Top Ten Tuesday—Awesome Classics

Today makes 11 years since I first properly heard All Things Must Pass all the way through! It’s still one of the greatest albums of all time, bar none.

Top 10 Tuesday

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly feature of The Broke and the Bookish. A full list of instructions and future themes can be found here. This week’s theme is Top Ten Favorite Classic Books (however you define classic) or Top Ten Classics I Want To Read <or spin it some other way…”classics” in a specific genre?>.

1. The Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio. I just can’t give enough love to this book, which was finished somewhere between 1351 and 1353. (You can check out all my Decameron posts here.) It’s held up remarkably well over the centuries, with the vast majority of stories feeling as fresh, modern, and relevant as they did in the 14th century. I even know my two favouritest stories almost by heart.

2. The Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. This is another classic which has stood the test of the centuries. It’s such a timeless story of a man going on an amazing otherworldly journey to get back on track with his faith and life, all inspired by the great unrequited love of his life. (You can peruse my Dante posts here.) The opening stanza is one of the poems I know by heart.

3. La Vita Nuova, by Dante Alighieri. It’s a shame more people don’t know about this lovely, much-shorter autobiography and poetry collection. Dante’s love for Beatrice raises the question about the line between love and obsession, but he never really crosses the line and behaves inappropriately. He’s man enough to conceal his true feelings as best he can. At the end of the book, we see the genesis of his idea for The Divine Comedy, his way of immortalizing this great love for all time.

4. The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu. I haven’t yet read the entirety of this book, but I’m really eager to find a good, full-length translation. It’s widely considered the world’s first novel, by a female author, and set during the Heian era of Japanese history. What’s not to love?

5. The Ramayana. This is one of India’s two great national epics; it’s a shame more Westerners aren’t as familiar with it as they are with Greco-Roman mythology. If I said something like, “I feel like Kaikeyi when her mind is confused by the gods,” I’m sure no one would understand what I were talking about. I’d also love to see a retelling from Sita’s POV.

6. The Mahabharata. This is India’s other great national epic, about ten times the length of The Iliad and The Odyssey combined, almost two million words. I got a condensed version of sorts when I read Devi Vanamali’s wonderful book The Play of God, and would love to find a good, complete translation. The sixth volume includes…

7. The Bhagavad GitaOn the eve of the major war between the five righteous Pandava brothers and their hundred wicked cousins the Kauravas (including their unknown older halfbrother), middle brother Arjuna gets cold feet. He wonders about how moral and ethical it is to have to kill good people, his own blood, all because of a petty feud that spun out of control. His charioteer Krishna, his best friend, delivers a sermon meant to lift his spirits and urge him to fight. At the height of this beautiful sermon, Krishna reveals his true identity as Vishnu, and delivers the famous line about how there are many paths to the same God.

Do NOT get the A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada translation, The Bhagavad Gita As It Is. A better subtitle would be As It Is NOT!  This arrogant fool had the balls to say his was the only correct translation, and that everyone else hadn’t done it properly.

8. The Tao Te Ching, by Lao-Tzu. This book has meant so much to me since I first discovered it in January ’96, at age sixteen. Every time I read it, I come away with something new. I have the awesome Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English translation.

9. The Hemptameron, by Marguerite of Navarre. I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hoping it’s as awesome as The Decameron. This book was posthumously published in 1558, and consists of 72 stories. It was meant to contain 100 stories in 10 days, just as its inspiration The Decameron has, but only got as far as the second story of the eighth day.

10. The Persian Letters, by Montesquieu. This book is so freaking awesome. So many great books came out of the Enlightenment, and the best ones seamlessly combined a good story with promotion of Enlightenment values. I think my favourite part is when it talks about what a great magician Louis XIV is, but that there’s an even greater magician. “This magician is called the Pope.” Montesquieu used the supposed naïveté of the pretended real letter-writers to criticise French society and the Church.

The Persian Letters

This is the review I wrote in late 2003 for the Montesquieu classic The Persian Letters.


