Reading list question

So I’m teaching a new course next fall, and I’m thinking about what books I should put on the syllabus. I would prefer to think about this sort of thing during the summer, but my school requires that we submit our book orders sometime around March or April, so I don’t have that luxury. The course needs to do a number of things: it’s a “Great Books” course, so we are supposed to cover canonical works, mostly, although there is some room for other things as well. It’s also interdisciplinary. While my instinct would be to assign all literature, we are supposed to cover at least two or three different disciplines. Finally, each instructor picks a theme for the course, which is supposed to be phrased as a Socratic question, such as “What is justice?” This theme will organize the readings/assignments/discussions for the whole semester.

My idea is to use the question “What is a journey?” and to read books that deal with travel in some way. We’ll talk about various types of journeys (physical, mental, spiritual) and how they relate, and about what happens when people travel and when people from different cultures interact. I have some books in mind to teach, but I’m wondering if you all have other ideas. Books that come from a discipline other than English are especially welcome (although English departments end up “colonizing” texts from other disciplines for study all the time, so to me just about everything seems like a “literature” text). Here’s what I’m thinking about:

  • Some basic Postcolonial theory such as Edward Said and Mary Louise Pratt,
  • Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe,
  • Some Montaigne essays, including possibly “Of Coaches,” “Of Cannibals,” and “Of Vanity,”
  • Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative,
  • Mary Wortley Montague’s Turkish Embassy Letters,
  • E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India,
  • Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques,
  • Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy (for something a little lighter and contemporary).

Any other ideas? I’ve thought about de Tocqueville, but I’m not sure I want to read him! (Maybe I should?)


Filed under Books, Lists, Teaching

30 responses to “Reading list question

  1. I read Tocqueville in college as part of a mandatory English/American history class, and almost all the students either hated him or were just apathetic until that part of the syllabus was over, so I wouldn’t recommend making an effort to include him. Class discussions were rather painful, as I recall. The poor professors all loved him, though – it was very frustrating for them.

    Death in Venice? On the Road? I don’t have many brilliant suggestions, but the course sounds interesting!


  2. Sounds like a really interesting course that you could take in so many directions. Off the top of my head, I keep coming up with more contemporary texts, save for one. The ones that sprung to mind as possibilities:
    Not Wanted on the Voyage by Timothy Findley
    The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes
    Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (there’s my classic!)
    The Art of Travel OR A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton (non-fiction/philosophical writing)


  3. What about some of the travel literature written by 19th century women travellers. They were quite intrepid and I’ve always admired them. There is one in particular I’m thinking of but I’ve forgotten her name. I’m going to google around and see if I can remind myself!


  4. Isabella Bird, she wrote a number of books about her travels to far flung places including the rocky mountains, Hawaii and East Asia.


  5. If you’re doing the amazing Isabella Bird, stick with the Rocky Mountain book (A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains). Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa is great fun. The young’uns always enjoy Beryl Markham (West with the Night). A passable anthology is Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers, which will give you lots of ideas. Box-car Bertha, maybe? She rode the rails.

    I’m so confident in my opinions! But these are actually classroom-tested suggestions from meine Frau.

    If you want to surprise everyone, lay An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie on them.

    Tocqueville – Democracy in America – is in no way a travel book. It’s a great classic of Political Science.


  6. If you want a little fun in there, you might consider Travels with my Aunt by Graham Greene. For seriously worthy, you could try Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle (there are some good abridged editions if your classes don’t want the whole thing). Or for extraordinary journeys, Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days or Journey to the Centre of the Earth are also intriguing.


  7. What about some of the accounts written by people who have been held hostage? You would have not only the aspect of having journeyed to a foreign country, but also the issue of cultural journeys and almost inevitably a personal spiritual journey. I was thinking of something like Brian Keenan’ s ‘An Evil Cradling’, which also has the merit of being a superb piece of writing.


  8. For some reason, Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ came to mind. If you’re asking ‘What is a journey?’ then I think that book represents a journey through a life and history.


  9. It’s hardly canonical, but it’s good: William Least Heat Moon’s *Blue Highways*. It’s a narrative about driving non-freeways from one part of the US to another.
    Another idea, very different: Kao Kalia Yang’s *The Latehomecomer*, a memoir about a Hmong family coming from Laos via Thailand to the US. I think it would help challenge some of the colonialist narratives, perhaps?


  10. PS. The Yang book is also about the spiritual journey her Grandmother makes after death.


  11. What about something like The Travels of Marco Polo? I’ve not read it but I’d like to sometime. Or maybe I Never Promised you a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg. It’s about mental illness and a bit controversial but I read it in college and it looks like there are even Sparks Notes on it these days.


  12. Edna

    I was going to suggest The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, but it may be a little of the top and considered campy. However, I do think that Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Marquez is an excellent book about a short journey for an entire community.


  13. darkorpheus

    Somerset Maugham? Maybe this essay by Pico Iyer might give you some ideas:

    The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
    Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Anne Dillard?

    Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit? although her “Field Guide to Getting Lost ” might also be interesting

    Poetry allowed? Four Quartets?


  14. I’d love to take your course! Two books came to mind but more of an inner and spiritual journey, and are not be in the canon of classics, but ‘great books’ just the same… that is, if you shift a bit to the contemporary side: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I’m sure that will be an enjoyable course for both your students and yourself.


    • Edna

      How could I have forgotten Gilead? That book has actual and spiritual journeys. Wonderful suggestion!!!
      This isn’t about the post, but after reading Gilead I purchased Housekeeping and for some reason I could not get through that book.


  15. I had a question about journeys on my M.A. exam and I wrote about Nabokov, Lolita.
    As for non-literary texts, Alain De Botton has a book called The Art of Travel. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard good things about it and have a colleague that uses it in class.


  16. Michelle

    Nadine Gordimer’s second book, A World of Strangers is about an Englishman who moves to South Africa and his experience confronting a culture that is supposed to be his own, but which is of course completely unlike his own at all. And about how he, as an outsider, manages to move in circles that other S. African’s cannot. Fantastic book, published in 1957. Just a thought. Your course sounds like a lot of fun!


  17. Titles I’m thinking of first are hardly academic. For books that combine travel + self-discovery, I would mention Salley Vickers’ Miss Garnet’s Angel (in Venice) and Eat Pray Love (surely you will NOT add this in your syllabus!).
    If you want good and well-written 20C travel accounts, I’m thinking Rory Stewart’s Places in between and anything by Nicolas Bouvier (a Swiss guy from the 1950s-1960s, but perhaps not widely translated). Otherwise, Don Quixote for picaresque journey (might scare students?), and The Journey to the west if you want to add Asian classics.
    Oh, and by all accounts, Paul Bowles’ Sheltering sky for dangerous journeys! I can’t recommend it high enough!


  18. The class sounds like fun, but I would hate having to plan so far in advance (I can see why they want to get book orders in early, though). It looks like you’ve already gotten lots of great suggestions. The only books to come to mind are H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which I still have not yet read). Or maybe Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (which I’ll be reading sometime this year)?


  19. Immediately thought Somerset Maugham but see that I have been beaten to the punch by darkorpheus and most helpful link. Think that the theme of expatriates and colonialism in Maugham, of the English trying to impose their own culture and need for order upon places they visit/conquer is a huge field to harvest and accessible to students on multiple levels.


  20. How about “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey”, all about the women who went in covered wagons? Oh, and then that reminds me of Willa Cather, both “My Antonia” and “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”

    Also, I can’t help thinking “fantasy.” “The Last Unicorn” by Peter Beagle or “The King of Elfland’s Daughter” by Lord Dunsany (interesting take on journeys as those from Earth journey to Elfland and those from Elfland journey to Earth) might be good. And, of course, “The Wizard of Oz” (the book, not the movie, which I bet most of your students haven’t read, and which is full of all kinds of interesting stuff. Much deeper — and darker — than the movie).


  21. Jenny

    Like Aarti, I vote for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, too. And how about Lettres portugaises, which is a short text, about a woman’s journey from being insanely in love to realizing what a fool she’s been? Or Lettres persanes, by Francoise de Graffigny.

    I adore travel narratives. I’m bookmarking this post!


  22. Thanks everyone for your fabulous suggestions! Much appreciated!

    Emily — oh, thank you for giving me a reason not to assign Toqueville! Bless you 🙂 I’ll take your word for it and won’t inflict him on my students. Death in Venice — interesting idea!

    Steph — Heart of Darkness would work perfectly, thank you. The others sound interesting; I have the de Botton, and the book might help to get us started talking about some basic travel concepts.

    Lilian — thank you for the suggestion! As you may have seen from my most recent post, I’ve downloaded a book by Bird, and I’m very curious about her.

    Amateur Reader — thanks to you and your wife for the suggestions! I now have both the Bird book and the Kingsley one, and both look good. As for Tocqueville, I’m open to books that aren’t strictly travel writing — if they deal with travel as a metaphor or with cross-cultural encounters, then they will fit right in.

