The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
Or really, any Henry James novel. The late Professor Carol Bastian so gently introduced a smallish group of senior English majors at Centre College to this complex author that I can say with affection that I actually enjoy reading James…if only for the memory of Dr. Bastian’s passion for his work, among others. She encouraged my research into how James developed character through art; she almost imperceptibly guided our weekly discussions into an understanding of why literature matters in a world that professes to read but only skims or texts; she made me a better reader, and thus I became a better writer. She shared time with me, and also a wonderful but quiet image hanging ever so unobtrusively in her office, skillfully wrought by one of the most famous artists ever to have lived, and then swore me to secrecy. I’m telling now as she recently passed away, but I’m not telling which artist…
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (MIT)
While I had known for years that I would focus my undergraduate studies in English lit, and that I’d attend the best school I could find in my home state (turns out, it’s one of the best schools anywhere…just sayin’), I didn’t know that I would have so much fun in the two semesters I took Shakespeare courses. During the fall term of my senior year, I studied abroad in London (thank you, Milton Reigelman!) and was able to not only see the Bard’s old stomping grounds but also to take a theater class…in which I got the part of Titiana from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Full circle with my first taste of Shakespeare. The BBC didn’t exactly come calling but my goodness, that was fun.
The Odyssey by Homer
There is a reason it’s one of the most famous works of literature, from anytime and anywhere. Don’t let Hollywood dictate the story to you – they’re only telling you what they think about it. The anticipated movie about our wandering hero is, after all, being produced by the same folks who brought you 300. More on Leonidas later. In short, if you think you are incapable of reading this epic poem, you simply haven’t tried. Just a little bit at a time, that’s all. Another free book, just waitin’ for you to pick it up and join in the conversation…
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I didn’t mind this story so much, difficult as it is to process visually as you’re reading it. What bothered me was the direction it led me in, which is to say William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and Tom Robbins. I suppose that, like any college-aged student, I thought that reading the Beat poets and their contemporary progeny would somehow enlighten me and at the same time endear me to the critics of this age; who those critics were, in my twenty-year old mind, I cannot say. Perhaps a peer I wanted to impress, or a professor, or a potential employer, or a random job application. Again, lesson learned: One must watch what one reads because images from Naked Lunch will not soon depart from the linings of one’s soul.
William Wordsworth – The Major Works
My mother and my grandmother both made sure I developed a hearty love for poetry in my earlier years. Both could quote from a wide variety of English and American poets while simultaneously hoeing potatoes, stripping tobacco, sitting on the front porch with a glass of iced tea, in the car on the way to the flea market, on Christmas Eve and when the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock…well, you get the idea. My mother in particular loves Wordsworth, and so when I was in London for a term abroad, I made sure to read lots of Wordsworth – but more out of a sense of duty, or homage. What I didn’t expect was to claim him for my own. I became transformed by his words, making the connection between person and place after a long weekend camping with friends in the Lake District. (In fact, that trip deserves a post entirely of its own; check back for that one.) In short, Wordsworth’s words became my poetry, my experience, and I learned – again – that what makes a certain work of art true and beautiful and good is its transcendence. It cares not for identity politics, religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, or nationalist perspectives but instead speaks to all, for all, about all while never abandoning the idea that each life it engages matters. Such is Art.
The Complete English Poems by John Donne
Another poet I learned to love, even before I traveled abroad. And another writer whose last name is, alas, pronounced differently than what my southern tongue silently read (done, not don), much to the corrective delight of that professor who very publicly informed me of my faux pas. Which was almost as bad as my mangling of both Goethe and Camus at other times. Which actually ended up being wonderful verbal mistakes for me and my future students; as a teacher, I made it a point to allow mispronounced names (and words) to fly around the room uninhibited until a more private time in which I could gently correct such well-intentioned comments. Why must teachers and professors strive to appear smarter to everyone else when we all know that – with the exception of Drs. Bastian, Levin, Regielman, Lucas, Rasmussen, and Collins – they are not?
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
The. Perfect. Short. Story. There is none better. Argue all you want, but she’s got it whipped. A Good Man Is Hard to Find? Well, no – though he is worth waiting for. But you won’t find him in O’Connor’s landscape. If poetry could be prose, it would be manifest in her work. I love Faulkner (thank you, Dr. Lucas); I love Maya Angelou (thank you, Kathy Barbour…and Maya Angelou); I love Mark Twain (who doesn’t?); I love Robert Penn Warren (he grew up right down the road, right next to my grandmother’s people); where is the South without Scarlett and Rhett, and Harper Lee? And Pat Conroy, Wendell Berry, Tom Wolfe, James Dickey? All these and more have been formative in my reading life – indeed, in my life. But for me, Flannery O’Connor is Southern Literature. Start with her, and then move on to the others.
Beowulf trans. by Seamus Heaney
My favorite epic poem. A true heart throb, people – he is a quite simply a Hero. Perhaps this story appeals to me because it seems to effortlessly invoke the spirit of Medieval times: I really think that, for just a moment, as I’m reading this, I could spy an elf, or a skinchanger, or Grendel. Which then makes me happy that I’ve been assigned to life in the 21st century. I once took a ferry in winter from England across the North Sea to Denmark, and on to Sweden. It was in November, and at first I could only hum Gordon Lightfoot’s Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald over and over again while I watched the biggest waves I’d ever seen toss our huge ship like an empty coke can. And then I remembered Beowulf, and how he and his men had to navigate these same waters, and I was able to swallow the sea-sick tablet they were passing out to everyone and promptly pass out in my berth. Beowulf has never been more real to me than that moment.
Gardner’s Art through the Ages
This was the textbook for all of my art history survey classes in undergrad, and it was the book we had to know from front to back to pass our comps in grad school. It’s changed over the years; I gave my college edition (I think it was the 8th) away a few years ago to a young man named Moses who lived in Louisville by way of South Sudan. He was a Lost Boy who’d been brought to America and introduced to us by our dear friend, Elijah, now a senior pastor in South Sudan who is directly responsible for saving the loves of many of these young men known as the Lost Boys. Moses was taking an art history class at a college in Louisville, and came with some friends (other Lost Boys) and Elijah to share a meal with us on Christmas Eve. I wish I knew more students like Moses.
My Utmost For His Highest by Oswald Chambers
I started reading this in college, another gift from my mother. I am nowhere near an even partial mining of its depths; it is my constant go-to as a devotional.