Author: Maren Miller

The top five books that you are forced to read

Most Oles read a lot. We set aside time in our busy schedules to parse out David Hume and John Caputo, but we rarely do so for pleasure. I am sure that all of us can recall a time spent reading dry, patriarchal literature; such works often dominate the homework sphere. On the other hand, this is not always the sort of book that we’re assigned to read.

Below, you will find a list of my top five favorite assigned works –both fiction and nonfiction. They are engaging, lovely, heart-breaking and thought-provoking. They are different and diverse and they all deconstruct the assumption that assigned readings are boring and dry. If your philosophical, religious, anthropological, sociological, biological or historical readings are becoming overburdening, or if you are finding yourself increasingly disinterested in or frustrated with assigned texts, then I suggest that you check out some of these books. You won’t regret giving the following texts a try:

“The Canterbury Tales”

In Middle English, Geoffrey Chaucer successfully conveys to his contemporary readers an array of dirty jokes and adult humor bound to produce a laugh in even the most stressed-out college student. If you are looking for a text filled with wild scandals, provocative characters who break traditional gender norms and subtle albeit crushing critiques of patriarchal social structures, then go no further: “The Canterbury Tales” is the book for you. Challenge yourself with the Middle English edition rather than reading a translation. If you fall in love with Chaucer and decide to take English 223, “Old and Middle English Literature,” you’ll have to buy that version anyway.

“My Bright Abyss”

Based on his essay about the ambiguous relationship between faith and death, Christian Wiman offers a moving account of his life – one filled with cancer, sorrow, love and religion – in prose and poetry. It is a beautiful meditation on the nature of a feasible contemporary faith, which I was fortunate to parse out last spring in Religion 244, “The Death of God.” The text is dense but doable, just 182 pages. If you are wanting to read something artistic or poetic, then I recommend that you give this book a try.

“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written By Himself”

Composed in 1789 by the freed slave, Olaudah Equiano, “The Interesting Narrative” offers an in-depth account of the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. Equiano recounts his life before slavery in Africa, his kidnapping and enslavement and his involvement in abolition and social reform after slavery. The text is short, beautifully-articulated, and the first slave narrative to have been written. Though the book’s historical accuracy is debated (learn about this in greater detail when you take English 232, “Writing America”), Equiano captures his reader’s attention through this fascinating, horrifying, heart-wrenching account of his life.

“No-No Boy”

Japanese-American author John Okada’s only novel, “No-No Boy” is the story of Ichiro Yamada, whose divided loyalties keep him from participating in American war efforts. Set in Seattle, we follow this omniscient narrator as he attempts to rebuild his life after his refusal to fight for America in World War II results in a two-year prison sentence. Through Ichiro, Okada gives a voice to those Japanese-Americans who have historically found themselves voiceless. The text is thoughtful, thought-provoking and a fantastic piece of literature that scholars have only begun to discover within the last few years. If you cannot take English 203, “Asian American Literature,” on your own but are looking for an unexplored but classic work, this could very likely be the perfect book for you.


A second text from English 232, “Writing America,” Charles Brockden Brown’s novel, “Wieland,” tells the story of Clara Wieland and the mysterious events that befall her and her family. It is one of America’s first gothic novels, a mixture of mystery, science-fiction and horror, that kept me fervently reading long after I should have been in bed. If you are still entrenched in the Halloween spirit and are in need of a good, scary book, or if you are out of Cage dollars and need a free stimulant that works just as effectively as caffeine, be sure to check out “Wieland” from the library today!

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Are Americans actually reading literature?

The National Endowment for the Arts published an interesting survey recently that analyzes the literary reading habits of contemporary Americans. In the survey, the NEA defines literature as “novels, short stories, poems, or plays not required for work or school” and thereby omits genres such as non-fiction and excludes persons such as students and academics.

The survey attempts to demonstrate that American reading habits correlate with personal factors and situations. For example, it concludes that women, approximately 50 percent of those who read literature, read more than men; non-Hispanic white individuals out-read those who are Hispanic, non-Hispanic black, and “other” by as much as twenty three percent; 65 to 74 year olds read the most literature, while those who are 75 years of age and older read the least; and individuals who complete higher levels of education – undergraduates and graduates, for example – often read more literature than those who receive less.

