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I would not call Bulgakov readable…

Kafka, on the other hand, is.

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Voodoo Ben said on June 28th, 2012 at 11:23 am

Damn, GATSBY is pretty much my go-to answer for something like this.

Haven’t read the other comments out there, but i (re?)submit that the holy trilogy of horror -FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, and THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE are all Great Books that are also ridiculously enjoyable to read. (I’m sure a counterargument could be made that all three of these are too pulpy to be considered Great Novels, but I wouldn’t be the person who could make it.)

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I’d put in a vote for The Great Gatsby, if only for the writing. Fitzgerald’s writing is very tight. Not a word wasted.

I’m also partial to Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. It’s not everyone’s cuppa, but the old man gets some great lines. “A man can be destroyed, but never defeated.”

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A few people brought up Shakespeare. I would, too, except the title is “Most readable ‘great’ books?” I think this gets more problematic with Shakespeare, and not just because his works are plays, but moreso because they’re basically universally better watched than read. I loathed Hamlet until I saw Branagh’s version (which, on returning, was more ponderous than I’d realized); Tennant’s seems pretty good to start with.

I sometimes wonder if, in a bunch of years, people might start reading, say, Sorkin’s screenplays.

I can’t think of any books that haven’t already been brought up. My go-tos would have been Doyle, Poe, and Twain.

I’ve often wondered if I dislike Dickens because his novels are more serial/episodic than novelistic. It’s interesting to consider both Shakespeare and Dickens might have been more comfortable as screenwriters today (writing movies and television, respectively).

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Stephen McNeil said on June 28th, 2012 at 11:57 am

Others have already pointed out Austen, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Verne, Wells, and Wilde, all of which I’ve enjoyed immensely and repeatedly.

Poe is really interesting: he was writing Gothic horror pre-Stoker and sci-fi pre-Verne and detective stories pre-Conan Doyle. You can see the now-standard tropes starting to form, but the rules haven’t been set yet, so it’s all a little strange. Plus you get the slightly skewed vocabulary and spelling and turns of phrase, and all the delightfully odd mid-19th century conventions, like being compelled to maintain this ridiculous illusion that the author isn’t making it all up: In my many conversations with the famed Mr. D—- of the township of M—-, one notable tale came to light in April of hte year 182-.

This may straddle MGK’s “cheating on grounds of being too recent” line, but Lovecraft is simply outstanding, and hasn’t been mentioned yet. Some really good short stories weres pre-Gatsby (“The Music of Erich Zann”, “The Outsider”, “The Rats in the Walls”), but “Call of Cthulhu” was written in ’26, which marks the start of his best stuff, and all the novellas come after that.

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LightlyFrosted said on June 28th, 2012 at 12:02 pm

I’m particularly partial to Robinson Crusoe. A survival/adventure narrative relying on ingenuity and grit… in an approachable tone, and based on a true story.

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JCHandsom said on June 28th, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I know Steinbeck’s work has been mentioned many times already, but I feel Of Mice and Men deserves a shout out as a very easy read, with Lennie being perhaps one of the most sympathetic and endearing characters in modern fiction.

Also, is children’s literature eligible for discussion? If so, then add Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, and a few Grimm Brothers fairy tales to the list.

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I’ll need to find the time to browse through my personal library in order to jog my memory enough to come up with a proper answer, but here’s a start. (Some of these might be too “modern” or too “genre-tied” to be considered Great/Classic Books, but too bad; they’re all great, older books.)

The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas (Note: I read the 400-page abridged version, which leaves out a lot but is a very tight story as a result)

Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, by Stevenson

The Land that Time Forgot, by Burroughs

When Worlds Collide, by Wylie & Balmer

The Red Badge of Courage, by Crane

Lost Horizon, by Hilton (this is the original “Shangri La”)

The Thin Man, by Hammett

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Wilde

Scaramouche, by Sabatini

Hornblower and the Hotspur, by Forester (that’s the one I’ve read; the others are probably just as good)

The Boat, by Buchheim (long, with a few slow spots, but really quite good)

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Bradbury

The Bridge over the River Kwai, by Boulle

Murder on the Orient Express, by Christie

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Remarque

The Maltese Falcon, by Hammett

Flatland, by Abbott

A Journal of the Plague Year, by Defoe

First Lensman, by Smith

Captain Blood, by Sabatini

A Tale of Two Cities, by Dickens

Kipling’s short stories

H.G. Wells’ short stories

Poe’s short stories

Doyle’s Holmes stories

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Soulless Merchant of Fear said on June 28th, 2012 at 12:48 pm

In favor of “Moby-Dick:”

–For you fantasy lovers who dig on intricate worldbuilding, MD is phenomenal. The world of nineteenth century whaling is as alien to us as Middle-Earth, but as it was real, the explanations and details given in the book are more interesting and richer. The strange world was not limited by an author’s imagination, but by reality. Melville goes to lengths to put you in that world. It’s worth the visit.

