Soundings: The Syllabus

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

p(image-left). !/assets/88778/kerry_temple120x93.jpg(Kerry Temple)! Back when I was an English major and when I thought I might teach, I played a little game. I tried to come up with a list of 10 books I would use to teach students what I wanted them to know about life. Some of the books talked about the relationship between the individual and society. _The Catcher in the Rye_ was on the list, and _The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. Others dealt with our relationship with the earth. So I selected _Black Elk Speaks_ and _Moby-Dick_ and _The Forest People_. I’d waver on Teilhard de Chardin and Aldo Leopold’s _A Sand County Almanac_. _Walden_. Annie Dillard’s _Pilgrim at Tinker Creek_. Rilke’s _Letters to a Young Poet_ has long been a perennial, personal favorite, and I happily rode along with Robert Pirsig in _Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance_ and its discussion of values, humanity and the search for quality. And _Report to Greco_ by Nikos Kazantzakis taught me life should be a pilgrim’s quest. I always thought something by Steinbeck was in order. I’d have to teach _To Kill a Mockingbird_. _The Great Gatsby_. Maybe something by Hemingway or Willa Cather. _The Naked Ape_ by Desmond Morris always intrigued me. _The Razor’s Edge_. _The Plague_ by Camus presents a feast of questions facing the human race. As a change of pace, dropped into the syllabus like vacation dates, I’d add little books with big truths. _The Little Prince_ comes to mind, and _Siddhartha_ by Hermann Hesse. _The Brothers Karamazov_ provides great truths, but it was always too much for me. I never taught such a course, and I’ve never been in a book club, and I don’t read nearly as many books as I should. But I keep one by the bed and am always a reader in progress. I usually fall asleep before turning too many pages; I have been known to bail on a book when it doesn’t sustain my curiosity. Occasionally a book will take hold of me and not let go. Typically I prefer fiction. I like good stories, with good narratives and appealing characters. But they need to deliver good weight, deal with the meaning of life or go after truth or take on God or grapple with what we’re all doing here, or should be doing. I need a payoff, a reward, a harvest of wisdom — but don’t want exhaustion en route. One requirement for me is quality of writing. The craft. Vocabulary and voice and clarity of vision. The writer’s ability to tell a story, create vivid scenes and settings and authentic characters, to contemplate life with nuance and honesty, texture, truth and subtlety. I want the writer to have done the work so the reader doesn’t need to. But I am not a snob. I greatly enjoyed _Never Cry Wolf_ and _The Magus_ and _Watership Down_. I read _The Color Purple_ and _A Gathering of Old Men_ when reporting on the 20th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and its impact on my Louisiana hometown. I marveled at _All the Pretty Horses_ by Cormac McCarthy and _Let the Great World Spin_ by Colum McCann. I read lots of Anne Tyler, then lots of Walker Percy and Richard Russo and Pat Conroy. Through the years — having also read great books whose titles now escape me — I rethink that hypothetical reading list for the class I’ll never teach. And what I’ve realized is how that list changes as the life journey takes us into new terrain. Those books I wanted to teach 30, even 40 years ago were books that were right for my age and a college classroom. They were about finding one’s place in the world, and how we might take our values and truths with us as we try to fit in. As I grew older, other voices resonated. Different narrators, characters and themes spoke to me, and I could hear their echoes inside of me. _East of Eden_, for example, nudged ahead of _Cannery Row_ and _Grapes of Wrath_ as the Steinbeck selection. The unmoored and distantly introspective narrators of Richard Ford’s _The Sportswriter_ and _Independence Day_ were good companions at a particular time in my life. Wallace Stegner and William Styron took me deeper into life lived longer. And even though _Lonesome Dove_ was a cowboy Western, it carried truths of life and honor, integrity and the unspoken bonds between friends over a lifetime that helped me wrap my arms around companions real and intangible. This idea came sharply into focus in recent months because I’ve read two books that felt like masterpieces to me — perhaps because I read them at the right time in my life. _Jayber Crow_ by Wendell Berry and _Gilead_ by Marilynne Robinson are about simple men who have led simple lives in out-of-the-way places, and each is looking back on a lonesome life but one lived with goodness and heart, humility, grace and a pilgrim’s soul. Each felt as rich as life itself, as good as any book I’ve read. If I were teaching a class, they’d for sure be on the syllabus.
_Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Email him at ""