View Full Version : Which of these classic books should I read first?

08-30-2001, 10:16 PM
I'm looking for something interesting to read. Despite the fact that I read all sorts of weird stuff all over the Internet, I realized that I too rarely read actual books. Having decided to remedy this, I've bought a few books that were recommended various places.

The thing is, I don't know which I should begin with. Therefore, in one of my first ever IMHO posts, I'm asking you, the Millions, to tell me which of these books I should read and why.

The candidates:

"Walden", Henry David Thoreau
"The Sound and the Fury", William Faulkner
"Atlas Shrugged", Ayn Rand
"Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", Robert Pirsig
"Ulysses", James Joyce

(I'm into philosophy and psychology, hence most of the above choices.)

I started reading Zen some time ago, but stopped (this is all too common in my career as a reader). The others I haven't begun, but was intrigued by the themes.

Any opinions?

08-30-2001, 10:33 PM
Personally, I'd read either "Walden" (I love Thoreau) or "Zen" since you've already started it. The other three are books I want to read, but don't have the time to do so right now. And so I shall sit here quietly, envying you.


08-30-2001, 10:36 PM
_The Sound and the Fury_, I'd say. Then again, I've never read Faulkner, despite being an English major. Shame on me. What is comes down to is, I like the title :). _Ulysses_ is worthwhile, but a major pain in the ass, in my opinion. The others, I haven't read.

custard dragon
08-30-2001, 10:47 PM
This is kind of an odd list of books. I would recommend that you finish Zen, then read Walden. Both of these are readily accessible to someone unused to reading books. After that you might move on to the Faulkner, although I would recommend that you read some other novels first to get a sense of the form. Besides, Zen and Walden will likely make you want to read other authors - most notably Plato.

You might want to save Ulysses for a little later.

Don't read the Ayn Rand. It will likely put you off books altogether.

08-30-2001, 10:54 PM
Read the Faulkner book, then toss out the others. Shred the Rand book before throwing it out.

Larry Mudd
08-30-2001, 11:12 PM

However, it can derange you..
I read it every coupla years and it's always fresh.

Walden is good, too, but Ulysess is probably the best book ever published.

Ayn Rand has spoiled plenty of good pulp. Blech.

Heath Doolin
08-30-2001, 11:41 PM

and if you liked that type of book...may I suggest one called "Surfing the Himalayas". Its about a snowboarder who meets a Buddhist Monk while doing the title.

I kept reading and saying this has Zen all over it.

08-30-2001, 11:42 PM
Don't listen to these other (and I use the term loosely) people. Read "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand and then read "Atlas Shrugged". They are amazing books.

note: I was just kidding about the people remark. Anyone who doesn't like Ayn Rand isn't a person at all (hehe another joke - who needs the comedy channel when you have me)

08-31-2001, 12:09 AM
I'm not a big fan of the short things that I've read of Thoreau. It was mostly just short essays/stories or excertpts from Walden when I was in HS, but I didn't think they were too thrilling.

I've also hear bad things about Thoreau:

1. There are entire chapters in Walden that are devoted to interesting things like what the water level in the pond is.

2. That Thoreau pretty much just rips off Emerson.

Those are just two things that I heard, and were made somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Those comments combined with my past experience is enough to make me not want to read any more Thoreau.

08-31-2001, 12:19 AM
HI! If you want to read Faulkner, start with something other than "Fury". It's difficult. Have fun!

08-31-2001, 12:30 AM
Atlas Shrugged is an interesting book and will certainly help you understand many, many Internet discussions. However, as a work of literature, it's garbage, basically as good as a Harlequin Romance.

I highly recommend The Sound and the Fury. It is truly a masterpeice of English literature, and a pleasure to read.

08-31-2001, 12:55 AM
Moderator's note:

This sure asks for an opinion but the topic seems soooo well suited to our new Cafe Society forum I'm moving it over there.

