The next step after drawing up my plans for refreshing my reading lists was to get my hands on the books I’m interested in. This is easier for some courses than others. For instance, I already own copies of several of the Victorian novels I want to reread, and because I’m a regular customer, both Oxford University Press and Broadview Press are always very helpful about providing exam copies. As a result, I now have a nice TBR shelf of 19th-century titles, and I’m over half way through my reread of New Grub Street–which at this point I think will probably not end up displacing any of my usual titles, though more on that when I finish it.
It is always harder getting hold of books from “trade” publishers, who are stingy about exam copies: Penguin Random House, for example, charges for them–not full cover price, but still the costs could add up, and (oddly, I’ve always thought) there is no standard budget allocation for expenses of this kind. The obvious route is to get them from the library, but this is harder than you might think. I went through the list of writers I’d generated for my Women and Detective Fiction seminar and almost none of their books are held by any local library, public or university. The next step is submitting interlibrary loan requests (or “document delivery,” as it’s now called for some reason), which I will do, but this is slower and needs to be done thoughtfully so that I don’t get a dump of books all at once that have (as is often the case) brief lending periods with no option for renewal. This is one reason why this exercise is hard to do during a teaching term!
A small handful of titles are more easily available, including Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season, so I started with that because it had sounded like a promising option. It’s a decent enough novel but it sparked no excitement in me: it is slow moving and detailed in a way that made it seem drawn out rather than rich or textured, and in terms of innovations in or provocations about the genre, it didn’t seem to me to offer much. Next up, because it too is available locally, will be Rachel Howzell Hall’s Land of Shadows; among other things, it’s a police procedural, which is actually a genre not well represented on my standard reading list for this course.
I thought the question of how to approach the standard British literature survey course would generate more discussion, either here or on Twitter, but nobody seems particularly interested in it! Maybe I’m missing something obvious, or maybe it’s such an intractable problem that nobody thinks they have a genuinely good solution to it. In any case, I was pretty happy with my bright idea of assigning Small Island as one of the longer texts, because I thought that novel would help me redefine the questions the course addresses. However, it turns out the novel does not have distribution in Canada, so unless my bookstore is willing and able to use a US distributor (something that, as I recall, they have balked at in the past because of the expense and difficulty of returning unsold copies), I can’t use it. This kind of thing has happened before and it is always very frustrating to have pedagogical aspirations constrained for logistical reasons. I’ll be talking with our bookstore buyer this week, just to be sure what the options are, but it seems likely I’ll have to come up with another idea.
I didn’t write a separate post about this because it’s a smaller scale project, but I’m teaching Pulp Fiction again this fall and with regret, I think I’m going to give up on Valdez Is Coming. I thought it was eminently “teachable” (that indefinable quality!) but both times I taught it most of the students in the class did not seem to agree! I took True Grit out of the library this week to review it and was quickly reminded why I had enjoyed it so much before. So I think I’ll just swap it in–an easy enough choice (provided, again, I can order it, which I guess I should not assume) but one that has spin-off implications for the way I had conceived of the course as organized around interrogations of masculinity. The sequence Valdez Is Coming, The Maltese Falcon, and then Lord of Scoundrels made for some really good discussion (and assignment) threads about different ways to define “being a man,” from tough masculinity as heroic, to the damage that kind of identity can do, to Chase’s joyful demolition of it. Leading with True Grit would start us down a different, if related, thematic path–less directly about men and more about women who challenge them and their patriarchal assumptions. Lord of Scoundrels still seems like a good place to go, but this would be one more reason to replace The Maltese Falcon with something else, such as In a Lonely Place, which I also have on my shelf to reread.
It didn’t feel like a very productive week, given the setbacks and slowdowns I encountered, but writing this up I see that I did get a lot of necessary work done. Even a negative result such as “you can’t use this book because it’s not available” is a result, after all.
I don’t teach university level courses, but I lead adult reading seminars here in Portland, with an emphasis on British canonical writers. I started with Dickens, then went to Hardy, Golden Age Detective novels (starting with The Moonstone), and now I’ve moved on to Forster, doing Maurice in 2018 and the two Italian novels in 2019. I think Forster is a fantastic writer to teach (or lead, in my case) because he is so allusive, and yet many of his symbols are accessible with just a bit of work by most readers. A Room with a View seems particularly well-suited to a survey course, though, because it’s short, dense with content, and has a cracking good movie adaptation on top of everything else, and doesn’t require the same social history context as A Passage to India. Almost anyone can grasp the significance of Lucy falling into a bed of violets at the urging of her Pan-like driver, and the baptismal dip in the Sacred Lake with its homosocial overtones should fuel lengthy discussions for contemporary students. But then any Forster would do well. Love your blog–I was not able in my career to become the academic that I might have wanted to be, so this dabbling late in life on the edges suits me well–I can experience the delights of discussing great works without being saddled with the jargon of valences, counterfactuals, and optative worlds that never were. After all, for me novels are works by specific people with specific skills and limitations, and my joy as a reader is to find the entry point into those works so that I can enjoy them to the fullest.
Thanks so much for your comment, Christopher! I agree with you about Forster: in fact, I used to teach A Room with a View as the culmination of a course on the 18th and 19th C novel and I would love to teach it again. The film adaptation is so joyous! When I get gloomy sometimes I watch the bathing scene just to feel better. 🙂 If I do approach the survey course with the theme of identity in mind, I had actually been thinking that A Passage to India would pair well with Kim for that (though I’m speculating, not having read Kim yet). That said, I can probably include two novels at the most in a one-term course that also covers a lot of poetry and short fiction, so I probably wouldn’t pick two so close together chronologically–or would I? Still lots to think about.
I love the sound of your adult reading seminars. I expect the participants are very keen.
I read “Kim” after one of the grad students at Dickens Universe (at UC Santa Cruz) chided me for not having read it at my then-advanced age of 57 or so. He was using it as one of the novels for his dissertation on “queer children.” After I read it I understood how he came to that choice, although I think I would have missed all of the identity-based clues if I hadn’t been given a map for it, and I’m about as gay as it gets.