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Alegretto said on June 27th, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Hmmm… this may fall in the “Too modern to count” category, or maybe even in the “not really a great book” one but I always found The Catcher in the Rye to be a fun read.

Other than that, I always found Don Quixote to be really fun, but on that front I might be cheating since I’m a spanish speaker and maybe it just works better in spanish.

The Magic Mountain isn’t boring either.

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Nick Yankovec said on June 27th, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Ivanhoe, one of my all time faves. It was probably ground breaking for the time, featuring prominent Jewish characters (I’m guessing that though) and a great sympathetic bad guy, mainly due to the ending which was striking in its difference to the Robert Taylor film.

Plus: Robin Hood! And the depiction in the novel is generally believed to be the defining one.

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This English-speaker agrees on Quixote. The John Rutherford translation is especially good.

I personally enjoyed Moby Dick, but I’m weird like that.

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BenjaminJB said on June 27th, 2012 at 6:56 pm

Sounds to me like you’re asking specifically for classics–say, before 1914ish; or are you wanting to start with some list of “Great Books,” like the list from Mortimer Adler?

I think we’re going to run into, first, a question of translation–I mean, Quixote in English probably shouldn’t count unless the translation was from before 1914 (or whatever cut-off we’re using for “too modern”).

So to make things easy, I might just cut out anything not in readable English to the average person. (So Canterbury Tales–with its stories of murder, adultery, and other fun modern subjects–is out.)

So basically we’re talking Anglo-American novels from Richardson to Woolf. I’d be curious to see what others have said (or whether they’ve found logic to go beyond my artificial parameters here).

But I’d probably say
Fielding, Tom Jones;
Austen, all;
Sterne, Tristram Shandy (weird and maybe too hard, but I’ll push on that boundary of “readable”);
Hawthorne. Seven Gables;
Twain, all;
,,,
and others to be named later. What was the question again? I got distracted by the idea of reading lots of these again.

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Thomas Wilde said on June 27th, 2012 at 6:57 pm

Bringing up Gatsby isn’t a cheat at all, because part of readability is the ability of the reader to relate to the text. If you need a translation key or a working knowledge of the era beyond what the work itself provides, those both serve to smack readability straight upside the head.

It’s part of the reason why the classics can be so difficult to teach, and why the best classes I’ve ever had on the subject all revolved around the notion that, once you penetrated the language, these people are basically the same as you, minus some accumulated knowledge.

I’d probably give a nod to Huckleberry Finn or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, though, as once you get people to stop having the shrieking vapors at the use of the word “nigger,” they’ve aged surprisingly well.

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BenjaminJB said on June 27th, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Oh, Wells, the five first s.f. novels

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BenjaminJB said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Kipling, Kim

I’m gonna stop posting single line answers and just save up maybe.

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ScottieDubsSD said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:04 pm

I’ve always enjoyed The Canterbury Tales. Dante’s Inferno is also a hell of a good read.

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Count of Monte Cristo is a classic page-turner, though that it is yet another Dumas. Dracula is surprisingly readable, given its age and format and assuming you can forgive Stoker his awful, awful phonetic accents.

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Gentleman Mummy said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:07 pm

“A Tale of Two Cities” flows exceedingly well. The same can be said for “The Catcher in the Rye”. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is the simple work of an otherwise boring afternoon, in my experience.

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Andrew Hunter said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I will add another vote in _favor_ of Moby Dick. It does have long digressions on both whalings and random strange philosophical musings…but if you’re into random info dumps, that can be done. Think of it as 19th century Neal Stephenson.

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On the Chinese side of things, The Journey to the West is tons of fun (though horrifyingly long) and Water Margin and Three Kingdoms are great too. Just really enjoyable.

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cole1114 said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:18 pm

The Hobbit was exceedingly fun to read, don’t know if that’s too recent or not though.

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All of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories are accessible and fun.

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Ted Striker said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Lord Jim by Conrad. He’s one of us.

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Ima Pseudonym said on June 27th, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I don’t think I quite understand what you’re going for with the ‘too modern to count’ thing; that seems to make this more of a Great Books That You Would Expect To Be Hard Given How Old They Are But It Turns Out They’re Not kind of list. Which is fine, I guess. But since there are plenty of acclaimed modern works that are still nigh impenetrable, I think it’s worth throwing open the field.

So, that said, my vote is for Slaughterhouse-Five. So elegant, such straightforward prose and such complexity of meaning. (My reaction during my first read-through – once I’d unsmacked my gob – was ‘my god, how have I not read this yet?!’)

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I found Gatsby very dull. I really don’t know why so many people think it’s great.