Besides, Ike and Euty love this kinda stuff. They're the two huddled up smoking Gitanes, sipping Bellinis and arguing over Disney shorts.*

*Ike is the one wearing Little Mermaid shorts.

08-31-2001, 01:17 AM
I'd say start with Zen mostly because you've already started, then do Walden. These two are remarkably nice to contrast with Atlas Shrugged, as a contrast between philosophical axes to grind done (for the most part) gently as opposed to with ranting didactics. There are two large camps of determinedly goofy folks who turn into self-caricatures, slavishly for and slavishly against--both groups are prominent enough that it overshadows the more reasonable but less noticeable majority who can simply read it.

I very much agree with the assessment of Ulysses as worthwhile, but sort of a pain in the ass. The least accessible on the list that I know of--I haven't read the Faulkner, but I have read As I Lay Dying, and Joyce still was ahead in the pain-in-the-ass contest with that one.

08-31-2001, 05:34 AM
If you DO decide to do Atlas Shrugged, either skip the chapter John Galt Speaks and read the rest of the book, or read that chapter and skip the rest of the book. It is noting but a three hour speech, written as such. No breaks from narrative AT ALL. not even an 'he paused, sipped some water, and continued'. Just remember, if you do skip the rest rest of the book, you'll miss out on some of the most stilted 'sex scenes' (and I'm using the term loosely) you'll ever read. (After all, there's nothing that turns on a multi-millionaire heiress quite so much as being roughly taken on a burlap bag in a railroad tunnel under the city.)

Ukulele Ike
08-31-2001, 06:07 AM
Walden first. It's short. Then Ulysses.

How old are you, anyway? I read Ulysses in collitch, at the age of seventeen, and found it bewildering. Read it again at 35 and was astounded. You have to do some living before it can make any sense to you, IMHO. I don't know WHAT they're thinking, giving it to teenagers.

Ayn Rand's a crazy ol' witch. Read Anthem...you can learn all you need to know about her in fewer than 200 pages.

re: Faulkner: I liked Absalom, Absalom better.

Zen struck me as 1970s-style pop psych/lit (Jonathan Livingston Seagull without the pictures) back when I read it in the 1970s, although there are hundreds of thousands who will argue with me. You've got better things to read first.

08-31-2001, 07:01 AM
Originally posted by Spooky
HI! If you want to read Faulkner, start with something other than "Fury". It's difficult. Have fun!

Difficult? That book really made me angry. I hated it all the way through, but I finished it. (Nobody made me, either.) However, it completely put me off reading anything else by Faulkner. I don't mind difficult books, love 'em in fact, but I really hated this one.

08-31-2001, 07:11 AM
Boy, did I not like Zen and the blah blah blah. I thought there was too much pop psychology, not enough Zen and I found the narrator unbelievably annoying.

As for the other titles, well, I started both The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses and couldn't finish either one. And I majored in English Lit.

And I enjoyed Ayn Rand, although I see not many people agree with me. I read her books at least five years ago, though, so maybe I'd see them differently now.

I know you didn't ask, but I think everyone should read The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Middlemarch and many, many others that I won't go into.

As for Walden, I actually have no opinion.

08-31-2001, 07:39 AM
Another English Lit Major speaking up -

I would read something easier by Joyce, I would start with Dubliners - his book of short stories. They are absolutely wonderful.

Ulysses is a wonderful book but if I hadn't read it for a class I don't think I would have "gotten" everything - Joyce throws a lot at you.

gallows fodder
08-31-2001, 08:02 AM
OOooh, I loved The Sound and the Fury but I agree that it's kind of difficult to get into (though the second chapter is a work of art), especially if you've never read any Faulkner before.

I would recommend Light in August, which is much more coherent and yet still a good taste of Faulkner's genius.

gallows fodder
08-31-2001, 08:05 AM
Oh, and with Joyce, I would recommend A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man over Ulysses.

