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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014

Confessions of an English Major

Posted Saturday, February 19, 2011, at 1:09 PM

At my last writers meeting, one of our members brought in a newspaper insert from American Profile that had a list of "20 of America's most celebrated and influential writers," compiled by Stuart Englert. We had a lot of fun going through the list. Each of us recalled which works we had read and which ones we liked or disliked. Having majored in English at UNL, I'm always embarrassed whenever someone mentions a great classic that I have not yet read.

The truth is I have read a paragraph or two from each author, but considering the breakneck pace with which we were supposed to read, I often cut corners. I'm not a particularly fast reader. I love to read, and I read a lot, but I like to take the time to savor a book. When a book is presented as mandatory reading, it loses some of its appeal to me. For example, when we read "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville, about the time I got to the 30 page chapter on tying knots, I realized that I hadn't absorbed any of it. It was time for a plan B. From then on, my coping technique was to read enough of it to get an idea of the prose, and then run down the bookstore and grab a copy of the Cliff Notes (Let's all observe a moment of silence for Cliff Notes founder and Nebraska native: Cliff Hillegass, who enabled slow readers like me to squeak by in Literature classes).

Of all the authors on the list, the one about which I feel most guilty is Willa Cather. My mom grew up in Red Cloud, childhood home of Willa Cather. My Grandma Mary volunteered at the Willa Cather Foundation for many years. They spoke passionately about their favorite books. For my mom, it was "A Lost Lady." For my grandma, it was "My Antonia." I tried so hard to get into those books. I even chose to write a women's studies paper on the people who influenced the characters in Willa Cather's books. I spent a weekend in Red Cloud with Grandma Mary to really get involved in the research process. Still, when it came time to read the books, I found myself nodding off in between chapters, and skimming more than reading.

Knowing that I've had little luck reading Willa Cather, but still desperate to alleviate my guilt, I went to iTunes to see if I could download an audiobook. Not only were there Willa Cather audiobooks, Open Book Audio had a series of podcasts reading the entire book of O, Pioneers--FREE! Free is always better when it comes to listening to an audiobook that you are only moderately interested in hearing. I've been listening to the podcasts while entering insurance statements at work. Apparently when you combine lulling prose with a tedious task like data entry, it makes for a slightly more entertaining day at the office.

I'm posting Englert's list at the end of this blog. I would love to hear which authors McCook readers liked, and which ones resulted in a Cliff Notes moment. Here's the list:

Willa Cather

James Fenimore Cooper

Emily Dickinson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

William Faulkner

F Scott Fitzgerald

Robert Frost

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Ernest Hemingway

Washington Irving

Harper Lee

Jack London

Herman Melville

Margaret Mitchell

Edgar Allen Poe

J.D. Salinger

John Steinbeck

Henry David Thoreau

Mark Twain

Walt Whitman


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I have read "the red pony" my steinbeck. It was short and easy. I have read some Frost poems but I preferred the modernist like ezra pound and t.s. elliot.

-- Posted by president obama on Fri, Feb 25, 2011, at 8:37 PM

Thanks, Boomer62!

Grapes of Wrath is another one on my guilt list that I've been meaning to read, but can't mentally prepare myself for something everyone says is sad. Why must so many classics be such downers? I wish Maya Angelou had made the list, because at least I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings had some victories in the end--along with all the tear-jerking moments in the middle.

-- Posted by saveryhinze on Fri, Feb 25, 2011, at 4:53 PM

Oh, I did read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. I thought it was one of the silliest books I ever read. I finished it without discovering anything worthwile.

-- Posted by Boomer62 on Thu, Feb 24, 2011, at 6:34 PM

I recall hearing the classics described as "books everyone talks about but nobody has read". Not too far off the mark sometimes.

I enjoyed Mark Twain and read half dozen of his books.

One winter I read half dozen Ernest Hemingway books, and by the time I was done, I could readily understand why he left the plant chewing on the business end of his shotgun. They were all pretty bleak without a happy ending in any of them. If you want the blues really bad, read his stuff.

I read all the John Steinbeck books I could find in college. I think East of Eden was the best. The Pearl was interesting and somewhat profound. Of Mice and Men was sad, as was Grapes of Wrath.

I read Thoreau's On Walden Pond. That was a tough slog; the sentences were like 500 words. I had to reread a lot since I forgot where the sentence started by its end. His observations on nature were wonderful and very detailed however and I learned some from those.

Did Hawthorne write The Scarlet Letter. If so, I read that in college and still think about elements of that story.

I like your articles. Thanks.

-- Posted by Boomer62 on Thu, Feb 24, 2011, at 6:32 PM

Forgot to mention: the January 21st issue of Entertainment Weekly has a blurb about other books that have been "laundered." Shakespeare was scrubbed by Thomas Bowdler in 1818. In 1883, the King James Bible was made "more family-friendly" by Noah Webster. In 1967, the anti-censorship book "Fahrenheit 451" was censored for high school. To quote EW's Keith Staskiewicz, "451 must be the temperature at which irony burns."

-- Posted by saveryhinze on Sun, Feb 20, 2011, at 4:58 PM

Excellent answer. Taking away the words used also detract from the power of the prose. Mr. Twain new full well what the words he used meant, and utilized them to illustrate a very valid point.

-- Posted by Damu on Sun, Feb 20, 2011, at 4:57 PM

Damu, I only vaguely remember reading Twain my sophomore year of high school. I can't remember if it was Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. Anyway, I suspect it was one of those madatory readings that I skimmed, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. My opinion is more one of an anti-censorship in general. I think it insults the intelligence of our teachers and students to assume that we have to sanitize literature to make it less offensive. We should give our teachers enough credit to set up the historical reference behind the language in the literature. We can be sensitive to the feelings of students and allow for some intelligent class discussion without scrubbing books of anything that could possibly offensive. I remember reading Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and being particularly upset by some misogynist dialogue. But when you know her background of anthropological research, you realize that she didn't allow herself to get in the way of the story by idealizing her characters. Scrub the book of the offensive language and you miss out on an opportunity to glimpse history.

Incidentally, LibriVox has a podcast version of Huckleberry Finn. May have to add that one to my list of guilty titles I have not yet read (or don't remember reading, anyway).

-- Posted by saveryhinze on Sun, Feb 20, 2011, at 4:50 PM

Mark Twain is one of my favorite authors. Twains social commentary on America is always very interesting. I'm curious what your thoughts were on the recent decision to censor Huckleberry Finn?

I've read a bit from a number of the other authors as well. However, I'm always leery of checking out "classics" having read Great Expectations three times in my life, while despising every minute of it. I've discovered one has to watch out for them.

-- Posted by Damu on Sat, Feb 19, 2011, at 6:50 PM


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