michael ultimately showed him the door. No indication of a “stand-still” where Christ the Son has to come in and save the day. Now granted, you could say that Milton’s rendering doesn’t strictly speaking contradict the passage, but it does seem stretching it a bit.

    Another place where Milton’s theology is a bit off is where he implies that the elevation of the Son was what ticked Satan off–as though there was one specific moment when the Father said, “All right guys, this is your new leader, and he commands your adoration.” Now Milton actually does the actual inter-workings of this fairly well, but when you think about it, the concept itself doesn’t quite mesh with the orthodox view of the Son.

    And actually Milton wrote a treatise called The Christian Doctrine in which he says that God the Father sort of allowed his deity to “rub off” on God the Son. Very weird concept–like the Father was “giving” or “sharing” his deity. Which is obviously incorrect.

  49. Joshua.k.Fraser

    They look daunting, but Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are SO much easier to read than people think.

    Tolstoy’s “War & Peace”, and “What men live by & other tales” are wonderful. W&P has fully fleshed characters going through unimaginable trials, and responding accordingly. What men live by is a great collection of fables, that to me are much more enjoyable than Aesops.

    As for Dostoevsky, his body of work is, well, I’m not sure what you can call it. Worldview wresting matches, maybe? I spent 2 years reading his novels almost exclusively. The most moving of his works are definitely “House of the Dead” ,followed closely by the epilogue of “Crime & Punishment”.

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