Initially, I wanted to film an IGTV Video about the literary exam I took on Monday and my favourite books. I tried. I felt utterly awkward in front of the camera and realized that maybe I do not have to adhere to the standards being set by one platform in order to get my message across. Maybe there’s a bigger picture behind the fact that I feel most comfortable on my couch, with my laptop on my lap, putting stories on paper (or screen in that matter). Writing and reading have always been the spaces in which I felt most comfortable. It’s where I tap into a higher sense of self. I re-consider my truth between the pages of a book and negotiate my ideas when writing down words. I am not someone to be standing in the spotlight, but rather someone who wants to sit down, type it all up and spread their words out, for the whole world to read.
So here I am, in my safe space, finally ready to tell you everything I have learned from reading over 70 books within four months for my literary exam. With the exam successfully put in the past, I can now safely say that it really wasn’t as bad and absolutely manageable to read as much in such a short amount of time. In fact, the exam did rekindle my love for literature and made me want to delve deeper into the topic again.
What I’ve learned from reading 75 books in four months
1. There always is time to read. My number one excuse for not being able to read was that I simply do not have enough time in a day to do everything and read a novel on top. Wrong. While feeling the pressure to get through the reading list, I realized that there is so much more time to read than I anticipated. Now, I read when commuting by tram. I read in the evenings instead of uselessly scrolling my phone. I read a chapter while having my lunch. I read while waiting at the dentist. Simply put – I read whenever I would usually have grabbed my phone to scroll through Instagram with no agenda whatsoever.
2. Reading with knowledge about the historical context supplies you with a totally different view of the narrative. Some books from the reading list I had already read for fun a few years back. However, reading them again with the historical context in mind made me much more susceptible to the story and narrative beneath the surface.
3. If you are passionate about something you can argue your way through almost everything. During my oral exam, I did encounter one work, where I wasn’t too sure about the plot anymore. I did, however, select one passage and connected it within the historical context and then lead on to another, similar, book. Hence, I could show off my knowledge of the bigger picture and understanding of the literary period rather than straightforward talking about a plot summary.
My favourite books from the canon of American literature
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was probably the biggest surprise on the list to me. However, knowing that it was this story that probably aided in the abolition of slavery in the U.S. made me see the narrative in a totally different light. Stowe’s novel is a story of cruelty, hope, faith, despair, humanity and the power of women’s moral compass in the face of hardship and inhumanity. It perfectly showcases the division between the American North and South at that time and depicts an emotionalizing tale of slavery in the darkest days before the American Civil War. It is a cruel, visual and heart-breaking read. On the other hand, I find it incredibly important to read.
Gilman’s short story is one of my favourite short stories in American literary histories. Within a rather short narrative, she manages to successfully depict the confinement women can feel in marriage and the dangers in diminishing female mental health issues as hysteria (she suffered from a wrongly diagnoses postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter). The protagonist in the story is confined in a nursery due to her rest cure, but also within her patriarchal marriage. With nothing to stimulate her mind, she becomes obsessed with the yellow wallpaper in the room and eventually escapes through descend into madness.
“Desiree’s Baby” was first published in 1893 in Vogue Magazine in a section called Character Studies. It tells the story of an abandoned baby growing up on a slave plantation and later marrying into aristocracy only to be condemned by her husband due to their first-born showing signs of black ancestry. Though short, the story raises questions that plagued the American South in the 19th century, such as the pervasive institutionalized racism in the society and the fulfilment of women’s identities outside of marriage and motherhood. And the poetic justice is so well refined and clever, it rendered me speechless.
The Great Gatsby probably is one of those stories that need no thorough explanation, summary or outline. We all, more or less, know that it deals with the fulfilment (or lack thereof) of the American Dream, love, hope and the extravagance of life in the roaring twenties. To me this is the poster-child story of the Lost Generation, telling a story about an unsuccessful quest for meaning, constantly questioning gender stereotypes and skillfully creating a world one can easily get lost in.
The Bell Jar isn’t a story about plot or characters but thoughts. As the story progresses, each and every sentence feels well crafted and laden with darkness so deep it makes you lose yourself in it. In Plath’s only novel she manages to curate a story about a young woman’s descent into madness so palpably real, accessible and penetrative. It is haunting, triggering and – especially in the light of Plath’s own suicide – extremely emotional. But at the same time uniquely poetic, insightful and showcases her talent at its height.
Toni Morrison is an astonishing writer and rightfully acclaimed as one of the greatest of our time. Beloved is a gripping, haunting and spellbinding novel that deals with history, the human inability to move on from the past and the perils of slavery. It tells the story of Sethe, born a slave in pre-Civil War America, and her quest towards real freedom and trying to forget the horrible things that have happened in the past. It is hard to get into, yes. However, really worth it in the long run.
Other books from the American Literary Canon I really enjoyed reading
- Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
- J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah
- Stephen Crane, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
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