New York Magazine recently ran a feature that asked 28 people “to share a specific piece of lesbian cultural history that moved them most.” The list, with explanations, was offered as a sidebar to theatre critic Frank Rich’s review of “Carol,” which is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, “The Price of Salt.”
Although Highsmith’s book is, in New York Magazine’s judgment, a “classic,” it is available in several forms, including as part of a series of “the best in lesbian pulp fiction.” Even pulp fiction has its classics, as anyone paying attention to cultural studies of the last five decades knows. Certainly works of “transgressive” character, such as novels about lesbian seduction, have also gained a prominent place in literary studies.
“The Price of Salt” accordingly has found a place in the American curriculum. According to the sample in Open Syllabus Explorer, at least 14 courses in American colleges and universities use it as assigned reading.
Mental Gummy Bears
Recently the National Association of Scholars (NAS) released its sixth annual edition of “Beach Books,” our round-up of the books colleges and universities assign to freshmen in the summer before they start their classes. We look at the compilation of trendy dreck most colleges and universities impose on freshmen: “The Fault in Our Stars”; “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Tweens”; “Outcasts United”; “How Full Is Your Bucket?”; “Orange Is the New Black.” More than half the assigned books have been published since 2010. More than 90 percent are younger than the students. By a standard rating of reading difficulty—Lexile ratings—most of the books are at the junior high level of difficulty, and some as low as the fifth-grade level. They are as a whole, very recent, very easy, and very trendy.
“The Price of Justice” was on this year’s list. Maybe next year, Highsmith’s “Price of Salt” will find a college eager to introduce its freshman to the pulp classic as a way to open discussion about the oppression of an identity group. Homosexuality is already well represented—“Covering”; “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”; “Fun Home”; “Just Kids”; “The Laramie Project”; “The Prince of Los Cocuyos”; “The Song of Achilles”; and “White Girls.” The challenge for Highsmith’s book is that it is over the time horizon. Its year of publication—1952—would make it among the oldest books any college assigned. This year, among the 236 books that were picked this year only ten were published before 1952, including “The Sand County Almanac” (1949), “The Maltese Falcon” (1929), and “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” (1845).
Books are not the whole of higher education or even the whole of the liberal arts. Ideas, numbers, music, art, and the spoken word are important too, and all these depend on a quiet context of active listening, reflecting, and doing. But books are fundamental. It is disheartening that colleges and universities have introduced students to higher education with a banquet made up of the intellectual equivalent of potato chips and gummy bears.
Let’s Compile Our Own Lists
We offer recommendations of better books for the college beach, and in a few cases colleges have taken up our suggestions. But our “Beach Books” reports have also taken on a life of their own. We get plentiful calls for interviews; email pours in from inspired (and sometime indignant) readers; academic associations frame conference sessions around the reports. All the attention has made us think we are on to something. People who care about the quality of American higher education care about books.
So, taking a page from New York Magazine, we’ve decided to explore what educated people really regard as the most interesting books (and essays, stories, poems, and other literary expressions) in a variety of specific topics. Since lesbian cultural history has already been done, we thought we would venture other narrow-gauge topics. What are the best books depicting bad teachers? What “classics” are overrated? What important book have you never been able to finish despite multiple efforts? What are the books that people who pretend to read books are currently pretending to have read?
We started compiling our own answers to these and other questions, and we have invented lots of other categories: Best Cowboy Books for Academics; Most Compelling Books Featuring Talking Animals; Books for Untenured Scholars on Wilderness Survival; Books That Feature Characters Who Have Aliases.
We plan to set these out one at a time, week by week, to compile a new kind of portrait of the tastes and opinions of people who read widely, intelligently, and outside the blinkers of fashionable opinion. No doubt we will hear about some “classics,” but we will also learn about books that we never heard of before and that will richly repay getting to know.
Best book you have read reimagining a nineteenth-century fictional character? One of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books? “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”? Tina Connolly’s “Ironskin,” a fairy-world retelling of “Jane Eyre”?
We hope to have some fun with this. Perhaps we will even inspire our colleagues in the “First Year Experience” programs to assign something better than “Garbology” and “Just Mercy” over and over and over again.