Monday, April 14, 2014

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

This week on the Lexicon Devil is devoted to all of the soon-to-be English majors. I’ve amassed a list of ten books you should strike off your TBR before classes begin in the fall.  

The third installment of this series was meant to go up last Wednesday and the remaining two posts the day after, however, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.  On Wednesday I developed an allergic reaction to a new foundation and spent the better part of five days trying to regain control over my wayward complexion.  Now that my face is back to normal(-ish), “10 Books Every Incoming English Major Should Read Before College” were resume.  

Today’s recommendations are staples of the twelfth grade classroom and for good reason.  Both texts explore the dark recesses of the human psyche and raise serious questions about the nature of leadership.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Macbeth was first produced more than four hundred years ago but the play remains as timely today as it was during the Jacobean Era.  At first blush, the play seems to be little more than a story about ambition and revenge with the occasional blood bath thrown in for good measure, but at it’s core Macbeth is a cautionary tale for despotes of all stripes.  

Here’s the sitch:

England’s Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 without leaving a direct heir to the throne.  King James VI of Scotland, a distant relative of Elizabeth’s (his great grandmother was Elizabeth’s paternal aunt), was subsequently crowned King James I of England.  James’s coronation in 1603 was a relatively sedate affair, but the King’s first years in power were anything but peaceful.  In his first three years as King, James survived three assassination plots (Bly Plot, Main Plot, and Gunpowder Plot), some of which were hatched by members of the political jet set.  Many people also questioned James’s loyalty to England because, duh, he was Scottish and because both his mother and his wife were rumored to be Catholics, a major no no in Protestant England.  Pearls were clutched.  Side eye was given.

By 1610, a year before Macbeth was produced, negotiations between James and Parliament to pay off the court’s growing debts (James was a spendthrift, you see) deteriorated. In a huff, the King dismissed Parliament at the end of the year, hopeful a new election would bring in a crop politicians more amenable to the court.  It didn’t work.  James spent the remainder of his reign either butthurt about parliament or ruling without them.  He died gouty and toothless at the ripe old age of fifty-eight.

Taking all of this into account, we can view Macbeth as a thinly veiled warning to James against the corrupting influences (remember his Catholic wife) and self-centered governance.  When you’re a shady monarch, Shakespeare warns, you beget shadiness.  

Sound political advice, it seems, transcends time, albeit in iambic pentameter.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

If you’re going to read one book about colonialism in the nineteenth century, read this one: it’s short, not-so sweet, and frequently alluded to in popular culture.  In many ways, Conrad sets the state for post-colonial literature in Heart of Darkness by raising questions of what constitutes civilized and barbarous behavior.  Spoiler: white people be crazy.

A bulk of the novel takes place at a remote ivory trading station in the Congo.  Acting on a rumor, Marlow, the novel’s protagonist, seeks out Kurtz, a station manager whose is meant to be in ill health and on the verge of losing the outpost to the hostile natives.  When Marlow arrives at the station he quickly realizes he hasn’t received the best information about Kurtz.  Hilarity doesn’t insure.  

Pro Tip: if you are interested in a cinematic adaptation of the book watch Apocalypse Now, it places the story within the context of the Vietnam War but somehow manages to be a more faithful adaptation of the book than others.

Come back Wednesday for installments 7 and 8 in the series!

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