Thursday, June 19, 2014

Intellectual Reads

So I tossed around the idea of reviewing some of the books I was assigned to read this past semester in grad school, but I'd already written enough about all of them elsewhere to not really want to rehash it here on the blog, and I kind of figured that none of my readers would be really interested in full length reviews of Romantic poetry anthologies, so I've been waffling on whether to review anything or not. I mean, is anyone really interested in pleasure reading more academic stuff?

Then, I saw Modern Mrs. Darcy's post on her Summer Syllabus, the idea being she wants to read something that makes her a little bit smarter this summer, and I thought, you know what? I read some really interesting stuff this semester, and I bet maybe someone out there would be interested in reading these things too. But, for your sake, I've paired it down to the five most interesting (at least to me) books I read last semester, and the ones I feel the most confident in recommending for general (albeit, intellectual) consumption.

What I think is most funny about this list is that they all come from one course I took called The History of Narrative. I actually hated this class (the professor was terrible, and the class took place in a restaurant, which you might think sounds awesome but I was first trimester pregnant and they served seafood and I associate all memories of class discussions with intense nausea and the desire to die), but the reading list was incredible. So, without further ado, here are my current recommendations for some intellectual reads:

1. On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction by Brian Boyd. Okay, the concept with this one is that the human fascination with stories (and in particular, fiction stories) is the product of evolutionary adaptation, and that stories actually serve a biological function in giving us an advantage over other species. I mean, how fascinating an idea is that? We are biologically programmed to need stories? That's an idea I can totally get behind.

But as interesting as I found this one, I also struggled with it quite a bit. As a literature person, I've never studied evolution much beyond the basics, and I must admit that Brian Boyd's whole approach-- that pretty much the entire branch of Humanities (including religion) evolved as a biological adaptation-- felt a bit soulless to me. I definitely don't agree with 100% of what he argues in this book, but I still found the science and the concepts fascinating. This one made me stretch and grapple and think about really big ideas, and I appreciate it for that.

2. Journey of the Universe by Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker. This book is a quite a bit shorter than any other on this list, and was actually written for a lay audience. Let's see, how to describe this one? This book is a good follow-up to the Origin of Stories because this is where the Humanities comes back into science. Or something. It's a bit weird, and I might even say mystical. It's kind of the history of the universe and lightly covers everything from the Big Bang to star formation and galaxies and atoms and life and all of that, but with this grand idea of making human existence meaningful (instead of soulless and accidental). So, it's kind of like the religion of science without a God. Being a religious person who believes in God (and science, the two are not mutually exclusive), I thought some of this was downright ridiculous, but as far as a synopsis of the history of the universe and a little light physics, it was quite interesting. Worth a read at least.

3. The Divine Comedy: Inferno by Dante Alighieri. For those of you who aren't very familiar with The Divine Comedy, this masterwork is actually divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. We had to read the whole thing for class, and it's really quite epic and brilliant and all of that. But I will say, Inferno is by far the most interesting of the three. Let's just face it, it's more fun to read about the sinners in hell than to read about the holy angels who do nothing but sing in heaven (seriously, Dante's version of Paradise sounds downright catatonic to me). So, if you feel the need to cross this classic piece of literature off your life bucket list, take it from me and stick to the Inferno.

4. Parallel Myths by J. F. Bierlein. I've always enjoyed mythology and those types of ancient stories, and before taking this class I had a vague notion that there were certain themes or tropes that show up in a lot of mythology from different cultures, but this book! I had no idea how many similar stories there were across cultures. It was fascinating, in almost an eerie kind of way. Bierlein goes through by category (creation stories, flood stories, end-of-time stories, etc.) and retells myths from cultures all over the world, and then offers a fascinating discussion about why so many cultures share such parallel myths. There are all sorts of theories, ranging from some sort of shared human conscious (that's Freud for you) to dispersion (although that one's kind of been disproved) to simple mystery. If you are even a little bit interested in mythology, this one is a great collection, with a fascinating discussion to boot.

5. Ramayana by Valmiki, translated by William Buck. Supposedly, this translation of the Ramayana is more accessible and reader friendly than other translations. I haven't read other translations, but I thought I'd let you know in case you pick up a different version and wonder why in the world I would ever recommend this one.

So, what I knew about this epic Hindu religious poem before taking this class consisted of the excerpts from A Little Princess and what I gleaned from a funny cultural experience on my first date with my husband (that's a story for another day). I didn't know that this was probably the most popular and influential story of all time, having been told and retold for centuries across the entire southern continent of Asia. In fact, it's considered one of the few "living" epics today, as this story is still being told in traditional and modern formats (apparently there's a TV miniseries that nearly shut down the subcontinent of India when it first aired). At it's core, it's an epic love story between a husband and wife, and while it doesn't necessarily have the happiest of endings, it is a great story. If you have any interest in expanding your cultural horizons and learning more about Indian culture, this is a great place to start.

No comments:

Post a Comment