Books Up For Discussion, Yo!

Big news. I get to teach Writing about Literature this Spring! So, I’ve got to pick out the books, with your help of course. I like to teach old and new, men and women, a bit-o-diversity, and some Brits and some Americans. I like to teach a mix of genres. We’ve got to do it all in a semester and we’ve got to fit teaching writing in there somewhere, too. For most students, this is the only literature class they will take in college. For some, these are the only full-length texts they will read as adults. Oh my.
I like to go with what I know, because a lit class is so much prep and reading, so the better I know a book to begin with, the better off I am. I also like to go with stuff I love, because the more enthusiasm I have for it, the better teacher I am. However, sometimes my students just hate my selections. (To be fair, many students hate learning, so my selections have little to do with it.) Have I heard enough whining about Jane Austen and Nick Hornby to last me a lifetime yet? I’m not sure.
Here is what I’m thinking. But, what do you think? Please tell me—I do want to know. Suggestions. Have a conversation in the comments.
Jane Austen. There are so many reasons to teach Austen. I will likely have some repeat students in this class who have read Pride and Prejudice with me before (and possibly Sense and Sensibility, too). I think those are the best books to teach to new audiences, though, as her other books are more difficult for various reasons. Persuasion is a possibility; I love it, but I suspect it is potentially boring for the younger crowd. One comment I did get from students was they liked the drama of S&S and thought there was a bit too much talking in P&P. I love paring these with the movies, as well, which help contextualize the events and culture. At least, I like some of the movies. Do I really want to spend another semester telling student NOT to watch the Keira Knightly version of P&P? Don’t get me wrong—she’s totally hot—but the movie is a terrible adaptation of the book.
Nick Hornby. I’ve paired High Fidelity with Pride and Prejudice before—young people trying to make love work in the same British neighborhood about 200 years apart. Again, the novel and movie comparison are fantastic. Students tend to hate narrator, Rob, when they read the book though, and are quite unforgiving. This tends to be a common factor in their reading personalities of many books—they don’t forgive the books or the narrators or characters. I find it hard to constantly be battling with students about every book (as unless we read Disney-based themes, we run into interesting moral conundrums and complicated characters all over the place. Non-English majors are not very open minded about the books they read? Or is this my imagination and it’s most students these days? Since I only teach non-English majors, meaning people who aren’t interested in books and reading so much they’ve chosen to major in it, I have no sense if there is such a thing as an interested group of students.)

Nick Hornby has other choices too, though. I could slot his 31 Songs (or Songbook in the US) in as the nonfiction selection and have students write about a couple of their own songs. Although, in my experience students tend to write crap about music. Maybe having Hornby as a model would help?
I have trouble finding new writers I like and feel kind of stuck on Hornby as my contemporary British person. I can’t stand that Ian McEwan guy every one is so freaking ga-ga for (and I’ve suffered through enough of his work to know I can’t stand him) and I’ve read a few other bits of Brits in my Brit Lit seminar that I didn’t enjoy either. I’m not sure if it was selection by the Professor or if there were thematic threads epidemic there I’m just not keen on. I’m so keen on British TV. Anyone got any TV-like novels to recommend?
Angels in America by Tony Kushner. The. Best. American. Play. Of. The. CENTURY. This takes time because it’s six hours of film and then the text, but it’s so fucking mind blowing and epic and I’m going to call it required reading in American Literature.

Short stories. Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx is worth the read. The spare, dusty, soul-bleeding that takes place here is stunning. (And, watching how Ang Lee translates that to film is phenomenal. Lydia Davis's Break it Down is terrific, and I’ve got it on audio from This American Life.  I also adore some of Sherman Alexie’s stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I’ve also done Big Two-Hearted River and Bernice Bobs Her Hair, which are both from the stone ages, but students really like them. Multilingual students or students from overseas often have difficulty with some of the wacky stories or postmodern themes and styles of lots of the contemporary stuff so these callbacks are appreciated.
I tend to just do a hodge-podge of assorted poems, but I’ve experimented with having students bring in poems too. When I do that, though, they tend to bring in stuff their friends wrote and hallmarky stuff, so then I find myself making arbitrary guidelines so that brings me back to picking poems I like. Or, assigning Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems.
Barbara Kingsolver. I think she’s one of the best American novelists writing today. I’m not a huge fiction reader, but she’s got the goods when it comes to skills and scope. Prodigal Summer is manageable. But, sometimes young people find it depressing because they don’t have the emotional range of experience life throws at you yet to appreciate it. Kinda the same with Poisonwood Bible, but it’s much less manageable and so worth it. Her earlier books are smaller, but I didn’t enjoy them nearly as much. It’s possible these books are simply too “mature” for a mixed room. If I’ve got half a room full of 19-year-olds, the stories can only be understood through that lens. If we did Kingsolver, we’d have to end the semester with her, maybe? I usually end with Angels in America. I’m feeling like no on Kingsolver, even though I feel like she’s so important.
Alternatively, we could read all of the Harry Potter books. I’m kind of half serious about this. I’ve wondered about teaching this in a college class for a while. I was listening to Dumbledore’s funeral this morning, because Benjamin has been going through all the audio books again. Damn good stuff. Lots to write and talk about. Have you seen the trailer for the next film?
What I have here is more than one semester can hold. And, there are certainly missing pieces too. I barely hit ‘diversity,’ whatever that means. I could add in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. Students tend to enjoy that one quite a bit.
What are you thinking?


  1. P&P is always good for writing/discussion, and one of my fave books.

    Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible is excellent, but unless you work with excerpts, I think it's too long and heavy for a writing about lit class.

    I like the Garrison Kieller (sp?) idea. I've read his Lake Wobegon, Summer 1956 and loved it. Good voice, easy read.

    What about using Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club? Survivor)? or some David Sedaris excerpts?

    I actually like your Harry Potter idea, although I'd just choose one (touch choice!).

    That's my two cents. I better get back to work now. I'll let you know if I think of anything else.


  2. First and foremost, I admire your profession. I am very far from an expert on this topic and as I read your posts I realize that I pissed off a lot of English teachers in my time with disinterest. I think if you were going to teach a Harry Potter course it should be sold that way from the beginning so the students know what they are in for. I love David Sedaris and he is American, and Greek, and French and soon to actually be British, I hear. I think his short stories could be interesting. Like the one where he is on the train in Paris and an American couple is calling him Froggy. Good stuff. I realize I have added zero value to this discussion, but I am dutifully posting my comment. Good Luck!


Please leave your name with your comment. Thank you!