16 votes

If you had to teach a class on literature, what books would you put on your syllabus?

I asked a similar question over in ~games and am interested to hear how ~books would respond to the same setup.

Here's the task: pretend you're a professor! You have to do the following:

  • Choose a focus for your class on literature (with a snazzy title if you like)
  • Choose the books that you, as a professor, will have your class dive into in order to convey key concepts
  • Explain why each book you chose ties into your overarching exploration

Your class can have any focus, broad or specific: victorian literature, contemporary poetry, Shakespearean themes in non-Shakespearean works -- whatever you want! It can focus on any forms of literature and does not have to be explicitly limited to "books" if you want to look at some outside-of-the-box stuff (I once took a literature class where we read afternoon, a story, for example.)

After choosing your specific focus, choose what will be included on your syllabus as "required reading" and why you've chosen each item.

14 comments

  1. [5]
    grahamiam
    (edited )
    Link
    As someone who does teach literature, I'm not sure if I prefer thematic classes or the general courses, but! I would love to teach a course on aging. I think, in the United States especially, we...

    As someone who does teach literature, I'm not sure if I prefer thematic classes or the general courses, but!

    I would love to teach a course on aging. I think, in the United States especially, we have cordoned off the elderly and death from the rest of society in a way that is harmful to both those people and the ones without exposure to them. Here are some books I'd use:

    FICTION

    • Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
      Older preacher with a very young son writes a series of letters to his son under the assumption that he'll be dead before his son grows up. Only book with a heavy religious element.
    • Inheritance from Mother by Minae Mizumura
      Woman deals with the slow decline and death of her mother. Lots of focus on the guilt over how to handle it and who has to make decisions.
    • Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
      Fourth book in a series that started with the Pulitzer winning linked short story collection Olive Kitteridge. Probably wouldn't read this whole book, but the second half deals with a main character who is mentally cognizant but physically declining and moves herself into a nursing home.
    • The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
      Dystopic world where if you're unmarried after 45ish you have to go live in a community where they do semi-humane experiments on you until you die.

    NONFICTION

    • "A Good Death" by William Vollman in Harper's
      Vollman interviews a wide range of people involved with death, trying to get an answer to the question of what a good death is.
    • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
      Book focused on the dying specialization of gerontology in medicine and why things are so fucked up with elder care in the US.
    • Elderhood by Louise Aronson
      This is the only one I haven't read on my list. I've been meaning to get to it soon though. Great reviews and nominated for a Pulitzer.
    • Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
      Describes close friendship between two authors after the other one has a terminal cancer diagnosis.
    • Modern Death by Haider Warraich
      Focused on the movement in American society towards extending life at all costs, even when it might lead to great pain and no quality of life for the patient. Has some pretty heartbreaking descriptions of resuscitation attempts, etc. Good Fresh Air interview - https://www.npr.org/2019/07/22/744068399/state-of-the-heart-cardiologist-assesses-breakthroughs-in-heart-health

    Some other things I might consider - the "Playing God" episode of Radiolab, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. All three of these stories are amazing, but they're about very specific, very unique cases and make them less generalizable than my other selections, I think.

    8 votes
    1. patience_limited
      Link Parent
      For those interested in this topic, I'd also have to recommend Mary Pipher's nonfiction Women Rowing North, as much for the potential of examining its flaws during a classroom session, as for its...

      For those interested in this topic, I'd also have to recommend Mary Pipher's nonfiction Women Rowing North, as much for the potential of examining its flaws during a classroom session, as for its virtues in exploring the challenges of aging for women. [The self-help and positive thinking book genres are worth literary analysis and exploration in their own rights, I suspect.]

      I hate to bring up the old staple, Death of A Salesman, in this context, but it does grasp the nettle of mortality and the smallness and intimacy of an individual's life.

      3 votes
    2. [3]
      iiv
      Link Parent
      Have you read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy? I think it really fits your theme, and it's a quick read.

      Have you read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy? I think it really fits your theme, and it's a quick read.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        grahamiam
        Link Parent
        I have, but it's been a long while! That might be a good one, though I thought it focuses more on what a meaningful/good life is and looking back on that. I guess I should reread it!

        Have you read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy? I think it really fits your theme, and it's a quick read.

        I have, but it's been a long while! That might be a good one, though I thought it focuses more on what a meaningful/good life is and looking back on that. I guess I should reread it!

        1. iiv
          Link Parent
          It goes into that, but my favourite themes were about how people treat dying people and the thoughts of a man that really doesn't want to die.

          I thought it focuses more on what a meaningful/good life is and looking back on that

          It goes into that, but my favourite themes were about how people treat dying people and the thoughts of a man that really doesn't want to die.

          1 vote
  2. [3]
    drannex
    (edited )
    Link
    Welcome to 'Exposition in Economical Evolutionary Possibilities' (EEEP), my name is Professor Drannex, here will be your course reading list. Fiction: Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov The look...

    Welcome to 'Exposition in Economical Evolutionary Possibilities' (EEEP), my name is Professor Drannex, here will be your course reading list.

    Fiction:

    • Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
      • The look into an intergalactic society, their economy, and the results of centralization of power with a focus on the statistical importance of economics of scale in relation to political ideologies.
    • Dune by Frank Herbert
      • The spice must flow.

