This post was inspired by a Goodreads article where readers share the best book they’ve ever received. Wondering which book this would be for me, I realized that most of the books I came up with were course materials. When I am given books for my birthday, it is hardly ever completely new to me: either I asked for it, it is by an author I like or I have read about it online already. However, when I studied English lit, my professors introduced me to some new works that greatly impacted the way I see literature but that I would not have picked up myself (as great teachers are wont to do). Here are three, in chronological order:
Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood
The novel Cat’s Eye was the first on a list of eight books I had to read for a year-long contemporary literature class I followed at Hull University. Being a diligent exchange student, I immediately bought this book at the on-campus-Waterstones (!!!) and read it in my first week in the UK. Whenever I think of this book, I still picture myself sitting in our empty white kitchen reading page after page about this intriguing young woman finding her way in an imperfect world. The novel resonated with me both because of its haunting imagery and because I, too, felt like I was on my way to discover an exciting strange place. It melted together the easy enjoyment I associated with YA books and the intellectual pleasure of adult literature, something I had not experienced before. I wrote a book review on it two years ago; this does contain light spoilers.
The poems of Wallace Stevens
One year later and back in the Netherlands, I followed a module on modernism and sensory perception. Here, our blind (!) professor introduced us to the works of Wallace Stevens by reading “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with us. It took me a while to make sense of this poem, but when I did I was fascinated by how Stevens manipulates words to express movement, shapes and perspectives in the way you would normally find in a painting. Like cubist painters, he includes many different angles in a 2D image and the result is impressive. Read my review/reading of “Anecdote of the Jar” here.
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
In that same year I selected a module almost purely for its title: ‘Enjoy the Silence’, on whether books and words can convey any meaning at all. I was told to give presentation on At Swim-Two-Birds, an assignment that I am still grateful for today, as it sparked my love for metafiction, the subject I later wrote my MA thesis on. Given the complexity of the book, I might not have made the effort to unravel all of its narrative layers if I wouldn’t have had to explain them to my classmates. Now that I have, though, it is one of my favourite books of all time. It even inspired a business plan to publish colour coded books ;).
These three examples confirm that universal truth: good teachers are invaluable. Yay, for education! Which books were you made to read at uni/school that you now really appreciate?