Back to the Classics Challenge 2018

I’m totally up for another year in Karen’s Back to the Classics Challenge… Because books. I can’t promise that I’ll be reading exactly these titles, but hey, they’re all good ideas. Some of these were on my list last year, actually, since they were scheduled discussion books on the AO forum–maybe we’ll actually get to them this year! Heh. And I have a busy year ahead, so I’m going to slot those in as much as possible. 

1. A 19th century classic — There are a couple forum discussion books I could use, including Silas Marner by George Eliot or Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

2. A 20th century classic —  I’m looking forward to a forum discussion of The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. 

3. A classic by a woman author — I’ve been reading through all of Jane Austen’s novels, and Mansfield Park is next! 

4. A classic in translation — We’re reading The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the forum next year. 

5. A children’s classic — I haven’t read Pinocchio or Peter Pan yet, so those are definite possibilities. 

6. A classic crime story — I’ve been slowly reading through Isaac Asimov’s classic science fiction, and The Caves of Steel (one of the robot novels) is up next. The husband tells me it’s a murder mystery and the main character is a detective, so it counts! 

7. A classic travel or journey narrative — I haven’t read much Homer since high school. I read excerpts from The Odyssey back then, but I’d like to read the whole thing. Heck, maybe I’ll read The Iliad, too. 

8. A classic with a single-word title — This is another forum discussion selection: Manalive by G. K. Chesterton. 

9. A classic with a color in the title —  I have no idea, but here are some musings… Island of the Blue Dolphins, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Silver Chair, The Scarlet Pimpernel… 

10. A classic by an author that’s new to you — I have not yet read any Sir Walter Scott. Rob Roy is a forum discussion book, so I’ll slot this one here. 

11. A classic that scares you — Yet another forum book fits here… Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Although that’s not quite as scary as my first thought for this one: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon… That one comes in six big volumes, and I’m moving this year. Unfortunately… I simply don’t think I could get through it in a single, busy year.

12. Re-read a favorite classic — Okay, so I don’t tend to have strong feelings about books. I’m drawing a big ol’ blank trying to think of any “favorites” I might have. But hey, I remember really liking The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, so I’ll pick that one. Wait, oh no! That was published in 1970, so it’s not quite old enough. Doom. Okay… I liked The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. That could work. 


William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Veriliy, a New Hope by Ian Doescher


Oh my goodness, this was delightful. It wasn’t exactly high literature, but I loved it anyway. My favorite thing about William Shakespeare’s Star Wars was the fun of the treasure hunt. This thing has lots of Easter eggs. Can you find Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech? Or even the “we band of brothers” speech? And Hamlet talking to the skull? Favorite! There was even a Star Trek reference I found. This was just exquisite nerdly fun, and I love nerdly fun.

I will mention that it wouldn’t have been half as fun if I hadn’t read a ton of Shakespeare beforehand. I mean, sure, it’s in iambic pentameter, but Ian Doescher isn’t as good at it as Shakespeare himself—but hey, most people aren’t. It’s true. And of course, it’s not like I was unfamiliar with the story, so I wasn’t reading it for the stunning verse or the compelling plot. No… this wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if I wasn’t nerdy enough to pick up on the stolen Shakespeare monologues.

Also—can I just mention how HAPPY it makes me to see how perfectly this little book fits on the shelf next to my 37 volumes of Shakespeare? It’s just too perfect… it brings a happy tear to this nerdy eye.


P.S. This will be a classic in our house.

The Wonder Clock by Howard S. Pyle (1887)


I decided to read Jadzia some fairy tales early this year. So… we read The Wonder Clock together way back in February. Yes, it’s now November, and I hardly remember the individual stories. Whoops.

But here’s what I do remember.

Our copy smelled musty. That was a minus.

But I remember enjoying the book anyway. There are twenty four fairy tales in the book, one for each hour of the day. Before each tale, there was a short little poem written by the author’s sister; the verses corresponded to the hour of the day the story was for.

I’ve been reading lots of the less common fairy tales, particularly Slavic ones, and I was surprised to find that Howard Pyle had probably been reading the same ones. I found several elements from Slavic fairy tales recombined into fresh tales of Pyle’s own making here.

Jadzia loved the stories. She’d bring me the book every night, and listen intently… She didn’t usually fall asleep until the story was over, and sometimes asked me to read a second one. I remember one in particular that really enchanted her—it had an ogre in it and she kept interrupting me asking why the hero was doing this, and why the ogre had done that… I worried that she wasn’t getting the story after so many interruptions, but hey, the next day she was still thinking about the story and asking questions. I’d say she liked it, too.