I’ve just read this great classic by the equally great Montesquieu all the way through, after originally having only read a total of 69 letters in it, as assigned by my brilliant Enlightenment professor. (We had to read 1-26, 37-8, 55, 59-60, 62, 64-5, 83, 102-7, 116-22, and 141-61; I think I read a few more that weren’t assigned but not the whole thing.) These letters not only touch on many aspects of religion, philosophy, morality, ethics, history, politics, relations between the sexes, differences between East and West, and economy, but also a compelling subplot of the events back in Persia in Usbek’s seraglio (i.e., harem). Usbek and his companion Rica leave Persia in 1711 and by the close of the book it’s 1720; they’ve really been away a long time, and things are going to Hell in a handbasket back home.

Usbek is a very powerful man (but not a sultan) in Persia, and has a large seraglio with many wives, concubines, slaves, and eunuchs. The exact number is never given, but we know he’s got a lot, including at least five wives, Fatme, Zephis, Zelis, Zashi, and Roxana. The latter three are the most important wives. So anyway, Usbek decides he wants to leave Ispahan, Persia, behind and set out for Paris so he can share in the events of the great Enlightenment. He takes along with him his dear friend Rica, and before long they’ve influenced another friend of theirs, Rhedi, to also leave Persia for the West, though Rhedi travels to Venice and doesn’t decide to go as far as France.

The book consists of letters back and forth between mostly these three, their friend Ibben in Smyrna, the Chief (or First) Black Eunuch at the seraglio, and Usbek’s wives. There are a few others, like Usbek’s friend Mirza, to whom he addresses the famous letters on the Troglodytes, as well as people whose names we don’t know (referred to as *** because the names are supposedly unknown by Montesquieu, who presented the letters as real instead of fiction).

In the midst of all of this delightful conversing and learning, the wives in the seraglio are becoming more and more impatient with their husband to come back home and resume his duties over them. And as the saying goes, while the cat’s away, the mice will play. (Or, as Stan Laurel said in Helpmates, “When the mice are away, the cats are always playing around with things…and doing something…If the mice…”) The wives begin to get used to Usbek’s long separation from them, and find more and more scandalous ways of finding their own happiness and pleasure.

Early on, Zephis is suspected by the Chief Eunuch of a lesbian relationship with her slave Zelid, but that’s minor compared to what goes on years down the road. Zashi is caught in bed with a slave, Zelis drops her veil on the way to the mosque and is seen by the people with her face exposed, Roxana and Zelis go to one of Usbek’s country houses and some of the eunuchs and slaves suspect them of hiding secret lovers in a hole in one of the walls there, strange men are caught in the seraglio, a mysterious letter is intercepted (though the Eunuch is unable to find out to whom it was addressed), and things generally are deteriorating. Even the slaves are becoming lax in their work in the long absence of Usbek. You’ll never guess who the guiltiest person is.

On the whole, these letters have held up over time, though naturally some of the things mentioned and discussed are now obsolete and seem dated and silly, things a modern person wouldn’t believe in. Letter 51 is also troublesome, from Nargum to Usbek, talking about how Russian wives love to be beaten (though this has supposedly changed, Montesquieu writes in a footnote), including a letter from a “desperate” young wife who’s furious and devastated that her husband never beats her, no matter how hard she tries to make him angry at her. Apparently the harder and more a husband beats his wife, the more he loves her. That’s just bullshit, and if it really was intended as a joke, it’s in very bad taste. That’s not something you joke about, wife-beating and how women love to be beaten by their husbands.

But overall most of the letters’ observations about human society are still true and interesting today. Montesquieu was even able to use the supposed naïveté of the travellers to bash Louis XIV (who dies during the book), the Regency of Louis XV, alchemy, Christianity, and even the Pope. Letter 24 is a prime example, talking about how great a magician Louis XIV is, but that there is an even greater magician than he. “This magician is called the Pope.” That letter is priceless.

It’s a philosophical work, but it’s couched in the form of letters and interwoven with eroticism. Unlike some works of philosophy, it’s readable and interesting because of the writing style. You can almost forget this book wasn’t primarily intended to be a novel.