–For you history/science folks, the infodump chapters are a fascinating look at what people of the age thought they knew about whales and the sea; how whaling ships operated; etc.

–For you drama fans, sweet merciful crap, what a story: a captain who lost his leg to a sperm whale loses his wits and in his mind transforms the dumb brute into the embodiment of all evil, which he will personally destroy. The whalers have to be brought along to his side. The one whale has to be found. And the beast itself must be slain. Madness, obsession, stabbing, hell yeah.

–For you lit types, Melville pulls a bunch of crazy and sophisticated moves out of his ass throughout, and just does not give a crap. Amazing.

–It’s funnier than its reputation. Really.

Like Shakespeare, the language takes a little getting used to. And like Shakespeare, it is absolutely worth it. The scene where Ahab nails a gold coin to the mast as a bounty to the first man who spies the white whale? When the men each take turns looking at the coin and seeing themselves reflected on its face? Oh dude. The whale breeding grounds and the slaughter above it? Dude. “Moby-Dick” is beautiful, tense, wrenching, unhinged, wild, and seasoned with fart jokes. It is The Awesome.

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I’ll put in another vote for Dracula. It’s interesting because it’s basically the straightforward adventure fiction/airplane novel of its day, but it wears its Victorian sexual/gender stuffiness and xenophobia so much on its sleeve that you’re sort of forced to read it at kind of a deeper, “great books” level — yet at the same time some of the sexual horror still hits home because it’s just so CREEPY. Meanwhile as supernatural adventure horror it’s just very engaging; spooky in the beginning, tense in the end, some parts in the middle kind of lag but not unreasonably.

Also I don’t think Beowulf has been mentioned yet. I read the Seamus Heaney translation and found it fantastically absorbing. Heaney kind of uses poetry the way a really good action director uses the camera: you don’t even notice it’s there, but it makes the action much more immediate and real. So you go into it thinking “oh, boring classical poetry” (an opinion not helped by the fact that every other translation I’ve seen has been super stuffy), but before long you’re not so much thinking about Anglo-Saxon identity as going “Holy shit, did that dude rip that other dude’s arm off? Awesome!”

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The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a *surprisingly* easy read. Also really funny if you can read between the lines.

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Oh yes. Another vote for the Heaney translation of Beowulf.

(His side by side version with the original text loses a few marks because he did a by-meaning translation rather than a literal word for word translation, so it’s harder than some other translations for picking out how the words & grammar in the original that line up with the modern text–at which point, there isn’t much point to print them side-by-side?)

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(Sorry for the tortured grammar; typing & revising while holding a wiggly baby is *hard*.)

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Gonna throw out Dostoyevsky here too. I picked up Crime and Punishment on a whim, knowing it was a Classic but doubtful I’d make it through, and goddamn that books was compulsively readable; even in its slow parts the psychological insight was fascinating. The Raskolnikov/Petrovich interrogation scene is one of the most gripping scenes you will ever read; the mental and psychological gymnastics are a joy to behold.

Brothers Karamzov, for all its doorstopper size, also goes along at a fairly brisk clip most of the time, and is just as compelling.

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Scavenger said on June 28th, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I’ll have to disagree on Brother’s Karamazov. I tried reading it in high school because of it’s frequent mentions in JLI, and even the Cliff Notes put me to sleep.

I’ll add a vote for Don Quixote and toss in A Christmas Carol

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(Russian Lit Geek aside) The trick to Brothers Karamazov is when you realize the brothers are all aspects of the father, who is a basically an absentee stand-in for Dostoyevsky. Making the novel him trying out and exploring different takes on life. That, and a not very subtle anti-organized religion theme throughout.

I gotta’ admit, Soulless Merchant’s analysis of Moby Dick makes me want to try reading it!

As for the Great Gatsby… can someone sell me on it? All I ever got from reading it when I was a kid several several years ago was that it was the story of bored unhappy rich New Englanders being bored unhappy rich New Englanders. It was in the same sphere Sun Also Rises, but without Spanish travel or a side note involving a bull fight (I like other things Hemingway wrote, but not that one). What did I miss?

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Of Mice and Men is, as JCH said, an easy read. But dear merciful God, it’s an emotional beating. I did it once, but I don’t think I’d care to do it twice.

