Really Old Classics Challenge

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Heather and I are hosting the Really Old Classics Challenge from November 2009 to the end of February 2010. I am so excited about it. I’ve enjoyed every really old classic I’ve read thus far, and I’m looking forward to a little motivation to read some more!

It’s a fairly simple challenge. To finish, you need to read one work written before 1600 A.D. That’s it. Read one thing and you’ve finished! To make it fun, though, we have an “extra credit” option (read a retelling) and a “Classicist” certification (read four works).

I’m so excited about this! I decided to share some of my favorite classics as well as those that I hope to read some day. I probably won’t get more than four read during the next four months, but at least I can dream about reading them over the course of the rest of my life!

What I’ve Read

I haven’t read many Really Old Classics since I started my blog — but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them! I started the Really Old Classics challenge last year because I wanted the motivation to read them. I was a fairly new blogger and the challenge wasn’t very well run or participated in, but all the same, those of us who did join it enjoyed ourselves!

During the challenge, I read Homer’s The Iliad (trans. Robert Fagles) and to my surprise, I loved it! There is something so powerful about the emotions and characters in it. I followed that up with Homer’s The Odyssey (also trans. Robert Fagles) and while I likewise enjoyed that saga, I felt it more plot and story based, so it wasn’t as powerful to me as The Iliad had been. (I like my stories to be about character and emotions, not plot and “adventure.”)

I read a Euripides’ play, Hippolytus, for a book group I joined once. It was fun and I look forward to more Euripides. I jumped into the 1500s with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a fascinating look at society — and what makes it perfect or imperfect!

And then this summer I tackled Husain Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II.  While they were hard to get into at first, I found them delightful as a whole.

When I was in school, I read Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Antigone. I also read excerpts from other classic works, including all of the King James Version of the Bible. I’ve read Aesop’s Fables as an adult and a child.

What I Want to Read

The list of books I want to read for this four-month challenge is very long. Nevertheless, I’m going to mention these works because I want you to see how excited I am for all of my options!

  • Gilgamesh has been on the Martel-Harper list and I’ve seen dozens of people reading it and reviewing it this year. It sounds fascinating to me!
  • Bhagavad-Gita and The Koran (Al-Qur’an) are religious books I feel I should experience in my life. While I’m not sure four months is enough to read either of these, they are on my list for life.
  • Homer’s Iliad. Although I’ve already read The Iliad, I want to read translations by Alexander Pope, Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Stanley Lombardo.  I also want to read a modern-day poetical retelling by Christopher Logue. (EXTRA CREDIT)
  • Aeschylus Oresteia, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound. From summaries I’ve read, these all fascinate me!
  • Sophocles Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone. Time for a reread!
  • Euripides Orestes and Medea. I’ve heard great things about these particular Euripides plays.
  • Aristophanes. Because he comes after Euripides.
  • Herodotus The Histories and Thucydides The Peloponnesian Wars. These sound ultra dull, but I’d honestly love to learn about history from the ancients’ perspective!
  • Plato Dialogues. Because this is an important part of history.
  • Aristotle  Poetics, Ethics. A corner-stone of modern philosophy.
  • Plutarch Lives. I read excerpts of Lives when I was reading about Julius Caesar. That early biography seems rather amusing.
  • Virgil Aeneid. This is one I can’t believe I haven’t read yet this year. It was on my Really Old Classics List for last year, and I never got to it. I loved Homer, so I’m looking forward to giving this old guy a chance too.
  • Ovid Metamorphoses. I honestly don’t know anything about this. But it’s on the lists.
  • Juvenal Satires, Martial Epigrams, Seneca Tragedies. I read excerpts from each of these at some point. Time revisit?
  • Apuleius The Golden Ass. I read a review that said this was funny and readable. Always a good thing.
  • Saint Augustine City of God; Confessions. This early Christian seems to have said a lot of good stuff.
  • Beowulf. I recently talked to a 14-year-old who liked this book! Plus, the Seamus Heaney cover is pretty cool looking.
  • Dante The Divine Comedy. I think this will be a life-time project. I admit that the excerpts I’ve read have scared me for the entire thing!
  • Petrarch Lyric Poems; Selections. There’s a reason it’s call the Petrachian sonnet. Time to find out why?
  • Giovanni Boccaccio The Decameron. I don’t know anything about it but it’s long and Medieval.
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti Sonnets and Madrigals. I like his paintings and sculpture. Will I like his writing?
  • Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince. An important political tome, albeit a boring one.
  • Leonardo da Vinci Notebooks. I started reading this last year but had to take it back to the library. Interesting, plus I like his artwork.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer The Canterbury Tales. Many people have told me this is awesomely fun. Dare I attempt it in Middle English?
  • Sir Thomas Malory Le Morte D’Arthur. More fun traditional tales. Definitely not trying in Middle English.
  • Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene. Because I love sweeping epic poetry!
  • Christopher Marlowe Poems and Plays. Shakespeare’s near contemporary and/or inspriation.
  • Michel de Montaigne Essays. I’ve only read excerpts.
  • François Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel. An I-should-read-this book.
  • Confucius’s The Analects. Sounds like a refreshing work!
  • The Tale of the Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. It seems a lot of people have been reading it this year (thanks to a read-along) and I hope to join in at some point in my life!
  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon. I won this from Literary Feline in a BBAW book giveaway and I’m so excited to read it. As it is also for the Japanese Literature Challenge, I won’t count it for this one!
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Night. I might have read this before? Can’t remember.

