Books That Will Just Have to Teach Themselves (by Andrew Schlager)

Every class has on its syllabus a list of the books required for the semester, but by the last day of most classes, students will also have heard a number of other titles: books that, for whatever reason—maybe there wasn’t enough time, maybe the novel didn’t quite meet the course’s objective—could only appear in the class through reference and allusion. Or maybe the author or text hasn’t, say, made it into the Norton Anthology: after all, professors in survey courses can require only so many “supplementary” works. Maybe the length of some books exceeds the four-month allotment. Or maybe there are those “fundamental” books that professors secretly (or publicly) despise, and so can’t bring themselves to put on their syllabi. Maybe a professor loves a book too much to teach it. Or maybe there’s some traumatic memory from three or four years ago, where an assigned text was met with such hatred, boredom and evident non-reading that a professor vowed never to teach the book again.

Professor Patricia Crain, who works on 19th-century American literature, offered us some thoughtful answers and further meditations on some of these questions and possibilities, noting that there are those novels which “by contrast seem to just get up and teach themselves, mysteriously. Which they do, in a way: Moby Dick, To the Lighthouse.” She said she had never questioned teaching a novel because of length, so she teaches Moby Dick and Henry James’s The Golden Bowl.“Long novels teach well, really,” she noted, “because if you can make the time, you can capture something about the kind of reading they demand.” She also commented on how “field specialization and the demands of the curriculum” have, in the past, prevented her from teaching other authors she loves, such as Jane Austen.   Though always professorial in her reasons for teaching demanding work, Professor Crain did admit to a couple of flops: “In the category of novels I regret having taught—If Emile [by Jean-Jacques Rousseau] counts: I don’t regret having tried to teach it, but I’m sure the students do.  Ditto Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World, the big weeper of 1850, so important”—it was the 19th century’s first bestseller—“but really really really hard to take.” And regarding novels that she loves too much to teach, Professor Crain confessed, “ I’m glad I don’t have to teach Trollope, because I would have to find a way to protect what has always seemed weirdly like a secret pleasure (a colleague and I once cooked up a fantasy MLA panel to be called “Can You Forgive Us: Reading Trollope for Pleasure”).

The day Professor Wendy Lee, who works primarily with 18th-century British literature, responded about how she does and does not choose novels for her courses proved to be rather serendipitous! “I usually can’t teach the most important novel of the 18th century because it is also the longest English novel,” she hedged, initially, “but I did it anyway and we just finished it today! Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1747-48). Some of my students set up a blog for encouragement and group therapy.” The tumblr, 18th Century British Novel, bears the heading, “All things needed to help you sail through the pages of this British literature class,” and the most recent post included a gif of Bradley Cooper (in Silver Linings Playbook) finishing a novel and then throwing it violently out of a window. Below the gif, one student offered this reflection: “Excuse the profanity [Cooper drops the F-Bomb as he turns the final page], but I ran across this gif and started cracking up like a crazy person because I think everyone has felt this to some degree at some point or another whilst reading this beast of a book. I know I did! I have just read the final words of Clarissa. I feel so [euphemism deleted] accomplished right now. Hope everyone’s readings are going well!!” Clearly Prof. Lee’s risky change of tactic had a massive payoff for her students, and the internet at large. So maybe those books that seem like they’ll never fit on the syllabus can make it to the classroom “in the flesh”—and not just by name—after all.