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L is for…

April 13, 2013

L is for Love and Literature— and the love of literature. Love is patient, love is kind, and love is probably the most misused, overused, and over-written about subject in all this world. I’ve waxed poetic about it many times and don’t want to drop an essay on you here.

As for literature, well, I have a B.A. in English, I’m an English teacher, so it’s expected territory. I don’t know when I fell in love with literature, but I know it has been at times passionate and other times cold. The key question is always, what qualifies as literature? Does it have to be a certain age? Does it need to convey a certain degree of social commentary? I’d call The Hunger Games literature, but not at least half of what was written before the year 1900.

People seem to think English majors have read everything. To help dispel this rumor, I’m going to list some authors I’ve never read one word by:

Jane Austen
Brontë (either sister)
William Faulkner
James Joyce
Ernest Hemingway*
Nathaniel Hawthorne
James Fenimore Cooper
the list goes on I’m sure…
* I think I read Old Man and the Sea sometime in high school, but don’t recollect clearly.

I actually could have earned my B.A. in English without almost no Shakespeare. I chose to take a Shakespeare class, but didn’t have to– you only had to take one class in the “Big Three” (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton). I never read anything by Mark Twain in college, even though I have taught Tom Sawyer  every year. Likewise, I never read Charles Dickens in college, but I remember Great Expectations some time in high school and reading A Christmas Carol on my own at some point. In college and (aborted) grad school, I focused much more on poetry than prose, but that is a subject for the “P is for…” post.

I never read Moby Dick but I did read “Bartleby the Scrivener,” the intriguing tale of a protagonist who simply “prefers not to,” often heralded as a harbinger of modernity. I am an Atlanta native, but I’ve never read Gone With the Wind. No Catcher in the Rye either, or even, and this I hate to admit, The Outsiders, or 1984 (though I read Animal Farm multiple times).

None of them hold a literary candle to Douglas Adams, though.


21 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2013 11:51 pm

    This is a neat article…I guess I always assumed these were “required reading” for lit teachers, so this is kinda cool.

    You really do have to read Tolstoy though. I mean it. If you regret nothing else on that list, regret this one and promptly correct it. War and Peace changed my life and changed the way I looked at the world…and the way I write.


    • April 14, 2013 1:35 am

      My first year teaching, I had to teach four books I’d never read before. Your first year teaching is hard enough, and that was all the harder. The story of my Social Studies background is even sadder… From such a respected recommender as you, I will take that advice. War & Peace will have to be a summer project, but I’ll tackle it. A certain friend has been pressing me to read The Scarlet Letter before anything else.


      • April 14, 2013 9:48 am

        Yes, its definitely a summer project (I’m a ridiculously fast reader and it took me about a month), but you’ll thank me. In fact, you’ll be asking for my address to send me a gift basket. For the record, I do not like Pepperidge Farms.


    • April 14, 2013 2:27 pm

      I will send you the official 2014 Squirrelly Writer Poetry Calendar, a must-have for any wall, a perfect accessory right next to your Middle-earth map.


  2. April 14, 2013 12:07 am

    Lazy laundry.


  3. April 14, 2013 2:09 am

    Okay, this makes me feel better. I’ve read Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls), Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment), and Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter). Couldn’t finish Moby Dick though – did the guy’s condition improve?


  4. April 14, 2013 7:45 am

    I’ve read Faulkner, and I tried to read Dostoevsky, but the rest of your list is a wash for me. I went through a phase a few years back when I started reading old classics that I had never touched before. I read Dickens, and Steinbeck, and Harper Lee, and I loved them all. There just are so many to catch up to.


    • April 14, 2013 2:30 pm

      I hadn’t ever read Steinbeck until I had to teach The Pearl to 7th graders. Now I want to read more, but haven’t got around to it. I know there have been many “definitive” lists made, but I wish I could pick one that I could say, “OK, I’m going to read all these before I die and they will be so worth the time.” At least the good news with classics is that most are available free as e-books.


      • April 14, 2013 8:20 pm

        Ahh, I love Steinbeck. He really is one of the best; and American Classic for good reason!


  5. April 14, 2013 8:35 am

    Interesting! Yeah, probably everyone assumes that English majors have read practically every book in the world…but clearly that’s not possible. I actually read Catcher in the Rye… But that’s it, haven’t read anything else you listed. And even 1984, my brother brought this book, I lived with that book for many years…and never actually thought to open and read it, lol.


    • April 14, 2013 2:34 pm

      In the time of Shakespeare and Milton it actually was possible for someone to read everything ever written and learn all human knowledge within a lifetime. That total amount of information could easily be carried in a device in our pocket today. Now you could only begin to scratch the surface. And even when we look at the “must-know” and “must-read” lists, we’re really only taking Western civilization into account, largely ignoring the majority of the world.


  6. April 14, 2013 1:17 pm

    As a fellow English major, I understand. People assume I’ve read every classic author. And what’s more, they think I like all of them. I’ve actually tried reading both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Both times I got about 100 pages in and then said “you know what? I’m not in school anymore. Why am I reading this if I’m not enjoying it?” So I stopped. As for “Moby Dick,” it’s about 400 of the best pages I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, my version is about 600 pages.


    • April 14, 2013 2:41 pm

      I knew you could understand, dear Jeremy. While I appreciate my literature classes for making me read many texts I would never have picked up otherwise, there are some I could have done without. I quip that “The Trial” by Franz Kafka is the only book whose title represents the experience of reading it. At the same time, guess what book I’m going to be starting with 7th graders tomorrow? Tom Sawyer. The trend in teaching English is away from literature and focusing more on reading nonfiction and informational text– the sort that, to be fair, will comprise most of the writing that most adults will encounter and need to process on a day-to-day basis; and to focus on genre writing rather than just traditional essays and short stories (i.e. a memoir, a feature article, a consumer product review). But, let’s be real. English teachers become English teachers because they love literature. We realize that most students aren’t going to love it, but we also know that if we don’t expose them to classic novels (and poetry and plays) they’re not going to do it for themselves and will miss out on the invaluable reflection gained from understanding what some of the greatest, most creative minds in history had to say about what it simply means to be human.


      • April 14, 2013 3:50 pm

        Good point. I love Shakespeare now but I wouldn’t even know who he is if teachers hadn’t forced me, kicking and screaming, to read his stuff. On a side note, I’ve noticed another problem that goes along with leaning towards classic literature: I know almost zero writers who are currently alive. Seriously, of living authors I could probably name 20 at the most and probably only 5 that I like. And if some of this stuff didn’t get made into movies (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, etc.), I would know even fewer current authors! And yet, I’m hoping that some day I’m an author who people will know…


  7. April 15, 2013 8:10 am

    Oh my God! I didn’t even have English as major at university and except for that Cooper guy I studied all the listed authors and more! Shakespeare was my high school nightmare as for Dickens, my graduation paper was on the female characters in his novels. Oh, and I had one semester of Universal Literature where they killed me with the Russian writers. After graduating from university I was so sick and tired of English and American literature that for a few years I only read South-American literature.


    • April 15, 2013 11:26 pm

      Well, maybe that just goes to show that the European university system is a step ahead. Got any Romanian authors to recommend?


      • April 16, 2013 1:01 am

        Mircea Cartarescu was nominated for Nobel in 2011 and 2012. I have read only one of his books though. You could give it a try.


  8. April 16, 2013 8:43 am

    Shakespeare, I’ll forever hate him, but he was good, I like better Wild.
    I’m a fan of Twain.


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