Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Practical Classics by Kevin Smokler

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School (2013). Not only because I like reading books about books, but also because author Kevin Smokler is smart, funny, and insightful in his takes on his chosen Fifty.

I will have to say that Mr. Smokler and I went to different high schools together. He graduated in 1991 and some of the books he writes about weren't even published when I graduated some years before that. 

I admit that I don't really remember reading much in high school. It seems that there was A Tale of Two Cities (which I struggled through then but loved when I read it as an adult), Gone With the Wind (which I remember hurriedly trying to finish for class at 3 a.m.), and DuMaurier's Rebecca. I am pretty sure there was a Shakespearean play - I don't know which one - but if I remember correctly we watched the movie in class. 

Not saying much for the school I attended although it was a good one. Maybe it wasn't the school; maybe I just didn't read the books assigned. 

In any case, Mr. Smokler's book introduced me to some 'classics' that I was not aware of. And, reminded me of some books I would like to read or reread. He frequently references and has a great affection for Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan (a favorite of mine), one of the books he used in compiling his own list.

He breaks his Fifty into ten sections that take a look at Youth and Growing Up, Identity, Inner and Outer Worlds, Love and Pain, and on through Working, Family, Violence and Loss, Ideas and Learning  (I especially liked this section), Heroes, and The Future.

He not only writes about the books, but also looks at movies that they may have spawned, references in pop culture, and the influences their authors may or may not have had on other writers.

On the one hand, there were many books that I have no interest in reading - not because Mr. Smokler makes them sound uninteresting - but only because I am just not interested in the subject matter. 

Here, though, is a list of ten books going on my TBR:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Candide by Voltaire
The Library of Babel (short story) by Jorge Luis Borges
Bartleby the Scrivener (short story) by Herman Melville
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again ( a journalism piece)             by David Foster Wallace
Fahrenheit 451 (reread) by Ray Bradbury
Metamorphosis (novella) by Franz Kafka
The Phantom Tollbooth (already on my list to reread) 
            by Norton Juster
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (reread) by Annie Dillard
The Remains of the Day (reread) by Kazuo Ishiguro

I recommend this book even if it has been a long time since you were in high school. See what classics you might want to add to your own TBR list. But beware: Things have changed!


  1. Did you have to read Silas Marner in high school? That's one that stands out that I didn't really like. I wonder how I would feel if I picked it up now? I loved to read even during my high school years but can't remember which books we were assigned (other than SM) and which I just read because I wanted to.

    I've read a couple from your list of 10 Bradbury, Dillard and Juster. Not that long since I read F 451 but time for a reread soon on the others.

    I think it's fun to find Recommended reading lists to get ideas.

    Joyce in KS

    1. Oh, yes Joyce. 'Silas Marner' was assigned but I didn't read it. I did read 'Middlemarch' as an adult. It is the only book by Eliot that I have read.

      I know there were other books, more than the three I mentioned, that I read in high school but I think they were more along the lines of Mary Stewart and Ms. DuMaurier. Apparently, I steered clear of the classics!

      I enjoyed reading about the books on Mr. Smokler's list as they weren't the 'usual suspects'. The book makes for a great read. Entertaining and informative.

  2. I went to high school in the early to mid 1970's. The only classic literature that I read in school was during a one semester advanced lit class in my senior year. I find that many people who went to American high schools in the 1970's are missing quite a bit in the literature and writing categories. It was a time of quite a bit of educational experimentation, to put it "nicely." Luckily, I still got a good math and science education then.

    1. I think you might be right, Laura. My literature education has been left up to me...as an adult. I envy folks who were turned on to reading by a teacher in school. That wasn't my experience. Thanks for your comment on this.

  3. I'm definitely picking up this book, and the Fadiman. I don't think my literature education was much good (since I really can't remember anything I read!) and I constantly feel like I haven't read a number of books that I really "should" have read. I've made it my goal to read several classics each year. I've read quite a few as an adult, some of which I've loved and others I've disliked and struggled through. A few I've even given up on. There is so much great literature out there, life is too short to read something you hate, even if it is a "classic." On your list, I've read Fahrenheit 451, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of which I've really enjoyed.

    1. I love the Fadiman book, Kathy. It is much more traditional in its recommendations. I am always surprised and a bit envious when people tout how much they loved a certain book or books in school. The whole 'classic' experience passed me by! At least we are educating ourselves now.