Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reading Lists?

It is summer and many students are looking at their summer reading lists, either for specific classes or a campus-wide read. I'm looking at the piles of books I've bought and hope to settle into some of them this summer under a tree. (Or in the air conditioning, since we live in D.C.)

What classics or contemporary collections haven't you read? Rebecca Makkai wrote about this topic for Ploughshares and David Ebenbach responded on his blog. I'll comfort myself with the excuse that it would be a waste of reading time to list the books I haven't read. Or that I've read and forgotten.

Makkai describes why there are so many "great" pieces of literature she's missed:
Of course, I know I’m not actually deficient, any more than you are, or any more than anyone who reads widely but only has ninety years on the planet. You and I could spend our whole lives reading great literature and never overlap on a single book. We’d try to converse and both come away feeling like under-read slobs. If we were lucky, we’d remember that the problem isn’t our ignorance or apathy but our embarrassment of riches.

Ebenbach focuses on the books he's read, but can't exactly remember:
But what about the books that I can’t even recall? Well, literature affects you in all kinds of ways, some of which might be subtle and hard to recognize but nonetheless important and lasting. Who knows how a book changes your sense of language and life, even if you can’t name the main character two years later? Years later, Eudora Welty’s stories are somewhat hazy in my memory, but I know I learned important things about storytelling from her (and the same goes for Chekhov); I can’t quote too many different Emily Dickinson poems from memory, but I know she’s changed the way I think about sound. And even if I don’t remember what happened in To the Lighthouse I know how powerful it felt to settle into the minds that Woolf helped me inhabit.

It isn't possible to read every great piece of literature, just as it would be unlikely that we'd settle on one list of "great" literature in any genre. It does take more than one reading, hopefully at different phases of life, to have a deeper understanding of a piece. As an undergraduate Italian major who learned the language in college, I was reading novels, short stories and poems in Italian with a dictionary by my side. While I might have understood (most) of the individual words, I missed many of the finer literary and cultural points. I hope to have time one day to return to those and English-language, as well as books in translation, that touched me years ago.

What books do you remember reading? What's next on your reading list and why?

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