Recent commentaries

Flatland original coverCurious and less curiouser
Flatland is a curiosity. This novella, fable, allegory, satire or math lesson—whatever it's supposed to be—is often counted as a classic science fiction work. From a bare description of Flatland, I could see why. A hypothetical world of only two dimensions is described within which all things, including the inhabitants.... Flatland

Jane Austen graphicThis lady writer's not for beating
Mark Twain famously defined the ideal library as one with no Jane Austen books. He seemed to enjoy ridiculing Austen's work, reading which made him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven". At least some of his detestation of Austen may have been an act, but I see his point.... Jane Austen

Monkey's Paw original coverThe horror of unintended consequences
"The Monkey's Paw" is a story so well known for its plot that its writing and style are sometimes forgotten. In fact, it seems not to have been written by anyone at all, but has filtered down to us through the ages as folk tale or fable. Which is unfair to accomplished short story author W.W. Jacobs who wrote and published.... The Monkey's Paw

missing graphicAuthor provocateur
A case could be made for Wilkie Collins as one of the most influential writers of his era, his impact still being felt today in every kind of popular fiction. As much as, or more than, the iconic mid-Victorian figures of Dickens, Thackeray and Eliot. The argument would go something like this: First, look at his most... Wilkie Collins

missing graphicBurning questions
It may seem that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is becoming less relevant these days, as hard-copy books are at risk of disappearing, pushed aside by digital communications. Without paper media, warnings about book-burning may seem increasingly old-fashioned. For book-burning is what Fahrenheit 451 is.... Fahrenheit 451

missing graphicLast visit to Brideshead
Why do we still read Brideshead Revisited? An account of aimless, upper-class, young men wasting their time at Oxford University in hedonistic pursuits. Until the story is swallowed by the larger theme of an intensely Catholic, intensely self-absorbed, aristocratic family. Presented nostalgically and.... Brideshead-Revisited

missing graphic Containing the crazy
John Irving writes big books. Yes, long novels—longer than most contemporary works you find on the bestseller lists. But big in so many other ways. Big characters, big themes of the day, big and sprawling stories. And, most gloriously, he's got that knack of creating worlds.... John Irving

missing graphic The puzzle that is Palliser
The problem with Charles Palliser as a famous novelist is that in every book he tries something radically different. He's the ultimate experimental writer, which makes him a bold and always interesting writer for those who appreciate such experiments but also makes it hard for him.... Charles Palliser

missing graphic Why don't more people love this novel?
For a few, Villette is Charlotte Brontë's big book—not just the longest of her four novels, but the most realistic, most interesting and most progressive. I fully understand this. There are times reading Villette I have to turn back to the title page to confirm that, yes, this really was written in the middle.... Villette

missing graphic Sister who blazed longest and hardest
Charlotte was the longest living of the three writing Brontë sisters, almost making it to age forty, and her output was by far the most extensive and most popular in its day. Yet many know her best as the sister of Emily Brontë, author of the revered Wuthering Heights, which she championed.... Charlotte Brontë

missing graphic Some get caught and some don't
Few novels divide readers as The Catcher in the Rye does. This may sound like a bizarre thing to say, since J.D. Salinger's novel has been wildly popular since it came out in 1951. It's been lauded as changing the course of post-Second World War writing—at least American writing—as much as.... The Catcher in the Rye

missing graphic Lost between the levels
Let's see. Margaret Atwood writes her Booker Prize-winning novel The Blind Assassin about an elderly woman writing her memoirs about her and her sister's lives, the younger sibling having written an infamous novel called The Blind Assassin, which recounts her trysts with a political.... Blind Assassin

missing graphic Love, the beautiful disease
Love in the Time of Cholera is a favourite novel for lovers who take from it something like "Love is forever" or "Love conquers all" or "Follow your heart and you'll eventually find your one great love." Yet, Gabriel García Márquez's story also appeals to cynics who find the yearning, love-obsessed.... Love in the Time of Cholera

missing graphic Less sex than violence
It can be difficult to read Edward II today as a Christopher Marlow play. One keeps sliding into thinking of it as minor Shakespeare—you know, all those early plays with kings and numerals in their titles. Partly this is a matter of timing. We may appreciate Marlowe's own earlier plays, especially.... Edward II

