Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages



Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming

In April, 1953 the world was introduced to one of the most enduring and iconic fictional characters of the Cold War 20th century. Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, and launched a series of 13 books, numerous adaptations for the big and small screens, comic strips and more. And made Bond the symbol of the western spy – at least until John Le Carre showed up and did his best to offer an alternative, darker and more realistic version. James Bond is the guy – the epitome of the masculine ideal, he’s charming and suave, brave and cool in the face of danger, sipping martinis and bedding women across the world as he saves us all from assorted evils and takes care of the bad guys. Oh, we swoon, we drool, we aspire and emulate – Bond. James Bond.

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Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Herman Melville

Reviews were initially mixed when Herman Melville published this now-classic of American literature. His friend Nathanial Hawthorne liked it, but many responses went more along these lines: “an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed.”

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The Trial

The Trial
Franz Kakfa

Kafka’s one of those writers who doesn’t leave us just with significant texts or contribute words to the language – he becomes a word in himself, his legacy so profound that we need a whole new term to capture it: the distortingly surreal, menacingly absurd, the strangely and dangerously complex, the kafkaesque. He not only published little in his lifetime, but didn’t even finish much, leaving partial and incomplete stories and novels to be filled it, edited, and published by his friend Max Brod. Well, kinda. Kafka left explicit instructions that it all be burnt unread, but Brod would have no part of that, and set to organizing and disseminating the work. Continue reading “The Trial”

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
James Joyce

Named by the Modern Library the third greatest English-language novel of the 20h century, James Joyce’s  semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story has been enormously impactful. First serialized in The Egoist, A Portrait… is Joyce’s first novel and established the modernist and subjectivist stream-of-consciousness he would become famous for. Continue reading “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”

Little Women

Little Women
Louisa M. Alcott

Louisa May Alcott never wanted to write the book that she’s known for. She wrote semi-erotic stories to pay the bills, more politically-charged, reflective pieces for herself and the world she wanted to make, and Little Women…well, she wrote that cause a publisher who liked her writing style asked to her to. There could be big sales in a mass-market book about girls for girls, so maybe she oughta take a break from the work inspired by and engaged with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and give this other project a try. Continue reading “Little Women”

Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart
Chinua Achebe

African literature does not appear here nearly as much as it deserves – because while it has had tremendous impact upon cultural studies and among writers and critics, this little list project is not about what should be noticed but what what has marked western culture generally, and (sadly) Africa  is way underrepresented in that regard. African music, dance and oral traditions and political struggles are felt all around us; the continent’s textual contributions? Not so much. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, though, has left an indelible mark. Over 50 years after its publication, it remains the most widely-read and most famous book in African literature. Continue reading “Things Fall Apart”

Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein

A “disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism”, said the New York Times of Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that has since been called by more than one critic the most famous piece of science fiction ever written. Now, that may be an overstatement. But it is certainly a seminal text of the genre, and of 20th century fiction more generally, and Heinlein remains a giant among sci-fi writers, his importance rivaled only by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And without him, we wouldn’t have the word grok. Continue reading “Stranger in a Strange Land”

Moll Flanders

Moll Flanders
Daniel Defoe

Though we now think of him principally as the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe was first and foremost a political writer and social critic, a Whig activist who moved from circles of power to prison, who pamphleteered the public and petitioned parliaments and kings. But he was also an early champion of the novel, a relatively new form in the English language of his day. And Moll Flanders is the work that brings all this together.

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The Portrait of a Lady

The Portrait of a Lady
Henry James

OK, this is gonna sound pretty lame. Upper class American girl travels around Europe among families that know what class really means, navigating her way between social expectations and individual choice, love and marriage, US-style individualism and Old World etiquette. It’s a glimpse into high society when high society mattered, a reflection on the cultural differences between Europe and America, a study in one young woman’s attempt to find her way in a world that’s rapidly transitioning to ‘the modern’.

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