Sunday, November 20, 2011

College Books

Last week, while leading a discussion, I made a reference to George Orwell's 1984. My class replied with a quizzical look. Wondering if this was a minority, I polled the class.

Only one person (out of 71) had read 1984. This is a senior class.

As an undergraduate, I read 1984 in three separate courses. There are a handful of books or authors -- Foucault, maybe, Jane Austen, Catch-22 -- that I simply assumed were part of the average college education. Granted, this is probably a reflection of my discipline, but am I so far off base?

Two questions:
First, what books do you think the average Senior can be expected to have read over the course of four or five years of college (and maybe even the last two years of high school)?

Second, what two books would you recommend to graduating seniors upon finding out that they are woefully under-read?


  1. I'd suggest Candide and On the Origin of Species.

  2. This is the question of "canon" and liable to start a row, I suppose. When I think about the titles that I would expect, by senior year, to have students be able to recognize and probably have read, it is somewhat political, the stuff we read in high school and college during the Cold War...

    Animal Farm
    Brave New World
    Lord of the Flies

    ...and the less political
    Catcher in the Rye

    But mostly what I expect is not that students have read particular works, but that they have read something by particular authors. I had read Of Mice and Men, The Pearl and Grapes of Wrath and Farewell to Arms by the end of high school, but I would be less disappointed if a student hadn't read these particular works than if I realized they hadn't read any Steinbeck or Hemmingway or perhaps hadn't even heard of them. Similarly, I would not be surprised to learn they hadn't read the Shakespeare plays I have, but would be surprised and disappointed if they had never seen or read any Shakespeare. But the canon has grown so large, I suspect that I, too, would disappoint. I have never read any Toni Morrison, for example, and only recently finally got around to some Faulkner. I suppose that makes me a complete loser in some circles. I haven't avoided her, I just haven't gotten to her and nobody "taught" me her books back in the day when I was facing the chalkboard.

    Since I teach non-trads (students who are often my age) there is less of a cultural gap between me and my students than what many of you deal with. I don't teach English, so this particular question isn't central. I have noticed, however, that the political literature I mentioned above is familiar enough to build on when talking about the politics of the 20th century, however.

  3. You don't necessarily know that your students are "under-read," you only know that they haven't read 1984. A more interesting study would be to have them list what they *have* read.
    And quick show of hands: who here has actually read the "Origin of Species"?

  4. Surly, I have but I'm a historian of science like person, so I probably don't count.

    I also would like to voice that the answer is more likely not under-read but differently read. Most of the students at my institution have read very little Foucault relative to people 15-20 years older. This I do not think is a sign that they have not read enough, but that the people taught a generation before them have read too much and apply it too broadly.

  5. I read both Candide and Origin of Species, but both after grad school. The former because I kept running into it and figured I'd better know it and the latter because I am into all those nutty atheism vs religion, science vs creationism debates.

  6. What years did you go to college? 1984 seems like a very very old book, 1948, right? I can't even imagine the current crop of proffies being too attached to it, let alone the freshers.

  7. I've read Candide, but not Origin of Species.

    In these circumstaces I always recommend Middlemarch.

  8. I read Candide in high school, in AP French (it may have been a somewhat simplified version, but I don't think so; it's more likely that it was condensed/excerpted). I may have read excerpts of Origin of Species, but haven't read the whole thing (but am familiar with Darwin's history and theory, and some of the later developments -- both solid science and alarming pseudo-social science -- from it).

    My sense is that students are still generally familiar with at least some works of Shakespeare, which strikes me as a good thing given how much Shakespeare is cited in later works. The Bible (especially the King James translation) occupies a similar place in literature, and, religion entirely aside, I'd be inclined to suggest selections from the Pentateuch (no begats or temple regulations) and one of the synoptic gospels (probably Matthew or Luke) to a student who needed to catch up, with maybe a few Psalms and a prophet or two thrown in. That would provide a good background for understanding American sermons and secular speeches from John Winthrop to MLK to Ronald Reagan, the poems of Emily Dickinson, Steinbeck, Faulkner, much of the African-American tradition (oral and written), Peanuts Christmas specials, etc., etc.

    As far as American literature (my specialty) goes, one used to be able to assume students had read at last The Scarlet Letter and Huck Finn, but I don't think that's the case any more. Either strikes me as a good place to start becoming familiar with some of the key themes and concerns of American culture, but if you made me choose, I'd probably go for Huck Finn, which would also make a pretty good counterpoint to the Bible selections (on the other hand, so would The Scarlet Letter.)

