Recommended reading A) for profit and B) for very lowbrow fun. First, for profit:
Dante's Divine Comedy, John D. Sinclair's translation. I've just completed the last canto of the Paradiso in this edition and was confirmed in the estimate I formed more than twelve years ago that it is a very readable, helpful edition and to be highly recommended for the student new to the Comedia, as I was then and still am.
Sinclair's is a prose translation, which some may consider a defect but I consider an advantage.I find reading long prose works to be far easier than reading long works in poetry. (Yes, it is ironic that my special author in graduate school was Edmund Spenser!) Long poems are, for me, exhausting. And Dante is difficult enough for the student that it seems better not to add to the fatigue in the form of a poetic translation. John Ciardi does a good job at a poetic translation, and I have his edition at hand as an additional reference. Sinclair's prose is fairly smooth and very faithful, as far as someone who does not read Italian but knows a smidge of Latin can tell.
One of Sinclair's great virtues is that he moves you through the Comedia. I read the Inferno and the Purgatorio very rapidly this time and only slowed down over the higher metaphysical flights of the Paradiso.
Sinclair's notes have much to be said for them. He does not assume much knowledge on the part of the reader, which is good. He has short endnotes to each canto for the sheer identification of allusions, and these are separate from his longer interpretive notes, one of which occurs at the end of each canto. This seems to me a good scheme, making it easy to find information you need quickly just to read through the canto and saving the speculations and longer explanations to be read afterwards. Sinclair is occasionally a little too distanced from Dante's view of the world. Though in 2007 terms, he is very sympathetic--I shudder to think what a contemporary scholar would be likely to do with the same material--one does get a little tired of the repeated references to "the ideas of Dante's time." Still, most of these come only when one encounters really difficult doctrines like predestination, so they aren't too obtrusive.
The one real lack of the edition is the entire absence of illustrations, maps, or drawn diagrams of any kind. There are merely verbal diagrams--one each--of the schemes of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. In this area Ciardi has more material, and I also found some great maps of Dante's universe linked here.
As for the content, there is, of course, too much to be said. One thing that struck me this time through is how very Western Dante's imagination is. For example, there is the repeated insistence that love follows vision, rather than the other way around. Sinclair refers to this question as "meaningless to us." I wish he'd keep me out of it. I tend to think it's a very relevant question, and one on which I (as a good Western rationalist type) side with Dante.
I'm planning to assign the Comedia in Sinclair's translation to my daughter for sophomore English class (yes, yes, I know it wasn't originally written in English) this coming year; I feel confident that Sinclair and I between the two of us, with a little help from additional reference works, can bring her through to her profit.
All right, now for the ridiculous.
Years ago, on a rainy day, I had a bad cold and felt miserable at the thought of going to work in the office of the pallet factory where I then helped to get our living. My dear husband, sympathizing with me most kindly, and despite the fact that it would mean a lost day of much-needed wages, encouraged me to stay home and take care of myself. He then handed me a little paperback for sheerly fun reading. I still associate it with that day--the rain streaming down outside, myself inside and warm, playing hooky from a hated job. Perhaps I shall have to spend some time in the Purgatorial circle of the slothful for it, but it was a great day.
The book is The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs. I have it in this tacky 1970's edition. Never mind the front cover and the silly comparisons to Tolkien. (Don't all fantasy blurbs do that?) If you have any taste for clean fantasy with a very light touch, or think you might, this book is for you. There's no blood, no gore, and almost no females. But it gets plenty spooky, nonetheless. Prospero and Roger Bacon, wizards, are the main characters, and their friendship gives the book its greatest charm. The stolen names are an example of Bellairs' great fun with time, place, and literary allusion. He deliberately sets the book in a no-where's-land called The South Kingdom, south of The North Kingdom, though England does apparently exist in his world. (Roger Bacon has recently been there.) Prospero lives in a Victorian house full of gadgets and tacky Victorian furniture and has a talking mirror who watches 20th century Chicago Cubs games telepathically. At one point the two wizards travel in an Amish buggy made by casting a spell on a squash. I suspect that some of this topsy-turvy use of anachronism was suggested to Bellairs by T. H. White's Once and Future King, where I seem to recall that Merlin has a similar relationship to time. But Bellairs does it better and is much funnier.
In case this bothers you, I should mention that the book treats religion fairly lightly, though with no malice. Prayer books, for example, are used as sources of quasi-spells to ward off evil things that walk by night, not actually to pray, and one of the things mentioned (which always makes me laugh) on the first page is that Roger and Prospero know all the verses to the Dies Irae.
If you're feeling blue about what's wrong with the world, and if this sounds like the sort of book you might enjoy, I suggest you get a copy out of the library and settle down somewhere comfortable with it. It works best for cheering you up if taken with hot chocolate, though for that you may need to wait until autumn.