A few Slate staffers were talking about books, and we found we all had the same problem: We love literature but we’re busy, and we all have smartphones now, and we’re doing our best to keep up with contemporary fiction, and we realized that it has been a long time since any of us read a classic novel.
So for our second Slate Academy, we decided to spend a year reading classics—books that we haven’t read since we were in high school or college, or the ones we always meant to read but never found the time. It’ll be a different kind of reading club, and we asked Laura Miller to be our guide.
If you’ve been reading Slate recently, you know that Laura is one of the most insightful and knowledgeable book critics at work today. Now she’s going to spend some time revisiting the classics with us—showing us what they have to offer, helping us over the bumps, unpacking their pleasures and surprises.
And if you join this Slate Academy, you’ll pick what we read. Every episode, Laura will sit down with a fellow Slatester and come up with a shortlist of titles, and then they’ll invite members to vote for a winner. Two months later, they’ll sit down for a thoughtful, personal conversation about the winning book—and members can join the discussion in a private Facebook group.
To vote for your pick and gain access to A Year in Great Books, our second Slate Academy, consider enrolling. Access to all Slate Academies, including our inaugural series, The History of American Slavery, is one of the many benefits of Slate Plus membership.
You can hear Laura and Will Oremus pick candidates for our first book in our preview episode.
If you’re already a Slate Plus member, you can vote for our first book selection here.
To kick things off, we talked to Laura about the classics, the novel, and her reading life.
Keeping up with new books must be a full-time job for you. How often do you get to revisit the classics?
I wasn’t able to until I became a devotee of audiobooks. While I need to do most of my reading for work with pen in hand, I double up on the time I spend at the gym or doing housework to listen to all kinds of books, but particularly older works I’ve never had the chance to get to before. Two authors I’ve learned to love entirely through audiobooks are Anthony Trollope and Wallace Stegner.
We decided to stick to the novel for this series, although other forms have their charms. What does the novel do better than anything else?
The novel lets us inside the minds of characters better than any other narrative form. That’s one of the main reasons for its remarkable longevity. We may not always be able to relate to the manners and customs of the people of Jane Austen’s time, but with that window into their inner lives that only the novel provides, they still make sense to us, and we’re able to see that we’re not so very different after all.
How did you become one of the very few full-time book critics in America? And what would you be doing if you weren’t writing?
I was a co-founder of Salon and an editor there for several years. Back then, Salon was committed to covering books extensively and I was the editor who specialized in that beat. When I decided to write full time, it was a natural progression. If I wasn’t writing, I’d probably have followed family tradition and become a lawyer, although I’ve always harbored a fantasy of running a small country hotel in Maine.
Your partner in the first episode will be Will Oremus, who spends his days writing about Twitter and Google. What can classic fiction do for him?
It’s so easy to get caught up in ephemera, given how full modern life is of sparkly distractions. Great fiction encourages us to slow down and go deep, and to think about what aspects of our lives have lasting meaning. I hope that reading whichever book Slate Academy members pick for us will give Will’s imagination a chance to breathe and take in a bigger picture, as it should for all of us. It can be hard to carve out that time for the very particular mental activity of reading a great novel, but when you do, you almost always wish you’d done so earlier and more often!
Asking you to pick a single favorite book seems cruel. We’ll be reading six this year, so: What are your six favorite novels?
Any serious reader’s favorite novels are in a state of constant flux, and I find it impossible to weigh contemporary fiction against 19th- and early 20th-century works. Sticking with the classics, right now I’d say Jane Eyre, Bleak House, Emma, The Portrait of a Lady, and Jude the Obscure.
Favorites aside, is there one book you’re most hoping you get a chance to discuss in this series?
I recently reread Dracula and got involved in online debates about how to interpret it. As one friend put it, that’s a seriously overdetermined book, which to my mind makes it a promising one to discuss.
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To access all features of this Slate Academy, or to learn more about enrolling, visit Slate.com/GreatBooks.