    But I'm not sure how much a student would get out of just reading any of the above, even Huck Finn, without some guidance. That's the tricky thing: it's not just familiarity with the texts themselves, but also with the conversations in which the texts have played a role (including, in the case of 1984 et al., those of the Cold War. And students need to know at least a bit about literary techniques such as narration to understand what's going on in even a relatively simple text such as Huck Finn (as we know all too well from the debates over whether it should be taught in high school). But with guidance, and some supplementary materials, a student could learn a lot about American literature and culture (including issues of race, class, and gender, attitudes toward the land, the role of religion, etc., etc.) from Huck Finn.

  9. Blame your students' high schools and middle schools. Of the above authors (I say authors, because while I've read The Pearl, I haven't read Grapes of Wrath, and while I've read/seen 18 of Shakespeare's plays, I haven't read the complete works, and only about half of those were pre-college), the only ones I hadn't read before college were Toni Morrison (who I've since read in several courses), Faulkner, Candide, and Origin of the Species (the latter of which we were taught portions of in science classes, but never the full text). Some of those we read in middle school; most were ninth and tenth grade. I don't know what sort of high schools the rest of your students went to, but I went to public school, and this was all in the curriculum.

  10. To be fair, most students are familiar with The Wrath of Grapes (i.e. hangovers).

  11. I'm a biologist, and the students I teach are (mostly) biology majors. Therefore, most of these hypothetical under-read students I would be encountering would be biology majors. I hope all biologists have read at least parts of the Origin, if not the whole thing. The Origin is the foundational work of the foundation of biology; it should be at the top of the reading list for all biology students.

  12. I would say, for the underread scientist I'd suggest the oldie but goodie, The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby because so much of modern history and it's intersections with science come from there.

  13. I read everything mentioned in high school, and then was quite annoyed to read the same things in college without significantly more depth. This was a little over ten years ago, and I imagine that complaints from students like me might have made some instructors drop these things from the curriculum (perhaps with no reason to if these things are no longer taught in high school). That said, I was very sad that I didn't read anything "new" for class (though I did outside of it) till grad school.

  14. I think that Cassandra raises an important point in asking how much a student might "get" out of reading some of the books we've mentioned here. I teach a western-civ survey course, and sometimes I assign Candide, sometimes not. Often I put together selections from Voltaire's other writings, a portion of Candide, excerpts from Diderot, Montesquieu and other philosophes. In this way, I get the students familiar with a broad swathe of Enlightenment ideas that we can spend some time examining in depth. Thus, my students may not have read all of Candide, but they ought to be able to understand and articulate the kids of criticisms that Enlightenment thinkers were making of their society, as well as the historical context and importance of that criticism. I don't think that the students who didn't read all of Candide are any any disadvantage in their understanding of the European Enlightenment, so I wouldn't say that asking students to list the books they have read in their entirety is necessarily a good measure of what they understand.

    With that said,t here are some books I would never excerpt. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is something everyone needs to read, cover to cover. There's just no substitute for that experience.

  15. My undergraduate days were pitifully undemanding, but in grad school I read The History of Sexuality, vol 1, for three separate courses. (Does anyone ever assign either of the other volumes?)

    I read 1984 on my own, out of personal interest, but if I were to choose books for my own students today, I think I'd be just as likely to pick The Handmaid's Tale instead.

  16. Plato's Republic is the classic "you can't graduate without having read the first three chapters of it" book. We've heard that Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is the SLAC equivalent of the secret handshake, but we can't see how anyone could do justice to something that bone-crushingly dense in a reasonable amount of time.

  17. Since much of what I teach is not part of the Western canon, I just assume students haven't read much of what I teach, but I do expect them to be familiar with Western classics like:

    1984 (which I've seen on various high school reading lists even today!)
    One Day in the Life of Ivan D...
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Farenheit 451
    Catch 22
    All Quiet on the Western Front
    The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
    The Chosen
    Grapes of Wrath
    The Giver
    Ender's Game
    Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank)
    The Great Gatsby
    The Scarlet Letter
    Death of a Salesman
    Some Austen and Bronte
    Charlotte's Web
    A Tale of Two Cities


    I did see on a new list that Eragon is also now included (not something I would have read), and I suspect the whole Hunger Games series might be something on future lists.

    Generally, when I ask questions of students about who has read what, a lot of them don't remember a particular title, but when I start to describe the plot, they seem to have a vague memory of something they read two years ago. I think a lot of their ignorance is also attributable to faulty memories.

  18. Your "western classics" are very HEAVILY American and 20th century, don't you think? And that's the problem with canon; we can argue until the cows come home but whether Austen and Bronte make the list over Dickens isn't really the point.

    When I was doing my undergrad, one couldn't get an English major without a semester of Milton, something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. This idea about Great Books keeps coming up, but quite frankly, I care FAR less about what my students read than HOW they read.

    If they can give me an insightful critical analysis of Ready Player One, or Allie Brosh's blog, or Survivor, then I don't mind if they haven't read Clarissa or the Grapes of Wrath.

