Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
Of all the things in this hectic world to keep kids away from, why books? Leslie Pinney, a school board member from District 214 (located in suburban Chicago), wanted to have the following books removed from the high school reading list because of their “inappropriate themes”:The Awakening by Kate ChopinThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskySlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (It should be illegal for kids not to read this book.)Beloved by Toni Morrison (Take that New York Times best book of the last 25 years.)Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (More on this later)How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia AlvarezFallen Angels by Walter Dean MyersThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollen (What are we worried about here? Plant sex?)The Things They Carried by Tim O’BrienTo see just how twisted and depraved these people here, check out this entry at a Townhall site in support of Pinney, where someone has lifted the prurient parts from some of these books to prove that kids shouldn’t be reading them – labeling the books – in a blaring font – “pornographic.” What if the children find that site, though? Then they won’t even have to read the books to get to the juiciest parts! At any rate, I find it comical and depressing that people think we should keep books with foul language or “adult” themes out of the hands of high schoolers. Isn’t the classroom a better place for kids to learn the appropriate context for such things than other outlets?Thankfully this “controversy” turned out to be little more than a tempest in a teakettle as the six other board members voted against Pinney. In fact it was heartening to hear how many people were moved to discuss the banning of the books. From the Tribune: “Board President Bill Dussling said the meeting’s turnout was the largest the district had seen in 25 years but evidently the issue struck chord within the community.” A number of students rallied against the proposed ban as well.Meanwhile, at the Freakonomics blog, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, followed the situation. Their book had made Pinney’s list because it proposes the theory that legalized abortion has reduced the nation’s crime rate. To mark the occasion, the Freakonomics guys are doing something pretty cool. They’re giving out 50 free copies of the book to the first 50 students from the district who respond to their offer, and in the end, it seems likely that more kids will read Freakonomics and the other books than if this closed-minded woman hadn’t proposed the ban.On a semi-related note, I talked to some people at BEA about what helps books and authors get mentioned by the blogosphere. One big thing is for the author or book to have a compelling Web presence, and the Freakonomics blog is a great example. It has kept readers interested in the book, while also letting readers interact with the authors and giving bloggers something to link to.Update: The fallout from the District 214 attempted book banning continues, as described in this morning’s Tribune. The pro-banning forces are vowing to press on with their efforts to get books removed from schools. Peter LaBarbera of the conservative Illinois Family Institute calls the 6-1 vote against the book banning “a Pyrrhic victory” (and presumably LaBarbera was able to learn about Pyrrhic victories because Plutarch’s Lives was not banned in his high school.) LaBarbera’s contention is that “thousands of parents, not just in Arlington Heights but statewide, have been alerted that there are some pretty racy books out there that are required reading,” and so now we can expect many more book-banning battles to arise. Luckily, though, this article also contains more accounts of students fighting for the right to have these books taught: “Some said it was unfair to judge a book on isolated passages. ‘You cannot ban an entire book if you take things out of context, if you’re not looking at a literary whole,’ said Christine Fish, a member of the Hersey High School debate team. The group passed out fliers reading ‘Fahrenheit 214,’ a play on the title of the Ray Bradbury novel about book burning.”The kids, as they say, are alright.
I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don’t read more so-called “classics.” So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I’m talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn’t seem like the sort of book you’d want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren’t just great for us grown ups, they’re perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here’s a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I’m only recommending books that I have read, so if you’ve got any ideas please share – there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics