It was something I always loved about school. I’ll never forget the feeling on the first day of class when the professor–whose distinguished reputation always preceded him and thus he always appeared surprisingly tiny in person with a nasally voice I hadn’t expected–had his mute TAs with bad bedhead pass around the newly-minted syllabus. And three hundred students in the lecture hall, staring down at the crushing list, uttered a collective groan.
I’d consider mine with horror mixed with exhilaration. I, for one, always loved a good life sentence without parole. While the workload was exhausting, it was actually the intensity that made the books come alive. I spotted Portnoy sitting across from me on the 1 train. Humbert Humbert on Madison buying winter gloves. Cheever characters flooded Grand Central at rush hour with identical trench coats and briefcases and faces like locked attic doors.
One of the biggest letdowns upon leaving school and entering the real world was discovering that no extreme reading schedule would ever be required of me again.
I never pick up another challenging book, never develop another thesis about the American Dream, or the emergence of feminism, or post-apocalyptic visions of the future? No one would think twice.
Yet, to leave behind demanding reading–to become swept up in the day-to-day of going to work and raising children, bills and holidays and vacations–is to lose a depth of perception. Our understanding of the bigger picture that we face being alive today loses its nuance. The porthole through which we look out at the world and interpret others’ actions and words becomes narrower.
If this presidential election has taught us anything, it’s that to stop feeling powerless about the state of the world, we have to see current events within a broader context. That means remembering the stories of our past, both fictitious and real. We have to have far-sightedness in order to appreciate that these are not End of Days. History is only repeating itself. Mankind is resilient. We have faced crises before and emerged stronger. We can do so again.
Along these lines—needing a sturdy boat to weather this political and social Bermuda Triangle in which we find ourselves—I’m launching a class, “How to Survive the 21st Century.”
The class is Pass / Fail with rolling admissions. There will be no Final Exam. (Maybe a pop quiz or two.)
We will read a book every other month–starting with Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory–at the end of which I’ll discuss it on a Facebook Live–sometimes with a guest TA, sometimes not–talking about ideas and themes, questions, assumptions and anxieties, and anything else pertinent to our modern lives.
For our reading list, I selected these books because they have come up repeatedly in my life and for some reason, I’ve never read them, but have always been meaning to (or in the case of A Wrinkle in Time, reread). I wanted a range so I chose: 1 classic, 1 sci-fi novel, 1 nonfiction book, 1 graphic novel, and 1 children’s book. All of them have been hailed, in some distinguished publication or another, as masterpieces.
Follow along and share your thoughts, predictions, and favorite lines with #readtosurvive. I’ll be doing the same, and I look forward to joining the conversation with you.