  19. I think it's very interesting that Candide keeps popping up on this list; until today, I had never heard of it.

    Contemplative Cynic, I see 4 works on your list I have been intending to read for years now. I think this should go on my mid-winter-break reading list.

    Canon or not, I feel I should recommend 5 or 10 books to my students on the last day of class, especially since over half of them graduate next month. "As you go out in the world, you may find yourself reading less and less. Do yourself a favor and keep this list until you've read it all, and add to it whenever you can." That sort of thing.

  20. [tone=sarcasm]I know this will come as a huge shock to everyone[/tone], but [tone=shame] I never took a single English course in college[/tone].

    Here is the complete, entire, full list of fiction titles Wombat has read in the last 20 years:
    The Woman Who Walked into Doors
    Paddy Clarke, Ha ha ha (named a cat after that one)
    and The Barrytown Trilogy (the Van was my favorite)

    The whole whopping bibliography of Salinger

    The Sun Also Rises

    Tender is the Night
    Flappers and Philosophers

    The Chamber
    The Rainmaker

    and the first three "Temperance Brennan" novels

    but I watch a loooot of tv, so that should make up for it [resume shame and walk away]

  21. Oh - but I read most of the stuff that's been suggested in this thread, in High School. I mean I'm not a moron or anything, but I've been... lax? I guess about keeping up.

    That's why I write like this.

  22. Meh. Orwell is a product of a particular place and time, and his fiction resonates with those who've experienced that place and time.

    I don't think 1984 or Animal Farm are particularly great works in their own right. I don't think they're probably assigned nearly as much as when I was in high school, thirty years ago. Why should they be? It's not 1984 anymore. Lord of the Flies is a more universal story and deserves to be read, still. Gravity's Rainbow? Bleargh. Please don't assign Pynchon. Steinbeck's overrated as well.

    I don't know what I "expect" my students to read. What I would recommend as far as 20th c. reading for HS students is probably A Clockwork Orange, Heart of Darkness, Sula, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Ethan Frome, An American Tragedy, and Watership Down.

  23. As several people have noted, this is probably a zero-sum game, but still.

    What I *hope* they've read:
    Something classical, either a Greek or Roman epic or a little Plato or Aristotle.
    The Bible.
    A chunk of Chaucer.
    Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Henry V, maybe more Shakespeare.
    Either Blake or Donne, or at least some Christian poetry.
    Something by the Romantics, probably Wordsworth, Shelley, or Keats.
    Frankenstein or another early 19th-century novel.
    At least a little Whitman.
    Something by a modernist novelist, doesn't matter what or where they're from.
    Something by a modernist poet, as above.
    1984, Lord of the Flies.
    At least one contemporary novel.

    What they've usually read, in my estimation:
    The Bible.
    At least one Shakespeare play.
    "The Red Wheelbarrow."

  24. @stellafromsparksburg: you are wrong about orwell. try reading "down and out in london and paris" and say "meh".

  25. What is "read" and "books" of which you speak? Quit making up words that my students wouldn't recognize.

  26. I read Heart of Darkness in four different college courses; Wharton's House of Mirth and Joyce's Dubliners in three. Oy.
    And my favorite Orwell is Homage to Catalonia.

  27. When I first started teaching I assumed they'd read The Scarlet Letter, The Red Badge of Courage, Huck Finn, some Ray Bradbury, some Conrad, the Romantic poets, The Diary of Anne Frank, Daisy Miller, and a few other things that I'd read in high school. Nope. Now I assume nothing -- but I am astonished that when I ask them if they read any women or nonwhite authors in high school, they say no or maybe one. That has not changed.

  28. They should've read some Sophocles too (Oedipus and Antigone, at least).

  29. Hrm.... but what about our students who didn't grow up in the US? What do we expect of them? I imagine we can expect a lot of this from our American HS graduated students, but what about them?

  30. Everybody's talking about "1984" but nobody has mentioned the novel Mr. Blair drew a lot of inspiration from: Evgeny Zamyatin's "We." Every now-hackneyed idea in dystopian science-fiction got its start there: domed cities, people with numbers instead of names, Panopticon-style living, the entire nation striving toward one single project (a moon-rocket in this case), the illicit affair, a power-mad leadership, everything working under a very-complicated plan. Zamyatin was mocking both English industrialism and the Soviet fetish for planning, but I don't think a lot of people got the joke. I find it interesting that Issac Asimov disliked "1984"* because the future Orwell created was just 1948 under crypto-fascist regimes.

    Books nobody's mentioned so far:

    War and Peace
    The Tin Drum
    The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
    The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
    Junky by William Burroughs
    The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort
    Cosmos by Carl Sagan
    ....and the list goes on.


    * He wrote a review of the book in 1984 for one of the big circulation magazines....everybody, even the Libertatian magazine "Reason" did some sort of piece or issue on Eric Blair's book.