A Philosophy of Education by Charlotte M. Mason (1925)


So… it’s no secret that I love Charlotte Mason, but if you haven’t the foggiest clue about who she is, let me just say that for a Victorian educator, she was remarkably sharp. She loved reading all the latest neuroscience research and applying it to educational theory. Plus, she was a devout Christian and incorporated that into her philosophy of education.

Basically, when I realized I wanted to homeschool my children and then started feeling overwhelmed at the impossibility of formulating my own educational ideals that fully took into account the science of the brain and body as well as the nature of the child as children of God… well, I was… overwhelmed. I didn’t think anyone had done that before.

Well, I was wrong. Charlotte may not have had the restored gospel of Jesus Christ in her life, but she got a remarkable amount of theology correct when it comes to the the nature of man, and the nature of child, and what their relationship with their Father in Heaven needs to be like. Nor was she science-phobic, but embraced it as a sort of modern revelation. So basically, I heart Charlotte Mason.

This is her sixth and last volume. I’d only read bits and pieces of it, maybe about half of it… so this year I sat and read it cover to cover. It’s a good one. I highly recommend it. Here’s a dusting of my favorite bits from the last chapter only.

  • How injurious then is our habit of depreciating children; we water their books down and drain them of literary flavour, because we wrongly suppose that children cannot understand what we understand ourselves: what is worse, we explain and we question (pg. 304).
  • The point I insist upon, however, is that from his sixth year the child should be an “educated child” for his age (pg. 305).
  • Children brought up largely on books compare favourably with those education on a few books and many lectures; they have generous enthusiasms, keen sympathies, a wide outlook and sound judgment, because they are treated from the first as beings of “large discourse looking before and after.” They are persons of leisure too, with time for hobbies, because their work is easily done in the hours of morning school (pg. 305).
  • I say nothing now about the teaching of science, for which most schools provide, except that for our generation, science seems to me to be the way of intellectual advance. All the same, the necessity incumbent upon at the moment is to inculcate a knowledge of Letters. Men and their motives, the historical sequence of events, principles for the conduct of life, in fact, practical philosophy, is what the emergencies of the times require us to possess, and to be able to communicate. These things are not to be arrived at by any short cut of economics, eugenics, and the like, but are the gathered harvests of many seasons’ sowing of poetry, literature, history. The nation is in sore need of wise men, and these must be made out of educated boys (pg. 313).
  • […I]t is a fatal error to think that reason can take the place of knowledge, that reason is infallible, that reasonable conclusions are of necessity right conclusions. Reason is a man’s servant, not his master [… H]e who reasons without knowledge is like a child playing with edged tools (pg. 314-315).
  • […G]reat thoughts anticipate great works; and these come only to a people conversant with the great thoughts that have been written and said (pg. 316).
  • But there is a region of apparent sterility in our intellectual life. Science says of literature, “I’ll none of it,” and science is the preoccupation of our age. Whatever we study must be divested to the bone, and the principle of life goes with the flesh we strip away: history expires in the process, poetry cannot come to birth, religion faints; we sit down to the dry bones of science and say, Here is knowledge, all the knowledge there is to know. [… F]or the most part science as she is taught leaves us cold; the utility of scientific discoveries does not appeal to the best that is in us […] But the fault is not in science […] but in our presentation of it by means of facts and figures and demonstrations that mean no more to the general audience than the point demonstrated, never showing the wonder and magnificent reason of the law unfolded. [… S]cience as it is too commonly taught tends to leave us crude in thought and hard and narrow in judgment (pg. 317-318).
  • [… A]ll knowledge (undebased) comes from above and is conveyed to minds which are, as Coleridge says, previously prepared to receive it; and, further, that it comes to a mind so prepared, without question as to whether it be the mind of pagan or Christian […] Knowledge is dealt out to us according to our preparedness and according to our needs; that God whispers in the ear of the man who is ready in order that he may be the vehicle to carry the new knowledge to the rest of us. […] All knowledge, dealt out to us in such portions as we are ready for, is sacred; knowledge is, perhaps, a beautiful whole, a great unity, embracing God and man and the universe (pg. 322, 324).
  • We are tired of the man who claims to live his life at the general expense, of the girl who will live hers to her family’s annoyance or distress [… S]o wonderful is the economy of the world that when a man really lives his life he benefits his neighbor as well as himself; we all thrive in the well-being of each. [… W]e perceive that a person is to be brought up in the first place for his own uses, and after that for the uses of society; but, as a matter of fact, the person who “lives his life” most completely is also of most service to others because he contains within him provision for many serviceable activities which are employed in living his life (pg. 327-329).
  • But a man is not made up only of eyes to see, a heart to enjoy, limbs delightful in the using, hands satisfied with perfect execution: life in all these kinds is open more or less to all but the idly depraved. But what of man’s eager, hungry, restless, insatiable mind? True, we teach him the mechanical art of reading while he is at school, but we do not teach him to read; he has little power of attention, a poor vocabulary, little habit of conceiving any life but his own; to add to the gate-money at a football match is his notion of adventure and diversion (pg. 330).
  • But our fault, our exceeding great fault, is that we keep our own minds and the minds of our children shamefully underfed. The mind is a spiritual octopus, reaching out limbs in every direction to draw in enormous rations of that which under the action of the mind itself becomes knowledge. Nothing can stale its infinite variety; the heavens and the earth, the past, the present, and the future, things great and things minute, nations and men, the universe, all are within the scope of the human intelligence (pg. 330)
  • I have so far urged that knowledge is necessary to men, and that, in the initial stages, it must be conveyed through a literary medium, whether it be knowledge of physics or of Letters, because there would seem to be some inherent quality in mind which prepares it to respond to this form of appeal and no other. I say in the initial stages, because possibly, when the mind becomes conversant with knowledge of a given type, it unconsciously translates the driest formulae into living speech (pg. 333-334).
  • We are waiting for a Christianity such as the world has not yet known (pg. 336).
  • Let us give at least as profound attention to the teaching of Christ as the disciples of Plato, say, gave to his words of wisdom (pg. 337).
  • Great confidence is placed in diagrammatic and pictorial representation, and it is true that children enjoy diagrams and understand them as they enjoy and understand puzzles; but there is apt to be in their minds a great gulf between the diagram and the fact it illustrates. We trust much to pictures, lantern slides, cinematograph displays; but without labor there is no profit, and probably the pictures which remain with us are those which we have first conceived through the medium of words (pg. 340).