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The Great Gatsby is, at least partly, about social class in America. It’s about the fact that you really can’t buy your way into the upper crust, and how that can eat at a man, inside-out.

There are other interpretations, of course. But that’s the one that stuck with me.

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@dirge93: I could never get into Gatsby either. Then I read Jake, Reinvented by Gordon Korman, which is a reimagining of the story set in a modern (well, close to modern–it’s pretexting era) high school. It was a pretty simple setting change, but it made the connections to class and status in the original much more apparent and significant.

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Twain’s dialect is NOT readable, not if you have ADHD at least. I’d take the whale talk in Moby Dick (But nothing in Old Man and the Sea).

And really the most readable books EVER are the Philip Marlowe mysteries by Chandler. Though that’s probably too late to count.

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If we’re talking Dostoyevsky, The Idiot is a more readable than the Brothers Kamarazov or Crime and Punishment, mainly because the protagonist is likable. Fairly naive (he’s the titular idiot), but likable.

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Michael P said on June 28th, 2012 at 7:43 pm

dirge: Well, for starters, they’re actually Long Islanders…

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Heather Ann said on June 28th, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I read Dracula last year and it was shockingly good.

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Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence.

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I’m the only one to mention it, but if you can get a good translation (Not ponderous) to Gawain and the Green Knight it’s a really, REALLY good read, especially considering the very first scene includes Sir Gawain chopping off the titular green knight’s head, which doesn’t seem to bother the knight at all.

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Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was best when
Tolkien translated it… also his Sir Orfeo is transcendent. I really prefer Tolkien’s scholarly work to his fiction. I would strongly second Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master & for social commentary, humor, and politics in a smart package.
scanning the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books#Sample_list I’m reminded of what spawned this question. I did actually read at least excerpts of all but 4 of those books, and i hated most of them (although I’ve never hated anything with more toe curling intensity than I hate Vanity Fair)

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I have to support the Great Gatsby as well, regardless of MGK seeing it as a kind of cheat. I don’t think it’s so readable just because it’s more modern; it’s also from the perspective of a character that is consciously trying to grapple with the mystery of Gatsby himself, so we both get to know more than Nick Carraway, but share many of his questions, even if we can get the answers faster than him.

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I don’t think anyone has mentioned Conrad’s Heart of Darkness yet, which I found to be a lovely bit of black humor in my high school English classes. Then again, I may be weird.

Also, I’ve never managed to make it through any Dickens longer than short-story length.

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@Will: A fascinating point. To be a little more mischievous, though, one could argue that the short runs and high output of the Elizabethan theatre (I’ve heard estimates that the King’s Men would add a new play to their repertoire every other week) combined with the way some plays, like the history cycles, were interconnected would make Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights more like modern television writers than like film writers. Neither is a perfect analogy, of course, but I think the TV one illustrates better the frantic pace and dubious literary reputation of Shakespeare’s profession.

Needless to say, I consider Shakespeare a highly readable great writer, though with the caveat that seeing plays before reading them is often the best procedure.

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Brave New World, only book High school assigned me that I enjoyed reading and devoured in less than a day

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Where’s the love for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame?

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millennalum said on June 29th, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Wow, somebody mentioned Ulysses. I should probably be embarrassed by how many years it took me to fully get through that one but the ending made the whole thing worth it.

Most of the stuff I thought of has already been mentioned, some many more times than once, but I’ll throw Milton into the mix, and assuming his work doesn’t violate the timeline rule, Italo Calvino. The Baron in the Trees is probably the most fun but everything he did is well worth a look.

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John 2.0 said on June 29th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

I’m also going to say that Shakespeare is NOT ‘readable’ as great literature. It’s UNDERSTANDABLE as literature, but it’s old enough that it’s almost in a different language than 21st century American English.

Just sitting and reading can be unpleasant and tedious, and it’s not meant to be experienced that way anyway. I think that’s why film adaptations, particularly modernizations, can be really valuable, since they put the language in a context that actually does make it accessible and enjoyable. I’ll throw in a plug here for McKellen’s Richard III and Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet (although, if I’m honest, my favorite is still the Hamlet scene in ‘Last Action Hero’ “To be, or not to be…Not to be.” EXPLOSION!).

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Ed (A Different One) said on June 29th, 2012 at 4:12 pm

I didn’t read all of the comments so I may be repeating what someone has already said, but I think any of the “great” Steinbeck novels would qualify – East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath. Maybe they’d be considered too “Modern” but, hey, who says that the “moderns” can’t be considered great as well. Actually, Mockingbird was the first book that came to my mind in response to the question.

