Must-reads

I recently returned from spending two and a half months away, mostly for professional activities, about which I will blog in due course. Actually, I hope to blog about them soon, but here’s a quick post on a different topic.

Our guide to the English major here includes a section where faculty members list their must-read books and epiphanic moments related to literature. For the first time since I’ve been here, revisions are being made this summer, so I had my first opportunity to provide a must-read list. I found it difficult to know what should be on that list, as I was trying to avoid having it simply be a list of five books I’ve read recently. I didn’t entirely steer clear of that trap, but I’m confident that each item on my list is a book that I will continue to recommend:

Studs Terkel, “The Good War”

Anthony Trollope, The Warden and Barchester Towers

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Rudyard Kipling, Kim

H. H. Munro, The Complete Short Stories of Saki

It would seem that I salute the British Empire. But there’s more to my list than that:

Studs Terkel’s “The Good War” was an important book for me when I was a sophomore in high school. Although I considered including John Hersey’s Hiroshima on my list, for its searing look at a different set of painful results of WWII, I kept old Studs on there because of my fondness for him and because I suspect that there won’t be a lot of oral history or autobiography in the lists that people send in.

I included the two Trollope novels because I think every student should be exposed to his agile, witty play with words and rhetoric. I also love the humor of his books and the way that he seems to be laughing at all of his characters, mostly with at least some degree of affection or acceptance. This seems to me to set him apart from the wit of an author like Jane Austen, for instance, but you’ll see below that I haven’t entirely neglected Miss Austen.

Both Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Kipling’s Kim are on my list (in spite of the fact that I read both of them for the first time in the last several years) for their evocation of particular places: intoxicating, heartbreaking, and lovely. On reading the first sentences of Cry, the Beloved Country (“There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”), I was lost, even before I had read enough to realize how compelling the story itself was. With Kim, however, I had been resistant to reading the book, largely because of my frustration with some of Kipling’s other works, but after reading a novel by Laurie R. King (another author worth reading, at least for the sheer intelligence of her prose) that seemed to be nodding to Kim, I finally picked up the latter. It was well worth reading!

I listed the Saki short stories because I have enjoyed them since I was a kid and because I periodically recommend them to people as a largely unknown but highly entertaining collection. In addition, I’m not sure how much short fiction is likely to make its way onto the list.

Now, my list may have covered an impressive number of former British colonies, but you’ll have noticed that this list does not include any work written by a woman, nor by an author who is not white. Here are a few works that I thought about including on my list, even though I ended up being swayed by my regard for those books that did make the cut:

When I was in middle school, both Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre were formative for me, but I suspect most students will have been exposed to these books one way or another. I also suspect that the very personal nature of the formative qualities these books had for me might make it difficult for me to anticipate what might be their impact on other readers.

I also thought about suggesting any poem written by Emily Dickinson, but since she is already represented on other lists, I kept that slot open for other books I really wanted to be able to add to the listings. All three of these authors would have given me a female representative, but Zora Neale Hurston very nearly stayed on my list because she would have allowed me to champion both authors who are female and authors who are not white. I bought a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God in an airport bookstore after I interviewed for what turned out to be my first job out of grad school, because in the immediate aftermath of an interview, I couldn’t quite stand the thought of getting down to the work I’d brought with me. The book turned out to be moving and meaningful, but I left it off of my list simply because I think I will be less likely to revisit it than to revisit some of my other titles – I think this might be one of those ones that came to my mind partly because I only read it a few years ago.

In spite of the caveats I’ve just given for all of these also-ran titles, I’m feeling again, as I type this, that it might have been a good thing to be a voice for literature written by authors other than white men. I’ll have to give some thought to my next revision, I think. If any of you have a shortlist of must-read books, please share!

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