The History of Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
Modern fantasy, as we all know, was born with The Lord of the Rings. (Modern fantasy’s problem with serial structure was born around the same time.) But the genre existed long before Tolkien, and its pre-Tolkien history is something I’m keenly interested in. Last November, I listed off all the entries in the classic seventies Ballantine Adult Fantasy series that were in the public domain. I intend to make my way through all of them, more or less in chronological order. Okay, so this isn’t Orlando Furioso, which predates The History of Caliph Vathek by two hundred years, but the thought of narrative poetry gave me acid reflux. I figured it was a bad omen.
Letters from Egypt by Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon
So The Mistress of Nothing was a huge disappointment, but it did have one saving grace: introducing me to Lady Lucie Duff-Gordon. As I said in that post, “ [a] middle-aged woman moving to Luxor, Egypt, in the 1860s, traipsing around town in androgynous kit, holding salons, and generally being awesome?” Sign me up. I added it to my Kindle app as soon as I finished, but it’s taken me forever to get through Letters from Egypt, from reasons ranging from the stomach flu from hell (it killed a laptop!) to getting distracted during designated digital book reading time (when I blow-dry my hair). It feels like this is always the way with me and books in the public domain, even if it’s something I love. I gotta fix that.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
All I know about Wuthering Heights comes from watching Noel Fielding’s performance of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief over and over again. (I have extraordinarily specific tastes.) I wasn’t a particularly well-read child, as we’ve discussed, but that came with a blessing—I apparently missed the formative experience of reading Wuthering Heights as a teenager, finding it swooningly romantic, and then realizing, as an adult, how messed up Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship was. A bullet dodged, but dodged at the expense of experiencing the novel. At some point during research for my Jane Eyre thesis, I determined that I would finally catch up with the rest of the women in my department and read Wuthering Heights. It took me my entire winter break, but I did it.
The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux
The first show I ever saw on Broadway was The Phantom of the Opera; I must have been in middle school, and it was my first time visiting New York. I’ve drifted away from contemporary musical theater since, although I still wait impatiently for The Hunchback of Notre Dame to be produced Stateside. In any case, what I most remember about seeing it (besides utter horror when my mother began talking to me in the middle of the performance; it was the first time I felt brave/indignant enough to shush her), is the fact I was utterly convinced by the big, glossy program that Gaston Leroux’s novel was out-of-print and super-difficult to find. Luckily, I was wrong… (And yeah, this started as a Halloween read. My semester was very busy.)
An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
Despite my love of Jo (and perhaps because I’m so bitter that she never ended up with Laurie), I’ve never read the two Little Women sequels. I don’t know if I could bear it. But I sometimes forget that Louisa May Alcott wrote other things than The Little Women trilogy. This recommendation comes from, of all things, Fandom!Secrets (think Post!Secret, but for us nerds, which concentrates the heartwarming, the heartbreaking, the creepy, and the frankly hilarious), where someone mentioned that they preferred An Old-Fashioned Girl to Little Women. Fair enough, I thought, and took a break from my Arthur Conan Doyle binge.
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Currently, for my History of the African-American Novel class, I’m reading Nella Larsen’s Passing, which I read in high school and quite liked. (It’s so interesting to revisit books, especially given such a shift in consciousness.) But Passing is a very well-known novel; I was much more fascinated by the texts I’d never heard of on our syllabus, like Clotel, or the President’s Daughter and Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted and, of course, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, whose title, for no particular reason, puts me in mind of The Invisible Man. (There’s also Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which we talked about but did not read.) Classes like these are hugely important, especially when it comes to uncovering and analyzing texts that might fade away or otherwise not occur to some people.
Iola Leroy by Frances Harper
Despite how atrociously busy I am this semester, I am really enjoying my classes. Latin is a joy, I’m writing my senior thesis this month so I don’t have class (but I do have a twenty to twenty-five paper to write!), and my African-American novel class is just so interesting. I think I’m especially enjoying it because the approach is slightly but significantly different from my usual literature classes, and there’s much more historical context than usual, for obvious reasons. In any case, this brings us to Iola Leroy, the second installment on this class’ reading list.
Clotel, or the President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown
So I’ve hit the ceiling on how many English classes I can take at my college. I guess they really are serious about that well-rounded liberal arts education! I’m tentatively sticking my toes in other disciplines—Latin among them, because I want to prove to myself that I’m not actually that bad at languages and because I listened to too much Eddie Izzard as a child—but I’m lucky enough to be able to take an Africana Studies class focused on the African-American novel to keep my critical teeth sharp. Of course, it’s not an English class as I know it, and I’m eager to see what’ll come of it.
The Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
I read A Princess of Mars in preparation for John Carter—I enjoyed both, although I enjoyed the novel a bit more than the film. But there’s little hope of a sequel at the moment. (I’d feel sorry for Disney’s eternal struggles for a fresh action franchise if The Avengers hadn’t just made all the money ever.) In any case, I didn’t have any particular reason to pick up the series again, except that I was in the mood for something short, swashbuckling, and uniquely Barsoomian. That I could read on my computer while doing my hair. Sometimes it’s just not that complicated, folks.
The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Y’all, this is the final Sherlock Holmes novel. I have two collections left go and that’s it; I will only reread the Sherlock Holmes canon in the future. I’m struggling between tearing through the rest of it (His Last Bow and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, which I’ll actually have to rent from the library) and trying to savor it, like a good piece of dark chocolate, but I always end just eating it. At the very least, I’ll be done by the end of the year. The Valley of Fear is less known than the other three, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles or A Study in Scarlet, and, I have to admit, it’s for good reason.