Monday, August 24, 2009

The Back-to-School Special: Top Ten Books Read For Class

In honor of college classes starting this week, I decided to create a list about the top ten books I was "forced" to read for class. Now, I have always been a big reader, so I discovered most of my favorite books and writers on my own. (In fact, I never had a class that studied my favorite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, until my senior year of college - eight whole years after I first read This Side of Paradise). But every once in awhile, an assigned piece of literature really shakes me up and bends me to its will. I tried to be as faithful to my class reading experience as possible here. That means I tried to pick books and poems that I probably never would have picked up my own, thereby making their importance as "forced"readings that much more important. Also, I tried to provide some variety to this list - so I included nonfiction, poetry, fiction, and drama. I hope you all have had amazing literary experiences fostered by great teachers and professors through the years. Enjoy the list!

Top Ten Books Read for Class

1. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy: No surprise here. Reading this 1300-page tome for my Great Novels literature class last year actually changed my life. And probably no other book on this list was less likely to be read by my own volition. For the first 350 pages of this book, I complained to everyone within a 10-mile radius about how much I despised every single aspect of the prose, the characters, the plot, etc. I honestly hated it. And then suddenly, in the middle of reading Book Five, it was like unlocking some great secret about literature and the universe. I can't completely describe why I love this book. Just know that it is probably the single greatest accomplishment in all of literature, and my second favorite book of all time.

2. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf: Before reading this for a British lit survey class, all my attempts to read Woolf had resulted in stalemates. But for some reason, this novel really clicked with me, and I couldn't stop reading it. All my other class work suffered for the few days I spent wrapped up in the inner worlds of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter.

3. Tao Te Ching: I've written about my love for Taoism here before, so I won't go on much about it. I'd never studied anything Taoist until I read the Tao Te Ching for a Religious Lit class, and it struck me very powerfully. Another class read that changed my outlook on life.

4. "Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes", by Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is probably my favorite poet, so I would have read this poem eventually. But had I not had a professor who led the class in a line-by-line dissection of it, I would never have appreciated it even half as much. This long poem, about Orpheus's doomed attempt to bring Eurydice out of hell, is one of the most devastating things I've ever read. It deserves being read repeatedly, very slowly and carefully.

5. Stasiland: True Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder: I love modern German history, but it never felt more real to me than after reading this graceful, award-winning account of an Australian journalist's attempt to understand what living in East Germany was really like before the wall came down. In using the personal stories of several people, Funder explores the way history continues to affect those who lived it and how that history is perceived in the world at large. A great book for everyone, not just history nerds.

6. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov: Everyone knows what Lolita is basically about (pedophilia, how Europeans view America, etc.), but no one told me it would be so much fun to read. The book is as entertaining as it is interesting for its literary merit. The first chapter alone is one of the funniest things I have ever read, although admittedly, not everyone may get the humor.

7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel: I read this book in the same class where I read Lolita, so obviously, it was a fantastic semester. This graphic memoir gave me an appreciation for graphic literature (or as some people unfortunately call them, "comics"), as well as a better understanding of how we all compartmentalize our memories and personal histories in order to understand them in any conceivable fashion. Bechdel's familial history is very well-done and a great read for book nerds, as the memoir is swimming in literary allusions.

8. The Bald Soprano, by Eugene Ionesco: This play, a prime example of the theatre of the absurd, had me giggling for months. I couldn't resist reading pieces of it aloud to my very confused friends. However, behind the hilarity and wordplay, it's a very disturbing look at the way language and identity fail us in modern society.

9. Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy: In a world that seems inundated with personal memoirs, this early example of the genre was one of the most enjoyable reads of my college career. I didn't read it like an assignment, but as a mode of entertainment. It's heartbreaking, redeeming, funny, and wonderful. Of all the books on my list, this is probably the one I'd be quickest in recommending.

10. "Requiem", by Anna Akhmatova: This long, heavy poem was Akhmatova's response to the Soviets in their first twenty or so years in power. The Soviet leaders did what they could to silence Akhmatova, including killing her ex-husband and putting her son in prison (the basis for the beginning section of the poem), but she won in the end by creating this fantastic work of art that seethes with both anger and a battered, broken hope.

Happy Reading, everyone!

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