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Reading out of duty


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#31 bart

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 03:09 PM

It would be fascinating to compare the table of contents of the 100 Great Books as conceived (or marketed) over the years. There must have been huge changes over time.

I wish I could remember the details of a book we had around our house when I was a child: a thick volume of plot summaries of what I seem to remember as the 500 "Greatest Works." All were European. (Possible exception: Longfellow.) Almost all were British or French of the 19th century or earlier. The nice thing about it was that I first learned of the existence of writers like Goethe, Balzac, Tolstoy, etc., in those pages. On the other hand, I don't believe there were any women writers at all.

Is there still such an institution as the 100 Great Books? More to the point, does the concept of "Great Books" or "Greatest Works" still exist?

#32 Ray

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 04:04 PM

Is there still such an institution as the 100 Great Books? More to the point, does the concept of "Great Books" or "Greatest Works" still exist?


In spirit if not in letter. It's amazing how standard US high school reading lists can be, especially since we have no set national standards. When I recently assigned Great Expectations for a lower-level college course, for instance, almost all knew the book intimately. They seemed especially well-versed in the same mid-20th-century American novels, too: To Kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, Great Gatsby, etc. Only students in really good AP or IB programs had read a lot of more recent fiction (i.e., Blindness). The high school clock seems stopped at Slaughterhouse Five--not very different from when I was in school!

Some high-school teachers I've worked with are cynical about this--i.e., many of the early-to-mid-century copyrights have expired, thus making the books cheap and easily accessible--but some truly believe that they are transmitting the Values of Great Literature. As a result--I think--students can bring to the college classroom an amazing conservatism about the value of novels over other forms of writing (short stories, poems, plays, etc.).

#33 vagansmom

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 06:23 PM

I remember that both Jane Austen Emma and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse or A Room of One's Own were on the list my husband read at St. John's. I think they were the only women who made it onto the Great Books list back then. My guess is that Toni Morrison's Beloved might be there now. And possibly Willa Cather.

My kids attended a well-known private boarding high school and read Morrison's first two novels as part of their curriculum. In fact, I think they read quite a few more recent novels. But the students I work with who are in public schools do seem to be stuck with the same books I read in high school in the late 60's/early 70's. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I'd sure like them to sample more than Dead White Anglo Males.

#34 papeetepatrick

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 06:30 PM

I remember that both Jane Austen Emma and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse or A Room of One's Own were on the list my husband read at St. John's. I think they were the only women who made it onto the Great Books list back then. My guess is that Toni Morrison's Beloved might be there now. And possibly Willa Cather.


Wow. That hadn't occurred to me, so you have, including African, Asian and South American countries, hundreds, if not thousands, of great women's literature, and should also include poets, I would think. But in America alone there would be hundreds of books by women we 'ought to read', insofar as there is such a thing. And, as you have it, there are all the rest of Austen and Woolf that weren't included. Indeed there must be 20,000 or so books of 'duty'.

#35 whetherwax

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Posted 03 May 2009 - 07:07 PM

I work in a small bookshop and see all the new novels come in, but my taste is very much non fiction. I do have a residual feeling that literature is "good" for you. That it will make you a better person etc. But, at the risk of sounding vilely arrogant , I think that by 69 one has learnt most of the improving aspects that novels can offer.The lessons are always about compassion and understanding and there are only seven narratives ,so they say. I think the lessons for me are best learnt in nonfiction form - reading ,say Charlotte Joko Beck or Pema Chodron. Also there are SO many novels these days produced because of the growth of creative writing courses. Many are boring but published because the publishers hope to make a quid.

#36 Ray

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 03:50 AM

I remember that both Jane Austen Emma and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse or A Room of One's Own were on the list my husband read at St. John's. I think they were the only women who made it onto the Great Books list back then. My guess is that Toni Morrison's Beloved might be there now. And possibly Willa Cather.


Wow. That hadn't occurred to me, so you have, including African, Asian and South American countries, hundreds, if not thousands, of great women's literature, and should also include poets, I would think. But in America alone there would be hundreds of books by women we 'ought to read', insofar as there is such a thing. And, as you have it, there are all the rest of Austen and Woolf that weren't included. Indeed there must be 20,000 or so books of 'duty'.


As far as novels go, here are titles by women authors that college students in English are likely to encounter today as part of the literary 'canon,' even though few schools follow St. John's model of explicitly labeling them as "great books":

Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Alice Walker, Color Purple
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Maxine Hong Kingston, Woman Warrior
Frances Burney, Evelina
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Radclyffe Hall, Well of Loneliness
Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale


Titles by:
Jane Austen
Virginia Woolf
Toni Morrison
Willa Cather
George Eliot
Nadine Gordimer
Doris Lessing
A.S. Byatt

This is just off the top of my head. Add nonfiction, poetry, short stories, and drama, and the list grows exponentially, of course!

#37 kfw

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 04:13 AM

As far as novels go, here are titles by women authors that college students in English are likely to encounter today as part of the literary 'canon,' . . .

That was quite a list. Is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" still popular?

#38 Ray

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 04:56 AM

As far as novels go, here are titles by women authors that college students in English are likely to encounter today as part of the literary 'canon,' . . .

That was quite a list. Is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening" still popular?


Yes, absolutely!

#39 vagansmom

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 08:58 AM

Thanks, Ray, for that list. Both my children read nearly all those books (and other selections by some of the others) as part of their private high school reading experience. Neither were in honors or AP English classes, so to me, that's a sad commentary on the state of the average public high school English programs.

