Silas Marner by George Eliot — I was encouraged to read this book by Amy who, after reading it, raved about what a beautiful and redemptive story it is. Indeed it is. The story centers around a man, Silas Marner, who, because of some material losses, becomes a miserly recluse. But then, quite unexpectedly, a child comes into his life and their relationship completely transforms him. (Here’s a complete summary.) While the general plot is simple and straightforward, the actual narrative and character interactions are rather complex. But it all adds to the realism of the tale. This is one aspect of Eliot’s genius as a writer, I think. Another thing that makes this book such a remarkable achievement is that it is a compelling story of hope and redemption. It is much easier to write realistic stories that are dark, depressing and tragic. But show me someone who can tell a convincing story of redemption, and I’ll show you a great writer. And that’s George Eliot.
The Aeneid by Virgil — I regret that it has taken me so long to finally read this ancient classic, which is regarded by many as the most important work in Western history next to the Bible. But better late than never. It is an epic poem that traces the legend of the founding of the Roman Empire, beginning with the sack of Troy and Aeneas’s leadership of the survivors to Italy where they ultimately conquer the Latins. While following the Homeric tradition in many ways, including the epic poem format and the central role of a great hero who survives seemingly endless hardships, the Aeneid differs in one crucial respect. While Homer celebrated the individual hero, Virgil places a primacy on the collective, civil society. As a storyteller, Virgil is remarkable, especially his patience in constructing scenes and his meticulous descriptions of people and events. He devoted 11 years to writing the Aeneid, and at the time of his death in 19 B.C. was still in the process of editing it. Virgil left instructions in his will to have the unfinished manuscript destroyed, but thankfully Emperor Augustus did not allow this, instead directing some poet friends of Virgil to prepare it for publication. It is fascinating to ponder the impact of this one decision, the historical significance of which might exceed that of all of the emperor’s other accomplishments.