Friday, June 23, 2017

My Favorite Books to Teach

In last week's blog, I discussed favorite chapter books to read with my children. Once in a while I'm asked which books are my favorites to teach, so I thought that would make a natural followup for this week's post. Those who follow my Facebook page know that I asked former students the same question, and at the end of this post those results are recorded. (There are some interesting surprises there!) As for my picks, it was tough to narrow the list to a manageable number, but as I thought about it, I came back to a group of books that reliably allowed us to consider, together, truly deep questions of human nature and the essence of life. Here, in ascending order (with the relevant course noted) are my top five.

5.) Beowulf ("Core 4 - The Christian Impact on Western Civilization")

With warrior codes, beastly creatures, ruminations on fate, and much, much more, this story has it all. It doesn't hurt that along with it was my favorite Core lecture of all time to deliver - "Heroes and Monsters." This story helps us ask the question, what is a "hero"? What is a "monster"? What is (as the characters ask) a "good death"? Those ideas have not been the same across time and culture. (Just make sure you read the actual book and skip the bizarre 2007 movie.)

4.) Buddhacarita, "Acts of the Buddha" ("Introduction to Buddhism" and "Evil in Myth and Literature")

As a mythic story of the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, this book contains the classic episode in which Siddhartha, after being secluded in his palace, sees old age, sickness, and death for the first time. Shocked, he leaves to seek awakening. This allows us to ask, what metaphorical "palaces" do we use to anesthetize ourselves from the unpleasant parts of life? Should we also try to break free of them, or are they necessary to get through the day? Buddhacarita is also known for its chapter on Mara, the god-demon who tries to kill Siddhartha before he can achieve awakening.

3.) Gilgamesh ("Core 3 - The Roots of Western Civilization")

Possibly the oldest story of humanity is also one of the most evocative. A boorish, disaster of a person, Gilgamesh does not become a complete person until he makes a true friend, Enkidu. Does that mean that friendship "saves" us, makes us more human? Would Gilgamesh have avoided his various disasters through greater humility? When he faces his inevitable death, does his pattern of anger, despair, and acceptance mirror the journey we all take? Though composed perhaps four thousand years ago, it speaks to us across the gulf of time about the trials all humans face.

2.) Dracula - ("Evil in Myth and Literature")

Maybe because they are used to the terrible movies associated with it (really, there are almost no good film adaptations of this book or its title character, for instance see here and here.), this book tends to generate the most surprise when I mention it. There is genuine fear and suspense in this book, and it blends late Victorian psychoanalytic anxieties with Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern mythology. The first time I read it was in the summer of 2003 while house and dog-sitting for the chair of my Masters' department at Miami University. Imagine it: a lonely house in the woods at night, rain storms with lightning, and dogs spontaneously howling, all while I read of poor Jonathan Harker trapped in Dracula's castle in Transylvania. A situation like that will impression.

Finally, my favorite book to teach....

1.) Tao Te Ching (also spelled "Dao De Ching") ("Eastern Thought")

Though of murky origin and authorship, this book has never failed to generate reactions in students, both for and against its deceptively simple way of looking at life. Example: "Do nothing, and nothing will be left undone." You can read it in an hour, but that would be like scarfing a delightful meal or chugging an exquisite wine: the thoughts and phrases demand savoring and slow consideration. I always advise students to sit in the shade under a tree, read one passage, put the book down, and just think. Imagine my delight when one day, walking through the College's Grotto, I came across a student doing just that.

Honorable Mentions

Here are a few other books that almost made the list. The Bhagavad Gita was always a joy (though it had to be read slowly and we sometimes struggled) because of its central, unsolvable moral quandary: how can I do this hideous thing that I cannot avoid doing? Oedipus is classic because it asks, "If my fate is out of my hands, can I still choose it? Is choosing what I have no choice to choose actually the path to the greatest power?" But if I were to pick one book for you to read this summer (yes, I'll be that guy), I'd choose this one:

A Buddhist/Daoist adventure story, it's loaded with powerful symbolism, awesome fights, and just great characters. If you end up giving it a try, let me know. I'd love to hear what you think!

Student Choices

Well, what did students who responded to my Facebook post select? There were votes for House of the Spirits, The Glass Castle, The Stranger, Family, Outliers, and (from my "Evil in Myth and Literature" course) The Killing Joke. The top vote-getter though, came from Core 9:

For haunting, harrowing prose, this Holocaust memoir is one that will stick with you.

There you have it, two weeks and two book lists. Next time, I'll be doing something a little different. Perhaps because I've been spending my evenings lately watching Interlibrary-Loaned DVDs of the old television series Unsolved Mysteries, I believe I may delve into the relationship between Philosophy, Religion, and the paranormal.

Aha! When a Sasquatch pops up randomly, you know you've had a good idea. Until next time, take care.

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