From their data, the NEA claims that literary reading in America is experiencing decline, a downward trend that is not new. However, the survey’s controversial format does not account for the means by which Americans read literature, and it does not accurately portray the number of books that they are reading every year.

In other words, although the rate at which individuals read literature appears to be declining, the survey does not make claims about the extent to which Americans read in general.

The survey’s limitations here are interesting when considered alongside the recent international rise in e-book popularity. According to one study done by the Pew Research Center in 2016, e-book usage spiked around 2011 and 2012, decreased minimally in 2014, and has increased slowly since then. The popularity of audiobooks in America is also increasing, although not nearly as dramatically as the e-book.

Despite this national rise in e-book popularity, the Pew study indicates that print books are still far more popular among Americans than e-books – in fact, they remain a popular choice among Americans regardless of whether e-books are a part of the equation.

According to Pew, “the share of Americans who have read a book in the last twelve months – 73 percent – remains largely unchanged since 2012. And when people reach for a book, it is much more likely to be a traditional print book than a digital product.”

Unlike NEA, Pew does not limit its study of American reading habits only to literature. Rather, Pew accounts for books of all sorts, thereby giving a more realistic picture of American reading habits than NEA. Altogether, Pew shows that while American reading habits have certainly declined in decades past, they have not dropped off in recent years nearly as dramatically as we often presume.

When viewed together, the implications of both studies are intriguing. Although interest in “literature” – that being novels, short stories, poems and plays – in America is on the decline, interest in reading itself actually appears to be increasing. Although the increase is admittedly minimal – as little as one percent and as much as two or three – to say that Americans are reading more today than one year or two years prior actually contradicts popular assumptions about the downfall of American reading habits.

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How to organize your hectic literary life

Are you interested in a portable, person- alized shelf for all of your favorite reads? Perhaps you’d like an organized space to store your course books from first semes- ter? Or maybe you want to document all of the books you’ve read… ever? If you are, by hook or by homework, a sentimental bookworm like I am, I suggest you give Goodreads a try.

Since its launch in 2007, Goodreads has become the world’s largest online space for passionate readers. Some of the web- site’s most popular features include func- tions where users can track books they’ve read, organize books they want to read, write reviews and share reading sugges- tions with friends. And best of all? Users can do all of this without ever running out of shelf space; unlike the bookshelves in your dorm room, Goodreads boasts the infinitude of cyberspace.

If Goodreads sounds like the website for you, getting started is easy enough: simply provide a name, your email address and create a password. Or, if you’d pre- fer to register with a pre-existing social media account, you may also log in using Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus or your Amazon account.

Next comes personalization: after you are registered, Goodreads asks you to select your favorite literary genres. This is an important step; Goodreads gener- ates personalized book recommendations for you with this information. So if you

want book recommendations, don’t put it off. There are 40 total genre options to choose from, a sampling of which includes memoir, poetry, fiction, classics, historical fiction, gay and lesbian and even self-help. But what if you don’t see your favorites on the list of 40? Not to worry, you are still in luck! Goodreads also allows users to “name your own” favorite literary genre. So, if you like cookbooks, textbooks or sports magazines, the “name your own” function exists specifically for you. And of course, if your genre preferences change or expand over time, you can always revise them later on. For avid readers like us Oles, a preference change is bound to hap- pen: Goodreads has you covered.

After selecting your favorite genres, you are free to explore the website. What’s the best place to begin?

The “My Books” tab is a great place to start. Here, you will find your very own set of bookshelves, which include spaces for books that you’ve read, books that you are currently reading and books that you want to read. You can add books to your bookshelves by searching for their titles in the “search and add books” box and selecting the “read,” “currently reading” or “to-read” options.

But wait! The fun doesn’t end there! In addition to these three shelves, Goodreads also offers its users a very special bookshelf for their very special books. After search- ing for a title, select the “favorites” option, and, with care, Goodreads will lovingly place your favorite book onto your “favor-

ites” bookshelf.

In addition to tracking and organiz-

ing books, Goodreads’ interactive fea- tures allow users to delve further into the literary cosmos. In an attempt to keep users up-to-date and connected with the world’s newest book releases and authors, Goodreads provides interest-based, genre- specific book recommendations, thou- sands of reader reviews and even a “News and Author Interviews” tab for further exploration.

