In “Big Books,” Students Get Some Hefty Reading
By William Sweet
In a literature class, works might be surveyed by country, or time period, or language. This semester, English professor Andrew Parker’s students study literature by the pound.
At the beginning of every semester of “Big Books,” the First-Year Seminar that Parker has taught for five years, he makes a show of coming in carrying the three tomes that students will tackle. He puts them each on the desk. Thud. Thud. Thud.
“It makes a big sound,” he said, “and [students] go ‘Oh my God, what am I in for?’”
What they are in for is a challenge and, Parker hopes, a joy. “Big Books” allows students to examine great works of literature in depth and at a—relatively speaking—leisurely pace. By “great,” we mean both in their critical esteem and in their word count. Each semester, Parker picks a different trio of books that have only their girth in common.
Andrew Parker, at work
“It’s a peculiar thing in literary study,” Parker said. “There’s no good account of the way that length factors into the structure of a book. There’s plot, there’s a narrator, and there are characters, and you can plot the moment of climax and resolution, but these are all factors of narrative and not the long novel. My question is: Do long novels have issues that distinguish them from short works?”
This semester, the students are making their way through books that are each worth a seminar of their own: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville; The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead; and Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. These novels tally up to about 2,000 pages, giving the students an average of about 100 pages of reading homework for each time the class meets.
Taken in these smaller chunks, the workload seems less intimidating. Indeed, it’s roughly the same amount of reading that each student might do for another course, but instead of dividing students’ attention among numerous books and essays, ”Big Books” allows the luxury (though some might debate that term) of exploring three works in depth. For these first-years, Parker believes, it provides a good training in the academic rigors that face them at Amherst.
“It is kind of like boot camp,” he said. “They are learning how to be students at Amherst. They’re also learning how to be in a college class.”
Students can come out better readers, better students and with a shared experience, he said. “They really do bond. I have had people who have met in this class, and they have stayed very close friends. I’ve been to their weddings.”
The reading is daunting, but doable, according to Melih Levi ’15. “It’s not like we have classes every hour of the day,” he said. “When you divide it, it’s manageable.”
Each student writes a paper every week, focusing only on the particular portion that the class has just read.
“It’s very exciting to write all those papers,” Levi said. “It’s like a book club.”
In part, “Big Books” takes a look at the challenges facing authors who want to write very long works.
“Do they get lost? How do they keep track?” Parker asks. Some authors have large-scale plans for their work, and others do not. Charles Dickens, who wrote his long novels in serialized form, would see parts of his stories already in print before he had determined how they would end. “I think he had the general idea where things were going, but he hadn’t written the last words yet,” Parker said.
While he changes books each semester, Dhalgren is a perennial favorite. Published in 1975, the 880-page science fiction novel follows a drifter and apparent amnesiac as he travels through Bellona, a city in the Midwest that has become isolated by a mysterious phenomenon cutting off all transmitted communication. Lacking a linear plot and marked with schizoid babble, sex and stream-of-consciousness-style narrative, the book is considered quite challenging, but it’s Delany’s most popular work.
“Its kind of narrative challenge is unlike anything [students] have experienced before or ever will again,” said Parker. “It’s become indispensable because of its difference.”
Usually the course starts with “a good British 19th-century page-turner,” such as a novel by Dickens or Eliot, and then moves forward to something more contemporary, or something that pushes the boundaries even further, or both, as in the case of Dhalgren.
“What’s important is that the novels be sufficiently dissimilar,” Parker said.
Bridging the semester’s spot between whale-hunting and apocalypse is The Man Who Loved Children, published in a 1940 but largely unnoticed until a reissue in 1965. Time magazine, declaring it one of the 100 best English-language novels published since the magazine’s founding in 1923, described it as “the greatest picture ever of the lousiest family of all time.”
It’s the semiautobiographical story of the Pollits, a blended family beset by self-absorbed parents who have toxic relationships with their six offspring. It’s a big novel, but its plot fills a very small space.
“It’s a smaller world,” Parker said. “It’s domesticity portrayed in a way that had never been portrayed before.”
He said that he had long put off reading the novel, “until I realized that someday I would never get ’round to it.” So when he finally picked it up recently, “boy, was I glad to have done that,” he said. In fact, Parker recently met with some alumni with Hollywood connections, in hopes of sparking their interest in a film based on the novel, but “people said, ‘I’ll have to read the novel first, before I adapt it.’”
So it may be a while.