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The Crazed Spruce said on June 30th, 2012 at 5:39 am

“Around The World in 80 Days” has always been one of my favourite books. And I surprised myself about 15 years ago with how much I enjoyed “Great Expectations”. (Granted, that was before working graveyard shifts for the past 12 years. Nowadays, I have trouble mustering the energy to read anything more challenging that the latest issue of “Entertainment Weekly”.)

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I hereby request a followup analysis from MGK reporting back which of the suggested titles he found to be readable and why.

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I can’t wholeheartedly agree with you, John 2.0. Sure, sometimes Shakespeare on the page FEELS like a foreign language (especially in the long prose passages heavy with unfamiliar slang, references, and usage) but onstage, in the mouth of an experienced actor who understands and respects the text, audiences can follow Shakespeare effortlessly. I speak from personal experience of teaching Shakespeare to middle schoolers and watching the lightbulbs go off as they realize that they “get it.”

Think of it this way. Shakespeare’s English is our English, only younger, messier, more raw and more vital. Given the amount of words that Shakespeare (probably) coined that have entered our everyday language (assassination, remorseless, lackluster, etc.) we actually know more of Shakespeare’s words than his original audience. We come to a Shakespeare play in possession of its language, whereas an Elizabethan Londoner would have come to the theatre in search of new language.

McKellan’s Richard III is one of the few productions that both takes huge liberties with the source play but also results in an interesting film, because the changes it makes are made with intelligence and skill. On the other hand, Hawke’s Hamlet takes liberties for the sake of taking liberties, and creates a bland and shallow film that, a decade later, is unutterably dated. And how could a Bill Murray Polonius have ended up so unfunny?

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DUNE.

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bad johnny got out said on June 30th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Voltaire’s Candide is episodic, ridiculously violent, and a little surreal but not too much. Perfect for comicbook people.

Also I’m starting to think there’s something about French into English that’s translator-friendly or at least not malignantly tortuous.

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[Ctrl+F “Don Quixote”]
[First post in the responses]
I am pleased.

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John 2.0 said on June 30th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

@Alexi: That was my point. That it’s the performance that matters, is in fact necessary, thus Shakespeare is not ‘readable.’

Unless you’re just disagreeing with me on Hamlet. Which, yeah, okay, I can see that (and if they were going to change something for the sake of changing something, why did they leave the fencing duel in? that makes no sense in modern context). Still Love Richard III, particularly the fact that Robert Downy Jr. gets killed in the same manner as Kevin Bacon in the original Friday 13th.

@klytus: DUNE? I love DUNE, but holy shit does it have some creaky prose. And possibly the worst opening line in literature.

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JCHandsom said on July 1st, 2012 at 2:00 am

@acechan: I’m sorry but I’m going to just say no on Heart of Darkness. No. The entire story is centered on the protagonist’s narration within the narrator’s narration of the protagonist narrating, and that makes it a little hard to follow the story. Maybe I’m biased because I think Apocalypse Now is superior.

@Tim McGaha: All he wanted was to pet bunnies *sniff*

Also, I would like to throw out some more great reads, although they are pretty “modern”; The Nonexistent Knight (which has the best non-sex scene ever!) by Itallo Calvino and The Plague by Camus.

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Macbeth is pretty readable Shakespeare. I’ll also ring in supporting Dracula (a genuinely creepy thriller) and Heart of Darkness (which is not structurally difficult at all).

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Tolstoy is not actually that difficult to read. Especially, his first novellas on the Chechenyan war, where he fought as a junior officer, are really readable and beautiful narration.

In War and Peace, the main problem is to understand that every person has four names: the nickname (Kolja), the first name (Nikolai), the patronymic (Nikolai Ilyich) and surname (Rostov, for our example of Nikolai Ilyich Rostov). The narrator uses all these for the same person, depending on context. However, after reading a couple Russian novels, this convention is easy to understand and remember.

Concerning more modern texts, I find Boris Pasternak very readable. Dr. Zhivago is a long book, but easy to follow.

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I’m a big fan of Dubliners, Joyce’s short story collection. You’ve got to do a lot of math, but nowhere near the amount you have to do for his later works.

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cdonald said on July 2nd, 2012 at 7:41 pm

Lorna Doone–a great novel that no one reads anymore.

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One point that wasn’t made, and which I was shocked to learn when I actually read it myself in my 30s, is that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE is *really funny*. It has slow segments of mopery and worry (I understand that her later novels are more consistent in tone), but the laughs are strong with this one. TOM JONES is pretty funny, too, and DON QUIXOTE.

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