I guess I’d have to say Little Women and A Christmas Carol are my recommendations. Which are not exciting, but okay. Since we’re cutting off my favourites: 1984, Brave New World, The Hobbit, Alice In Wonderland, LotR.

Really, I can’t stand most classics, because I just find the language too dense. I can understand them, and they’re great stories, but I’d much rather read old verse than prose.

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Another vote for A Tale of Two Cities. The pacing is particularly good, due to its original serial publication and the use of cliffhangers to keep the suspense up.

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I’m a little confused by your timeline, because To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye are both “great books” and highly readable. But if you want before the 20th C, Jane Austen remains highly readable for basically everyone, and Dumas is an exciting adventure even in 19th C sentences (in general I despise 19th C novels). Before the 19th C you don’t really have novels, there are treatises, allegories, epics, dream visions, poetry,drama etc. and it is hard to judge those on a modern standard. a lot of people join me in loving and reading Malory’s Morte d/Arthur. Personally I adore the Townley(Wakefield) mystery plays and I think everyone enjoys the Second Shepherd’s play.

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John 2.0 said on June 27th, 2012 at 8:10 pm

I think it falls into the ‘too new’ category, but just about anything by David Foster Wallace (aside from the weirdly experimental fiction in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men). Sometimes he can disappear up into his own ass with digressions, but it’s pretty incredible how often he can stick the landing.

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QGroundhog said on June 27th, 2012 at 8:14 pm

If it was easier to keep track of its cast of characters, I’d say War and Peace.

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There’s no way you won’t say it’s too recent to count, but Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions (or Ficciones). (1941-44, translated ’60 or so)

Abiding by your implicit use of “great books” to mean “old books”, I’d say Frankenstein. Or the Communist Manifesto.

(I’m really tempted to bring in Virginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse” (1927) or E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End” (1910), though they’re less old. The latter, as a pre-WWI novel, is really interesting, and very much from a different time.) Gatsby’s from 1925. Surely that’s old, at least an age apart from 1960’s Mockingbird?

Catch-22 is good but new, and works better on the young.

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Also, a friend of mine recently read Moby Dick, and really liked it because of how much about whaling you learn. And that it’s all about whaling.

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bryan Rasmussen said on June 27th, 2012 at 8:44 pm

I have never found anything by Melville readable except for Bartleby the Scrivener – and I suppose short stories don’t count – and The Confidence-Man.

Much of Dickens is highly readable:
The Pickwick Papers,Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities.

Oliver Twist and David Copperfield and Nickolas Nickleby are all a little long for someone who is not a lover of Dickens, still mostly readable with some flat bits in the middle.

Since I am a lover of Dickens I find Bleak House fantastic but I doubt it is actually readable for most people.

I think the question sort of comes of as to what is considered to be a Great Book canonically, which I think Sherlock Holmes is generally not so considered.

If I refer to Wikipedia’s list http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Books#Sample_list
then I would say the following:

The Odyssey is more readable than the Iliad, in fact I think episodic narratives will tend to be more readable – especially when discussing old books but it has been a lot of years, not sure how readable it actually was.

Sophocles – the Theban plays are readable. I prefer Antigone.

Of Shakespeare:
Henry IV, Part 1,
Macbeth,
Hamlet.

Jonathan Swift
Gulliver’s travels
A Modest Proposal are readable, although a modest proposal falls foul of my opinion that a Great Book should somehow be in a volume by itself and not be pamphlet sized.

I found Moll Flanders somewhat readable but am also aware it might be personal taste, but then again it lagged later.

Stendhal – The Red and the Black – I haven’t much memory of it actually, but I do remember that it was easy going and also somehow not especially to my taste.

I guess Jane Austen is still highly readable.

Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy in America is very readable.

Leo Tolstoy – I found Anna Karenina more readable than War and Peace.

I think everything by Mark Twain is highly readable, even the Mysterious Stranger unless you consider readability to be somehow tied to a non-misanthropic view of humanity.

I can’t decide if Kafka is readable or not.

As for the rest of those Great books, even those which I quite like, it would seem that Greatness and readability are unrelated concepts so seldom do they converge. Of course the list is only a ‘Sample’, perhaps another sample of canonical great books can be generated here that is more tilted towards readability :)

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I second David Foster Wallace, although his work is still too recent to be considered “classic.” I loved Infinite Jest, especially the Eschaton sequence.

Uber-readable classics that left their mark on my brain:

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. (Anything Swift, really.)
All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque
Pretty much anything Rudyard Kipling

I’m a huge Dostoevsky fan but Fyodor D is not for everyone. Although if you read “the Grand Inquisitor” story from Brothers Karamazov you’re completely set.

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Gustopher said on June 27th, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Pretty much everything by Mark Twain, although Huck Finn is probably the most interesting.