    Litlove — Thank you! Darwin would be perfect, nicely interdisciplinary, and I have no problem with abridged versions in this case, or with selections. The Graham Greene sounds great too.

    Annie — yes, captivity/hostage narratives would fit right in. The Equiano narrative kind of fits that category. I will have to go investigate the Brian Keenan book!

    Becky — yes, perfect. Lots of interesting travel as metaphor stuff there, and connected to gender exploration. Thank you!

    Bardiac — I have yet to read both, but they sound great, and I definitely want some writers who aren’t canonical to give us non-colonialist perspectives.

    Stefanie — Marco Polo sounds interesting; I’ve never read him either. I hadn’t heard of the Joanna Greenberg book and will have to look it up. Thanks!

    Edna — thanks for the suggestions! The Garcia Marquez would be perfect. I’ll have to find a copy.

    Dark Orpheus — excellent selections! I love the Solnit book and could easily take a chapter from there. It would be cool to think about a walk through the neighborhood as travel. Thanks for the Pico Iyer essay!


  23. Arti — nice idea about Dillard and Robinson. Wouldn’t it be interesting to talk about the spiritual journey in Robinson Crusoe and then a modern-day spiritual journey?

    Laura — Lolita would be fascinating to study in this context, wouldn’t it? I have The Art of Travel and will have to take another look at it.

    Michelle — that sounds great! It would fit right in, and I’ve been needing to read Gordimer anyway!

    Smithereens — oh, excellent choices! Eat, Pray, Love fits right in, although, no, I won’t be assigning that one, much as I liked it 🙂 I loved the Rory Stewart book, and I’ll have to look into the other ones.

    Danielle — thanks! The Road would fit, definitely, although I’m not sure I’m ready to depress my students that much 🙂 One reason they need the book orders so early is to get the books up on the website so students have time and choices about where to buy their books, other than the bookstore. I think it’s a state law now, actually.

    Frances — Maugham would fit in perfectly. The Painted Veil is a great book and deals with all the themes you mention. But the nonfiction of course, too.

    Emily B. — yes, fantasy would fit right in. Wouldn’t it be fun to study The Wizard of Oz? It would be perfect! I think I need Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey to read for myself.

    Jenny — I got some great suggestions, didn’t I? The Graffigny would be perfect; I remember reading that one in grad school. And I think I read the Portuguese letters one as well.


  24. How could I have mentioned Peter Beagle without mentioning “I See By My Outfit”? My brain must be off scuba diving in The Keys or something! Anyway, that one would be a terrific choice, too. May I come audit your class? :-)!


  25. Something by Barbara Hodgson might add a pleasing dimension. They’re often quite map-ish, travel-ish, though I’m not sure which in particular would best suit your purposes. Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes on Belonging might also add something different. (I love the Solnit book too, most especially the way that the quotes travel along the bottoms of all the pages: such fun.) The breadth of suggestions from commenters is fascinating!


  26. Well, I see that someone beat me to H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. That was the first one I thought of. But another suggestion would be Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. A satire about travel stories might be an interesting angle to discuss your topic.

    This is an amazing idea for a class, and I only wish I had been able to take something like this in school!


  27. Poor Wandering One

    Off the beaten path but allow me to suggest;
    Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary, by Bill Holm.
    A walk in the woods, by Bill Bryson.
    Spokesongs, by Willie Weir
    Metro Stop Paris, by Gregor Dallas
    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz
    Round Ireland with a fridge, by Tony Hawks
    Paris out of hand, by Nick Bantock
    and finally Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

    I love off beat travel books and could come up with far too many more if requested.
    The class looks lovely


  28. Travels with Charlie by Steinbeck?
    Green Hills of Africa by Hemmingway?


  29. Emily — you are welcome to audit the class! Thanks for the suggestion.

    Buried in Print — I know, lots of great new books I’ve never heard of! Thanks for your own suggestions. I’ve have to look into both authors. And yes, Solnit is wonderful! I have more on my shelves I’ll have to get to one day.

    Brooke — Swift would be a fabulous choice, and perfect for the course, since it’s supposed to be mostly about canonical writers. A critique of travel would fit right in.

    Poor Wandering One — excellent suggestions, thank you! The only one I’m familiar with is the Bill Bryson, so you’ve given me lots of good authors to explore.

    Readlearnwrite — interesting choices! And both by canonical authors, which helps (it doesn’t have to be that entirely, but it is a “Great Books” course!).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s