Tuesdays and Thursdays 3:00-4:30
Location: Lea Library, 6th floor, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library
Instructor's office: Special Collections, Van Pelt
Phone: 215 898 7088
Instructor's email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Class listserve: email@example.com
Class resources: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~traister/eng16resources.html
How do we choose the relatively few books we read, whether in school or on our own ("live books"), as opposed to the many books we do not read ("dead books")? What are the differences between them? Can we begin to generalize usefully about the characteristics of those few books that stay alive, or that come back to life after lying unnoticed for a period of time? Are we missing anything we might have enjoyed by ignoring books -- the vast majority of books -- that we don't read, and don't even have any encouragement to feel "guilty" about not reading?
In this class, we will read a number of works -- "living," "dead," and somewhere in between -- in order to see if we can define any of the factors that may affect a book's prospects for longevity. We will read a few early English works as well as some American ones that are generally ignored or marginalized, in some cases, perhaps, because they are by or about people who are not WASPs, who are not male, or who don't come from important places like the east or the west coasts. We'll read some bigoted novels, looking at the differences between their popularity when they were originally written and their marginal status now (if, in fact, they are marginal at present; note that, in this last category, we'll read some genuinely horrifying, scary, and unpleasant stuff: evil stuff, to put no finer a point on it). We'll conclude by looking at several writers from or about (of all places!) Indiana. We'll always ask what gave, or failed to give, the works we read staying power. As we go, we'll also read a little bit of scholarly and popular writing about the formation and maintenance of literary canons.
This course is for people who like to read. DO NOTE that the reading required for this class is fairly heavy, especially by the standards you may have become used to in your secondary school: a book a week, some longer, some shorter, and very, very few of them, alas, accompanied by the kind of assistance afforded the lazy or slow reader by a Cliff's Notes-style summary either in print or on the web. Students must also be willing to write papers and participate in classroom discussion, both activities on which your grades will in large measure depend.
The subject of this class is one on which I am currently working myself. It relates both to my own recent and in-progress publications and also to my job, which is to buy older, newer, and current English-language literature for the University's Library, apart from what I do as a teacher.
My syllabi are very detailed -- in fact, they are over-detailed -- about the courses I teach. Read this section now to avoid surprise, disappointment, or horror later. No one has to take this class who doesn't want to take it. If you do take it, however, you should know what you're in for.
I expect students to read, in addition to the assigned books themselves, a little bit of criticism and scholarship. "A little bit" means, and I quote, "a little bit." It does not mean "a lot." I am mainly concerned with the attentiveness, skill, and imagination with which you read the primary texts, the literature in question, that I have assigned.
"Recommended readings" (the "little bit" of criticism and scholarship just mentioned) are always "recommendations." "Recommendations" are something other than covert requirements. They will be mentioned, perhaps even distributed in photocopied form, when I think -- laboring under the quaint illusion that they might interest or be useful to you -- that they are worth my time and yours to mention or distribute. I hope you will read as much and as many of them as you can. "Hope" is not the same thing as "requires." "Requirements" are specified in the weekly readings that are assigned in the schedule below.
An important piece of advice:
Some of the works we will read are older even than I am. As a result, their language, like mine, may not be entirely familiar to you. When you are in any doubt at all, the single best resource for readers of English-language works is the Oxford English Dictionary (known as OED). It is available to Penn students through the Library's website, as well as in its various printed forms. This dictionary will (of course!) provide you with simple "definitions." Also -- and much more importantly -- it offers historical definitions, that is, a record of how a word has been used over time. These, and not just "the definition," are what you want to examine when you use OED. This information allows you to see the range of different usages, meanings, and connotations any given word might have made available to someone using it during the century in which the writer in question was using it, in addition to its primary, obvious, or present-day denotative value(s).
This course meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3:00 to 4:30 P.M. in the Edgar Fahs Smith Library (Tuesdays) and the Henry Charles Lea Library (Thursdays), both rooms on the sixth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. NOTE: You cannot bring food or drink to this room.
As noted at the top of this syllabus, my office is in the Annenberg
Rare Book and Manuscript Library (also on the sixth floor of Van
Pelt-Dietrich Library). You can reach me there by telephone (215 898 7088)
or in person at that location. Please call before showing up; I am not
always at my desk. You can communicate with me as well by e-mail
Discussions need not be confined to classroom sessions only: the class
has an e-list
This class is a seminar. In other words, while its overall shape may be determined by the syllabus and assignments you find here, in its day-to-day operations our class's direction depends upon you. You are responsible for making it work, for it will work through your discussion rather than my lectures. Hence, not only your attendance but also, and far more significantly, your participation will make a difference in (in fact, be the main cause of) its success -- or its failure -- and, let me repeat, will also be major factors in your grade. Ground rules: talk; interrupt; open your mouths. Be polite. Do not let politeness get in the way of making your points.