Faust, Part 1 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)


Okay, Faust is pretty good. I read the translation by Peter Salm.

My favorite bit is that Mephistopheles, the devil, first appears in the flesh as… get this, a demonic poodle. Yes. Poodle. Demonic poodle. Major points to Goethe.

My biggest annoyance is how unsatisfying the end of the first part is, because I was totally not planning to track down a copy of a good translation of part 2. And after reading a synopsis of that (I know, I’m a sinner) I’m not sure I want to read it.

I’m not sure I can even talk about this without being all spoilery, so if that’s a problem, stop reading. Okay. Okay?

We start with a scene like the one in Job. The devil is talking to God, and says, “Oh, I see you’ve got this servant, God, but I bet I can corrupt him.” “Oh yeah? Go ahead and try then.”

That’s Faust. He’s a scholar. He’s decided that knowledge isn’t worth seeking because it’s all useless. And then Mephistopheles comes along and says, “Hi, Faust. I see you’re unhappy. I’m the devil. I can make you happy.”

And Faust says, “Yeah, right. But… you’re welcome to try.”

So among other things, the devil gives Faust a potion that restores his youth, including his, um, libido. And then a pretty girl walks by. BOOM. I MUST HAVE HER.

The devil says, “Oh no, not that one. She’ll take time because she’s so virtuous.” And yes, Margarete is good. Like, really good. Only Faust is so obsessed with finding pleasure above all other things, that he and the devil seduce her by degrees. And by the end of the book, the angelic Margarete has committed some pretty nasty sins—she poisons mom so she isn’t caught with a man in her bedroom, she gets pregnant and Faust kinda disappears, and ends up killing her newborn… and…

Anyway, I had a hard time with it. The end of part 1 moved really quickly and time passed off screen. It was hard to swallow. I didn’t see how Margarete went from angel to scum, but she did. It all happened off stage.

And, at the very end, we see a penitent Margarete in prison. Faust is trying to rescue her from execution, but she has no desire to escape what she views as the rightful punishment for her sins. So the devil pulls Faust away, claiming to leave Margarete to her damnation—only, some divine voice whispers, that no, she is saved—presumably because she is truly repentant. But anyway, the good girl falls from virtue, manages to repent but still be executed, and the STUPID, STUPID man behind the whole thing just runs off with the devil some more.

So yeah. Faust. Apparently, this is my sister’s favorite work of literature, so I need to have a talk with her. Maybe she sees something in it that I don’t…

But hey, there is the demonic poodle. That helped a little.


