Reading Lists

The last time I had time to “read for pleasure” was 2005, in the short summer months between finishing my MA and beginning the PhD. I was in Sweden and few books were available there in English, so I worked my way through Jane Austen and  a few Henry James novels (DM, WMK, WS, TB) with the occasional Woolf, Kafka, Duras (my three favorite authors who I’d brought along) for good measure.

This week I read The Handmaid’s Tale and I’m now reading The Bell Jar.  How did I get to be 30 years old without reading these books?

When I was little, I was a precocious reader. I mixed children’s classics like Bridge to Teribithia with real classics like The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck and O’Henry were my favorite authors until middle school. For a few years, The Great Gatsby was my favorite book. This changed when I was about 12. I mean, The Great Gatsby was my favorite book before I was 12.

In 7th grade I still had a lot of time for free reading, but in 8th grade we began to read harder stuff in class and I had less time for myself. 8th grade was the year we attempted to read The Iliad. I say “attempted” because that has got to be the worst idea ever for required reading for 13-14 year olds.  It is totally uninteresting and irrelevant even for most adults. The Odyssey, our major 9th grade reading, was better. In those two years we also read West Side Story, Exodus, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and various other things I don’t remember. We maybe read a book every 2-3 weeks, so my free reading time was cut dramatically, and would remain so until… 2005.

In high school (I went to a junior high, 7-9, and high school, 10-12) we read classics like Madame Bovary, Candide, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Hamlet, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, A Tale of Two Cities, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, Grendel, The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, All the King’s Men, Our Town, Pride and Prejudice, Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hard Times, Walden, etc. etc. at the rate of about one every two weeks. When I wasn’t reading these (and I admit, I can recall this particular list of books because these are the ones I actually read– Cliffs Notes and the newly online Barron’s Booknotes were lifesavers for us kids with over-packed schedules), I was reading philosophy for Lincoln-Douglas debate— Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Keynes, etc.  I read a lot of great stuff, but I also missed out on reading “for fun.” “Fun” reading was the philosophical stuff for debate, because it was an elective/extracurricular. (LD debate is huge and very competitive in AL, as the schools cited in the Wikipedia article– Homewood and Vestavia– are on the local circuit. My friends and I even considered transferring to Vestavia, a neighboring school district, to work with the coach there, who was the best in the country.)

In college, as an English and Comparative Literature double-major, I of course had a lot more assigned reading, especially since I started taking graduate-level classes in the second term of my sophomore year.  At this juncture, my “fun” reading was all the stuff the grad students or Charles talked about that I hadn’t read yet.  Buffalo has its own “canon” (so does UVA… probably all schools have their own canons) of literature that people will stand agape and aghast if you haven’t read. At Buffalo, if you haven’t read Christian Bök and Louis Zukofsky, you must be an idiot. Whereas at UVA, they’ve never heard of those people (or, if they have, they consider them so minor as to be unworthy of reading). So “fun” reading, or extracurricular reading, was catch-up reading, attempting to catch up with the Poetics grad students while fulfilling all my undergraduate reading assignments. Again, I read a lot of great stuff, but all the stuff that was not of immediate relevance or advised to me with a certain degree of chastisement or condescension was pushed aside.  By my senior year I was taking more Comparative Literature classes than English ones, and Comp Lit at Buffalo is largely a philosophy program (and not one in the Locke-Hobbes tradition– the Philosophy department pursues that trajectory). So this was a whole other canon to catch up with: Deleuze, Derrida, Bergson, more Kant, etc.

After all this reading– assigned reading and catch-up reading– I was, quite simply, burned out by the time I finished my MA (I was 24). I read “for fun” over the summer of 2005, but even this reading was “catch up” reading because I was going to enter a Victorian-heavy PhD program having never taken a course on Victorian literature. I enjoyed the readings for the Victorian lit classes I took at UVA, but it’s hard to describe the level of burnout I felt.  For a host of reasons, my brain was just mush. And that mushiness was coupled with a sense of being behind again– the canon at UVA was completely different, and none of what I brought to the table (in terms of what I’d read or how I thought, how I analyzed texts) seemed relevant, interesting or valuable to those with the power to judge.

In the summer of 2008 I read a few books for fun. I believe they were James again. James is just fun reading. But when I started teaching and working at the BPO, there was a lot less time to read because “free time” meant “grading.” And then when I entered the MLS program there was more reading for class, homework, and group projects, so again, no time for free reading. (I should mention that along with these programs, there’s always other stuff going on– poetry readings, poetry editing, various health issues that come and go, side jobs, reading the news instead of novels, trying to keep up with a few of the dozens of interesting poetry books that emerge every year– which I don’t usually consider “fun reading” but rather a kind of job that doesn’t pay.)

So now, as this program (the MLS) winds down and I look forward to taking July off to pack up my apartment to move, there is a window of free time for reading. I prefer novels, and The Golden Bowl is probably next on the list.


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16 Responses to Reading Lists

  1. Matt says:

    i recently realized the same thing about reading poetry being “a job” rather than “fun”. which is why i don’t read it anymore.

  2. I know, right? It doesn’t do it for me anymore. Or it does very rarely. There’s a small group of people who I’d read the next thing they published and I’d expect it to actually excite me. But that’s rare for me. I’m a poetry cynic.

