This column for eight years has emphasized newly published books, but I was recently laid up involuntarily for a month and had time to read oldies but goodies.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) struck a nerve throughout Europe and made Goethe one of the first literary celebrities. Emotional torment, romanticism, suicide-here's the beginning of moral relativism and ambiguity. Charles Dickens' Bleak House (1853) is the classic book recommended by disillusioned lawyers.
For precise social observation from the late 19th century, Henry James is hard to one-up: Daisy Miller (1878) shows the wages of naïve idealism and Washington Square (1880) the cost of cynicism. Ford Madox Ford's slow-starting The Good Soldier (1915) shows more of trans-Atlantic culture and is interesting technically through its use of an unreliable narrator.
Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter (1948) is a well-written juxtaposition of lies, adultery, and Catholicism that shows the consequences of pride and of a mathematical rather than gracious sense of how God works. Elie Wiesel's Night (1960) shows Holocaust horror through the eyes of a Jewish boy who sees God not working.
Wiesel could be read alongside theologian Karl Rahner's Encounters With Silence (1999): Rahner does not pretend to solve the deep mysteries, but he writes, "What has already taken place in the roots of all reality must be made more and more apparent. The false appearance of our world, the shabby pretense that it has not been liberated . . . must be more and more thoroughly rooted out and destroyed."
Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms (1952) is satire about wartime, and David Lodge's Small World (1984) is satire about academic conferences where professors try to shoot down each other. Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) is satire about high school/prep school literary overachievers who have only a tenuous connection with reality.
(Among Karl Rahner's wise observations that neither Lodge's professors nor Pessl's students understand: "How often have I found out that we grow to maturity not by doing what we like, but by doing what we should? How true it is that not every should is a compulsion, and not every like is high morality and true freedom. Conscious willing is found even in infants, but consciously accepted obligation is the sign of a mature man. O grant that I may not always belong to the class of the infants who continually want to play the game differently, who are never satisfied with the rules as they are!")
And, going way back, Plutarch's The Rise and Fall of Athens (Penguin, 1960) is a readable translation of the historian's 1,900-year-old look at nine Athenian -politicians who did in B.C. times what we might think is only A.C. (After Clinton). The numerous rises and falls of just one of the nine, Alcibiades, are astonishing, and his death by javelin and arrow, through fire, following seduction, seems appropriate.
I also had the opportunity to read some more from the best two American writers of the late 20th century: The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy (1997) is a fascinating back-and-forth between the two Mississippians. Percy, author of six outstanding novels, including Love in the Ruins (1971), thought so highly of his friend that he began saving Foote's letters in 1948. Foote, who wanted to write the great American novel and produced five fair-to-middling ones-including Love in a Dry Season (1951)-was so wrapped up in himself that he didn't begin retaining Percy's until 1970.
Both were determined to excel at their craft, and Foote's writing advice to Percy about prose rhythms and much besides is excellent. If you want to have your children develop a stellar prose style, bribe them to read Foote's 20-year project, a three-volume The Civil War (1954-1974), begun in response to a Random House editor's request at a time when Foote's fiction writing had stalled. Foote never really recovered as a novelist, but his 900-page volumes wonderfully narrate America's great tragedy.