Sometime in my pre-adolescent years, my family came into an encyclopedia. I expect it was donated to us because it was hopelessly dated by the heady scientific and technological advances of the mid-80s, but I was enamored. Flopped on the floor of our trailer by the pressboard stereo cabinet, perhaps listening to one of my mother's records, I spent hours turning over one and then another of the volumes that lived on the bottom shelves. In this way I acquired smatterings of knowledge about various subjects, not all of which has deserted me. Mainly, however, I flipped to the back of each volume, in which were synopses of "The Greatest Books Ever Written", consonant with the alphabetical breakdown of each tome. The selection bias was toward the critical darlings of early 20th century American lit, which rendered me the invaluable service of providing the rudiments of plot and cultural reference while sparing me from the necessity of reading reams of passe prose.
In this way I developed a working knowledge of numerous books that I've never actually read. (Of course there were many genuine classics summarized as well, but as I read them in later years the true quality of the book settled in my mental library and uprooted the lesser proxy.) Lists can be a form of nostalgia; here are some of the books I know only through their plot summaries in the back of the encyclopedia.
Of Mice and Men
Portrait of Jenny
God's Little Acre
How Green Was My Valley
Bridge of San Luis Rey*
East of Eden
Grapes of Wrath
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The Good Earth
Of Human Bondage
*I have since read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which I enjoyed well enough, but truth to tell, I remember the capsule plot better.
The plots of the bulk of these works contain matter entirely unsuitable for the ten-year-old reader, but the encyclopedic style was so bland that I read my young way through any number of abductions, affairs, rapes, lynchings, and beatings. Still, that's lit for you. I still recall a few of the line drawings which livened up the otherwise unadorned plots: Olivia trying to seduce Viola; Don Quixote tilting at windmills; the Joads loaded up in their station wagon.
This encyclopedic knowledge of the skeletons of literature stood me in good stead in what passed for my senior year. I was not getting ready for college; our laissez-faire homeschooling of the prior years had left me unsure whether I even had the academic chops to attempt higher education. What did people even read at high school? So I hied me down to the library and consulted the shelf labeled "Classics", and spent that year and the next reading through it.
I wish now that I'd written down everything I read that year, when I had so much time despite working 40 hours once I turned 18. Not every book made the cut; Steppenwolf and Siddhartha didn't look remotely interesting to me. Madame Bovary I remember, and Doctor Zhivago, both of whom I thought to be great fools. The Age of Innocence, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Lord of the Flies, another one I didn't care for. Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Sons and Lovers. The Turn of the Screw. Lolita. The Virginian. Stranger in a Strange Land, which I slogged through in a grim spirit of determination, vowing never to read any more Heinlein.
What I didn't know was that any fool can get into college these days. To my great surprise, I was admitted into the university Honors Program on the strength of the worst essay ever written. My heart sank and my spirits flagged as I pored over the alien Greek titles on the first semester reading list; none of these had been on the library's classics shelf.
Homer: Iliad, Odyssey
Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides
Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonos, Antigone
Euripides: Medea, Alcestis
Thucydides: Peloponnesian Wars
Aristophanes: Acharnians, Peace, Clouds
Plato: Apology, Crito, Symposium, Republic, Phaedo
Aristotle: Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics
Plautus: The Menaechmi, The Haunted House, The Rope
Terence: Woman of Andros, Phormio, The Brothers
Plutarch: Parallel Lives: Caesar, Anthony, Cicero, Cato the Younger
Cicero: De Amicitia, Tusculan Disputations
Seneca: Medea, Phaedra, Thyestes
Lucretius: De Rerum Natura
At this point, my father, previously so mild and deferential to my choice of classical fare, assumed his paternal duty by insisting, with increasing frequency, that I start in on this reading list before fall. Dad, though he's since become a great devotee of Jane Austen, had but a passing acquaintance with the foundational works of Western Culture, but he'd been through four years of college and knew class reading lists. And so, I flung myself onto the battle-hazy plains under the beetling walls of Troy, dimly groping my way through the dust of antiquity under Homer's dactylic guidance. I got no further than Ithaca and the blood-stained palace of the triumphantly repatriated Odysseus before school began. It must have helped: over the four years of Honors, three-quarters of the initial freshman class washed away under the deluge of Great Works, yet I managed to float to the surface, buoyed up Aeschylus and Virgil and Boethius and Dante and Shakepeare and a raft of plots of "The Greatest Books Ever Written".
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