If you really like books that are simultaneously beautiful and incomprehensible, I would recommend Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

Ukulele Ike
08-31-2001, 08:08 AM
Originally posted by gallows fodder
I would recommend Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

Yeah Yeah Yeah!

GREAT book!

08-31-2001, 09:52 AM
Originally posted by RickJay
I highly recommend The Sound and the Fury. It is truly a masterpeice of English literature, and a pleasure to read. [/B]

I think that RickJay and I have exact opposite definitions of the word "pleasure". That book is painful! (But certainly worth reading, I must add.)

08-31-2001, 10:11 AM
I would definitely read Far From the Madding Crowd first, followed by War and Peace.

Read Ulysses if you want to say you did, but get a study guide and forget the idea of deriving any entertainment from it. At least you'll have a good excuse for a party every June 16. (And give yourself a prize if you make it past those damned oxen). Then follow it up with Proust's ROTP ...

Faulkner, a better drunk than writer. Sure, read him after you're through punishing yourself with Ulysses.

Rand and Pirsig certainly were (and continue to be in some circles) popular, but classic? Might as well pick up Johnathon Livingston Seagull as well. Nothing wrong with reading them. Mildly entertaining light reads.

IMO, the only keeper in your list is Walden.

08-31-2001, 10:30 AM
Toss the Rand and the Pirsig books into your paper recycling bin. They are both utter crap, responsible for ruining more impressionable minds than drugs and TV combined.

Read the Faulkner first. His narrative style takes soem geting used to, but he is, IMHO, the greatest American novelist, ever. His psychological insight and his verbal wizardry make him the crown jewel of American lit. I'd start off with Light in August first, though.

Ulysses is a phenomenal work, but you need to get a good annotated guide to read alongisde it in order to get some of the more obscure literary, mythological, and linguistic references. It helps to have read Homer's Odyssey first, since the events and characters are drawn from Homer.

Walden is a short, easy-to-read book, but it does have its slow moments.

My list of other authors you MUST read would include the following:
Thomas Hardy. I'd start with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge,or [/b] Far From the Madding Crowd[/b].

Marcel Proust. You should at least read Swann's Way, the first volume of his monumental work, In Search of Lost Time.

Anthony Trollope, for my money the greatest of the 19th century English novelists. Barchester Towers is a laugh out loud funny book

08-31-2001, 10:47 AM
[QUOTE]Originally posted by gobear
...his monumental work, In Search of Lost Time.

LOL. Made me giggle, remembering my buddy getting all worked up, "Absolutely nothing in the title can be translated as 'Remembrance.'"

I have my mom's collection of Trollope, with the bookmark where she placed it the evening she went to bed and didn't wake up.

Good to see another Hardy fan out there.

08-31-2001, 11:14 AM
I'll throw in my 2 pennies:

I agree with most of you about Ann Rand - her books stink. As literature, they don't make a blip on the radar.

And although I'm big on classics, I haven't read any of your llisted books (other than about 75 pages of Atlas Shrugged-I couldn't take anymore), so I can't offer you any advice.

But here's a couple you might consider:

The Power And The Glory
Graham Greene

I can't recommed this one enough-it's one of Greene's best novels IMO.

Hard Times
Charles Dickens

It's a very small book for Dickens, and bit more modern and hard-edged than his more famous books, but well worth the read.

Jim Harrison

My favorite Harrison novel. Just thinking about it makes me want to re-read it!

Also, try some collections of classic short stories/novellas. Get a collection of Henry James, or Poe, or Twain, etc. They're usaully pretty cheap and make for excellent bedtime reading! And with more difficult authors (Henry James comes to mind), it's an great way to test the waters before jumping in with some 500 page novel.

Chance the Gardener
08-31-2001, 11:19 AM
Walden is a good one to start with, particularly if you've never read many of the classics. If you have read many classics but not Walden, it's still good to pick it up. However, I think it serves you better if you read it when you're younger. Same with Catcher in the Rye.

