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).