Sep 032014

In a previous post, I asked what four or five books could define the basic knowledge in your field? Here is my answer.

My Field

The area of the Venn diagram where America, literature, film and narrative overlap. Let’s call it “American Storytelling.”

My Five

  1. The Craft of Research by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, & Joseph M. Williams
  2. Story and Discourse by Seymour Chatman
  3. Overhearing Film Dialogue by Sarah Kozloff
  4. Reading for the Plot by Peter Brooks
  5. Epistemology of the Closet by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

My Reasons

Writing is fundamental to everything in my field, and The Craft of Research provides a model for thinking about its purposes and processes that is among the best that I know of. It’s old enough to have bits that strike today’s reader as funny—there’s a chapter on how to organize index cards, for example—but the conceptual stuff—what are notes for? how will you use them? (for example)—are still rock solid. Best of all, it asks simply, What do you want to know?

Stories are experience worked into a temporal pattern and shared with others. They have a form, a history and a context. Story and Discourse and Overhearing Film Dialogue are two large-scale synthetic works that together sketch out or suggest many of the most important narrative frameworks. Chatman’s book lays out some basic but highly abstracted ways of thinking about narrative as a form. Kozloff’s examines the various ways traditions and stories interact while modelling a solid approach to close reading.

My last two choices are again large-scale and synthetic, but they turn their attention away from how narrative works and toward what it does. In Reading for the Plot, Brooks explores how stories—inventing them, writing them, reading them—illicit and address our desires. In doing so, he suggests why stories matter. Beyond it’s specific concern with sexuality, Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet demonstrates the process by which careful, intelligent reading that is attuned both to pattern and detail can allow familiar stories to reveal and to recreate the world we live in. More than thirty years after it’s publication, it remains an essential work and shows clearly one important aspect of what literary study is for.

My Sixth…

Despite the difficulty I had arriving at this list of five, once I had it and had settled on it, I felt (and continue to feel) good about it. I do have one reservation however: I think it is lessened by having no work of general history. I chose not to have one because I wanted Booth’s rhetoric, and I need the other four to complete each other by working within and between the two pairings.

If I could have a sixth book, it would be a standard history such as The Oxford History of American Literature. Histories like these are marginalized or absent in many undergraduate programs, but they are fundamental. English majors would do better and learn more if they were to read them in their first few years.


Sep 022014

In a recent post about picking books to read, Mark Bernstein makes the following incidental comment:

if you master four or five books, … you know chemistry.

His point here is simply that the basic body of knowledge that constitutes his field is definable and more manageable than we realize.

Does the same idea apply to the humanities? I don’t know, but given how basic the needs of my students are, I would like to think that the rudimentary principles and practices of what I teach could be stated more or less directly. Or failing that, that I could at least point to books that together come close to capturing those principles. But can I do it? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m interested in what books other people would come up with if they tried. I’m so interested in fact that I’m going to post the following scenario both here and on Facebook despite the very real risk of being met with total silence. (ack!)

The Scenario

Imagine that your preferred apocalypse is upon us. Thankfully the governments of the world are working together and have a plan to save civilization. As part of this plan they have stored all primary texts in a safe location: books, films, paintings, musical scores, everything. But they discover they have room left over. So they ask you to select four (max five) non-primary texts that they can preserve in order to pass on the basic knowledge of your field to future generations.

What are the book titles you give them and what field do they define?

I’ll chime in in a bit. But I’d also love for you to let me know your answer in the comments here or on Facebook. (But if it’s all the same, I’d prefer to hear from you here. Or as always, by email. Or even Twitter.)

No pressure.


Sep 012014

As the movie opens, the Hero watches his mother die. Overcome, he runs away from his extended family.

