Required Reading I Actually Enjoyed

Usually, required reading for class is boring. Sure, required reading can expose you to books and ideas you might have otherwise not come across, but something about knowing that how you read a book will affect your grade takes away the fun of reading. I don’t have very fond memories of dragging through literature like Great Expectations and Hamlet, but I have a suspicion I would have liked them more if I had read them outside of class. Even though I didn’t find every book I read for class last semester very thrilling, there were a handful that I enjoyed, and those books reminded me how thankful I am that literature is incorporated into the classroom and education. Even though I had a copious amount of books to read last semester (I had 28 required books last semester. Yeah, 28 books. I guess that’s what I get for being a Publishing and English double major), not all of them were boring. Here’s my five favorite books that I genuinely enjoyed reading for class and that I know I will enjoy rereading in the future.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard

I read this novel for a nonfiction creative writing class I took, and now Jo Ann Beard is one of my favorite authors. Her writing balances on the line between funny and sad, and she has a level of self-awareness that is enviable. She is cynical and witty while also being vulnerable enough to dredge up past emotion and pain. I’m also astounded by her ability to effortlessly slip into the past and talk from the perspective of her younger self as if she can channel the exact emotions and thoughts she experienced during the moment. The book is a collection of personal memoirs that examine Beard’s childhood, family, past relationships, her crumbling marriage, and friendships. My favorite essay in the book is “The Fourth State of Matter,” which can be found online in The New Yorker magazine.

Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis

Till We Have Faces is a blending of a princess story with the myth of Cupid and Psyche and is a discussion of faith, beauty, and identity. I read this for my World Traditions of Faith and Reason class, and now it has an eternal home on my bookshelf. The main character, Orual, isn’t a typical princess. Unlike her sister Istra with her flowing locks, bright eyes, and beauty that draws admirers from afar, Orual is ugly; a fact that she must learn to accept and use to her advantage. Orual is caught in power struggles between the religious system and the monarchy, the king and his subjects, her two sisters, and faith and reason. What’s interesting about this novel is that it is a discussion of faith through the lens of a pre-Christian world in which the gods, reiterations of the Greek gods, are powerful and unreachable.

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

This novel is a memoir of a woman trying to find her religious home after struggling with her faith and where she belongs in her religious community. Rachel Held Evans details her spiritual growth, moving from her childhood in her Baptist church to her trying to find a spiritual home. It’s an interesting, deeply personal examination of Rachel’s conflict of identifying as a Christian but struggling to figure out where she belongs within that religion. The book revolves around the sacraments of baptism, confession, Holy Orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. I found the author’s vulnerability and humorous approach refreshing because she managed to approach the topic of faith through a personal lens without coming across as spiritually superior or egotistical.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi was an aspirational and talented neurosurgeon nearing the end of his medical residency when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. This memoir by Kalanithi, which was published posthumously, is an examination of the effect the diagnosis affects him, his friends, and his family. Kalanithi details the shock of the diagnosis, how it caused him to reevaluate his life and goals, and the reversal of his role from a caregiver to a patient. What struck me the most about this book is that Kalanithi openly struggles with his situation and how to handle it in relation to his career and his family life. This is a heart wrenching novel, and the discussion about life, hope, and his reversal of perspective as a result of his terminal illness is definitely worth a read.

The Aeneid by Virgil

The Aeneid is a classic book, sure, but it’s much, much easier to read than the Iliad and isn’t bad as far as classic texts are concerned. The Aeneid opens with Aeneas running from his home of Troy, which has been destroyed by the Greeks, the end to the ten-year-long Trojan War. Aeneas is fated to finally reach the shores of Italy where his descendants would found Rome. He’s a pretty big deal with the gods. However, it’s not easy for Aeneas to get to Italy. There’s not as much bloodshed and general frustration that there is in the Iliad, but Aeneas and his relationships are pretty dysfunctional--get ready for burning cities, funeral pyres, and burning ships. In a weird way, the story is actually a bit funny and entertaining. You know, besides Aeneas being a jerk to Queen Dido.

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