Monday, April 7, 2014

10 Books Every Incoming English Major Should Read Before College, Part I

This week on the Lexicon Devil is devoted to all of the soon-to-be English majors.  At this point, many of you have already received your college acceptances letters and have probably gone to a campus picnic day or two.  By now, the initial excitement of your acceptance has started to wear off . . . and you are starting to freak out about your college readiness and I don’t blame you.

Last week it was reported that less than 4 in 10 California High School students have completed the courses necessary for admittance into the University of California and California State University system.  Even those who have been admitted into the university systems often find themselves placed in remedial English and Math classes which are both costly and throw off a student’s four year graduation pathway.  

While I can’t address these arrears in public education single handedly (or with both hands for that matter), I can recommend some books that incoming English majors should review in preparation for their undergraduate work.  So, every day this week I will be recommending two books that every nascent English major should read.

Today’s recommendations are two examples of Platonic literary perfection-- The Great American Novel and the tragedy upon which the genre was defined.  

Oedipus the King by Sophocles

If you are going to be an English major (or a history major, or a classics major, or an anthropology major, and definitely if you are going to be a psychology major) you need to read this play.  Full stop.  Aristotle literally defined the term tragedy with Oedipus the King in mind and the play is the basis for most aspects of psychoanalytic literary theory.
The plot line is quite simple: Oedipus leaves his adopted home of Corinth in fear of a prophecy that foretold that he would kills his father and bare children with his mother.  Oedipus then travels to Thebes where he kills a man in a road rage incident, solves the Sphinx’s riddle, and becomes king of the city after the former monarch turns up dead.  Some years after marrying the former king’s widow and having a family with her, Thebes is beset by a plague that the gods will only lift if the former king’s murderer is brought to justice.  Foolheartedly, Oedipus asks a lot of uncomfortable questions and receives some unpleasant answers.
Somehow, tragic tale of incest and regicide manages to stay compelling after thousands of years and as many retellings.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Odds are you read The Great Gatsby in high school at least once.  In many schools and districts there is a tension between tenth and eleventh grade teachers over who gets to teach this novel because, quite honestly, it is the epitome of The Great American Novel.  Even if you have read the novel, Gatsby warrants a second (or third!) go before you head off to the hallowed halls of academia.  
At its core, the book asks a very simple question: what would happen if you tried to win back the one you loved and lost?  If you’re Jay Gatsby and that love is Daisy Buchannan, the answer is “nothing pleasant.”  Love, Fitzgerald teaches his young (and older) readers, is rarely indelible, never pure, and is often mediated by the all-too-material world.  These stark life lessons are revealed by a cadre of unlikeable characters who are ambivalent at their best and profoundly malicious at their worst. Yet somehow, despite the unseemliness of its central characters, The Great Gatsby leaches into your bones.

I often think the complexity of the text and its intimate relationship with readers is responsible for the omnishambles that are the novel’s cinematic interpretations.  

You know a book is a winner if the movie stinks to high heaven.  
Check back tomorrow for recommendations 3 and 4.

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