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The Commentator Roundtable: Unforgettable Books

The Commentator asked a number of faculty members the following question:

One of biggest struggles of college is the amount we must read, but the bigger question is how much we will remember?

 On September 17, 2010, James Collins published a rather unremarkable confession in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “I don’t remember the books I read.”

We can all sympathize with Collins. As we look up at our bookshelves, we struggle to remember the characters in Sir Gawain and the Green Night and the author of Lord of the Flies. Was it a waste to read all those books, scholarly articles, novels, and plays?

Thankfully, Collins assures us, there is still a purpose in reading. We are “the sum of it all,” said Tufts University developmental psychologist Maryanne Wolf in an interview with Collins. “It’s there,” she says, tucked away in some small part of the brain “working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.”

Most books, as with other experiences, get shelved in the dusty recesses of our brains. A month goes by and we can no longer remember the characters’ names. A year goes by and we struggle to remember the author. But there are books that stand out. There are books that are so precious, so unforgettable that, lo and behold, we don’t forget them.

 What is a book that you will never forget?


Dr. Gillian Steinberg, Assistant Professor of English at Yeshiva College chose a book that continues to influence her to this day: 

One probably does not become an English professor without feeling attachment to multiple books, and, for me, the memorable ones fall into a variety of categories:  books that made me feel like a grown-up (Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness); books that helped me feel less alone (everything by Judy Blume, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep); completely transporting experiences (Dickens’ Bleak House, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); and books that completely blew my mind (Ellison’s Invisible Man, Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

But the one book that fits into all of those categories is the astounding, miraculous, too-good-to-be-true novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.  Ostensibly the story of Mick Kelly, a sensitive young woman who deserves a better life than the one she has, the book is actually about the differences between hearing and listening, communicating and miscommunicating, connecting and misunderstanding.  The novel is, alternately, a sermon, a landscape, a portrait, a song, and a mirror.  Its subjects include childhood, poverty, race, privilege, physical disability, and self-awareness, and it includes some of the most astute descriptions of the experience of listening to classical music that have ever been written in English.

A few years after I first read The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I wanted to read it again, but I was afraid that it would no longer speak to me as it once had.  Happily, it is one of those rare books that grows as you grow, and it gladdened and broke my heart all over again.  Since then, I’ve read it many times and taught it twice here at YU, and it continues to amaze me with its eloquence and insight.

Dr. Aaron Koller, Assistant Professor of Bible, chose an interesting volume given his area of research:

When I was a graduate student, traveling a couple of times each week from New York to Philadelphia on the slow and cheap train, I read Steven Pinker’s then-new book The Blank Slate.  It’s not a perfect book (the flaws are discussed in some of the many reviews), but it is a great book, and it fundamentally altered the way I thought about pretty much anything having to do with people. The argument (to oversimplify a 500-page book) is that we are born with a vast, complex psychological machinery, and that denial of this machinery’s existence is not only false, but politically and socially dangerous.

There are important facts and ideas in the book regarding race, sexuality, evolution, feminism, and innumerable other significant issues. The footnotes gave me a reading list that occupied me for much of the following few years. The overarching lesson I took away from the book was not about human nature, but about what we can – and must – do with it.  It’s clear that we are born with inclinations, tendencies, and capabilities, and that some are universal while some differ between populations or between individuals.  It’s also clear that much of our personalities, not just our anatomies, is inherited from our non-human ancestors and shared with non-human animals.  But Pinker spends much of his time showing that it is a fallacy—and would be a tragedy—to conclude that we are our natures, or even that we have to cater to them.  That something is natural does not make it good.  Of course, R. Akiva knew this a long time ago: “God only gave the mitzvot…in order to refine the people” (Tanḥuma Tazria‘ §5).

Our job as ethical and moral creatures—and the origins and meaning of that are also discussed, although better read about elsewhere—is to transcend our natures.  Our political and economic systems have learned well to exploit the emotions, reactions, and impulses with which we are born.  Self-awareness pushes us to recognize how we are hard-wired, and then allows us to decide if we want to follow our natures or improve upon them.  We need to recognize our natures in order to escape enslavement to them.

