I wanted to add to the post yesterday that in response to a student's querry about the very best books I would nominate Turgenev's Hunter's Notebook (also translated as A Sportsman's Sketches as well as in various other titles). Like Dante's epic poem, this book of short stories is a study of a world about to come to an end; in this case Turgenev (or rather the unnamed narrator who speaks for him) is journeying through the Russian countryside populated by serfs still bound to the land. Only in the moment this community is about to pass away can it be seen with sympathy by someone who has no desire for the institutions of the old order to continue. It is not lost on the reader that the simple people of the land have vivid interior lives while the sophistocated narrator, no doubt a "Europeanized" Russia like the dandy Turgenev himself, displays none.
Lastly, I would advise a reader to peruse P.G. Wodehouse, particularly the Jeeves and Wooster stories re-issued on the author's 90th birthday. I have no doubt Wodehouse is, as I mention in one of my books, the one twentieth century author the world is still going to read four hundred years from now. I say this not only because Wodehouse brings the reader joy or because he is a comic writer--always the best kind of author to be in unheroic times, when everything else is either cant or rehashed ideology--but because he is the one celebrated writer of his era who had the good sense to avoid his era. His fellow Engish comic writer Evelyn Waugh is a better stylist and though I share some of Waugh's world view, Waugh drags into his novels the dreary modern world with all its posing and blood lust, and while Waugh mocks the modern age, I quickly grow weary of its presence. Wodehouse's universe is a little of the Victorian Britain he was born into, a little of the Edwardian London he knew as a young man, a little of wealthy Brits tramping about New York and other alien spots during the Roaring Twenties, but mostly Wodehouse's universe exists only in his imagination. It is a large and tolerant place that sort of resembles the spots his contemporaries were living in, but it is too silly and too kind to the silly ever to be mistaken for reality. Keeping company with Jeeves, Wooster, the misplaced Psmith, or the eccentric Lord Emsworth and Mr. Ukridge is thus always a safe place to go when our times and their crushing seriousness become too much to bear. And I am forever grateful Mr. Wodehouse has given us these safe havens where we can flee when the need arises.