Sam Raim works in editorial for Penguin Books and Penguin Classics, where he advances his longtime goal of convincing everyone to read Saul Bellow.
Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow
One of my favorite parts of working in Penguin Classics is having a row of Saul Bellow novels right above my desk. Bellow’s characters go through struggles relevant to us all and I’ve found his work to be a constant companion regardless of where my life has taken me. I’ll confess that my favorites are Herzog and Collected Stories, but Henderson has a special worth to me as the first Bellow I ever encountered. It’s full of his deeply profound and hilarious (yes, Bellow is funny!) musings on the human condition and I think it makes a perfect starting point for his work.
On Reading the Grapes of Wrath, by Susan Shillinglaw
I love short, thoughtful books on big classics, like Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? So in the months leading up to the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath, I devoured Susan Shillinglaw’s concise study of Steinbeck’s classic. It’s a delight to climb into Professor Shillinglaw’s jalopy and let her guide us along the journey taken by both the Joads and John Steinbeck.
Dubliners, by James Joyce
Anniversaries are perfect opportunities and excuses to revisit books we haven’t read in far too long. I recently reread Joyce’s short story collection for its hundredth anniversary and found myself amazed by the capacity of its pivotal moments to move me just as strongly they did upon my first reading. The little boy staring up into the darkness at the end of “Araby,” the tragic inability of Eveline to follow her lover, and of course the snow falling “upon all the living and the dead”—these are the literary moments that have stayed with me like few others.
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry
2014 marks the centennial of the Great War (last anniversary, I promise!) so I’ve been digging back through the incredible literary output that resulted from what Wilfred Owen called “the pity of war.” The diverse poems in this collection — such horror so masterfully documented — are astonishing. It’s not only great war poetry, but it’s also some of the 20th century’s best poetry. Owen and Sassoon are of course household names, but Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas are two of my favorites. In fact, Thomas’s “Rain” may be my favorite WWI poem.
Madame Bovary (translated by Lydia Davis), by Gustave Flaubert
“One had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.” It shouldn’t take much more than that to convince you that it’s time to read Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert.
The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles), by Homer
I like to think that the Iliad vs. Odyssey debate is a bit like the literary version of Beatles vs. Stones. Everyone has a side to take and though I love Odysseus’s journey, I can’t help finding myself drawn always to the epic scale of The Iliad. I’ve read this in numerous translations but my money’s on Fagles every time. No one else succeeds as he does in capturing the atmosphere and feeling of the Trojan War, the sheer grandeur of gods and men at battle. By this point, my copy looks as if it’s been through a war of its own.
Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf
I’d be remiss if I didn’t end this with my favorite author. Jacob’s Room was Woolf’s attempt to do away with all the material trappings of the Edwardian novel (“no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen,” she said). As the narrator and characters consider the eponymous Jacob, sifting through the people and places that made up his life, Woolf asks essential questions about how we know both the characters in our books and the people in our lives. The first of Woolf’s modernist efforts, Jacob’s Room perhaps lacks the elegance of later masterpieces, but that’s what keeps me coming back time and time again to search through those cracks for signs of Jacob.
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