Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Mandatory Summer Reading List

"The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go."
-Dr. Seuss

As summer approaches on a warm breeze...thoughts no doubt turn to the Mandatory Summer Reading List. Well, it is highly unlikely that thoughts turn to such things, but I remember the days when such lists were met with a mix of foreboding and mock enthusiasm. The idea of spending sweltering July evenings, eyes buried in some long forgotten classic, or soon to be forgotten instant classic did not fill me with anticipation. However, my days in undergraduate life and my current identity as a graduate student, have given me reason to look forward to the summer months for the chance to create and execute a killer summer reading list. For those who feel that 'killer' and 'summer reading list' do not and should never exist in the same sentence, you may want to stop reading. End Disclaimer. For the rest of us bibliophiles, devastatingly
single bibliophiles...I offer some guidelines on how to create a summer reading list. The reason I do this is mostly so I can systematize how I intend to create one. My plan if I am successful is to enumerate some rules without revealing what titles will appear on my list. One, I do not want to hold myself to anything on this most public of forums. Two, it smacks of intellectual self-aggrandizement and general academic wankery (yes..wankery) to list what books I am planning to read this summer. However, I am sure you have all met or will meet the type that is all too eager to share his or her list of truly sophisticated and erudite literature, this strange game of "oneupmanship" is suddenly being played and you don't even know the rules. We know the type, one happens to share a book that she has read recently, and our friend has one of three responses immediately at hand: 1) "Oh, yes I read that some years ago on my trip to Calcutta" 2) "Ah yes, I am waiting to read that in the original Albanian," or finally my favorite, 3) "I see, you like him. I myself find his ouevre too derivative and pedantic-I suggest you read [insert obscure work here] instead, oh but wait you don't know Sudanese, I guess you'll have to wait for the translation."
Instead of trying to delineate a general program of list composition, I will give some individual rules, e.g. put something on that list that you would never normally read. So, if your usual fare consists of science, and science fiction books, read a historical novel and vice versa. The benefits of such a dictum are clear, perhaps it will inspire you to open up new interests and genres of reading. Or, which is often the case, reaffirm why you are not into these books in the first place. So, the next time someone criticizes your disposition on a genre of writing, assuming falsely that you do not actually read said genre, you will be able to respond intelligently and coherently. Not that such individuals who condescendingly regard one's reading list deserve a response; however, one will be able to be supplied if such a situation arises.
Read one thing this summer that you are embarrassed for not having read yet. Admit it, you never read The Great Gatsby, it is okay. Your eleventh grade teacher Ms. Alvarez assigned it, and instead you downloaded the Spark Notes and wrote a stock essay about the role of indirect narrative expressed by the character, Nick Carraway-admit it. Suck it up and read it. It is not entirely clear at least for me yet, how essential is the 'canon' of literature to proper intellectual, humanistic development. Which if we parse the claim properly suggest that I am not entirely sure such a beast as the canon exists. This assumes a great many things about the functional role of literature, and the limited number of emotional, and cognitive responses an individual can engender towards the canon. Moreover, what does this canon, and those who read it have to say regarding those who do not engage the canon, especially those who are nevertheless intelligent, well-rounded individuals (assuming such things are possible on the canonist account) and are avid readers. It seems that the most powerful, yet totally arbitrary quality about the canon is this ability to distinguish and therefore to evaluate normatively those who do read it, i.e. Harold Bloom, and those who do not. Of course, there are many who genuinely enjoy the canon and make no claims to literary superiority, so I have no truck with them. Even Mr. Bloom himself, despite his very discriminating literary aesthetic is probably very much interested in the canon for personal reasons, but I wonder what is genuinely contributive about the canon. It is possible that the canon allows for the creation and growth of cultural literacy, Ed Hirsch, has long been a proponent of that. But, how much does literature function anymore in that capacity with the wonderful internet, and instant information at our fingertips.
Finally, read something that you will definitely find helpful or constructive to your life or work. Especially since, the time where the benefit of having read this or that would have been maximized; is the same time in which one is the least disposed to be reading it. So, get ahead and save some time later.
So far the list I have generated only contains three books, and I hope if you have the time, which I know some of you do have, your list should in all likelihood be longer than that (unless they are excessively long, like Toynbee's History of the World long). But that is all the rule-giving I will offer at this juncture, part of the fun, perhaps most of the fun, is making the list yourself. This is probably why those reading lists in summer during middle and high school were so little fun, it isn't what we read that made it so oppressively boring, but the fact we had such little control over the creation of the list, and to boot we were subjecting ourselves to this coercive list during the one time of the year when we were not subjected by the vagaries of a teacher. This is not to suggest that the students should come up with the whole list or even a significant percentage, because without this list I would not have been introduced to some great literature, which by the end I liked despite the fact I was mandated to read it. However, it might behoove some teachers and schools who create such lists to have students more involved in their own education process, to some degree the more control you have over something, the more likely you are personally interested in its success, right? So, good luck in your summer reading, and try to enjoy the time you have with the words that you love.