Top Ten Books that Aren’t on Most “Great Books” Lists

Books

The philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler was perhaps the first to recognize the importance of preserving the integrity of what he called the “Great Books” of the Western tradition. Since then lists of great books from Harold Bloom’s “The Western Canon” to The Greatest Books.org have attempted to capture the best and most significant works in Western culture. Like all efforts at preservation and codification, these lists (along with “classics” books series by Penguin, Oxford Classics, etc.) tend to emphasize certain topics, works, and genres, and inadvertently diminish attention to others.

With this in mind, and because I have an affinity for the obscure, I try, when I have the time, to read a stack of books that do not usually find their way to any of the lists. Continue reading

My Favorite Russians

A version of this essay was published in the Gray Matters section of the Houston Chronicle on 27 December 2015.

It is impossible to explain Russia. But I have to try. http://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/gray-matters/article/It-is-impossible-to-explain-Russia-But-I-have-to-5979794.php?t=96073205e6&cmpid=twitter-premium via @HoustonChron

I.

This week I teach Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a wild ride of a novel that gets you into the head of a murderer.  It is heavy stuff, hard to read, and not because of the sentences.  You feel like you are on a roller coaster, in the mind of someone who might be a sociopath, or a political malcontent, or just a guy who is so crushed by poverty that he doesn’t really know what he is doing.

Except when he does.

Image

Even before William James was talking about “stream of consciousness,” before his brother Henry was becoming the father of the “psychological novel,” Fyodor Dostoevsky was writing the prose that happens after you have experienced things like flirting with political dissent, enduring the spectre of epileptic seizures, facing a firing squad.

I kid you not.

Continue reading

To My Sophomores

Image

Dear New Sophomore,

I would call you by your first name, but I haven’t met you yet.  But I will, in about a week, and then I really need to know your name, because it is important to call people by their names.  In fact, I am so excited to know who you are, I want you to go ahead and learn the names of everyone in our class.  This way you know that we are a team, and we are all trying, together, to fill in the gaps of knowledge that we all have.

You might meet your new best friend in this class, so go ahead and learn names in case that is the case.  You might also meet your intellectual nemesis, the person who drives you so crazy with their condescension and pretensions that you throw yourself into your work, graduate summa cum laude, and get your law degree from Harvard, just to show that person a thing or two.  People want to be addressed by their names, because almost everything in this world is personal to someone, and you are kidding yourself if you think otherwise.  Plus, it is harder to say something unkind if you have started that sentence with someone’s first name.  Trust me, if you can learn the periodic table, you can learn to remember names.

I want to reassure you that I completely agree that it is unfair that you are labeled “sophomores,” which inevitably makes anyone with a pulse think of the word “sophomoric,” and I am here to tell you that I have met people with doctorates who better fit that description than many of my students.  What can I say?  Labels are unjust, but they can also be great incentives for proving everyone else wrong.  The traditional meaning of “sophomore” comes from the Greek roots for “wisdom” (think of the the word “philosopher,” which means a lover of wisdom) and then the root for “fool” (the same root for words like “moronic”).  I know this seems oxymoronic:  How can you be wise and foolish at the same time?   Some roughly translate “sophomore” (besides being a second year student in high school or college) as someone who has gained knowledge, but not enough wisdom to know how to apply it.  Some think of sophomores as those who think they know more than they actually do.

Continue reading

Five Suggestions for Summer Reading

First day for reading outside

First day for reading outside (Photo credit: OpenEye)

Summertime in America. It’s a different kind of season. Kids are out of school. Parents are taking vacation days. The weather is warm, the beaches are full, and even the most business-minded among us loosen the collar just a bit.

Summer has a slower pace, and that slower pace makes it the ideal time to catch up on your book reading. I suggest that you give some thought to which pages you plan to flip through in the coming months.

Planning your summer booklist might seem to rob these golden days of their spontaneity. However, we make travel plans in order to have a successful vacation. In the same way, let’s make booklists in order to have a successful reading holiday. Here are my suggestions for a fun-filled summer of bookishness.

Continue reading