My Semester in Books
In the spirit of Ben's most recent post about answering questions from your prospective-student-self, I am about to reveal to you a not-so-secret fact; dear reader, I am a nerd. When I was on college tours and listening to tour guides assuring people that [insert institution of higher learning here] has an excellent social scene or what have you, I had a secret question, a weirdly specific question that I never asked because I feared that it was too boring. You see, what I really wanted to know (aside from the basic and very important college stuff like class sizes, dining options, etc.) was what a student at [insert institution of higher learning here] read during an average semester. Just in case any prospies are reading this and happen to be nerds (and let's be honest, if you're considering Oberlin, you are probably at least a little bit nerdy in the most positive way), I am about to answer that question.
Now, a somewhat obvious disclaimer: I can only speak for myself here. For example, my roommate (Emma, bio major, French minor, perfect human) read a completely different set of books last semester. Coincidentally she has read one of these books in the original French for a different class, but that is the only overlap we've ever had and will likely ever have in our required reading as our academic interests are very different. The books you read during a given semester are highly dependent on your major and your course schedule and these are just the books I read during fall semester.1
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
I absolutely LOVED this book, which I read for Intro to the Advanced Study of Literature along with the next three books. As one might expect, the book is about a boy named Oscar, an overweight, depressed, Dominican-American "ghetto nerd" who is obsessed with falling in love and trying to become like one of the heroes in his fantasy novels. There's also a family curse, fun! As much as I loved it though, I am hesitant to recommend it to people whose tastes I don't know well because all of the things I loved about it - its post-modern perspective, multiple narrators, near-constant references to a variety of sources, and lots of Spanish slang - are things that I could easily imagine other people being very annoyed by.
Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer
When I told people that I was reading this book, they usually assumed that I was mispronouncing the Shakespeare play Troilus and Cressida but no, this baby is all Chaucer (in a modern English translation). I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed (most of) this poem since I have next to no experience with medieval literature, but I'm a sucker for any author who deliberately infuses their work with their views about writing and narratology.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
In high school I primarily read Shakespeare tragedies so I was really excited to read this play for class. I couldn't help but compare it to Hamlet while I was reading, apparently the two plays were written at about the same time, and that probably made me think slightly less of this play because I love Hamlet so much, but I ultimately enjoyed it anyway. Also I was kind of shocked at how faithful She's The Man is to its source material.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner (this is missing from a picture because I lent it to a friend)
I read this book and American Gods by Neil Gaiman contemporaneously and I think that some sort of higher power must've been involved because the two books have a lot to do with each other. They both tackle what it means to be "American" head-on, which is a huge hook for me, and focus on supernatural involvement in our everyday lives. Angels has the added bonus of being about the "gay experience" which I had never really discussed in any class prior to reading this book.
Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang
I was only assigned to read two of the stories in this collection, "Love in a Fallen City" and "Red Rose, White Rose," for my Intro to Comp Lit class (along with the next two books) but I finished the rest of the collection as soon as I got home for Winter Term because Eileen Chang's writing is the literary equivalent of green beans, delicious and good for you. Her subject of choice is people who are caught between the Qin Dynasty and a rapidly modernizing China, who don't know whether to speak in Mandarin, Shanghainese or English and struggle to find common ground, a particularly interesting focus for a comp lit class. In my opinion, everyone should read these stories.
Pére Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
While this book has descriptions that are just as evocative as those in Love in a Fallen City, Pére Goriot is a completely different beast. It tells the story of the pathetic Goriot, an old man who has devoted his entire existence to his ungrateful daughters, and Rastingac, a student trying to climb the social ladder. The two live in a decrepit boarding house in Paris shortly after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and struggle against the city and all that it represents (mostly social stratification and a dog-eat-dog attitude) in their own ways.
The Castle by Franz Kafka
This book was incredibly frustrating, an effect that was probably intentional on Kafka's part but also happened to make me want to tear this book to shreds. But even considering all the times that I wanted to smack a character upside the head and the time that I'm pretty sure that I fell asleep during a section in which the protagonist is fighting to stay awake, I'd have to say that the most frustrating thing about reading this book is that after slogging through 352 pages, the book ends mid-sentence because Kafka never finished it, leaving the reader with no real pay-off. Luckily, the book provoked some interesting in-class discussions, otherwise I would be kicking myself for getting so worked up over a novel. What I will kick myself for is my decision to voluntarily watch the incredibly faithful film version directed by Michael Haneke in German. Oy.
Der Richter und Sein Henker by Friedrich Dürrenmatt
Aside from being required for my Intermediate German class, this book has the distinction of being the first non-children's book I've ever read in German. That means that I probably missed some stuff while I was reading, but even so, I liked it. It's basically a literary detective with a protagonist who is equal parts manipulative and moral, a combination that I couldn't help but admire. My dad is something of a detective novel connoisseur and I bought a book that had Der Richter and another one of Dürrenmatt's detective novellas in English for him for Christmas.
Deutsche Wiederholungsgrammatik2 by Frank E. Donahue
As foreign language textbooks go, I think this is a pretty good one. Its main goal is to compare German grammar to English grammar, thereby making it easier to learn for native English speakers. This worked really well for me, but I have to wonder how it worked for my classmates who aren't native English speakers (a surprisingly large percentage of the people in my German classes aren't). Plus, I definitely appreciated the weird example sentences, my favorite of which translated to, "Al Gore invented the internet!"
Contemporary Linguistics by William O'Grady et al.
Someone like Ida could probably give you a better analysis of this textbook, but as textbooks go, I thought this one was pretty good. It was usually pretty interesting reading but it was occasionally confusing and its organization didn't have much to do with the organization of the course.
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler
I find literary theory kind of confusing if it's not grounded in discussing a specific text and it generally makes my brain hurt if I think about it for too long. At least at this point in my academic career, I need my literary theory in small chunks with lots of explanation and minimal usage of four syllable works and this book definitely gave me that.
The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms by Ross C. Murfin and Supriya M. Ray
This book is a collection of short (less that two-page) articles about literary terms, complete with important works and references to related terms. As it turned out, my English professor ended up scanning or photocopying most of the readings from this book but I still think that it was worth buying because I imagine that it will continue to be useful as I come across more terms that I don't know and don't trust Wikipedia to define concisely and accurately.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period
A friend of mine who graduated last year with a college music major was surprised to hear that there were Norton Anthologies other than the one for Music. As it turns out, there are Norton anthologies for pretty much every subject under the sun; this is part of one of them. Thinking that I was probably going to become an English major and eventually need to purchase the rest of the anthology, I marked the selections we read from this book so heavily that I don't think anyone would buy it back from me but as it turns out, I really like some romantic poetry and I'm glad to keep this book on my shelf. Plus, the articles about the historical and artistic context can't be beat.
If you've made it to the end of this post, congrats, you've practically read the equivalent of everything I read during fall semester. Now onto a new semester just as full of books as the last!
1 Also I read lots of selections from other books including literary excerpts, short stories, and critical essays. If I included all of them, this post would be easily be twice its current length.
2 A moment of silence for all those who attempted to sound that word out in their head. German, I love you, but sometimes your words are ridiculously long.