I tried to hack through The Sound and the Fury in my early twenties and just couldn't do it. I've sworn to get back to it, but haven't yet. No comment for now.

Ulysses is not the one to start reading Joyce with. I have to go with gallows fodder and say that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a far better intro to Joyce.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, as others have pointed out, pop psychology and of little real worth. I can't say I found it very inspiring, but it was mildly entertaining. I'm reluctant to call it a "classic". A better word to describe it would be "overrated".

Atlas Shrugged is excellent if you have a birdcage. You'll be able to keep it lined for months. custard dragon is right: Ayn Rand will put you off books altogether. I read Atlas Shrugged some years ago, and it had that effect on me. I stopped reading for months afterward.

08-31-2001, 11:21 AM
Jim Harrison. Mmmm.
I'd really love to run into him in a dive on one of my may trips up to Michigan.

A Good Day to Die
Sun Dog

On another tack, was there ever a movie that had less to do with the book than Wolf? I'll toss this up as another post instead of hijacking this further.

08-31-2001, 12:45 PM
Originally posted by Dinsdale
Jim Harrison. Mmmm.
I'd really love to run into him in a dive on one of my may trips up to Michigan.

A Good Day to Die
Sun Dog

On another tack, was there ever a movie that had less to do with the book than Wolf? I'll toss this up as another post instead of hijacking this further.

Oh, I'll help you hijack it just a tiny bit more.

Yeah, Wolf was pretty far from the original stuff. It put me off seeing any more Harrison adaptions including Legends Of The Fall. I loved that book so much I couldn't bring myself to watch any movie adaption, no matter how good it may be.

09-04-2001, 09:57 AM
What the heck, I'll throw in an opposing view.

Walden first. I liked Thoreau, crusty old coot that he was.

I liked Atlas Shrugged. I will say that you can skip Galt's speech without much problem (if you haven't figured out his philosophy by then, you never will.) Take a break afterwards and read something totally unrelated and reasonably cheerful afterwards, though.

I'll second gobear's recommendation on Ulysses. Prepare to go slowly and mull thoroughly.

Zen was overrated. It won't kill you to read it, but I got very little out of it. You can say you've read it. Yee-hah.

I prefer Faulkner in limited doses. I found his short stories to be a better introduction to his style than his longer work. I personally did not care for The Sound and The Fury (and I'm trying to be polite here).

Good luck and enjoy.

09-04-2001, 10:43 AM
Cranky checks in: Cliffs Notes are not just for desperate high school students trying to get out of reading an assigned book. I suggest that if you find any of these a chore but want to read them anyway, go get a reader's guide like Cliffs Notes. That's the only way I could get through Faulkner myself. And it made me better appreciate the books I did like.

I tend to miss the significance of all things literary. This is an absurd trait to find in one who reads as much as I do, but I swear symbolism has to hit me over the head before I see it. I also can never remember the historical and cultural events of the time that make certain books so important. That's why I occasionally indulge in the booklets that guide you through the classics.

Angel of the Lord
09-04-2001, 01:20 PM
...I have to jump in here, if only to further discourage you from reading Atlas Shrugged. The book reads like a deranged political tract. It's good for kindling, and for pressing flowers, though, so you might want to keep it handy for those purposes.

If you want to substitute another book, try Crime and Punishment. Well worth the read, even though it's just as opinionated as Atlas

Also, a word on Cliff's Notes. . .those sometimes give interpretations that are considered by the literary establishment (i.e., your teacher) to be incorrect. So, if you read them, you run the risk of looking like an idiot. In some cases, the teacher will be familiar with the Cliff's Notes' interpretations, and will know that you haven't read the book.

Just a friendly warning! If you want to continue shirking, I'd advise you to use Bloom's notes...pretty much anything except Cliff's should be clean.

09-04-2001, 04:42 PM
Sheesh! does anyone have anything positive to say about Atlas Shrugged?!! Please???!! Lie if you have to!

