Summer reading countdown: The 5 most entertaining literary classics

The Fourth of July kicks off the summer vacation season, providing some readers with their only opportunity all year to curl up with a good book for an extended period. Here we present a few you may have thought about getting around to for years, only to be scared off by their vintage, reputation or girth--but that truly are entertaining.

The word "classic" usually signifies drudgery. Part of the fault lies with the American educational system, which instills philistinism from an early age by selecting some of the dreariest old tomes for required reading. (I'm not naming names, but you know which ones they are.) By the time most people get out of high school, the very sight of a black-bound Penguin Classics paperback produces an involuntary yawn reflex. That's a shame. Life consists of more than getting and spending.

This list is necessarily personal and is offered in the spirit of urging these books upon friends. My rules were: 1. Novels. 2. Nothing more recent than the 19th century. 3. Extra points for longer books, because they get dissed and unfairly shunned. 4. No purely "genre" books; this is to rule out such crowd-pleasers as "Sherlock Holmes," which don't need help attracting new readers. 

What these books have in common, near as I can tell, is that they feel contemporary, a sign that their authors were on to something that would continue to speak to future generations. You're invited to contribute your own choices via Twitter, hashtag #funclassics, based on any standards you care to apply.

5. Stendhal: "The Charterhouse of Parma." Stendhal claimed to have written "La Chartreuse de Parme" in seven weeks toward the end of 1838. To be fair, in places the work betrays the signs of haste. But the speed of composition was translated into the breakneck pacing of the story of the feckless, cold-hearted Fabrizio del Dongo and his adventures as a scion of a mean-spirited aristocratic family, would-be war hero, hanger-on in the court of Parma, and prisoner of a vain, sanctimonious prince.

Tolstoy was said to have been impressed by the book's description of the Battle of Waterloo as witnessed by Fabrizio slogging through mud and gore while trying, and failing, to make sense of the elemental drama unfolding around him, just out of reach. There's sex, romance, murder and the intrigues of a provincial court, all leavened by Stendhal's deadpan sarcasm.

4. Herman Melville: "Moby-Dick." American authors have strove over the past 164 years to write the Great American Novel, despite the fact that Melville delivered it in 1851. Like some other works on this list, "Moby-Dick" is unique. You'll learn everything you need to know about whaleboats, whaling, whales--how to chase them, catch them and strip them down for the market.

"Moby-Dick" features some of the great set pieces in American literature, from Father Mapple's sermon to the climactic, lethal chase, some of its most enduring personages, among them the harpooneers Queegqueg, Tashtego and Daggoo, and the obsessed Ahab. The uninitiated will find the clarity and energy of Melville's prose to be a revelation. The adventure novel to end all adventure novels and so much more.

3. George Eliot, "Middlemarch." Widely regarded as the greatest English Victorian novel, "Middlemarch" exerts a magnetic power over its fans; just last year the writer Rebecca Mead published "My Life in Middlemarch," a memoir relating how she has read and reread the novel periodically throughout her life, embracing it anew at every stage.

Called by Virginia Woolf "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people," the book is uncompromising in its depiction of a bourgeois English community during the upheavals of the 1830s, as seen from the vantage point of 40 years later. 

In the world of Middlemarch, it's more likely than not that a human being standing at a crossroads of life will choose the wrong path and spend the rest of their days dealing with the consequences. To many readers, Dorothea Brooke, her hopelessly inappropriate husband, Edward Casaubon, the idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate, his unmanageable and narcissistic wife, Rosamond, and all their fellows are more real than their own flesh-and-blood neighbors. That's Eliot's singular achievement.

2. Miguel de Cervantes, "Don Quixote." What strikes the reader almost from the very first pages of this 400-year-old novel is its modernism, even post-modernism. That arises not only from its subject matter, which as Nabokov asserted ("Lectures on Don Quixote," 1983) "form a veritable encyclopedia of cruelty." Indeed, much of the book is devoted to episodes in which Don Quixote, in his madness, gets the tar beaten out of him and is left for dead at the side of the road. 

But there's more. "Don Quixote" is not only the first great modern work of fiction, but the first work of meta-fiction. It's a narrative about narrative, a book about chivalry that ridicules books about chivalry, a tale within a tale within a tale purportedly originated, so the narrator says, in a history by one Cide Hamete Benengeli. The hall of mirrors lengthens in the second part of the book, written 10 years after the first and presented as a reply to a fabricated sequel that had recently appeared in the market: Sancho Panza and Don Quixote are now reclaiming their lives from a writer of fiction by telling their own stories as an endorsement of the original (which of course is also fiction). 

Confused? Why shouldn't you be? The self-referential framing of "Don Quixote" magnifies the question of whether Don Quixote himself is mad, or feigning madness, or aware that he is mad. Astonishing, hilarious, heartbreaking, and as the narrator informs us at the outset, told with "absolutely no deviation from the truth."

1. Leo Tolstoy, "War and Peace."  Yes, "War and Peace." The winner and still champ. Tolstoy's greatest work is often held up as the most daunting tome of all, but in truth it's the most extraordinary reading experience in all Western literature. 

For a century and a half, critics and commentators have tried to put their finger on what sets "War and Peace" apart from every other novel ever written. The average reader, wrote Nabokov (again), will say that what is most seductive about Tolstoy's artistry is "the absolute reality of his novels, the sensation of meeting old friends and seeing familiar places." He pointed to Tolstoy's peculiar "method of picturing life which most pleasingly and exactly corresponds to our idea of time. He is the only writer I know of whose watch keeps time with the numberless watches of his readers."

But it may also be the clarity and momentum of Tolstoy's prose, so potent they come through even in translation. (Our choice is the version by Louise and Aylmer Maude.) There are moments in Tolstoy's depiction of battle when one can feel the thunder of guns and the impact of falling shells in one's bones. Away from the battlefield, we share the joys and grief of the teeming cast as if they were our own.

The most notable feature of Tolstoy's fiction is his godlike mastery over his characters; nothing they think or do can evade his penetrating sight, and through his artistry he puts us in his place. There is no bad time of year to read or reread "War and Peace," but no better time than the empty days of summer to sit in its capacious shade.

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