Monday Morning Question: assigned reading

Having majored in English, I’ve encountered a lot of the “standards” books, plus a lot of books that made me wonder why they were on the reading list at all.

What makes a good book? Well, we’ve talked about that before on this weblog, and there’s really no single answer. Complex imagery, of course, with adept handling of the language; a memorable narrative voice; a situation with which the reader easily identifies; a touch of something greater than all of us; hope; important questions that are not completely answered within the text.

Without being too much of a deconstructionist, I’d like to hazard a guess that each of us has read at least one literary treasure that simply isn’t recognized as one. It’s got all of the above, but for some reason it never made the leap to being recognized as great.

Hence this week’s Monday Morning Question. Let’s say you have a friend who teaches English at a local college. She’s talking to you about her upcoming classes next semester, pre-ordering the texts, and she says, “What book would you recommend I teach?”

Then she adds, “And please, not the Bible or anything written by the author of Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family. I’ve already got them on the syllabus.”

You think for a while: what book that everyone else has underrated would you want analyzed for the greatness everyone else has missed when they passed over this gem on the Barnes And Noble shelves?

Me? I’d immediately reply with one of two things.

First, Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was
 by Barry Hughart. Brilliant work, terrific humor, and an assortment of characters none of whom is easily characterizable nor pigeonholed on the moral scale. It deals with ancient China, but a fantastic, magical China. Parts of it I’ve remembered for the two decades since I first read it. I think it would stand up to college-level analysis. In fact, during college I passed it off to one writing instructor, who told me, “Yeah, learn to write like this.”

Second, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. Written from behind the iron curtain, it attempts to get across an anti-communist, anti-government message without ever appearing to do so. The result is pulp SF that, if you look beneath the surface, holds a rich understanding of the human spirit as it struggles to survive in the face of oppression. The translated pieces are a marvel, and you’ll find a story with internal rhymes as well as a seven line poem, cleverly rhymed, about a haircut: full of pathos, tragedy, betrayal and triumph, and every word beginning with the letter S.

After I’m done recommending these two and before I can go on to recommend Diana Wynne Jones, the professor turns to you for your suggestion. Reply here in the comment box or on your own weblog (and I’ll link to you) and tell the world about your hidden literary treasure.


  1. whiskers

    The Dosadi Experiment, by Frank Herbert. He’s most well known for Dune, but I think Dosadi speaks more to human nature and has a better faster plot.

    It is a little like 1984 meets Blade Runner. Surreal, otherworldly, exciting, passionate, and it has so many emotional switchbacks it will take your breath away by the third chapter, make you want to read it all the way through in one sitting, and leave you exhausted, yet gratified, at the end.

  2. Sister Lil Bunny

    2 books that always stuck with me were “Mila 18” by Leon Uris and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley. When I got to college, I was amazed that people hadn’t read these too! Heck, I had profs amazed that they were assigned reading for High School.

    “Mila 18”, to be quite plain, is about the Polish Ghettos during WWII. It really was engaging and *shock* you were learning about WWII. It also really hit home when we went to Dachau and they had a wall with photos/memorabilia of the Polish Ghettos.

    Speaking of the plight of man, “Brave New World” honestly scared me a bit. It’s one of the reasons to this day that I force myself to think, not just go with what I’m “supposed” to do, if that makes sense? LOL and it’s why I kindof freaked out when I found that there is a drug called Soma! Go back to sleep…

    If you can’t tell, Senior English was very plight of man/thought provoking. Yes I enjoyed “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Great Gatsby” for the same reason. It’s just nice to throw in some oddities once in a while.

    **As a side note, I will always love “Fail Safe” even if the Cold War is no longer a “threat” anymore. 🙂 GREAT question Tabris!!!

  3. Capt Cardor

    I did love “Mila 18” and all the other works of Leon Uris, (good choice), but I would recommend a less well known work about Italy during WWII, entitled “History, a Novel”, by Elsa Morante. This book follows the life of a normal Italian woman through the course of the war, struggling to survive with her two children, one of whom is epileptic. After lo these many years it is still the only book I have read that moved me to tears. I don’t mean just tears…outright bawling.

    She was a Socialist/Communist in Italy after the war and the wife of Alberto Moravia who is another of my favorite writers. His book “The Lie” is a gem of socialist existentialism. Told in the first person, in an extremely compact journalistic style, I was amazed at the control the author had over my feelings/emotions as he brought it to an amazing conclusion. His short story collections are gems also.

