Originally published in The Monitor.
As the New Year approaches, many of us begin to create reading resolutions for 2013. I have had many friends resolve in the past to read more of the classics, those works of world literature that have withstood the test of time, becoming universally regarded as touchstones for understanding human civilization, society and psychology. To the best of my ability, I have tried to steer them toward what I consider essential reading. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a few recommendations based on my own eclectic tastes.
The most sensible place to begin is with the three epics that have most influenced Western literature: the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. The first relates an incident in the final year of the Trojan War, when Achilles stubbornly removes himself from the fight, only to lose the person he loves most. Odysseus’s decade-long journey home to his wife and son is perhaps the most popular and moving of the epics. The poet Virgil would take up the strands of the two Homeric epics centuries later to tell the story of Aeneas, the Trojan prince who leads his people to their new homeland in Italy, even though he must turn his back on love to do so. Taken together, these stories explore distinct frameworks for living life: Achilles is driven by a thirst for honor and fame; Odysseus, by a love of family and homeland; and Aeneas, by a pious desire to please heaven. If you decide to read them, I encourage you to find Robert Fagles’ masterful translations.
The Hindu epic Ramayana is another intense exploration of individual action and its interplay with societal expectations. Prince Rama is exiled from his father’s kingdom and lives as an ascetic for a dozen years in the wilderness with his wife and brother. But when the woman he loves is kidnapped by the king of demons, Rama’s true nature as the incarnation of Vishnu kicks in, and he allies himself with talking beasts to win back his wife and halt the demons’ conquest of earth. The epic can also be seen as answering the same question as the three Greco-Roman works: how should a man live his life? According to dharma, the Ramayana responds…the set of duties and behaviors that come with one’s role in society. The work is several volumes long in most translations, but I recommend the abridged versions by William Buck or Ramesh Menon as capturing the essence of the longer epic.
The Popol Vuh is one of the few Mayan works to survive the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Among other things, it narrates the suspenseful and highly entertaining journey of the hero twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, who descend to the Underworld to avenge their father’s death at the hands of the (often very stupid) demonic Lords of Xibalba. The brothers’ wisdom and ingenuity are their greatest weapons, and the Popol Vuh seems to suggest that life is best lived in pursuit of knowledge and fun. Get the revised edition of Dennis Tedlock’s translation. You won’t regret it.
It’s tough to get more classic than the first human author whose work survives to this day: Enheduanna, an Akkadian princess and priestess from the Sumerian city-state of Ur. Daughter of the famous Sargon I (king from 2270 BCE to 2215 BCE), Enheduanna was a devotee of the goddess Inanna, and her poetry contains moving pleas for divine intercession that still resonate today. Betty De Shong Meador has translated most of her work in a pair of great books that also provide historical and philosophical context.
The body of Buddhist literature known as jataka tales provides a great way for families to explore together some of the great strands of ancient world literature. Reading a lot like fables, the Jatakas are stories about previous animal incarnations of Buddha, each focusing on a particular virtue. The structure is very straightforward, but effective: the Buddha creature is faced with some sort of challenge or danger, which he overcomes using either his wits or his compassion. Seldom is the name of Buddha ever actually mentioned, making the Jatakas easily multi-faith. Cambridge University Press’s six-volume translation can be found on line, and Noor Inayat Khan crafted an illustrated version of twenty of the tales that I highly recommend.
Speaking of Buddha and animals, another fabulous work of world literature is the sixteenth-century Chinese novel Journey to the West, in which a young Chinese monk is sent by Buddha to India to bring back to China sacred scrolls to help his people reach enlightenment. He is aided in his quest by Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, a magical simian whose mischievous antics once put him at odds with heaven. With a few other companions, priest and monkey confront all sorts of obstacles, resolving them in clever and laugh-out-loud ways. Get the Arthur Waley translation (titled Monkey)…you won’t regret it.
Finally, since we’re in the East, I suggest you set aside a few months to devour The Tale of Genji, an eleventh-century Japanese work regarded by many scholars as the first real novel. Written by noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu, this dense, psychological book details the life, death and legacy of one of Emperor Kiritsubo’s sons, Hikaru Genji. Genji rises from politically-motivated obscurity and lack of status to being one of the most influential men in Heian Japan, his own son even becoming emperor. Full of complex court machinations and very modern romantic entanglements, this is a work to savor throughout the entire year. Royall Tyler’s 2001 translation will help you explore Murasaki’s enduring portrait of a very human soul.