As you can see, I’m clearly skewed towards Western classics. Please let me know of great non-Western classics you’ve read!

What I’ll Read This Year

I’m definitely reading The Pillow Book for the Japanese Literature Challenge. For this challenge, I have my eye on Medea and The Aeneid. The others I choose will be more randomly chosen: what do I feel like reading this week? I do want to read War Music as my retelling “extra credit.” Needless to say, I’m hoping I can get the classicist certification this year.

Are you going to join the challenge? What books on this list do you want to read? Which non-Western really old classics (pre-1600) can you recommend?

Join the challenge on the challenge blog!

Reviewed on October 19, 2009

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.

  • That’ is certainly a long list!!! So glad you’re not committing to all of these for the challenge. 🙂

    “Niccolò Machiavelli The Prince. An important political tome, albeit a boring one.” Really?! I loved this when I read it in high school/college and am hoping to read it again soon – maybe for the challenge? If we both read it we can compare notes!

    Some of my hopefuls are on your list – I’m going to try to narrow it down within the next week. I’m so excited for this challenge!

  • Those are gorgeous buttons!

    I’m in the “The Prince was boring” camp. Reading through this list of yours is seriously like going over my college freshman honors college english/humanities reading list. I’ve probably read 95% of those books, and honestly I’m glad to be past them. I was never much of a fan. The only one on that list that I haven’t already read that I want to read is the Tale of the Genji.

  • I really *loved* reading The Prince. I remember laughing out loud while reading it.

    A few non-western pre-1600s book on my wish list:
    • Journey to the West (aka Monkey), 16th century
    • Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh), 14th century
    • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (aka Three Kingdoms), 14th century

    These, along with Dream of the Red Chamber (aka Story of the Stone), 18th century, which I’ve read, are the four great classical novels of Chinese literature.

  • A great list with many titles I should probably try myself.

    So far I have only read the Decameron and (while I don’t remember much of it) I can tell you it’s a fun read in parts (it’s essentially a bunch of people that have gathered together and each tells a story). The morals are a bit old (and even contradictory at times) but I think it’s definitely worth reading.

  • What a wonderful challenge! I have to rework some things after this weekend to see if I can join.

    I would recommend two non-Western texts for this challenge – the Mahabharata and Sunjata; they are really interesting reads.

  • Really old classics are a big gap in my reading so I really need to do something to change this. I will make sure I join this challenge, but need to have a think about which ones to choose. I will start by finishing The Tale of Genji, which I have been neglecting recently and then move onto something else. It sounds as though I should read Homer’s The Odyssey as I love plot! i’ll have a think and then come up with a post. Thank you for hosting this challenge!

  • Great idea! Loved your reading list as well as some of the reader suggested material. I will recommend you read Sir Gawain & the Green Knight before Chaucer and yes, you should at least try to read both in their original English. It’s not hard once you get the flair of the accent. Try saying a few lines and you’ll get the idea. I was drawn here by the reader reference to Romance of the Three Kingdoms as I have a Google News search on that title. I have that as I’ve written a fantasy based on the book and it will hopefully find a publisher someday soon. If it does, I’ll let you know. ;D I thought The Prince intriguing and Utopia boring, so I think it’s mostly personal taste. You must read Beowulf. Dream of the Rood is also good and from around the same period as Beowulf, if I remember correctly. Since you love the emotive aspects of literature, I’m going to suggest Byron’s “Manfred.” It might be a bit late for your time frame, but I still think you’ll love it. Have fun!

  • I had the opposite reaction to The Iliad and The Odyssey. I didn’t care for the violence in the former and I loved the loyalty in the latter.

    I’m pulling out books from my shelves right now. I already have a long list to choose from. I love classics. Can’t wait to get started but I’m thankful it doesn’t begin until after NaNoWriMo.

  • A few notes:
    1. Yes, read Chaucer in Middle English. You’ll have to learn about 40 new words, which you’ll pick up as you go along. Everything else is obvious from context. Victoria is right – reading aloud helps.
    2. Read The Prince as a novel, with an unreliable narrator.
    3. Michelangelo’s best poems are amazing.
    4. The Bhagavad-Gita is actually pretty short.
    5. For some more short non-Western classics, try some Chinese or Japanese poetry. For example, Kenneth Rexroth’s 100 Poems from the Japanese and 100 Poems from the Chinese, or one of David Hinton’s many translations of early Chinese poets. I occasionally borrow one of these to post at Wuthering Expectations.

