Abandoned Book (for Now): Dante’s Inferno + My Books to Read Before 40 List

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I wanted to join Richard’s Dante readalong this summer, I really did. I decided that, since I loved reading Homer’s The Iliad and was planning on reading Virgil soon, I could read Dante this summer without too much trouble. Why not? I love classic epics.

I read up on the whys behind each translation, I got four different translations from the library, and I compared them. I decided on the Hollander translation, and I began reading. To my surprise, I understood every single word. It was beautiful! To my further surprise, I was bored to death.  I had no idea what was going on. Let me rephrase that: due to the extensive notes, I know what is going on. I just cannot care less for it. I see no point.

I have read more than half of Inferno, and I’ve decided I am done for now. I suspect that this is one of those cases in which I’m reading at the wrong time in my life. I’ll try again in a few years.

Nevertheless, I’ve added Dante to my “Intimidation List.” This is my Books I Want to Read Before I Turn 40 list. That gives me 10 and a half years to get up the gumption to give it a try again. I may decide, in the next ten years, that I don’t really want to read the entire Divine Comedy, but I definitely will give Inferno another go at a different point in my life. Maybe summer, for one, is the wrong season.

Other works on the list right now:

  • The Aeneid by Virgil. (I loved Homer, but have put off Virgil for some reason. After Dante, I’m even more intimidated.)
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (again, I may only read the first, but I will read it!)

I intend to add to this list as needed, but I certainly hope to be able to cross some of these off. For instance, my classics book club is likewise intimidated by War and Peace so we’re all going to read that in the coming year. Yeay! One down, many more to go.

Which books intimidate you but you still really want to read at some point?

Reviewed on July 7, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • You, me, Ulysses. I have been glancing at that book on my shelves for years now. I’ve even picked it up once…twice…okay like twenty times and then immediately put it back. So if you are interested, email me at eclectic.eccentric[at]hotmail.com and we could do a read-a-long or joint read of some sort this fall/winter.

  • I don’t normally like these types of epic books, but I loved The Inferno, and I think the only reason why is because I studied it in depth for weeks in a special class designed to be crossed honors english and humanities. We had both lectures and discussions, one or the other each weekday, for weeks, had to write several long essays, etc. That class, for whatever else its faults, did a really good job teaching me how to read literature that I would never have understood otherwise, including Dante. It’s been about 12 years since I read The Inferno and I think I’ll be up for a reread soon, especially after reading Gogol’s Dead Souls (a retelling).

    • Amanda, that sounds like an awesome class! It says something that you, who don’t normally like epic poetry, loved it after the discussions. I’ll have to try it again someday. Maybe I can find a class to discuss it with. Awesome that Dead Souls is a retelling, I didn’t know that!

  • Oh, many on your list are on mine: War and Peace, Ulysses, Anna Karenina….thanks to my project I have knocked a few off the list and they weren’t as painful as I thought they would be, but I still have a lot of big titles to go!

  • I give you props for even trying to read Inferno.

    I like your by 40 list, too. I really enjoyed the challenge of reading Ulysses in college. War and Peace is on my bookshelf and calling to me. Maybe I’ll join you. 🙂

  • It’s so interesting to me that you loved Paradise Lost but found Inferno boring! Not that there weren’t many aspects of Milton I enjoyed, but by & large my reaction was the opposite. Well, at least in parts. 🙂

    Not sure which books I would put on my “before 40” list, but I was just thinking about making a similar list about life as a whole…maybe a few books will sneak onto it. Proust is one of my favorite, favorite writers, so I hope you enjoy him when you get around to him.

    • Emily, I did find the ending books of Paradise Lost to be dull. But I just never discovered the point of Inferno. Why was he in hell to begin with? I’ll have to try again some day.

      And I’m glad to hear another plug for Proust. I’ll get to it someday, hopefully.

  • As you know, I’m working my way through Ulysses right now. It’s difficult, but not as bad as I thought.

    I am looking forward to reading War & Peace with our classics group.

    • Suzanne, I love to hear “not as bad as I thought”! that’s hopeful. And yes, I think War and Peace will be good for our group, if we can all get through it.

  • No no no no, don’t be intimidated by Virgil! I love him so much with every part of my heart! Do not let Dante confuse you by using Virgil as a character in the Divine Comedy – Virgil is nothing like Dante and far more like Homer. The Aeneid is wonderful. I’m going to reread it myself this fall – it’ll be my first time not using the C. Day Lewis translation, which should be a strange and exciting change for me.

    • Jenny, Ah, so glad to hear that! Maybe I’ll give him a go this fall, but I’m getting busy in my reading already, so it may not be until next year, we’ll see.

  • Aww.. I’m so sorry you discontinued. I’ll be reading the Hollander translation too, as I found it the most accessible. I admit, I’ve a hidden agenda behind reading Inferno.. which is: historical/fictional basis of the common picture of hell. I really want to know how much Dante elaborated on the idea of hell and how different it actually is from the Bible’s account. I hope I find it more interesting than you did.. 😀

    Btw, your before-40 list and my before-40 list are mirror images, lol. Good luck to us! I’m reading Aeneid in a few days (before Inferno).. wish you well with that!

    • Claire, yes, I agree that the Hollander is incredibly accessible. I just found the picture of hell so foreign, I couldn’t figure out what the point of Dante’s journey was…but I’ll love to see your thoughts on it when you’ve finished. I’ll have to try it again some day.

  • I am halfway into the Inferno and I like it thus far. I have trouble motivating myself to read the other half though. I can well imagine why you have put it aside for now. I would love to have had a class on it like Amanda described.

  • I’m sorry you didn’t like the Inferno. I had the exact same experience as Amanda did – read it in a college class that combined English and history. Maybe we went to the same college? Interesting.
    As for intimidating books, Ulysses is definitely at the top of mine. I’m even to scared to buy it and have it mock me from my TBR pile. I came close the other day, but I’m just not ready. Someday. I recently picked up the first book of In Remembrance of Things Past, so I hopefully I’ll tackle that soonish. And I recently realized the copy I read of War and Peace is abridged! So frustrating because I thought I had read it. I don’t know how I missed that. I always check for that, but clearly didn’t check very well that time. I did think I was missing things as I read, but thought it was just a bad translation and the fact that I was just 18 at the time. I’ve picked up a better translation in a non-abridged translation and hope to read it within a year. Good luck on your books!

    • Lindsey, I’ll have to try INFERNO again, I feel silly that I couldn’t get through it! And yes, I have found translations make a big difference in those Russian novels!

  • Do do DO take a class on Inferno, if you ever get the chance. It was one of the best things I did in college. My biggest regret is not being able to fit the follow-up course (Paradiso and the second half of Purgatorio) into my schedule.

    I studied Paradise Lost too for another class and couldn’t get into it. Boooring!

    • El Fay, I just reread Paradise Lost and enjoyed it the second time, so maybe it’s the fact that I had a class for that one that made it not boring in my mind! I hope I can find a class I can take on Inferno because it does sound like one people like if they do!

  • I hope to someday get through Anna Karenina and Moby Dick but don’t have a schedule for it. I guess I should be proud of myself that I ever read Lolita. Other books in house that I wonder if I will ever get to are The Yearling (just SO long!), Midnight’s Children and A.S.Byatt’s Possession – her vocab is intimidating.
    It’s great that book blogging has encouraged such deep reading! I do love the shared commitment and motivation to tackle such texts.

    • Care, I remember enjoying POSSESSION because I loved her language. I should revisit it. Group reads are normally very rewarding. I wish it had worked out this time.

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