My dad is the biggest Atlas Shrugged fan I know. For years he's been begging me to read it. "Kenny you have got to read this book... Kenny you must read it... you'll never read another book like it again... it's soooo brilliant... I so related to John Galt...etc, etc.".
And this goes on nearly everytime I come home "so Kenny, have you had a chance to check out AS yet"
-"no, haven't had much time lately Dad"
-(dissappointed smirk) "you really should read it".

It's really too damn big a book to read simply to appease someone. And with all the AS bashing here, and from posters whose opinions I respect, I think I'd rather be massaged with a salted cheese grater while nursing the flu than read it. Oh horrible existence, why do you mock me so?

Anyway, as to the OP, I think Crime and Punishment is a must read for all, though Notes from the Underground is also great and a much shorter intro to Dosteyevsky.
Certainly put 1984 high on your list of classics to read.
The Castle by Kafka is another great classic, but you may just want to jump out a window when you find out it was never completed. To remedy this, read The Trial instead. Not as good as The Castle IMO but at least it has an ending.

09-04-2001, 08:45 PM
Personally Occ, I dont care for most of the books on this OP , BUT my feeling is if you are curious about a book TRY IT! Don't let someone else make the decision for you, your taste may be different than theirs. As you can see there is a wide variety of opinion.. dive in and define your own taste!
Good Luck and Good Reading!

09-04-2001, 09:19 PM
Moe, I liked Atlas Shrugged. I found it interesting and thought-provoking, although more than a few dead horses were beaten.

I find myself increasingly reluctant to admit my enjoyment of it, though. Some people seem to regard liking that book as the hallmark of small-mindedness, and that anyone who digs it and finds it (god forbid) life-changing is revealing that this book is their first encounter with any idea more complex than how a puppet named Bert could really have pet pigeons.

Not that I feel that way, but people have said as much in other threads.

09-04-2001, 09:50 PM
Originally posted by Moe
1. Sheesh! does anyone have anything positive to say about Atlas Shrugged?!! Please???!! Lie if you have to!

2. The Castle by Kafka is another great classic, but you may just want to jump out a window when you find out it was never completed.
Another English major (for about two semesters) checking in.

0. Ignore the crap in the OP. Uniformly over-rated and self-indulgent. Dubliners is more accessible and enjoyable Joyce. Portrait is better Joyce. The same roles are taken by The Rievers and Light in August for Faulkner. Emerson is better Thoreau.

1. No. Positively insufferable and I read it when I was in high school and pretty insufferable and easily led. I should have been prime Rand material. I wasn't.

2. How can you tell? ;) OTOH, am I the only person who finds Kafka purposely funny?

09-04-2001, 10:25 PM
I'm going to second Cranky's recommendation for Cliff's Notes - particullarly for something like Ulysses. I didn't use them at all in college, but have gotten them since college for some of the stuff my book club has gone through - Le Mort de Arthur (impossible, even with the Cliff Notes), Les Miserables (the Cliff Notes told you exactly which 200 pages sequences you could skip completely), Middlemarch.

If you have trouble finishing books, I'd hold off on several of these and read the "readable" classics first. Nothing by Rand is readable, nor is Ulysses (although Joyce's short stories are), but, as with all literature YMMV.

09-08-2001, 01:07 PM
Originally posted by CrankyAsAnOldMan
Moe, I liked Atlas Shrugged. I found it interesting and thought-provoking, although more than a few dead horses were beaten.

I find myself increasingly reluctant to admit my enjoyment of it, though. Some people seem to regard liking that book as the hallmark of small-mindedness, and that anyone who digs it and finds it (god forbid) life-changing is revealing that this book is their first encounter with any idea more complex than how a puppet named Bert could really have pet pigeons.

Not that I feel that way, but people have said as much in other threads.

