Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Six books

About once a term I make a point of haranguing my students about the books they should have under their belt if they are serious about being English students. This lecture (rant) is one of several that tend to surface in my normal rotation, the others being (1) You all should read more history; (2) You all should read more, period; and (3) What the hell do you mean none of you have seen Casablanca? Seriously? (for this last category, substitute any classic film I mention in passing in class that elicits blank looks of incomprehension).

Unlike these three curmudgeonly rants however, the books-you-should-read-to-major-in-English riff is one I do in the hopes that it might actually sink in with some people. Six books, I say—there are six books you should read if you want to understand the vast majority of the allusions in English literature written before 1950. They are as follows:

Homer, The lliad and The Odyssey
Virgil, The Aeneid
Ovid, Metamorphoses
Dante, The Divine Comedy
The Bible

I sometimes get the sense that some of my senior colleagues see me as a theory-obsessed postmodernist—which, to a certain extent, is true enough; I'm also someone whose own research bleeds over into media, film and television, and popular culture. But when it comes down to it, I'm also a pretty hardcore traditionalist when it comes to teaching the canon and what I think students in English should be given as background. I'd quite cheerfully have a course teaching these six books as a requirement for our English degree if it was feasible to do so (I'd quite cheerfully teach that course too, when it comes down to it).

At any rate, I often feel as though my exhortations are falling on deaf ears, so it is quite gratifying to hear from a student—as I did this morning—that my suggestion was taken seriously. Chatting with a student as a walked from class to my office, I learned that he was knee-deep in Dante's Inferno—and enjoying it! Wonders never cease.


Fred said...

Beyond your big six books, you need to lighten the mood for your students. Encourage them to read fun criticism. In this spirit I recommend:

John Sutherland: "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? Further Puzzles in Classical Fiction."

Also by same author: "Is Heathcliffe a Murderer" and "Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?" (these should bring humour and close reading to your students)

David Lodge: "The Art of Fiction" (forcing students to learn what writers know so well in their art)

Francine Prose: "Reading Like a Writer" (reading closely again, but from the writers point of view, and really a great experience in sensitivity to the text)

C. S. Lewis: "An Experiment in Criticism" or "Studies in Words" (considers the reader's role in reading, while the other teaches students to trace language across literary history)

Pierre Bayard: "Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles" (for fun and he's French and a psychoanalyst)

Roland Barthes: Lover's Discourse: Fragments" (French, again, and who can resist such a marvelous book)

And always begin the semester with Oscar Wilde: "I never read a book I must review; it prejudices you so much."

Chris in NF said...

David Lodge's book was one of the first I read in my undergrad to show me what good criticism could look like. And I love love love Francine Prose, but haven't read that book of hers -- I'll have to track it down.

And don't get the impression I spend my classes harranguing my students ... just occasionally. I think most of my students would attest to the fact that the mood in my classroom is always pretty light.

Fred said...

I don't know what your take on this idea is, but I certainly do enjoy books on tape/cd. When I was in high school, I borrowed LPs from the library which were a reading of Joyce's Ulysses. Because I had done so, I never understood people's dismay at being assigned such a "hard" book to read. When you hear the book, it really is quite easy to take in its meaning, and much of Ulysses is aural. Even Dickens is quite aural, since Charles made a good living from dramatising his works in readings on stage. Another advantage of spoken word cds is the actor usually interprets the reading material through tone of voice, inflection and pauses more naturally than when I read. Profs should assign "hard" books, but they should also accompany them with spoken words.

I know the complaint. Students carry such a work load, that adding another layer will be too much. Pfoo, I say. Take one less course, or cut out Friday nights drinking.

Fred said...

Oh, by the way, I heard about your site through Nikki Stafford's blog: "Nik at Nite". If you're a fan of LOST, and who isn't, we are doing a thread using postmodern analysis to interpret LOST. It isn't very deep, but another voice in the fray would be so nice.

Andrew McFudge said...

I think we're all overlooking the excellent work to come of the "Mr. Men" series. Here's a couple of lists to sort the good from the bad.

Great Mr. Men books:

Mr. Uppity - Read it closely. It predicted the economic collapse more than 25 years in advance.

Mr. Impossible - Teachers you to follow your dreams, even if you look like a flattened version of the beloved McDonalds character Grimace

Mr. Nonsense - A sweet story that reminds kids there are such things as FUNCTIONING alcoholics

Mr. Men books to avoid:

Mr. Fussy - Never read the book but he's rocking a pretty well groomed Hitler moustache which can't possibly be a good thing.

Mr. Rush - I don't think he's related to a certain other famous Rush but it's better to be safe than sorry.

Jon Parsons said...

who wouldn't be interested, what with sections like the simoniacs!!!

MLBurt said...

Just stopping by to say that the "Six books" rant certainly hasn't fallen on deaf ears. I haven't gotten to any of them during the school semester, though I plan on tackling as many as I can during the summer.

All the best.