Whetherwax, I don't find your comments arrogant at all. I find many contemporary novels to be too preachy in that respect - they're what I call "trendy", and I'm way past being preached to. But I don't read literature for a message - I read novels these days simply for a good story, like watching a movie, but it has to be written in prose that surprises and delights me. So nothing by an author like the wildly popular Jody Picoult will appeal to me, but boy oh boy, Jamie O'Neill's At Swim, Two Boys words thrilled me. I'd read his sentences over and over again for the visual images they'd evoke, and the surprising ways he'd combine words. It was sheer delight :( to let his phrases trickle through my mind.

#40 dirac

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 09:14 AM

dirac, I guess part of my problem getting through Ross's book is that he can sound like a college student trying to prove he's a Writer, with Something Important to Say. He's clearly gifted, but the attitude is exhausting. (He's gotten much better in his column in recent years; though I still miss Andrew Porter every week.)


Thanks, AnthonyNYC. I see what you mean. I liked Porter, too, although I respected his knowledge, passion, and judgment better that some of his actual writing, which could often be on the dullish side, I regret to say. (Ross sometimes tries to hard in the opposite direction.)

I work in a small bookshop and see all the new novels come in, but my taste is very much non fiction. I do have a residual feeling that literature is "good" for you.


That's a time-honored view, whetherwax. I go back and forth on that one, myself.

I think perhaps the general speed at which we receive new novels in the last 50 years and the way in which they are written and consume them, has had an affect on me at least, in respect of reading novels of the past with extensive exposition. I once enjoyed the highly influential Joseph Conrad but cannot imagine returning to read him again.


I think that's true, leonid.

Any other authors/works of repute or high buzz content that you didn't like as much as others did, BTers?

#41 papeetepatrick

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 09:30 AM

Any other authors/works of repute or high buzz content that you didn't like as much as others did, BTers?


Yes, all of Jacques Derrida's works, which like whetherwas 'reading novels for a good story',. I read his overly-sophisticated and intricate philosophical treatises as entertainment novels for awhile, then couldn't even stand them like that, all he wanted to talk about was death. But philosophical treatises, as Kant, Hegel, Marx, Deleuze, and many others, now come to mind as often needing to be classed as 'great books', because unarguably important in some cases. Deleuze & Guattari's 'A Thousand Plateaus' is by far the most important to me.

I was so repelled by Franzen I always had The Corrections around the house till I realized I'd never even start it, so threw it out. I don't like Umberto Eco's novels, although only read 'The Island of the Day Before', which was hateful.

#42 vagansmom

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 10:48 AM

One author I know I'll never revisit is Philip Roth. I read American Pastoral two years ago, and found it so ponderous that I didn't much care about the protagonist. I finished the book, but don't know why.

On another topic, the Great Books selection was created from the Western canon, beginning with the ancient Greeks. St. John's, in the years I was most familiar with the program, used to unapologetically say that since there wasn't time to do both the Western and Eastern civilization in the comprehensive way they've set up, they chose the Western civilization since those are the traditions that built our American culture. Fair enough. I hope that's what they're still saying, and that they haven't felt forced to water down their program.

It would be quite wonderful, however, if there were another school in the Western world such as St. John's - and maybe there is, but I don't know of one - whose curriculum is similar to theirs (studying the language, science, math, literature, history, philosophy, music, and art on a time line that begins with an early great culture on up to the present times). I'm guessing such a program exists in the East, and I hope there's a program - outside of an Eastern Studies kind of major - for us Westerners.

#43 dirac

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 03:50 PM

One author I know I'll never revisit is Philip Roth. I read American Pastoral two years ago, and found it so ponderous that I didn't much care about the protagonist. I finished the book, but don't know why.


I gave up on Roth after "I Married a Communist" and I find the glowing reviews he tends to receive nowadays a little puzzling. Would be interested to hear from those with a differing view!

I think 'Great Books' is a a fine idea for a thread (and I think we may even have one, I'll have to check) but let's keep to the topic here as much as we can. Thanks, all. :wallbash:

#44 papeetepatrick

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 04:55 PM

One author I know I'll never revisit is Philip Roth. I read American Pastoral two years ago, and found it so ponderous that I didn't much care about the protagonist. I finished the book, but don't know why.


I gave up on Roth after "I Married a Communist" and I find the glowing reviews he tends to receive nowadays a little puzzling. Would be interested to hear from those with a differing view!


I never read anything but Portnoy's Complaint, right after it came out, forgot all about him, except once heard he and Claire Bloom were an item. Thought Portnoy was terrific, but never thought of it again. I also find Salman Rushdie sometimes great, sometimes horrible. Saw him at one of those Barnes & Noble things several years ago. He's a charmer and think 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' is excellent, although full of shtick. Would definitely say that reading both Rushdie and Eco was a form of 'reading as duty', just like reading Don DeLillo (except I read all of his, because think he's the greatest.)

#45 dirac

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Posted 04 May 2009 - 05:19 PM

One of the chief amusements of "I Married a Communist" for me was observing Roth hit back at Claire Bloom for her memoir, "Leaving a Doll's House," which, among other things, recounted how a bad review from John Updike sent him into an emotional tailspin. (Although there is a splendid passage in IMAC about Nixon's funeral, now that I think about it.)

"The Name of the Rose" didn't hold my attention, either, although I thought I would like it.


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