Dean Frederic Sugarman, Associate Dean of Yeshiva College and Adjunct Assistant Professor of English (He holds a Ph.D. in 19th century literature), chose a book that lead to the discovery of other books:

The book that I will never forget is a rather odd one, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which was published during the rediscovery of 19th Century American literature during the 1920’s.  It is an odd book to begin with, a critical work of intense personal identification written by a great novelist/poet.

Lawrence was living in Taos, New Mexico at the time of his writing and was feeling a keen identification with trends and tendencies he was discovering and feeling about America.  Studies in Classic American Literature is a slim volume of essays on Franklin, Crevecour, Fenimore Cooper, Dana, Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman.  Each essay does exactly what great criticism is supposed to…it sends you directly the works that are discussed with a sense of anticipation and excitement.  Thanks to Lawrence’s book, I am one of the few people alive who has read the complete Leatherstocking series (most Americans probably believe Natty Bumppo to be a fashion designer); more than this, Lawrence brought me to The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick and Leaves of Grass and my life was irrevocably changed.

For years I tried to emulate Lawrence’s prose and received quizzical comments from Professors and lower-than-anticipated grades.  Studies in Classic American Literature is a true original, never to be duplicated in the canon of criticism.  The greatness of this study is to shine a light on artistic achievement in such a way that you never forget the guide who brought you to all these extraordinary writers. 

University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, chose not to submit a book. Rather, he scrutinized the foremost tension in reading text—the act of forgetting—using two texts:

Two rabbinic passages come to mind regarding the assumption underlying this important question:

1)      Niddah 30b – “And they teach [the unborn child in the womb] the entire Torah . . . But as soon as the child emerges into the air of the world an angel comes and strikes him in his mouth causing him to forget the entire Torah.” Indeed, according to Bereshit Rabbah (63:6; see Rashi Genesis 25:22) Jacob, already in the womb, sought to enter places of Torah study.

2)       Yalkut Shim‘oni, Isaiah #479 – “Said the Holy One, Blessed be He, in this world the Jews study the Torah from [a person made up of] flesh and blood; therefore they forget it. . . Just as a [person of] flesh and blood passes on so does that which he is taught pass on . . . But in the Future to Come the Jews will only study from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, . . . And just as the Lord is alive and exists for eternity, so too his teachings . . . will never be forgotten.”

It is clear that there is some value in once being exposed to wisdom and knowledge even if it will not be lasting. Somehow the process of learning itself is salutary, even if there seems to be nothing concrete to show for it in the long term.

Finally, University Professor Dr. Adam Zachary Newton, the Ronald P. Stanton Chair In Literature and Humanities and Co-Chair of the Department of English at Yeshiva College chose to rethink the prompt and analyze the act of reading:

"There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we left behind without living at all:  the days we spent with a favorite book.  Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure: the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position [:] all those things with which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance, on the contrary they have engraved in us so sweet a memory (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and the ponds which no longer exist."

This is Marcel Proust "conversing" with Victorian art critic John Rusking in an essay about the pleasures and responsibilities of reading, "Journées de lecture" [Days of Reading] from Pastiches et Mélanges (1919).  His point, obviously, does not underscore the power and perdurance of an unforgettable book and its formative influence.  Rather, perhaps counter-intuitively, he insists that reading brings something into being as no other imaginative-cognitive-affective-performative operation can. Whether it is transcendently memorable or not, the real gift of a particular book is that it serves as a vehicle—for memory, for excitation, for sensibility, for the lessons of otherness.

"Then, what? This book, it was nothing but that?" Proust asks later in that essay, contemplating the moment when, even though what we really wanted was for "the book to keep going," we discovered its necessary limitation "since its fate here below...was not at all, as we had thought, to contain the universe and our own destiny, but to occupy a very narrow space in the lawyer's bookcase."  For, in his account, there is something that exceeds "unforgettability" as the ne plus ultra of reading.  "What is needed is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else...this is precisely the definition of reading and fits nothing but reading."  And again, "“We feel quite truly that our wisdom begins where that of the author ends, and we would like to have him give us answers, while all he can do is give us desires."  As it happens, these were two sentences in my own personal history of reading that I fervently committed to memory and have never forgotten.  I quote them often and almost all my class syllabi refer to them.  And, who knows?  Maybe my students remember them too.