missing graphic Killing social evil with kindness
You could make a case that every Charles Dickens novel is atypical in some way, but Little Dorrit really is a special case. For one thing, it's been called his most political novel—the book that George Bernard Shaw said converted him to socialism and that other great figures considered an example of.... Little Dorrit

missing graphic The writer to emulate—or to beat
Chances are, you think of Charles Dickens in one of two opposite ways. As the writer, the very icon of the great and popular author for the masses, against whose work all subsequent fiction is to be measured. Or as the epitome of an old-fashioned, wordy, sentimental style that.... Charles Dickens

missing graphic The in-between romantic
Lord Jim is one of the Joseph Conrad novels that has me thinking at places "This may be the best writing I've ever read" and at other places "Come on, get on with it, would you!" Part of this ambivalence I put down to Conrad's position—along with a few other British and American writers like.... Lord Jim

missing graphic Tess the too pure
When Tess of the D'Urbervilles first came out in book form in late 1891, it was in equal parts hailed as Thomas Hardy's masterpiece and condemned as a moral outrage. The latter opinion was due mainly to the novel's sympathetic treatment of the titular country girl who had sex—and a child.... Tess of the D'Urbervilles

missing graphic The seriously sick artist
It's hard to take Edgar Allan Poe seriously as a literary figure. Not his fault. Poe took writing very seriously as an art form. His critical works show this. And his stories have proven tremendously influential in both the literary world and in popular culture. Ah, yes, but about the culture.... Edgar Allan Poe

missing graphic Star-crossed lovers live on, alas
Possibly Shakespeare's best-known play. Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers who defied their families—the feuding Capulets and Montagues—and ended their lives tragically. Romeo and Juliet is a play with something for everyone: romance, intrigue, sword-fighting, wonderful.... Romeo and Juliet

missing graphic Comedy light and dark
To appreciate Molière's comic genius you should probably see the plays performed. Reading them, you can get the idea they're lightweight, not much above the average episode of Three's Company, but with fewer jokes. You've got to see actors taking full advantage of the satiric.... Molière

missing graphic Where the dark comes from
You think you know Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness even if you haven't read it in years, or ever. It's been widely taught in school, so its most famous lines ring with musty familiarity. Its plot has been adapted for all manner of media, though usually in wildly divergent stories or in parody. It's part of.... Heart of Darkness

missing graphic The great sea change
After having read so much Joseph Conrad—some forced upon me as a student, some for pleasure—I still find it hard to tell whether I like his writing. I gather other readers have a similar reaction. "Like" doesn't quite describe our appreciation of Conrad. There are certainly Conrad stories and.... Joseph Conrad

missing graphic At the middle of the world
What's incredible about Middlemarch, George Eliot's masterwork, is how engrossing it is. I mean, this is a novel that deals with issues of art, education reform, scholarly research, medical science and provincial British politics of the early nineteenth century—hardly the stuff of page-turning.... Middlemarch

missing graphic The worlds of George and Marian
Calling her a great female writer—even the greatest—may be an insult to George Eliot. Eliot distanced her own work from that of other writers of her sex, deriding "silly novels by lady novelists", purportedly even criticizing the celebrated Jane Austen for dealing with trivialities.... George Eliot

missing graphic After the fall
For a time, I thought of James M. Cain as an also-ran of American writing. On the third or fourth pillar below the greats in the literary pantheon. In the less exalted gallery of crime writers, he would come well after the holy trinity of Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald—a commercial writer.... James M. Cain

missing graphic The original crowd pleaser
This one has it all. The Odyssey is not only a great romantic, adventure epic, but it's terribly realistic in its depiction of human nature and a brilliantly crafted narrative. Authors today could learn from how Homer lays out his plot and plays the characters off against each other for maximum.... The Odyssey

missing graphicButterfly who became self-conscious
Before Francis Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44, he thought he was a failure. His obituaries described him as an obscure writer who never fulfilled his early promise. The second printing of The Great Gatsby sat unsold fifteen years after the book's publication. Twenty-odd years later.... F. Scott Fitzgerald