  31. I forgot to add " that year."


  32. I noticed that the Bible and Shakespeare come up often, but really, what about Greek mythology? You can't understand half the references in literature without it, from Shakespeare on (and probably before, but I'm under-read there). I'm partial to Norse myths, myself, but Greek is more relevant.

    And a note about the Bible: Genesis yes, the rest of the Pentateuch, maybe, but you can't fully understand the Civil Rights movement without knowing the prophetic books. "I Have a Dream" is steeped in them. (It's true that the mountaintop reference is from Deuteronomy.)

  33. I personally think everyone could benefit from reading at least one Orwell (or if you prefer, Blair) book. But Heart of Darkness! And Day in the Life of Ivan! I had forgotten how those struck me as an undergraduate. Strel, I love your list.

    But I'm not sure I agree about reading the Bible. You get enough of that from pop culture, and the reading itself is thoroughly depressing.

    Although since we're on the subject of King James VI and I of England, I strongly recommend his tirade "COUNTERBLASTE TO TOBACCO," a fine piece of pseudo-science against the evils of smoking and its effects on one's health: a most enjoyable read.

  34. I'll put in my own plug for Ivan Denisovitch, and for Orwell, though I read both of them on my own; I was never assigned them.

    @AM, whatever your personal prejudices, you can't understand Western Civ without knowing the Bible. Nor can you understand most of western literature in English without knowing the King James Version (and Greek mythology, by the by).

    on the subject of King James VI and I of England, I strongly recommend his tirade "COUNTERBLASTE TO TOBACCO,"

    Then there's that staple of high-school singing competitions, "Tobacco is like love."

  35. I'm not sure I agree about reading the Bible. You get enough of that from pop culture

    Forgot to add:

    You might be surprised there. I know that my own kids (failure on my part!) don't recognize Biblical allusions half the time, and I sent 'em to Sunday school. In an Episcopal church, so there's an excuse for 'em.

  36. I'd settle for the notion that my students read anything at all besides what is required. Tolkien. Comic books. Cyberpunk. Le Carre spy novels.

    Wait, that's what I read. Never mind.

  37. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil's Aeneid, Ovid's Metamorphoses.

  38. What Strelnikov said: The list goes on and on.

    Look at how different the various "must-reads" are in these comments. The most important thing is simply to get students to read whatever. They'll find what's important to them. But as long as students don't read, then they're stuck.

    My own must-read list includes Ulysses, the Raj Quartet by Paul Scott, Under the Volcano, all the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, any number of books that attempt to explain modern physics and cosmology (like The Dancing Wu-Li Masters), some Karl Marx, and on and on and on.

    If you haven't read some of these, I think you're seriously lacking/undereducated. And if I haven't read everything on your list, you'll no doubt think the same of me.

    What most of us do have in common is that we all read, every day, for pleasure. Let's start there with our students.

  39. What most of us do have in common is that we all read, every day, for pleasure. Let's start there with our students.

    I'll buy that. But we must also think about this question: What do our students need to know, to deal with what we are teaching? That's going to influence what we think of as canonical, or at least what we consider to be pre-requisites.

    As I understand it, a lot of this thread has consisted of attempts to say what people need to know to be considered "well-read," meaning that they will be able to pick up allusions in books that they read or movies that they see. For that, I stand by my insistence on a minimal knowledge of the Bible, the Greek myths and (as other people have noted) Shakespeare.

  40. Someone wrote a few years ago about the 100 (or maybe it was 1000) things that "educated" people need to know--our shared cultural knowledge, in other words.

    I'm always amazed by what my students don't know: that "GOP" is a convenient shorthand for the Republican Party or that Cesar Chavez was a labor organizer or that . . . well, the list is nearly endless.

    On the other hand, students are astounded by my near-total ignorance contemporary popular culture. Even in a blog like CM, old farts like me scratch their heads when they come across something like "flava" or "vidschizle."

  41. One thing I think we can be pretty sure they *have* read (or at least seen one of the movies of): at least one Harry Potter book. And since so much of the series is set in a school, it undoubtedly has influenced their understanding of what the whole enterprise is about (which probably means we should be reading/watching Harry Potter, too). Many have also read at least one vampire or zombie book. There's probably stuff to build on there.

    @introvert: I think they need to read Exodus, too (foundational to everything from African-American culture and the Civil Rights movement to the present Arab-Israeli conflict), but I, too could jettison the rest of the Pentateuch. It wouldn't hurt for them to see the number of things other than male-on-male sexual acts (of some sort or another) that are labeled "abominations," but if they've read both the Sodom story and the story of Lot and his daughters (which immediately follows), they should already be getting some idea that historical context is necessary to understand what those stories meant to the original readers/tellers.


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