The Hero, an adult now, walks across the crest of a dune. On the horizon, a pyramid can be seen through the blowing sand. Sliding down a slope, he reaches a stone doorway with statues standing guard. He consults a map, enters, and finds a golden amulet in a room behind the stone wall at the end of an underground corridor. Nazi soldiers burst in and attempt to claim the amulet for someone they call Schmidt. The Hero flees down a tunnel that brings him out of the tomb near his airplane, and he escapes.

Arriving in Cairo, he meets with the Love Interest to find out about the amulet. She hates him but hates her former professor, Herr Schmidt, even more and offers to help. In the market, they meet a Wild Card and his sidekick (“My name Sahib”), two orphans who ride around in a motorcycle and sidecar causing trouble and stealing. He also hires a very serious man to organize all the actual work. He takes the job but says “I care only that Schmidt killed my wife and children as he plundered the upper Nile. He must be stopped.”

Business happens and the Hero and the others discover the amulet is valuable. Let’s say it’s a decoder. For a map leading to Hadrion’s canon, a fabled Roman weapon buried when the emporer’s army retreated across the Mediterranean after some battle. The five set out to find it but don’t work well together, and Schmidt’s men take the amulet from them. During the fight, the Hero chooses to save the Love Interest’s life rather than to chase the Nazis, and the five end up lost in the desert. They realize they will have to trust each other and they band together to stop Schmidt from finding the canon.

More business happens that sets up the Nazi’s defeat during a final confrontation in somes caves hidden in the rocky cliffs along the northern coast of Egypt. Each of the five characters plays an important role. Let’s imagine that:

  • The Love Interest winks and raises her eyebrows at some guards then knocks them out. Insde the room they guarded, she finds her sister, a Nazi sympathizer who is packing up various maps and charts. The two fight, but the Love interest wins. She grabs a leather sack of maps and, before dashing off to catch up with the Hero shuts off the generators. All but the emergency lights go out in the cave. She then rushes off to save the Hero if she can.
  • The Wild Card stays above the cliffs. Sneaking between the vehicles, he releases their parking brakes one by one. When he gets to the last vehicle, he pushes it down the slight incline, sending it rolling into the others, which sets them all moving. One by one they fall off the cliff.
  • In the chaos, one of the large trucks risks hitting the Wild Card. The sidekick pushes him out of the way but is hit in the head by the truck’s mirror. The Wild Card shakes him to see if he’s alive, and the Sidekick mutters, “Our name Sahib.”
  • The Very Serious Man runs ahead in the cave and confronts Schmidt as he reaches the doorway leading to the canon. He is nearly killed by the Nazi guards but ducks behind some crates, dragging two Egyptian women with him. He does not know they are the Egyptian police chief’s wife and daughter. From his hiding place he fires at the Nazis to give the Hero time.
  • The Hero arrives late to the scene. He has been bound in a tent by his former university professor, the man who taught him everything he knows but who now wants the claim the canon for for himself. The Hero outwits/overpowers the man and rushes into the caves to confront Schmidt. As Schmidt is about open the stone door leading to the canon room, the roof above him caves in and a truck falls into the room. It is driven by the Wild Card.

Action ensues, but together the Hero and his team subdue Schmidt. They then open the door and enter the room where they discover that Hadrian’s “canon” is the emporer’s personal copies of great works from the fabled library at Alexandria. The Hero picks up a scroll and reads the label aloud: Aristotle’s Comedy. The police enter, the chief thanks the Very Serious Man for saving his family, and the Hero and Love Interest put their hand on the same dusty book as they look around the room and into each others’ eyes.

As the movie closes, the five sit side-by-side on cushions drinking mint tea. The Wild Card and Sidekick smoke a hooka with the Very Serious Man. The Love Interest pulls a map out of the sac she took from her sister and unfolds it on the table. Across the top is written “Excaliber.”

(Or if you prefer, replace the amulet with a spear, the desert with a jungle, the trucks with machetes and porters. If your jungle has orangutans or rubber trees, the German soldiers can be Japanese.)

the end

This post is part of a series.