Back to School: The Best Books I've Read for Academic Courses
Learning about the Japanese Diet while indulging in the American one [get it?]
From Kindergarten through my senior year of high school, English was essentially the only class for which I read books that weren’t of the McGraw-Hill [the memories of that textbook logo still fill my heart with dread] variety. Some of the books we read in English class I loved, some I truly despised [more on Jane Austen in an upcoming post]. But, once I got to college and strayed from the English track in favour of Government and History courses, I was thrilled to discover that the readings there were often [but certainly not always] just as fascinating as the fiction I dissected during my pre-collegiate days. In light of the fact that I won’t be returning to college come September, I thought it would be fun to shed a bit of light of my academic days of yore by compiling a roundup of these reads—my next post will feature some fabulous friend contributions, so stay tuned…
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
Yes, I read this for school—no course on Society and Politics in the 1960s would be complete without an introduction to the infamous Merry Pranksters. I never thought I’d get to title a college essay “Buddha, Bus Trips, and LSD,” but that’s the beauty of a Liberals Arts education, eh? In the spirit of transparency [because no one was more honest than the Merry Pranksters, except when they were faux-campaigning for Barry Goldwater and reasoning with the police], I knew nothing of the counterculture movement until my professor introduced it in this course. And I am thrilled that I learned a bit about it before embarking upon this literary adventure, because when it comes to the wild ways about which Wolfe writes, a bit of preparation is most certainly in your best interest.
The book describes the Merry Pranksters’ [a group of drug-addled young adults, you may or may not have heard of, under the leadership of Ken Kesey—who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest] bus journey across America. It’s not necessarily that the plot is fascinating—it’s filled the requisite sex, drugs and rock n’ roll you might expect of a book of its ilk—what kept me turning the pages, apart from the fact that I had to write a ten-page essay on it, were the quotes, sometimes poignant and sometimes ridiculous, sprinkled throughout. Below, a few favorites:
“Deliver us from the clichés that have locked up even these so-called experimenters’ brains like the accordion fences in the fur-store window.” p. 43
“You know, you’re not gonna stop this war with this rally, by marching. That’s what they do. They hold rallies and they march. They’ve been having wars for ten thousand years…and this is the game they play to do it…holding rallies and having marches…you’re playing their game.” – p. 222
“Hundreds of beautiful people, and no more little games. They would just spread out like a wave over the world and end all the bullshit, drown it in love and awareness, and nothing could stop them.” – p. 377
The Status Seekers, Vance Packard
Though this slender but fascinating book is a sociological account of the class system in the 1950s, I read it for a history course on society and politics of the 1960s [mentioned above]. The book was an excellent introduction to the subsequent material. Packard explains the culture of society’s crème de la crème, whom he refers to as the “Diploma Elite.” The book is funny at parts for the 1950s lexicon and the harsh, unyielding self-importance of the Upper Classes, who won’t talk to those whose children didn’t attend private school or arrive in America on the Mayflower. Packard discusses issues of race, religion, and ethnicity, and the upsetting reality is that some of his observations on the poor treatment of minorities could be similarly recorded today. The book sheds light on areas not only where we’ve progressed [he doesn’t even reference women as being discriminated against—in those times, they remained an afterthought], but also those where we still have miles to go.
The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives
If you know me well, it is likely you’re aware of my fascination—obsession might actually be a better word—with Tudor England, most particularly the relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. I’m not talking ‘obsession’ as in “I thought The Other Boleyn Girl was good.” I’ve read all of the letters exchanged between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn that are available in public archives—since the college I attended actually has some of them in possession, I’ve even been privileged enough to hold a few [and yes, I am aware of how lame I may sound. I also don’t care]. I can name the entire Tudor lineage [again, probably not something I should be bragging about], and, of course, I know the modes of death for each of Henry’s wives. [You can expect a review of The Six Wives of Henry VIII as soon as I can get my hands on a copy]. But Anne Boleyn in particular has always fascinated me. Hollywood and Historical Fiction paint Anne as a shameless seductress and wily coquette who stepped on everyone in her path to ascend the throne. People who see Anne this way do not know the full story—and I didn’t either, until I read The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, a [perhaps too, even for me] thorough account of the life of “Anne of the Thousand Days.” I was surprised to learn that the English public, according to Ives, actually welcomed Anne—until, of course, she gave birth to Elizabeth [whom Alison Weir wrote an excellent book about] instead of a son. I know many are interested in Anne, but most aren’t 600-page-biography interested, so I’ll just leave this suggestion here in hopes that the next movie Anne features in portrays her in a more accurate and favorable light.
Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival, David Pilling
I took a fantastic class on Contemporary Japanese Politics [it was actually called ‘Winners and Losers in Japanese Politics’] and my professor, a former journalist, assigned us Financial Times Asia editor David Pilling’s account of Japanese culture. In most of my regional government courses, the sources tended to be dull, scholarly accounts of the political players and pawns that gave rise to certain major events—Pilling focused instead on the cultural climate, which made for a far more enjoyable read. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in getting an accurate account of Asian culture without having to yawn through the chapter upon chapter about the Upper and Lower Houses of Parliament.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, Rajiv Joseph
Here’s one from high school. I took a Contemporary American Drama [no, it did not involve acting] course for English during senior spring. We read a number of fantastic plays and, in the case of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, went to see the performance upon completion. The play is about a tiger at the Baghdad Zoo that bites an American soldier who is there on a tour of duty. A soldier who witnesses the bite kills the tiger, but his ghost haunts the soldier for the rest of the play. It is a moving and creative endeavour about both the importance and brevity of life. I was privileged enough to see Robin Williams play the tiger before his death, and I don’t believe the play is still running, but I certainly recommending picking up a copy and spending an afternoon immersing yourself in the tiger’s world.
Honorable Mention: A Doll's House (Henrik Ibsen), Passing (Nella Larsen), Wise Blood (Flannery O'Connor), The Lottery (Shirley Jackson - even though it scared the sh*t out of me when we first read it on Halloween in 5th grade), The Laramie Project, Brideshead Revisited, Romeo & Juliet, The Great Gatsby (the last two sort of go without saying)