Life in Omaha (in Scottsdale)

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Thursday, February 17, 2005

Top Ten Books

When I was in Cincinnati, we were discussing teaching our favorite books. Among the eight of us at the table, there was a sizeable fraction (at least more than one, I remember) who refuse to teach our favorite works to undergraduates. Some of us don’t have the option of teaching to graduates. We can’t stomach the heartache of having our favorite books dismissed as bad, boring or irrelevant.

I was reminded of the conversation because today we began discussing Fast Food Nation in our campus wide reading group. I certainly wouldn’t call the book one of my favorites, but its very well written, a muckraking of the contemporary culture of quick, cheap and eminently deplorable. And it bothered me—more than it should, I imagine—that so many people found it “boring,” “stupid” and “a waste of time.” There are times when I definitely lose perspective as a teacher, and today was one of them. But each criticism of the book felt like I was coming face to face with the abyss. I had to refrain from lashing out wildly at these undergraduates. The U.S. culture has a long history of being hostile to intellectuals, education and people who value ideas and theory as much as experience. And one would think that I would be used to it by now. For the most part, I am. Yet the issues at stake in Schlosser’s book are very dear to me: the homogenization of experience, the exploitation of the powerless, the raping of natural resources. To hear people time and again turn their back on insight because they “aren’t interested in that stuff” drags me down from whatever noble ideas I have about the prospects of higher education.

I can’t say for certain if the particular faction of anti-intellectualism practiced in Nebraska is any different from that in Illinois or Ohio, but I am definitely more attuned to it here. The best lack conviction, the worst gain more influence each passing year. Is it any wonder that Omaha struggles to keep their young, creative, entrepreneurial people from bolting? Of course, rarely does the anti-intellectual climate of the state rank as one of the reasons why people leave.

So as therapy, I decided to list my top ten books (another topic of discussion in Cinti, one obviously fraught with flaws, but irresistible nonetheless).

In no particular order (and asterisks by the ones I’ve taught):

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers
*Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
*Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
*Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler
Straight Man by Richard Russo
City of Quartz by Mike Davis
Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan

The top five are probably pretty consistent. The second five could likely change on the time of day, season, amount of illicit substance coursing through the system.

And now, your turn. Top Ten and any you've taught (if you teach).


At 11:04 AM, Blogger Dr.K said...

No responses yet? I worry that not many people actually have a top ten list of favorite books. Here's mine:
At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (who was a guest voice on the Simpsons last night)
The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Always Coming Home by Ursula LeGuin
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkein, which I will forever love, even though the books have been replaced by the big-budget movie lately. Like always, the books are better than the movie.

At 11:33 PM, Anonymous k/m said...

I'm concerned that I don't have a top ten list of favorite books. Usually, I don't create lsits of favorites, but this seems like a worthwhile exercise. (Might even get me to read more fiction.) I'm going to give this list some consideration.

I really wanted to comment that I read Fast Food Nation and found it to be profound in its scope in the way it described so many pervasive and problematic aspects of American culture. Despite the information about labor, land use, employment, food preparation, agriculture, etc., I find myself constantly explaining to people the subtle difference between natural and artificial flavors, and how scary it is that we add a drop of chemical flavor to replace the real flavor that is no longer present in our food. . .

At 2:55 PM, Blogger NJHouston said...

Scott, dear, women write books, too, you know. You might try reading a few sometime. Many are quite good.

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Not Scott said...

Sure, and I'm quite fond of a number of them. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Almanac of the Dead and Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor. That being said, they just didn't make the top ten. Ask Larry Summers: perhaps he knows why.


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