Classic Travel Lit

As a traveler myself, I appreciate those authors who show us the meaning in and true purpose of travel: to acquire a changed perspective. A good travel writer does not merely describe a place and people for us. Rather, they submerge us into the culture. We smell the spices in the food. We see the colors in the air as the sun rises above a market square. We feel the oppressive heat of a desert. Often, we sympathise with the traveler’s discomfort when he or she goes without running hot water or air conditioning. We experience what they experienced in that place and time and with those people.

These are some the writers you will want to read. The list is not exhaustive. There are many more, especially more by women as solo travel has opened up for them more and more in recent years. However, this is a good start.

John Krakauer

Paul Theroux

Bill Bryson

Peter Jenkins

Jack Kerouac

Sarah McDonald

Donald Miller

M.F.K. Fisher

John Steinbeck

What? John Steinbeck, you ask? Didn’t he write classic American literature? Yes and yes.

His book, Travels with Charlie, explores that amazing phenomenon we all experience when we return someplace we thought we knew well and find it changed. You will learn much about American life and perspective. If you have not read this before you graduate from high school, then get busy and read it now.

I would like to add another female writer to this list and I do it here because she is not primarily known as a writer. That is Amelia Earhart. Any student usually knows who she is; the notoriety of her demise and the way she stood out during a time when no other women were doing what she did, i.e.,she took to the air to fly across oceans and continents. Her books, 20 Hours, 40 Minutes, Our Flight In Friendship, The Fun Of It, and Last Flight are fascinating to read because they show a woman who moved effortlessly in a role usually reserved for males; she was a pilot.

I recommend Earhart’s books not so much as hallmarks of classic literature, but as an example of a woman’s achievement and her attempts to chronicle an exceptional period in history that will affect those who take the time to read her books, male or female.


Ancient mythology in classical paintings

In the last post we discussed the new trend in YA lit around classic fairytale themes. I mentioned Rhodopis from whence came the story of Cinderella. For those of us who are visual learners, it will be helpful to engage this subject with a look at images representative of the story.

Let’s first consider a painting by the Austrian painter, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807). Her style was Neoclassic and she considered herself, most of all, a history painter. Her painting of Rhodopsis was entitled The Beautiful Rhodope In Love With Aesop. Her paintings were popularly remade into wood engravings, including this one by Bartolozzi.

Classical engraving of Rhodopsis


It is a good exercise to search the internet, library, books, etc. for music, art and literature for alternative forms of the subjects we entertain in this blog. This is what a classically trained student does: he or she enriches the study of a subject by experiencing it from many perspectives.

What’s next in YA literature?

I’ve been reading reports that dystopian literature is on the way out for the YA genre. That may well be true.  A good overview written by Lisa Parkins of YA Book Blogger published by HuffPost in Oct. 2014 outlined what she says are the next four trends we will see in YA literature. They are crimes and cons, retellings continued, quirky and moving and dealing with loss. It’s a well written piece and I encourage you to check it out.

The trend pointed out by Parkins that I would like to look at today is “retellings continued”. In her article, she reviews four books that feature themes based on fairy tales such as Beauty and Beast, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. These themes are important to those of us studying classic literature because these are the most classic of fairy tales.

Let’s focus on one of the books listed by Parkins in the retellings continued catagory: Winter by Marissa Meyer. Winter is actually one book in a series known as The Lunar Chronicles. Each book in the series features a fairy tale character. For example, Cinder, the first book in the series, tells the story of a cyborg (half human, half robot) whose name is Cinder. Cinder has a step-mother and step-sisters and many other elements of the classic tale of Cinderella factor into the story. Many elements are quite different. The story is set in the future, for one thing, and Cinder no longer cleans the ashed from the hearth, but instead, earns a living working as a mechanic able to fix all sorts of things because she can download the specs into her brain at will.

The reviews of the series are generally favorable. I have read Cinder and I like the characters. What I like more is that it shows how the themes and characters from classic literature, albeit children’s literature, endure across time and are still pertinent, even when dressed up in fresh and, sometimes, odd new ways.