Believe it or not, Goodreads even has a social function: specifically, the website includes a “community” tab, under which members can search for, follow and mes- sage other users, join book groups and clubs and send queries to favorite authors.

Finally, Goodreads isn’t only online. For on-the-go readers, techie readers and readers with smartphones, Goodreads launched a Goodreads app, free for down- load in the App Store and the Android Market where it has four and a half stars!

Here at St. Olaf, we read a lot. We read for homework, for research and, of course, for fun. So why not keep track of the books that shape, inspire and challenge you? You don’t have to shelve all of the books you read; perhaps the Moodle page with your interim reading list will do. But, then again, why not take advantage of some- thing as cool as unlimited shelf space? Years from now, your sentimental self just might say “thank you.”

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Literature of the “Wyrd”

It can be challenging for contemporary individuals like ourselves to approach historical literature with enthusiasm. The past seems stagnant, even boring for many millennials who are accustomed to the instant gratification bestowed by 21st century technology. Historical texts, too, are often stereotyped in ways that seem, to a curious extent, resemblant of their authors themselves: mundane, long-winded, unrelatable. Perhaps a little dusty.

Please do be mindful of these labels. Contrary to popular assumption, historical literature can teach us many things – most evidently that people living in the Middle Ages were just as odd and immature as we are now. As you read on, channel your inner middle-school self; the following few lessons in literary history may suddenly make old-age literature feel peculiarly, eerily relatable.

1. The Exeter:

The Exeter is a wonderful old book, packed with cunning Anglo-Saxon riddles and poems. Yet its survival seems almost incidental, for after being relocated to the Cathedral Library in 1072, the anthology doubled as a beer mat and some sort of cutting-board. Scholars note that its front cover contains a multitude of liquid stains, knife marks and leftover cheese residue. The literary lesson here? Don’t judge a book by its cover.

As for content, The Exeter includes cultivated works of war, love, death and life. A small selection of its riddles, however, is where things become a little strange. One teaser in particular describes an object with “russet skin” that “[satisfies] women,” “grow[s] very tall” and becomes “erect in a bed.”

“What exactly is this object?” you’re probably asking. Historians claim an onion, for the bulbous vegetable grows tall in beds, has red-brown skin, and satisfies women, after all! Readers, on the other hand, wonder whether these scholars might just be trying to retain some dignity. Can you think of anything else that this “onion” might be?

2. The Ripley Scrolls:

Pictures are worth a thousand words, which perhaps explains why the Ripley Scrolls employ a series of images telling us how to manufacture the legendary Philosopher’s Stone. Dramatic inhale. According to folklore, the stone can do a myriad of charming tricks – turning lead to gold, for example – and supposedly contains, when mixed correctly, the very elixir of life.

For those not well-versed in the medieval sciences, or who haven’t read the Harry Potter books, do not fret, because the scrolls also contain some helpful written instructions: “You must make Water of the Earth, and Earth of the Air, and Air of the Fire, and Fire of the Earth.” Easy-peasy, right? Looks like baking day with grandma just got a little bit more exciting.

3. Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious:

Bearing the unwieldy title, “Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious. An oration, pronounced on the Fourth of July, 1799. At the request of the citizens of New-Haven. By David Daggett,” this work stretches the definition of “Middle-Ages” rather far. Yet such a stretch seems relatively reasonable given a) the length of its title and b) the content that it contains in relation to said title.

Far from the terrestrial gist its heading implies, “Sun-beams” was written as a reactionary statement to Thomas Jefferson regarding something he said that nobody seems to remember. Or, as one reviewer wrote, “[the text had] presumably little to do with cucumbers or sun-beams, which makes its extremely incongruous title all the more delightful.”

However, the text’s author, David Daggett, was a Federalist member of the Connecticut State Council in 1779 and served as mayor of New Haven prior to the paper’s composition. Why Daggett chose such a bizarre, long-winded heading, we truly cannot say, but perhaps his coffee was cold that morning, he stepped in a puddle on the way to work, a bee stung him or he was just having one of those days where he needed to yell, “YOLO!” at the top of his lungs, as his child drew cosmic cucumbers on the wall. Whatever his reasoning, the title’s sheer majesty – “Sun-beams may be extracted from cucumbers, but the process is tedious. An oration, pronounced on the Fourth of July, 1799. At the request of the citizens of New-Haven” – is probably enough to satisfy even the most inquisitive of individuals.

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