    Non-fiction:

    • The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge
      • A short book, but a concise book on the general evolution of the modern enterprise from the growth out of land ownership laws to employee driven enterprises.
    • The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications by David Deutsch
      • This book deals with quantum universes and their ties to technological improvements, computer science, and innovation. By far one of the best books I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
    • Salt: A History by Mark Kurlansky
      • One of the most used objects in our daily life, and the history of this spice from the dawn of its creation to today and beyond allows for ample enough connections to Dune, while also exposing the societal and evolutionary growth of species around a specific item.

    The books are varied, but they all have a central thesis on the possibilities of economic change, importance and the societal regards they require. This was a fun list to make and think about.

    7 votes
    1. rosco
      Link Parent
      Dang, I loved Cod by Kurlansky. I feel like he did a shallow dive on how fishers acquired salt in that book and how key it was to their success, I'll definitely be checking out Salt: A History.

      Dang, I loved Cod by Kurlansky. I feel like he did a shallow dive on how fishers acquired salt in that book and how key it was to their success, I'll definitely be checking out Salt: A History.

      3 votes
    2. kfwyre
      Link Parent
      I love your take on this topic, and the books you've chosen sound really interesting (I've added several to my reading list)! I like that you're blending fiction and non-fiction as well. Very...

      I love your take on this topic, and the books you've chosen sound really interesting (I've added several to my reading list)! I like that you're blending fiction and non-fiction as well. Very cool. Thanks for taking the time to put together this "class" for us!

  3. Akir
    Link
    What I would like to do if I were an actual teacher is find books that kids are already popular with my pupils, read through a few of them, and see if I could adapt them to my requirements. I'm...

    What I would like to do if I were an actual teacher is find books that kids are already popular with my pupils, read through a few of them, and see if I could adapt them to my requirements. I'm something of an anti-classicalist; if I'm going to teach students, I want it to be obvious that this is useful today. That and I think that from an academic standpoint a lot of literature lessons are built around things students generally are not interested in.

    The YA meta-genre which is popular right now is surprisingly rich, and one thing I really like about modern literature is that it seems that minorities are being given more chances to take the spotlight. Books like The Hate U Give are great examples of literature that also give excellent life lessons.

    Honestly, I wouldn't want to limit my class to be limited to studying books; bringing games and movies or even TV series would be a really great way to expand students' minds. Imagine the kinds of conversations you could have after playing something like To The Moon, or watching Season 1 of The OA. I'm having fun imaging what would happen after I assigned Mulholland Drive.

    I do have one "Cheat" book I would like to cover as well. I call it a cheat because I fell in love with it after being assigned from a literature class. Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska is a relatively modern classic. The informal language makes it really easy for modern readers to understand, and there are so many fine layers you can examine. It's a story you can enjoy at face value, but once you start reading between the lines you find out that it has so much more to give you.

    6 votes
  4. [4]
    krg
    (edited )
    Link
    Don Quixote would be my #1 pick (but to be read last). Then, in order: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. 100 Years of...

    Don Quixote would be my #1 pick (but to be read last).

    Then, in order:

    Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

    Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather.

    Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov.

    100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.


    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Holy the Firm, and For the Time Being by Annie Dillard (as a trilogy).

    An Elemental Thing by Eliot Weinberger.

    The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.


    Libra by Don DeLillo.

    some collection of Borges.

    The Recognitions by William Gaddis and 2666 by Roberto Bolaño (one required, one for extra credit).

    and at least Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (as an epilogue).


    I think that's a good start. Contemporary(ish) American literature, mostly. Don Quixote is essential for understanding it all. But you'll understand why once you read it after all these other books. The three books in between the horizontal rules are a bit unrelated, in that sense, but provide a good non-fiction break. And they're beautiful books (Dillard, in particular).

    4 votes
    1. patience_limited
      Link Parent
      Gods yes, this is a fantastic list. I'll confess that when I had to take a college English Literature class, the instructor thought that the relentlessly cheerful (/s) classics Jude the Obscure,...

      Gods yes, this is a fantastic list. I'll confess that when I had to take a college English Literature class, the instructor thought that the relentlessly cheerful (/s) classics Jude the Obscure, Northanger Abbey, and Bartleby, the Scrivener would somewhat enrich our grasping little minds. To the best of my knowledge, there were no student suicides that semester, but it was a near thing.

      4 votes
    2. [2]
      daturkel
      Link Parent
      That'd be a hell of a long semester! You could easily teach a course on just Pale Fire (and some supporting texts), or Don Quixote, or The Recognitions.

      That'd be a hell of a long semester! You could easily teach a course on just Pale Fire (and some supporting texts), or Don Quixote, or The Recognitions.

      3 votes
      1. krg
        Link Parent
        Ha, true! I guess it could be spread out over the course of a year, with the middle selection of books being an intercession, or somethin. Devotees of the study of literature would make quick work...

        Ha, true! I guess it could be spread out over the course of a year, with the middle selection of books being an intercession, or somethin. Devotees of the study of literature would make quick work of that stuff, I'd imagine.

  5. mrbig
    Link
    I’d grab some long reputable list mixing several genres and periods and tell them to choose. My teacher did that on high school and it was great. I read Young Werther, The Process (Kafka) and...

    I’d grab some long reputable list mixing several genres and periods and tell them to choose.

    My teacher did that on high school and it was great. I read Young Werther, The Process (Kafka) and Crime and Punishment.

    1 vote