I have been teaching a Composition class in a local community college, and during the semester we touched on all sorts of historical, cultural, and literary issues, with me babbling away in the breaks and the pre-minutes about books and museums. Eventually, the students asked for reading recommendations, feeling like they wanted to read more, but didn’t know where to start, so I made up this short list–of novels, essays, lectures, and investigations—all of which are fairly simple to read, and yet are extremely rewarding.
Reading / listening to all of these (over, say, the summer) would, I suspect, have a transformative impact on many students’ success rate in college.
Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow—in early 20th century America, real historical celebrities (such as Harry Houdini and Henry Ford) enter the lives of one fictional family, as the country around them turns and changes.
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez—in turn of the century Colombia, Fermina Daza is appalled when her childhood sweetheart appears at her husband’s funeral and pledges, once again, his undying love. Florentino Ariza has waited fifty years for a second chance to win her heart, biding his time through hundreds of casual affairs.
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin—two families in Harlem navigate the extremes of good and evil when a young man is arrested by a corrupt police force, and his wife (who narrates the story with incredible grace and beauty) prepares to give birth to his child.
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami—in 1960s Japan, a disillusioned college student falls in love with the girlfriend of his best friend (who killed himself in high school). As he tries to express his love to her, a new woman appears, the life-rich and bubbly Midori, and he has to choose between the two women, between life and death, past and the future. One of my favourite novels from my youth.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin—in the far future, an ambassador travels to a wintry planet where humans have only one gender, and is soon on the run for his life.
Erasure, Percival Everett—when a very intellectual but not very successful African American writer becomes furious that “ghetto fiction” is not only popular with readers, but also seen by the media as making true statements about Black life in America, he writes a parody of the genre under a false name, called “My Pafology,” which is an immediate commercial and literary hit (this is a little harder reading than the others).
The Ethics of Authenticity, Charles Taylor—this book introduces you to the history of modern thought, in clear, smooth prose.
The Self Under Siege, and Nietzsche and the Postmodern Condition, Rick Roderick (audio course—google, download, or email me for a copy)—in both of these courses, the amazing, larger than life Rick Roderick teaches in simple language both the problems with society today, and the ideas of many twentieth-century thinkers.
Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton—I’m not a Christian myself, but I love seeing Chesterton’s mind at work, explaining step by step, in his famous style of paradox and puzzle, the reasons behind his Christianity.
How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom. He is peculiar, and amazing, and unique. Don’t read this one first (it’s a little difficult), but do read it. Bloom explains with passion why reading the best poems, stories, plays and novels is essential for a full life.
How Fiction Works, James Wood. An easy introduction to the techniques of fiction, which will make you a much better reader.
In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan—what healthy eating really means, and how manufactured food isn’t it.
Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell—a fascinating study of why people become successful, arguing that class, social background, culture, and plain luck have a lot to do with it.
Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich—a reporter tries to live for a year on minimum wage jobs.
Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter —drug dealers, school teachers, UPS drivers talk candidly, comically, and tragically about their work and lives. I really love this book.