There are a bunch of Kafka books that are all plausible, although most of them I know through more recent translations I assume.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”

I’d put the cutoff at WWII, myself, since so much of what we think of as “normal”, “traditional” America is just what came after TV.

In that case, Gatsby, and Grapes of Wrath both fit the bill nicely.

Damn. I would love to read a book “Gatsby and the Grapes of Wrath”

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Gospodin Dangling-Participle said on June 27th, 2012 at 10:05 pm

I have not yet found a Trollope novel that was not the classics equivalent of beach reading. I love _The Way We Live Now_ beyond all reason, but that may be due to my early exposure to a radioactive financial core.

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A Room with a View, by EM Forster. I found it to be quite an easy read.

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Of all the Dickens novels I’ve read, I found Oliver Twist is his most readable book (it’s longer than some of his others, but not a behemoth, and the prose just flows very smoothly).

The Three Musketeers is a great choice. The Richard Pevear translation is a classic, and I read it in less than a week. Someone above mentioned The Count of Monte Cristo, which I agree is probably the most readable 1200+ pages you’re likely to come across).

Dostoyevsky will never be mistaken for a light read, but the Pevear/Volokhonsky Crime & Punishment is a surprisingly easy read (especially when compared to the other major Russian novels of the period).

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I’d like to make the case for some early American detective fiction. Hammett’s The Thin Man more or less defined what the comedy of manners would morph into in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and The Maltese Falcon set the absolute gold standard for detective fiction pretty much world-wide until Chandler came along with The Big Sleep. All three are undeniable classics that exerted (and still do in many ways) a tremendous amount of influence on the way that American fiction has grown in the past eighty years, and they all remain appallingly readable and sharp to this day.

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Dean Hacker said on June 27th, 2012 at 10:45 pm

All the Modern Americans are pretty readable. THE GREAT GATSBY is terrific, but so is most of Hemingway, Salinger and Flannery O’Connor are all easy to read for pleasure.

Mark Twain is funny. So are Nabokov and David Foster Wallace.

Dickens had great plots.

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The abridged edition of Les Miserables is a great read, and for more modern books I recommend Catch-22.

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Kate the Short said on June 27th, 2012 at 10:57 pm

Dittos for Dracula and 3 Musketeers. Monte Cristo was good but took a while to get into. Austen is awesome but I prefer Emma and Northanger Abbey. Am currently reading Tom Sawyer and enjoying it.

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Are we talking your typical Great Books or just old literature in general? Because I’m a huge fan of Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian work and of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, but while they’re classics of medieval literature, they won’t be on any undergraduate reading lists that I’ve seen, let alone Show Off Your Erudition Great Books lists. But find them in translation, you may enjoy reading.

Most of my favorites have been listed – Odyssey, Austen, Dumas, Twain, pretty much any Classic Children’s lit. I gotta add a vote for Jane Eyre if you like gothic romance. If you want to see the dirty side of classical Greek humor, check out Lysistrata. I found Utopia to be fairly readable, if a bit disorganized. And Oscar Wilde, period. Wonderfully readable, especially if you don’t think about it too much. The silliness of The Importance of Being Earnest, the horror of The Picture of Dorian Gray – always just the right word. George Bernard Shaw hit it out of the park with Pygmalion, too.

I want to continue with my list of “but it’s SO WORTH learning all about _____ so you can understand THIS awesome book!” – there’s a reason I’m an English teacher – but I will try to force myself to stay within the spirit of the question. :)

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Orlando Innamorato and Orlando Furioso are both pretty hilarious epics that feel like a verse depiction of a long-running D&D game.

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On the grounds that Shakespeare’s plays count as literature, I’m going to cast a vote for the 18th century rake hero plays. Etheredge’s Man of Mode and Wycherley’s Country Wife are both fantastic. Their status as “great” is perhaps somewhat more questionable; Eliza Heywood’s Love in Excess might hit that mark better.

I love Tristram Shandy, but I wouldn’t call it readable; I sat in on a English graduate course on the book and most people were struggling to make it through. (And while we’re on the subject of uni classes, I *did* have de Troyes’ Arthurian stuff on an undergrad class list, and it was great.)

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That’s a great description of Moby Dick. For a while I was able to excuse the encyclopedic asides as the effort of an author to educate the reader in an age without Wikipedia or even ubiquitous encyclopedias of any kind, but it got unbearable and I gave up. I’ll give it this though: what parts I did read are still pretty vivid in my memory.

I remember A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain being very readable…

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I don’t think anyone mentioned Robinson Crusoe yet. Quite the fun read.

Of course, no one mentioned James Joyce’s Ulysses. Go figure. :)

We absolutely need a time frame. Some of the classics are modern.

