Calling All Readers! Contest!

If you could assign a reading list to the world, what books would you want people to read, and most importantly, why? —Moira RichardsonCalling All Readers! Contest! (Literary Tease)

I’m still recovering from whatever it is that has struck me down this week… but Moira’s blog entry got me thinking.

Even though Moira’s original post included many non-literary works, I won’t ponder what non-fiction reading I’d require.

One of the coolest things about being an English professor is that you get to assign reading lists all the time… I always try to put a work on each list that I’ve never read before, or that I never encountered in a classroom before, so that I can discover it along with my students.

But… responding not as a teacher, but as a reader, I’ll list a few books that had a big effect on my youth; they made me think about writing and reading (or performance) in ways that have stayed with me over time. They aren’t in any particular order (and this is not the syllabus for “Intro to Literary Study,” just in case you wondered).

Ender’s War (Two books in a thoughtful science-fiction series by Orson Scott Card; originally the novels Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. I haven’t read the rest of the series.)

Lord of the Rings (With The Hobbit thrown in as an appetizer. I made sure to re-read all the books before I saw the movies, just so I could enjoy the original books one more time without having the movies dictating how my imagination interpreted the text.)

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner’s story of the collapse of a once-grand Southern family. The story is told out of chronological order. When I finished the book, I immediately read it again in chronological order.)

Wuthering Heights (I loved the layered narrative format, which got a bit ridiculous, especially when Nelly Dean, while relating a story to the primary narrator, just happens to have in her apron pocket the letter she needs to consult.. when she reads it aloud, we hear the author of that letter quoting somebody else, who relates yet another story…)

A Man for All Seasons (A play by Robert Bolt, about the political struggle between Henry VIII and Thomas More. I initially read it as part of a “Religion in Modern Drama” course, and later I had a work-study job in the scene shop during a year that the University of Virginia drama department put it on.)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard’s subverted look at Hamlet, from the perspective of two minor characters.)

Our Town (Thorton Wilder; yet another play. This one is a bit corny — Emily’s goodbye speech to the butternut tree is a bit hard to take. But the play holds a special place in my heart because I played the narrator (“Stage Manager”) my senior year in high school.)

1984 (Since I was low on the social totem pole in high school, especially as an underclassman, I would eat my lunch as quickly as possible, and head up to the library, where I worked through a stack of paperbacks lined up along the windowsill. I don’t think I ever checked 1984 out, but I read it 40 minutes or so at a time. I think I started it in November 1983, with the idea that I wanted to read it before 1984. I was blown away one day when I opened up the page and read Winston Smith writing something like “November 13, 1983” in his journal. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was just one or two days off from that date when I read that page.

Rossum’s Universal Robots (Karel Capek’s play, first produced in 1920, that introduced the word “robot” to languages around the world. It’s the original “artificial servants created by short-sighted humans rebel and destroy their creators” story, which has been done to death in the science fiction genre… but the original play was more of a social comedy than anything we would recognize as science fiction.)

Catch-22 (Joseph Heller’s thickly woven WWII satire; I believe it was the source of the term “Catch-22,” which in the original context meant that no sane soldier would want to stay in the army, so any soldier who requested a discharge on the grounds of insanity must be sane after all. This book is often credited as an inspiration for M*A*S*H. My high school English class read through an abbreviated — and sanitized — play version; I was curious about it and went looking for the full novel.)

Frankenstein. (While the movies created the idea that the monster is stitched together with parts dug up from graves, I recall that the book is actually quite vague on how the body is created… I remember being quite surprised at how much the novel focuses on education — that is, Dr. Frankenstein has to educate himself in order to continue his work, and the monster also has to learn, with no mentors or associates, how to function in society.)

That’s more than 10.

If I weren’t an English professor now, and conscious of my function as an arbiter and former of literary taste, I might bump a few of the more overtly literary titles off the list to make room for The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (it was a trilogy at the time I was following it ardently), and my second-hand copy of The Star Trek Technical Manual (which I bought in 1977 for a couple bucks from my friend Dean Weigh, who wanted to raise money to buy more Star Wars toys).