As if things in this term’s classes aren’t busy enough (and about to get busier, as next week I get in both sets of term papers and give the final exam for Pulp Fiction) but book orders for next fall were also due. It’s not a set-in-stone deadline, and quite reasonably a lot of my colleagues put it off until the summer, but I’ve actually been playing around with possible book lists for my Dickens to Hardy class since Austen to Dickens wrapped up last term, so I figured I could at least get that one settled.
You can see in the photo above which choices I made. The course title makes both Dickens and Hardy obligatory, of course. I don’t have to unify the reading list around a theme, and I didn’t used to think about that at all: I just picked 5 (or, years ago, 6) novels that represented a range of forms and authors. Last term Austen to Dickens was just “5 books I really like,” and as always, plenty of interesting comparisons emerged from their juxtaposition. But for Dickens to Hardy in Winter 2017 I picked books about “troublesome women”–Bleak House, Adam Bede, Cranford, Lady Audley’s Secret, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. (Clearly, they are all troublesome in different ways, though having three novels explicitly about “fallen” women was particularly interesting.) That was fun, so this time I’m flipping it and choosing books about “men in trouble”: again, their troubles are of different but sometimes related kinds. I don’t usually include two “short” novels, but both David Copperfield and The Woman in White are pretty long, so this way the overall reading load seems reasonable. I wonder what unexpected insights juxtaposing these particular books will shake loose! That’s the fun of teaching the two 19th-century fiction courses so often but never in exactly the same way.
In the end I also submitted my book order for Mystery and Detective Fiction today. If I’d waited I might have made more changes to what has become my ‘standard’ book list for the course, but though I have been considering some more recent Canadian books for inclusion, I wasn’t completely convinced either of them would work well in class (not every book does, which is something I think about a lot) and so as I was in the mood to cross this task off my list, I went with the usual suspects. The one change from the course’s last incarnation is that I’ve switched out The Terrorists and put An Unsuitable Job for a Woman back in. I think The Terrorists is brilliant, and it usually provokes good discussion (though some students understandably find it heavy-handed by the end). But I also really like Unsuitable Job and have missed it.
Those are my only two courses for the fall and then I’ve got a half-year sabbatical next winter, so that’s it: my book orders for next year are done! For the first time in a long time I’m not teaching a first-year class in 2018-19. I’m glad, not because I don’t enjoy teaching introductory classes but because I want to think carefully about which one I’ll teach next, and especially about whether I’ll put in for Pulp Fiction again. We recently revised our suite of first-year classes, which means that the two that used to be my standard offerings (our full-year Introduction to Literature and our half-year Introduction to Prose and Fiction) aren’t options any more. Pulp Fiction is still on the books, and I’m certainly not ruling it out. In many ways I have really enjoyed teaching it: conceptualizing my approach to it was intellectually challenging, as was choosing my readings and preparing materials on them. If I do teach it again, though, I probably don’t want to use all the same novels–and even with different ones, I think I might still miss teaching a different kind of readings. Introductory classes are the only place I get to play with writers like John Donne and Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce and Alice Munro and Carol Shields. There’s lots to say about the books I’ve assigned in Pulp Fiction, no question, but after going through them twice I can’t imagine sustaining my own interest in them at that level of detail for another round–which is not something I’ve ever felt about “Death Be Not Proud” or A Room of One’s Own. Anyway, I’m glad to step off that particular moving sidewalk for a bit. I’ll have to put in my 2019-20 course requests in the fall, and I’m sure a first-year class will be among them, but I’m going to think hard about which one it should be.
And that’s all the time I have for dreaming about the future! The next two to three weeks will be focused entirely on this term’s courses.
When I did a six-week adult education seminar on “Detective Fiction in ‘The Golden Age,'” I started with three weeks on “The Moonstone,” which I believe is still the best detective novel ever. I then went back to the two Dupin stories (I thought that starting with Poe would put people off, since I think Poe is highly overrated), then on to “Silver Blaze” and “A Scandal in Bohemia,” plus “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” and ended with “Appointment With Death,” which I think is the quintessential Christie because of its extremely convoluted denouement. I made the participants read it twice: once as general readers, and then a second time when I asked them to mark the clues so that we could talk about “fair play” and Ronald Knox’s “Ten Rules” (one of the reasons that I didn’t choose Roger Ackroyd). If I had one more week I would have had the participants watch the movie version of “Evil Under the Sun” because it’s such a high-camp classic and it shows how a Christie denouement can be filmed effectively.
I envy you the job of choosing which “Dickens to Hardy” books to choose–I wouldn’t be able to make up my mind. When I did another seminar on “Early and Late Hardy” I chose “Under the Greenwood Tree” because of its fabulous Hardy-ness (at least Hardy of the poetry, if not of the novels) and because of its seemingly happy, yet equivocal, ending, and connected it with “The Oxen,” followed by “Tess” (because “Jude” is just too difficult for people new to Hardy, I think).
I know you’re an Eliot expert and that you adore “Middlemarch,” so I wonder–why not “Daniel Deronda”–which I think of as the English-language “Anna Karenina”? Or is its proto-Zionist subplot just too much to add in to all of the other things going on in late-Victorian novels? I love “Deronda” for its flaws as much as I suspect you love “Middlemarch” for its lack of flaws–I feel the same way about “Our Mutual Friend” versus “Great Expectations” (both of which I also have done in my adult seminars).
Love your blog. Hope that you will continue it during your sabbatical.
I agree wholeheartedly about The Moonstone. I have taught it probably 15 or 20 times and never get tired of it. My own personal taste in detective fiction does not run so much to the Golden Age examples, so I’m glad my course isn’t centered there. I enjoy teaching Ackroyd because it is such a rule breaker! 🙂
Choosing the Dickens to Hardy books is definitely a challenge. It helps me a lot that I get to teach this class (and its cousin, Austen to Dickens) regularly, so I know I can always use different books the next time. I almost never use the same reading list twice in a row! I have only ever assigned Deronda in my graduate seminars on George Eliot. It’s not that I don’t admire it, but I think it is in some ways quite hard to slog through and in the context of a general survey of 19thC novels the pay-off isn’t quite enough. I have taught The Mill on the Floss, Felix Holt, and Adam Bede in my survey classes as well as Middlemarch, over the years.
Your seminars sound great. Are the participants very keen? I imagine that they would be as courses like that would be quite a self-selecting group.