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Edgar Allan Poe said on June 27th, 2012 at 11:58 pm

Anything by John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Mark Twain, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.

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Saismaat said on June 28th, 2012 at 2:06 am

Gilgamesh.

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Aussiesmurf said on June 28th, 2012 at 2:08 am

All of Jane Austen
Robinson Crusoe (which was considered by some the ‘first novel’!)
Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories
The Sherlock Holmes novels / short stories
Wells’ The War of the Worlds
Kim / The Jungle Book by Kipling
Robbery Under Arms by Rolf Boldrewood (Australian Classic)
The Conan books by Robert E. Howard
Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

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Mitchell Hundred said on June 28th, 2012 at 3:02 am

‘The Red Badge of Courage’ by Stephen Crane. A fascinating and incredibly realistic examination of warfare and its effect on the human mind. I was genuinely shocked to learn that the author had never seen combat (although I haven’t either, so my judgement of its realism could be off). And it’s much too concise to be long-winded.

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Robin Shortt said on June 28th, 2012 at 3:30 am

William Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’. Serial fiction the way it was meant to be done – there are some monstrously good cliffhangers in there, and Becky Sharp is a terrific character.

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My arbitrary cutoff is “stuff available on Project Gutenberg.” With that in mind, what I agree with from above:

-Twain: anything
-Austen: the ones I remember really enjoying are Pride and Prejudice and Emma
-Pygmalion
-Edgar Allen Poe: short stories
-I read sections of the Odyssey for a literature class and enjoyed it, but I can’t vouch for the readability of the whole thing. (The prof was awesome, so that may have contributed.)

Also, if you don’t have too much baggage attached, the Bible tells a pretty great story (from Genesis straight through to the end of Kings – although you can pretty much skip Leviticus). The King James Version is a classic, but for readability I would recommend the New International Version.

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Graehaus said on June 28th, 2012 at 4:55 am

Huge Sci fi nerd, Any of the Carter books, Verne, and wells are big in my opinion.

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William Burns said on June 28th, 2012 at 5:59 am

Second the Trollope recommendation. Also Sir Walter Scott’s Scottish books like Old Mortality, The Heart of Midlothian, and Redgauntlet.

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In addition to the aforementioned The Catcher in the Rye, Dracula, and the Sherlock Holmes backlist, Animal Farm is a ball to read.

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The discussion of modernity reminds me of how absurd the standard criticism of multiculturalism is–“The books considered classics have been embraced for centuries! We can’t challenge that consensus just to let in some nonwhite authors!” Centuries would exclude Hemingway, Faulkner, Catcher in the Rye and Mockingbird.

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What the heck, I’ll represent the Russians a bit….

Tolstoy – I’ll second the recommendation for Anna Karenina over War and Peace. It’s a soap opera, but it’s a -good- soap opera.

Dostoyevsky – Just read the Brothers Karamazov if you want something that both sounds impressive and is actually good to read. His other work is fairly forgettable I think. While Crime and Punishment has some interesting techniques, I found it rough reading through a murderer’s nervous breakdown (although the rough, plodding pace may have been even more intentional than I give it credit).

Pushkin – I like his poems, but some of his prose is pretty good. His “Mozart and Salieri” was good enough to inspire the film Amadeus.

Nikolai Gogol – Imagine if Kafka was gay, a mid 19th-century Russian, and -not- Kafka (i.e. Gogol has his own style). Worth looking into if you want something odd.

Branching a bit more modern….

Mikhail Bulgakov – A surrealist writing rather scathing attacks on Stalinist Russia. Knowing the history and the politics adds depth to The Master & Margarita, but isn’t essential to enjoying a story that involves a demonic cat swinging from an opera chandelier while firing a Tommy Gun into the crowd below. A good edition with footnotes at the end should suffice. (Seriously, Bulgakov is one worth looking into. More so than Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy IMO, simply because his stories would’ve gotten him arrested and killed if the Soviets caught wind of them. And yet he still wrote them.)

Branching further out in time and space….

Bruno Schulz – If you want some surreal Polish writings that make me think of an upbeat Kafka.

Miyamoto Musashi – The Book of Five Rings. For when you want to apply swordfighting techniques to life in general.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo – Hagakure. Popular wisdom says it’s a collection of thoughts written down by a samurai warrior on his path in life and the changing role of samurai. To me, it’s an ancient Samurai version of “Shit My Dad Says”. (not a classic I’ll admit, but an interesting read either way)

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Bill Reed said on June 28th, 2012 at 10:34 am

A lot of folks in this thread do not understand what “readable” means. Tristram Shandy? Seriously?

My answer is Slaughterhouse-Five.

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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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