  • Intriguing! I’ll be reading several pre-1600 things in the next few months, in including Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine and Thomas à Kempis. Maybe I should join…

  • The non-Western classics I would recommend are:
    Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Luó Guànzhong
    Monkey: A Journey to the West – Wú Chéng’en

    They’re also addition to the updated 1001 books you must read before you die (2008). According to my dad, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an obligatory read for army service all around the world and the second book most read after the Bible (I can’t confirm the truth of those claims course :). Anyway, I have grown up with the two stories over various forms of medium (books, illustrated or not, tv series, countless derivations of them, etc) so I’m so familiar with them, even though I may have not read the original books cover to cover.

  • Amanda, Button images courtesy Dreadlock Girl! I saw her pictures on a post about the Portland Book Blogger’s Retreat and fell in love with them!

    I didn’t think you would be interested in this challenge, but I guess I never know!!

    Wordlily, Oh I’m glad you’re another “love it.” Maybe I was wrong to be scared of it!! Thanks for the suggestions….*adding to my lists.*

    Kay, Oh I’m glad you enjoyed that one!! I think I can handle dated advice. 🙂

    Cara, awesome! I hope it’s a great experience…make sure you go to the challenge site to sign up!

    Trisha, thanks for the recommendations! And I hope you can figure it out so you can join too!

    Jackie, I definitely think you’re probably an Odyssey girl rather than an Iliad girl! I do hope you join!

    Victoria Dixon, Awesome suggstions! Thanks so much. I’m an amateur here, but I’m getting more and more excited! An “extra” part of the challenge is to read a modern day “retelling” which sounds just like what you’re working on! How fun!

    Petunia, Yeah, I think Odyssey and Iliad are one or the other, depending on the reader’s personality type! I personally didn’t think Iliad was about violence so much as about relationships and emtions and humanity. I loved it!

    I thought NaNoWriMo was November? The challenge starts the beginning of November, but you can start yourself anytime after that!

    Amateur Reader, Thanks for the Middle English pep talk! I’ll go for it. (My mom wrote her PhD dissertation on some obscure middle English texts so, um, I’d be kind of embarrased to admit to her I hadn’t read it in the original anyway…

    I’m making a note of your other recommendations, and I”m glad The Prince, once again, has been deemed not something to be afraid of!

    Emily, OF COURSE you should join 😉

    Mee, awesome! Sounds like you’ve those ones so much! They must be great!

  • Such a great list!

    Chaucer in Middle English is such fun and I love Homer.

    I won’t be joining this time as I am begging off challenges for the next couple of months but I do have The Pillow Book lined up to read sometime soon.

  • I join very few challenges, but when I heard about this one, from two of my favorite bloggers, I knew I was in. I’m probably reading at least Ovid’s Metamorphoses over the winter. Other than that, I’m not sure. We’ll see.

  • Great list! I like Aeschylus better than I like Sophocles though I have admittedly not (yet) read all of Sophocles. Loved Herodotus. And the Bhagavad- Gita is quite good. I liked Fitzgerald’s Homer translation better than Fagles. I’ve got Oedious at Colonus on my nightstand so maybe I will join in 🙂

  • Claire, I completely understand the begging off challenges. I feel like I keep saying I’ll do the same — and yet here I am hosting one! The Pillow Book is my one definite read for the challenge!

    unfinishedperson, Oh I’m so glad we tempted you! I hope you enjoy Ovid!

    Stefanie, That’s why I want to read Fitzgerald and the other translations so I can figure out which ones I prefer! So much to read! I hope you do decide to join!

  • […] sometimes more value, in reading books that are classics, one of the reasons I’ve joined the Really Old Classics Challenge, or as I do often on Wednesdays read spiritual books. For example, on my Wednesday reading list is […]

  • I’ve read the Bhagavad-Gita…it’s very good and not very long. I’ve also read the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf (actually I listened to it–I recommend that if your library has it) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

    I am reading the Koran, Plato’s Republic, the Histories and Gilgamesh, but for the pre-printing press challenge (I might join this one and do some cross-overs though! 🙂 )

    I recommend reading The Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu and The Way (or collected writings of) Chuang Tzu as far as really old Eastern stuff goes.

    Good luck! 🙂

  • Petunia, I do hope that despite NaNo, you can join and get your book(s) read!!

    J.T., I had my eye on Heaney’s Beowulf! Glad you like the others as well. Definitely, cross-overs are fine!! I’m so glad I’ve tempted you!

  • I guess I didn’t realize how old the book challenge was although I certainly qualify as far as “dead authors” are concerned. Just finished “Sister Carrie”. Seems like this endeavors is going well.

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