Are the books from The Lunar Chronicles classic literature? This is the question this blog ultimately seeks to ask from every book or story we examine.  At this point, I would probably say not. That does not mean it is without value.

Retellings of any classic literature serve to point you back to the source. You probably were first exposed to the story of Cinderella by way of the Disney movie and its assorted paraphernalia. But it is actually an old tale traced as far back to 7 A.D. in Greece in the form of a story called Rhodopsis.

To examine this further for yourself (after all, it is not my goal here to do everything for you) you might consider finding a copy of Rhodopsis to read. Do a character compare and contrast between this version, the Disney version and the new version from Cinder. Then, synopsize for yourself in one sentence, the theme of each story. Your synopsis should be very similar if they are true retellings.

You can go one step further and find other versions of the Cinderella story from around the world. There are hundreds. Tales of opression and persecution are ubiquitous and, unfortunately, endure over time because they reflect the true situation of many people.

Excellence in YA Lit

Let’s take a closer look at the book Divergent by Veronica Roth by asking questions based on our definition of what makes something classic :

Does the novel Divergent serve as a standard of excellence for literature?

Is the story of Tris traditional and enduring?

Does the YA novel refer back to the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans?

Is this novel historically memorable?

Is Tris’s story authentic?

Today, we will address the first question: Does the novel Divergent serve as a standard of excellent for literature?

We can do this by 1) asking more specific questions and 2) doing a compare and contrast with another piece of literature already considered to be a classic. Good choices for this would be Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare or Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Here are some specific questions to ask about the physical construction of the story:

Can the theme be stated in one clear sentence? Is there a well-developed plot? Are the characters realistic and well-rounded? Is there a clearly recognizable protagonist? What problems/crisis/choices confront the protagonist? What are the consequences/outcomes of those choices?

Comparing and contrasting two stories can be done in several ways.

  • Make a chart
  • Use a Venn Diagram




The Divergent Trilogy: Is it Classic Literature?

The Divergent Trilogy is a popular trilogy by Veronica Roth being made into a movie series. In case you didn’t already know, a trilogy means there is a series of three books in a set.  In this case, the books are DivergentInsurgent and Allegiant. This particular trilogy is an example of dystopian literature. Dystopian writing is about the breakdown of a society usually due to bad things like war and people are often poor and enslaved.  The story focuses mostly on the central characeter, Tris, and how she does not fit in to society.

If you asked a student of the classics if they considered The Divergent books “classic literature”, they would probably roll their eyes and answer “only if they’re written in ancient Greek.” And that would certainly be true in the strictest definition of that term. But I would like to argue that truly classic literature defies boundaries of language and time because it contains truths which are universal.

The other point I want to argue is this: unless you really deeply think about the material you’re reading, engaging it through questions and pondering its significance and application to your life, then it makes no difference if its classic or not. There’s little wrong with reading for entertainment. There is everything right for reading to learn and grow.

I want you to learn to ask yourself questions.  I want you to ask yourself “If a book I am reading or thinking about reading can be both entertaining and instructive for me?”  That is, can you enjoy a book and gain deeper understanding at the same time?

Take a minute and review our working definition of What makes something classic? This can help you think of several questions you might ask yourself about a book you are reading. Make a question for each of the definition points.
Also, if you are reading Divergent, just for fun, ask yourself “In which faction would I belong?”


Classic or not?

Just what does classic means?

Webster’s Dictionary defines something that is classic as something that:

• serves as a standard of excellence

• is traditional and enduring

• refers back to the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans

• is historically memorable

• is authentic

In ancient Rome, the Latin word classicus meant that someone was of the highest class of Roman citizens, of the first rank…a top notch sort of person. So, when we apply this term to literature, and in this case, to children’s literature, what do we really mean by that? While we all have our own taste in reading, for sure, it is important that we set out on this journey together by agreeing that there is a standard to be set for some piece of literature to be considered classical.

Was that a confusing sentence for you? It needn’t be.

I’m going to introduce you to some great books and other writings in this space and you can just take my word for it for now that they are good examples of classic literature. If, after reading them, you’re not sure you agree, then you can check them against the list above. And remember, not everything that is good to read will always be easy to read. But, we’re going to do our best to have fun with it all along the way.