The Faerie Queene, Book 1 by Edmund Spenser (1590)


You know, I wish I hadn’t been so scared of epic poetry. This was a delight to read, especially with Roy Maynard’s helpful and witty annotations. I also got to narrate this one stanza by stanza because we were reading it together on the AO forum, and the language was rather intimidating for some.

So anyway, Princess Una is looking for help from the Faerie Queene—there’s this awful dragon terrorizing her kingdom and she needs to bring a champion home with her who can defeat said dragon. She gets the Redcross knight, who isn’t super experienced… nor is he terribly wise… so…

Very quickly the evil wizard Archimago separates them via dirty tricks. Using illusion, he basically convinces Redcross that Una is a whore, and stupid Redcross believes it, and abandons her without a word. Poor Una is like, “Where’d my knight go? I need him to save my kingdom!” So she tries to find him, only gets kidnapped and maliciously ogled aplenty. Meanwhile Redcross crosses paths with the false witch Duessa, who seduces the heck out of him (stupid, stupid, stupid Redcross)…

Anyway, as you can tell by the picture on the cover, after countless shenanigans, Redcross and Una do eventually meet up again, Redcross repents, earns the name of St. George and becomes the patron saint of England, and then manages kill the dragon with the help of heaven.

I highly recommend this book, and am looking forward to… well, whenever I manage to read the second book.


P.S. As evidence to how much I love this story, I retold the epic battle scene between St. George and the dragon to my children, and now sometimes I’ll find them re-enacting it. Yesssss.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898)


So… I had to read a gothic or horror classic for a reading challenge this year, and I had this self-imposed rule that, for reading challenges at least, I only wanted to read things I hadn’t read before. And I went on a gothic literature binge six years ago or so, so I’d read a lot of the obvious choices. Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Dorian Grey, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights… Heck, I even read Northanger Abbey.

Obviously there is more gothic literature in the world to read, but I’d read all the ones I’d been excited about already. So imagine my relief when an AO forum friend suggested we read the gothic novella The Turn of the Screw together in October. Oh good, that makes the choice easy. Phew.

So anyway, this is not a story I would have read without reading buddies and without that reading challenge. I don’t think I’d even heard of it before.

The gist of this story is… a governess is hired to take care of two… um, perfect? children. I say “um, perfect?” and not just “perfect” because those kids were just… too perfect, if you know what I mean. But at the first the governess is just smitten with the little buggers.

So smitten, in fact, that she doesn’t inquire about why little Miles was expelled from boarding school, because it could only be bullying or bureaucratic nonsense. Such a perfect little boy couldn’t have possibly have done anything wrong.

… Okay, I so I just plain didn’t like the governess. I thought she was kind of a twit. The kind of twit who prides herself on her intellect.

And then are ghosts. And the lord of the estate refuses to be bothered about the children and literally asks the governess to NEVER bother him about them. And the creepy children start manipulating the governess, and there’s this unspoken tension because the kids know the governess knows, and the governess knows the kids know she knows…

I’m not sure I cared for it, especially with James’ twisty, windy writing style. (If you’ve read James, you know precisely what it is I’m talking about.) It’s really the first gothic story I didn’t really like, actually.

But there you go.

I read a thing.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811)


I read Sense and Sensibility (affiliate link) on a slow simmer, maybe twenty pages a week. It’s my third Austen novel. I loved my little taste of Austen each week so much, that once I finished, I really missed Elinor and Marianne.

They’re an interesting pair of sisters. Elinor is an abundance of common sense and Marianne is has all the passion—and all the sense—of an excitable puppy. And both of them have to struggle with heartache throughout the novel. The excitable one gets her heart broken, but eventually is a bit more sensible and marries the logical choice—you know, the older, but honorable guy who also happens to love her dearly and have a ton of money. And Elinor has to deal with her boy being engaged to a jerk woman… and he can’t back out of that because it’d be dishonorable, right? Thankfully, jerk woman runs off with a jerk man and they elope, leaving Elinor’s crush available again. Phew.

So it’s not my favorite Austen, but I did like it. I think my favorite character, is strangely one I hated when I first encountered her in the book. Mrs. Jennings is all sorts of awesome. She’s good people. Except she’s also meddlesome and likes matchmaking and I’m so glad I don’t have to worry about meeting her in real life.

Seriously I should have written this five months ago when I actually finished the book, because it’s not fresh in my mind anymore. Oops.

In any case, I’m also going to say that I enjoyed this film adaptation (affiliate link). In the book, Elinor’s guy had basically no character development, and this movie did a good job of making him a real person worthy of a crush… but even with these liberties it remained true to the spirit of the book itself.