missing graphicWriting may be an even harsher mistress
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has much—maybe too much—to appeal to followers of all Robert Heinlein's diverse interests. For science fiction fans, with an emphasis on science, it suggests interesting ideas for how a colony on earth's moon may be set up and how communication and.... The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

missing graphicBut you think about it nonetheless
When they made a movie of "The Killers" in 1946 they spent only about fifteen minutes telling Ernest Hemingway's entire story from two decades earlier. The rest of the screen time they devoted to fleshing out the narrative, showing at great length how the situation depicted in the story.... The Killers

missing graphicStrangers in their own land
Death Comes for the Archbishop is often considered Willa Cather's masterpiece and is on several lists as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century—which may be surprising if you read it alongside other American literature that came out around the same time. Consider, Fitzgerald's.... Death Comes for the Archbishop

missing graphicThe human mystery
It's the most political of Charles Dickens's novels, it's the least political—even anti-political—of Dickens's novels in some ways. But its position on politics, revolution, mob rule, democracy and reformism has tended to dominate the discussion of A Tale of Two Cities. The first time I read.... A Tale of Two Cities

missing graphic Still 'relevant'
Willa Cather is one of those quietly achieving American writers, whose works are quietly appreciated in the shadow of the era's Great Writers...but, going on a century later, are still being quietly appreciated when many of the once great ones are no longer read. She did.... Willa Cather

missing graphicDaughter dearest
If your exposure to James M. Cain was his earlier short novels, like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Double Indemnity, or if it came via the 1945 Joan Crawford film adaptation of this novel, then you may be pleasantly surprised by Mildred Pierce. For although those other books.... Mildred Pierce

missing graphicThe great joke
"Science split the atom and Joyce split the word." This summary of progress in the first half of the twentieth century has often been stated in reference to Finnegans Wake. Joyce chops up words and fuses the syllables together again in new ways that supposedly uncover the links.... Finnegans Wake

John O'Hara picInterim status report
John O'Hara is the Rodney Dangerfield of American literature: he's never got the proper respect and he spent much of his career complaining about it. At best, he's been called a "first-rate second-rate writer" in a clever phrase that seems to nail his literary reputation.... John O'Hara

Alfred Bester picOdd man out
Other giants of science fiction who emerged during the genre's Golden Age were notoriously prolific. Isaac Asimov counted over five hundred books in his output, plus hundreds of stories and articles. Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein.... Alfred Bester

missing graphicThe critic of superficiality
The Misanthrope reads at first like one of those overheated old Russian novels in which everyone talks and talks, all very excitedly, while the action happens elsewhere. It's certainly Molière's most reflective play. No wonder it has taken so long to become recognized as the great work it is.... The Misanthrope

missing graphicSmall but punchy
It has always seemed like the perfect little American novella. A poignant and disturbing story told seemingly effortlessly, involving simple folks on the fringe of society who turn out to be quite complex. But read Of Mice and Men a second or third time and its clever structure becomes.... Of Mice and Men

Previous book and author updates:
The Quincunx
Jane Eyre
The Epic of Gilgamesh
The Rape of the Lock
The Handmaid's Tale
The Demolished Man
East of Eden
The Grapes of Wrath
A Man in Full
Douglas Adams
Features of note
How the Greatest Literature of All Time list was created

How works were selected

The story of science fiction

What counts as SF?

Much of what you read in English was not written in English. Does it matter?

Finding the best translations

Much ado about Shakespeare
Shakespeare's eyes
What was he really about?

William Shakespeare

Was it Shakespeare who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

The controversy

What he wrote—and what really happened

The histories

Not all other writers think Shakespeare's the best

What they've said

The plays are the thing:


Henry IV, Part 1

Julius Caesar

King Lear



The Merchant of

Romeo and Juliet

The Tempest

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Romeo and Juliet
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Commentaries on Selected Authors

Commentaries on Selected Works

Movies for Great Book Lovers

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Heart of Darkness
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The Misanthrope and Other Plays
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Appointment in Samarra / BUtterfield 8 / Hope of Heaven
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Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
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The Demolished Man
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On the Road
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Oliver Twist
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The Riverside Shakespeare
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My Ántonia
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