    Finally, any book by Gillian Bradshaw. She is an historical novelist, trained in ancient history so that her writing is authentic. She was the first novelist to have a book selected by the “History Book Club”. My favorite is “The Beacon of Alexandria” about a woman in the ancient world who studies medicine and becomes a doctor. There is also “The Sand Reckoner” about the life of Archimedes. Great stuff!

    Good question.

  4. Julie D.

    I love Bridge of Birds. 🙂

    I would say The Game of Fox and Lion by Robert Chase. It looks at what it means to be human in an age of genetic engineering.

    Silence by Shusaku Endo– An amazing book that provides so much food for thought. The tale of a 17th century Jesuit priest as he is smuggled into Japan to serve the Christians under persecution, is discovered, and undergoes the ultimate test of faith. Endo, writing for the Japanese, examines among other things the question of how Christianity must adapt to be truly meaningful to the Japanese.

  5. cathrl

    I have absolutely no idea what a college English course would consist of, having been to my last English lit lesson at the grand old age of 14 🙂 But I’d like to recommend “The Daughter Of Time” by Josephine Tey. It’s a fascinating story, written entirely from the viewpoint of a man who is flat on his back in a hospital bed. If you haven’t read it, and you are at all interested in history (of any country and from any period), do so.

  6. Capt Cardor


    What a great choice! Tey’s book was written in 1951 and there are not many mysteries from that time that are still in print. I can still remember reading the story of Richrd III for the first time through Tey’s book.

    I’m enjoying this question.

  7. Lane in PA

    Stanislaw Lem. Wow. I’m still working through “Solaris” and I don’t mean the movie. Although I will admit George Clooney was a motivation.

    Since I don’t know what is required in majoring in English (as I was busy with seeking a major in abnormal behavior in psychology) my only brush with English Lit in college was with a professor who wanted to spend an entire semester on Beowulf, requiring us to memorize the epic poem in the original Gaelic. So you can intuit that I won’t be recommending Beowulf.

    As Capt Cardor wrote, yes, I am enjoying this question.

    Dune. Mirrors what our world is facing now. Spice=oil.

    East of Eden. Sibling rivalry and all that.

    The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. A cautionary tale.

  8. Kate

    “The Marble Faun” by Hawthorne. I’ve never understood why the Scarlet Letter is focused on to the exclusion of this far more fascinating work.

    I’m currently re-reading ‘Till We Have Faces’ by CS Lewis – I think I’d recommend that as well.

  9. Ivy

    What’s the theme of the class? I mean “English” is kind of huge (or maybe it seems so to me because that’s what I did my undergrad in). You have 18th century British poems and 19th century American short stories and…well, you get the idea.

    College is hard, because at this point students are able to seek out what they want anyway. Do we take it as a last chance to prove those who settled through the movie version that books are cool? If so, Dante’s Inferno followed by Niven and Pournelle’s Inferno. Show the dialog across the ages, author to author.

    If it’s a matter of dragging out something that would have been otherwise ignored, let’s allow for works in translation and put the Saiyuki on the list.

    If I could invent an English curriculum, and it would take a lot more than one semester to do it, I’d take the entire Harry Potter series and break out all the classic elements. What’s the thing with names and power? Let’s look at ancient Near Eastern Mythology. Writing on the hand? Time for Kafka. What’s with Harry’s scar? Let’s see how the motif of the marked man functions in literature. Okay, so it would be an entire K-12 program, but at the end, the student would have an amazing understanding of world literature as works in isolation and as part of the meta-story.

  10. philangelus

    I deliberately left it open-ended so anyone could nominate any great book in any genre and from any time period or location.

    I like the idea of using Harry Potter as an entree into other areas. I don’t believe HP itself is great literature (so, sue me) but as a doorway into the realm of the archetypical hero, it would certainly be useful.

  11. Dogzard

    CS Lewis “Martian Trilogy” comes to mind. Reading it in college, I was stunned that I’d never read it before this. It just seems to lend itself so perfectly to being analyzed! I generally really dislike analyzing books though. I feel that a lot of books lose some of what makes them unique and special when they are subjected to a point by point analysis.

  12. philangelus

    We did read the Martian Trilogy in college, and we also read Brave New World in junior high school. The Jungle was from grammar school, I believe.

    Thanks for all the feedback on books I should be reading.

    And yes, Dogzard, sometimes the analysis sucks away the joy of the book. But sometimes it opens up new interpretations and gives you a new way of looking at a treasured favorite. A large part of which way it goes depends on your instructor, and I guess I’ve just had some very good ones.