Hey, Cranky, I'll stand with you. Given the comments on this thread, I pulled my copy of Atlas Shrugged out and re-read it this week (it had been some years since I'd done so.) Guess what? I still liked the concepts, still liked the underlying messages and I still liked the character of Dagny. Do I think Rand could have eased up on some of her points? Probably. I didn't think Galt's speech was terribly necessary to the book, as I mentioned before.

It isn't an easy read in parts, but the underlying concepts are ones I tend to agree with. Logic over emotionalism. Independence named as one of the highest virtues. That there is a difference between living and just existing, and one should never settle for the latter. That you should think for yourself, and never let someone else do the thinking for you. That sex does not limit intelligence, nor what is within your grasp to achieve, but certain elements of society can and will attempt to place such limits on you. Given that these were all tenets I agreed with (and still do), I liked Atlas Shrugged.

Yet another reason I think it hit me hard when I first read it (13 or 14, I believe) was that it was one of the first 'literature' books I read where the main character was not only a woman, but an intelligent woman of strong character and beliefs, in a non-traditional role, who was unashamed to be what she was and unashamed to want what she did. Most of the other recommended classics I'd read up to that point featured women not at all or at best, dependent helpmates. (Conrad's Heart of Darkness being a prime example.) That being said, it's no wonder this one appealed to me. Given when Rand was writing, Dagny's portrayal was more than a little unusual to see also.

As far as anti-Randers go --well, if we all liked the same thing, the book market would crash and a whole lot of people would be out of business. So long as we all don't go around slaughtering each other's sacred cows, we get along just fine. :)

09-08-2001, 02:10 PM
Skip the Faulkner. As an English major I was forced to read much of his writings and found 90% of it to be heavy handed tripe. (Though I will say that the last chapter of Light in August was great.) I could never make it through anything by Ayn Rand.

Zen is a light read, but not horrible. Walden seemed to be slow and I couldn't make it through it. As for the Joyce, I'd tackle the other books by him that have been suggested before I went for Ulysses.

Finally, you might try reading Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. His style's a little hard to get a handle on at first (it helps if you've read Joyce's works before), but there's a little something in there for everyone.

09-08-2001, 05:34 PM
Ayn Rand was not a fiction writer. She was a political philospher who happened to write bad fiction. If you want to understand Rand, and I think everyone should have a basic grasp of her philosophy, read some of her essays. No predictable plots, no cardboard characters, no reprehensible styles.

Case in point: I read Anthem a while back. I kept wating for it to get good, and it really never did. It dragged on for too long, and then stopped with a predictable ending. Not enjoyable at all. The style was reminiscent of a high schooler's first attempt at 'creative writing', the plot could have been thought up by a committee of movie execs, and the characters displayed little by way of depth.

Then I read The Virtue of Being Selfish, a collection of essays by her and her contemporaries. And I loved it. That work spoke to philosophies I had been creating on my own, and gave me new concepts to think about. My estimation of Rand jumped. Why she ever wrote fiction is beyond me, but her essays deserve to be read.

Looking down, I see Lionors has preceeded me, but with something positive to say about her fiction. Maybe Anthem just wasn't her best work. But I got a lot more out of her essays than I ever did out of her fiction.

ITR champion
09-08-2001, 06:21 PM
Faulkner is my second favorite author after Shakespeare, but he does take some getting used to. I would recommend trying either The Hamlet or some of his short stories before you move on to The Sound and the Fury. In Faulkner novels, you should read slowly, and after each scene, stop and think about where it fits in the overall narrative.

As for Ulysses, it can't hurt to start it, and you'll soon find out whether you like Joyce's style or not. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is much shorter and easier to follow.

I only got through about 600 pages of Atlas Shrugged, but I did read the entire Cliffs Notes, and that alone is pretty tedious. Too many characters going through the same process of self discovery, too many annoying subplots, too long, too tedious, too repetitive.

I would strongly recommend Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure by Hardy as well.

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