This course requires three short papers, each of about five to eight pages (approximately 1250-2000 words). They are due at intervals specified in the class schedule below (September 21; October 19; November 16).
A longer final paper of about ten pages (approximately 2500 words) is due at the end of the semester (December 20).
You may expect occasional unannounced quizzes on the readings. I will give more such quizzes if classroom discussion makes me doubt that you are keeping up with the reading, less -- or none -- if it is clear that you are keeping up with it.
This course will have no final examination.
Some additional points:
NOTE: The nature of the books to be taught in this course means that several of them are either out of print or available only in relatively expensive (and occasionally unattractively printed) modern reprints. You may wish to use the library in order to find circulating copies of some of these texts. You may also want to search various used book sources for better editions of books read in this course, some of which may even be cheaper than the modern reprints. Such sources include AddAll Used and Out of Print Search and Bookfinder. (I have a webpage that may offer more assistance than these two sites: Book Sources.)
INTRODUCTION TO COURSE
Recommended: Sven Birkerts, "MahVuhHuhPuh," The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994), chap. 1, pp. 11-32
PAPER 1 (due Thursday, September 21):
Shrew is a play frequently performed, often assigned to students, and much written about. Of Merry Wives, none of these things is true, even though its author is also Shakespeare. Shrew receives much more, and much warmer, attention than Merry Wives. Can you offer any reasons to account for this difference in the reception of these two plays, both written by the writer whose works lie at the very heart of "the English canon" but only one of them seeming to enjoy "canonical status," by virtue of anything intrinsic or extrinsic to these plays? Is Shrew "better than" Merry Wives? If you argue that it is, then by what standard? that is, measured in what way? And, of course, how is it "better"? Or, asked a little differently, how would one "know" that it's a better play?
MacDonald, The Turner
PAPER 2 (choose topic 1 or 2; due Thursday, October 19):
(1) Each of these last four novels is racist in one way or another. Does anything make you feel more (or less) warmly about any of them, or all they all much of a grim muchness, all pretty much a disgusting waste of everyone's time? Is there even one of them to which you would urge renewed attention, perhaps even -- well, "popularity"? Why? (Or why not?)
(2) "The Turner Diaries is the most repulsively racist and unredeemed . . . [of these books]. It should not be taught, read, or disseminated. The book should simply be ignored. In fact, were it possible really to destroy every single copy of it, then it should be destroyed." Comment.
PAPER 3 (choose topic 1 or 2; due Thursday, November 16):
(1) In most respects, the books of these past four weeks (Read, Mitchell, Mildred Walker, and Demby) are much less troublesome in just about every way than the four books we read during the preceding four weeks (George Walker, Simms, Dixon, MacDonald). Which of them, do you feel, least deserves to be brought back into anything even approximating public attention, and why?
(2) The element that has deposed these four novels from whatever regard they might once have commanded is their politics. Comment, concentrating on any two of them.
Week 12 -- Tuesday, November 21
Thursday, November 23 -- NO CLASS: THANKSGIVING
(1) You have a candidate for a book that merits revival. Defend your choice.
(2) The whole point of creating "a canon" in the first place is to spare anyone the need to read the sort of garbage we've spent this term reading. A literary canon is functional; it serves a comprehensible, human, and even a humane purpose; we're better off with it than we would be without it. -- Argue that point of view, using at least three specific examples, both positive and negative, at least one of them a book not read for this class.
(3) Books that do not "make it" into the canon may not be as "good," somehow or other (and whatever that notion means), as those that do; and yet, finding -- discovering -- books that no one else has thought worthwhile is among the things that gives readers the greatest of pleasures. Literature is not a contest: readers can find things that are enjoyable, things that are worth reading, almost wherever they turn. -- Argue that point of view, using at least three specific examples (positive), at least one of them a book not read for this class.
(4) Argue against that point of view, arguing that literature is (as it were) a contest and that the purpose of a literary education is not to "discover" unregarded works on one's own but rather to learn how to read intelligently and well those books that have crossed the finish line. Use at least three specific examples of your positives and of your negatives, at least one of them a book not read for this class.
You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at
You can send Traister e-mail concerning this page at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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