A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond (1958)


So I discovered this year that the Paddington books (affiliate link) were chapter books first, and then later picture books were added to the franchise. I had had no idea.

Obviously I needed to read one, right? And obviously Jadzia wouldn’t let me read it without her, so I read all 100 or so pages aloud over about a week.

I thought it was a sweet story about a bear who keeps getting into trouble.

Jadzia. Loved. It. I don’t really know what she thought of the story itself, but when I asked her why she liked it, she said this: “Weeell… Because it has good words in it. Not bad ones.” I was a little confused at first, but after she struggled to explain, I finally realized that she loves the literary quality of the language! I think that’s a call for more literary classics at my house. 🙂


The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1931)


So for a reading challenge I needed a book that had won an award. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’m not usually very impressed by book awards… I feel like whoever’s awarding them have completely different views than I do on what makes a book a good one.

But anyway, my forum friends were reading this one and discussing it anyway, and I’m a sucker for a good discussion, so I picked The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (affiliate link), because it won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1935.

The first five chapters of this book were my favorite. We started out meeting Wang Lung, a very poor farmer, on his wedding day. He travels to the city and fetches his wife from the great house, where she had been a slave. Her name is O-lan. Wang Lung and O-lan begin their life together, and, by working hard, they prosper. So the first five chapters were sweet.

The rest of the book gets to be heart-wrenching, though. A terrible famine sweeps the land, and in order to avoid starvation, they must go south and beg in the city. By some fortuitous circumstances, they come back rich, though, and Wang Lung the simple farmer becomes Wang Lung the wealthy land-owner. By the end of the book, he is basically the new great lord of the land.

The thing that stood out to me most in this tale, though, is what pride looks like. It wasn’t so obvious what pride looked like while Wang Lung was poor. After all, he did have a sort of forced humility via poverty. But when he becomes rich, it’s painfully obvious that this man is prideful.

I am reminded of President Benson’s landmark talk on pride, “Beware of Pride”. Here are some selections from it:

Pride is a very misunderstood sin, and many are sinning in ignorance. In the scriptures there is no such thing as righteous pride—it is always considered a sin. Therefore, no matter how the world uses the term, we must understand how God uses the term so we can understand the language of holy writ and profit thereby.

Most of us think of pride as self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness. All of these are elements of the sin, but the heart, or core, is still missing.

The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us.

Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.” As Paul said, they “seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s.” (Philip. 2:21.)

Our will in competition to God’s will allows desires, appetites, and passions to go unbridled. […]

The proud stand more in fear of men’s judgment than of God’s judgment. “What will men think of me?” weighs heavier than “What will God think of me?” […]

Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves. Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us. There is, however, a far more common ailment among us—and that is pride from the bottom looking up. It is manifest in so many ways, such as faultfinding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous. […]

The proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough. Pride is ugly. It says, “If you succeed, I am a failure.”

So as Wang Lung gets rich, it’s easy to see his pride, because as President Benson says, “Most of us think of pride as self-centeredness, conceit, boastfulness, arrogance, or haughtiness.” But Wang Lung was prideful long before he experienced worldly success, but instead of it being the type of pride that looks up, it was “pride from the bottom looking up.”

From the very first chapter, Wang Lung was obsessed with how others perceived him. On his wedding day, he made himself as presentable as possible to satisfy his pride more than to celebrate the occasion. When his new wife entered the house, he had her give his old father tea with their scarce and precious tea leaves, simply because he did not want her to think she had married into a poor family.

It was little things like that that reminded me of President Benson’s talk. And, well, I don’t think of our family as rich, but I do care some about appearances. The question is, do I care because I care too much about what other people think of me, or… do I care because I love others and I want them to feel comfortable around me and in my home? Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but I think the distinction is an important one.

Earlier this week, my dad visited. I didn’t have much warning—he was just driving through and I heard about it the night beforehand. Now, growing up, my dad was the one who was concerned with the family appearance, and though he appreciated cleanliness for cleanliness’ sake, what often ended up happening was that we’d rush to clean up a filthy house because it was embarrassing. I don’t know whether it was the family pride or the guest’s comfort that was the motivating factor back then, but you can bet that my when I realized my dad was going to be here—in my house made filthy by three sets of dirty feet and hands constantly all over everything—I had the impulse to clean like mad.

And would you believe it? I had to stop for a moment and consider why I was cleaning. Was it to satisfy my pride, or was it to ensure my father’s comfort? At first, it was to avoid embarrassment. But I decided to change my reasons for cleaning so that I did it as a loving service to help my dad be comfortable during his visit. It helped immensely at making the housework a joy and not a burden.