  3. Oh no! Did it somehow come to that?

  4. It’s just– you know– living is so much more interesting/overwhelming, horrible/lovable than writing/reading about it is. (That said, I am often excited by the stuff you find and publish with Tinfish… and I’m not just saying that.)

  5. bill says:

    THE ILIAD “uninteresting and irrelevant”?! Try the translation(s) by Chrostopher Logue.

  6. Did you read the whole passage? The Iliad is uninteresting and irrelevant for most adults and certainly for 13-14 year olds. That kind of reading assignment aimed at middle school kids is what makes kids hate reading.

  7. bill says:

    ps. that’s christopher of course, my typo error.

  8. I’m sure someone with enthusiasm who could teach the book to juniors or seniors in high school or college aged kids could make it much more interesting. As it was, even with a thorough background in mythology in 7th grade, it was hard to get into. The Odyssey was better and easier, but again, too hard for 14-15yr olds (it was 9th grade reading). Some junior high school kids are very advanced readers, myself included, but there really are advantages to assigning age-appropriate material.

  9. bill says:

    True, you did say “even for most adults” – I thought I caught a tone which indicated for you too, just thought I’d put you on to the Logue.

    PS…Gatsby is still one of my favorite books.

  10. The Iliad is slightly more relevant to me since I was a literature major, but even so, The Odyssey reigned. Personally, for everyday life I think the other books assigned for us in 1994– The Diary of Anne Frank and Exodus— are more important for most people.

    There was a decade or so that I thought I was “over” The Great Gatsby— turns out I was silly. I reread it a few years ago for orals and listened to the book on tape which was an amazing dramatic interpretation (the narrator sarcastic, bringing out the dark humor of the novel). Hell of a book.

  11. Matt says:

    you were an early starter. when i was 12 my favorite book was jurassic park. in middle school i remember we read the westing game, a wrinkle in time, number the stars, the teleplay to a made for tv holocaust movie called escape from sobibor, romeo & juliet, frost’s poem about the two roads which we memorized (and which i’ve long since forgotten)…and i seem to be drawing a blank on all of 8th grade (i was in middle school, 6-8). in high school, let’s see, there was the scarlet letter, animal farm, some dickinson, ambrose bierce, gatsby, of mice and men, a smattering of world literature…and probably a lot of stuff i’m forgetting.

    of course i didn’t really like any of that stuff. except for the westing game and a wrinkle in time. beyond 6th grade, pretty much all my reading was on my own, centering mainly around vonnegut, 1984, catch-22, and a clockwork orange.

    (in college i didn’t care much about books to start with, since i was a music major. but after i switched to english i started to learn about a lot more authors. but i still was never much into the required reading. i once wrote a paper on middlemarch after reading 100 out of 800 pages. got an A or B i think.)

  12. I never read The Westing Game or A Wrinkle in Time. See, that’s what happens… so much great children’s literature and young adult literature skipped over because you’re making 8th graders read The Iliad.

    I listened to Middlemarch on CD last year when I finally gave up on the idea that I would actually read it. It was good! It was a long trip.

    Our high school also stressed poetry so we got a ton of that– not memorizing stuff (which I think is fairly useless, although I have heard good arguments to the contrary) but analyzing it. By the time I got to college, college literature courses were largely redundant. But poetry still had a lot to offer me, especially “experimental” poetry. I feel like there’s been diminishing returns as I keep reading/studying poetry. It does make novels feel “novel” to me again, though, to have been so genre-focused for much of my 20s. Novels are fun now.

  13. Amelia says:

    Intensive reading lists for a high school class. My peers in tenth-grade English couldn’t wrap their heads around Hamlet even over the space of six weeks. The following year I’m pretty sure I was the only person in the class to actually read Jane Eyre. I was on my own for Gatsby, et al.

    I think I first read A Handmaid’s Tale and The Bell Jar when I was 15, when an enlightened English teacher gave me a long list of books and dispensation from the class “reading comprehension” assignments. But I was simultaneously gobbling books like A Wrinkle in Time and The Wizard of Earthsea on my own time. The imaginary division between “children’s” books and Great Literature remains one of my pet peeves. I refuse to be deterred by the sardonic looks I get when I am browsing Juvy Fic in bookstores/libraries.

    You might try some Ursula Le Guin. I recommend The Left Hand of Darkeness. And it’s never too late for Harry Potter. 🙂

  14. Yeah… I wonder how much people retained from those books. I think it’s probably good to mix age-appropriate lit with “classics” (that are also chosen as age-appropriate– guess what’s boring for any 16 year old, even a smart one? The Scarlet Letter). Plus there’s a lot of great children’s and young adult literature. I’m taking a course in YA lit right now for library school and it’s really eye-opening. I missed an entire sub-genre of literature that may have been interesting/useful/enjoyable for me, as well as for my peers.

  15. yesisaidyesiwillyes says:

    Yes-yes for Middlemarch!

  16. yesisaidyesiwillyes says:

    By the by, you got to be 30 without reading certain books because they are far too many books — of whatever subset of books you might possibly be interested in (in this case, certain types of novels) — for anybody to get around to reading. There’s just too much! Too much is better than not enough, but it does make for an interesting situation in which all of us basically have to give up all hope of reading great amounts of great writing.

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