It’s officially back-to-school time, and we all know what that means: sitting in class, writing papers, getting sweet knowledge delivery before running off to the latest kegger. But what about a more practical method of study? Yes, in this case I am using the word “practical” to describe reading literature. What follows is a list of college courses (plucked or adapted from the course catalogs of actual institutions of higher learning) and works of literature that you might read to replicate the experience of taking them. Whether or not you’re headed back to school in the next few weeks, get your learning on with this curated curriculum of literature. [Disclaimer: not actually a substitute for a college education. But you knew that.]
Introduction to Astronomical Observation
Equilateral, Ken Kalfus
This strange and lovely little novel follows 19th-century British astronomer Sanford Thayer as he builds an enormous equilateral triangle in the Egyptian desert. Why? To communicate with the advanced denizens of Mars, of course. (Thayer knows they’re there because of the complex water canals he’s observed on the planet via telescope.) The perfection of the triangle will prove that the humans of Earth are worth their time.
Introduction to Stars, Galaxies, and the Universe
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
This book, which won the Pulitzer in 2012, incorporates cosmic travel, 2001, David Bowie, and the infinite unknowability of space — including but not limited to the spaces inside humanity.
The Origins of the Universe
Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
This book of short stories delivers all you really need to know about the creation of the universe in one slim package. Each story is based on a scientific principle, whether factual or erroneous, and spirals out into a glorious, spellbinding work of art. Here you’ll find stories about atmosphere, particles, existence as a single point before space and time, and what happens when you’ve got that one uncle who hasn’t evolved to walk on land and still lives in the primordial sea, and you’d like to introduce him to your new girlfriend.
Bluets, Maggie Nelson
Well, one color in particular, to be fair — but this book will plunge you into blue in all its complexities and connotations. It will also plunge you into Maggie Nelson, who could and should be the subject of a class all on her own.
Italian Renaissance Art
The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone
Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo is its own kind of masterpiece — and not at all the boring history book you think it’s going to be.
Books as Physical Objects
Building Stories, Chris Ware
Ware’s complex graphic novel-in-a-box is decidedly unkindleable.
The Films of Akira Kurosawa
The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt
DeWitt’s incredible debut is about an impossibly brilliant child and his also fairly brilliant mother. The former, in addition to speaking Greek, Japanese, Hebrew, and Inuit, has memorized Kurosawa’s classic film in its entirety, and uses it to fuel and inform his search for his father. Which doesn’t really cover it, of course, but it’s a start.
Introduction to Economics
JR, William Gaddis
This hilarious, frenetic novel, told almost entirely in un-tagged dialogue, follows a young boy as he shrewdly turns a smattering of penny stocks into an enormous empire. A send-up of capitalism, the American Dream, and the chaotic bustle of American communication — especially American communication about money.
Practical Concepts in Environmental Sciences
The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink
In some ways this is a kind of environmentalist picaresque — the characters are all bad people, or trying to be, they’re all obsessed with birds, or trying to be, and they’re all trying to save the world, or at least trying to look like they are. Practical concepts about how to live in this world (or how not to) abound.
The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard
Any realistic study of ecology in this day and age will have to venture into a little hypothetical apocalypse talk. It just stands to reason. In this SF classic, the temperature of Earth has risen to the point that it’s all one big lagoon — which does strange things to the minds of everyone left alive.
DRAMA and MUSIC
Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
After all, what’s a better test for a fledgling actor than having to perform the Bard post-apocalypse?
Jazz, Toni Morrison
As close as you can get to actual jazz in book form.
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s classic fantastical adventure is a romp that also functions as a sort of primer to gods from religions the world over — including that new pesky one we call technology — and what might happen when we stop paying attention to them.
Women and Islam
Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
In this witty and fun but ultimately very serious graphic memoir, Satrapi dramatizes her coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and some of her life and hard decisions after the fact.
Self-Knowledge and the Adaptive Unconscious
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Donald Antrim
I have no idea what this class might actually entail, but I figure a book wherein the characters are discovering their internal animals (coelacanth, buffalo) via New Age anthropologists and building crazy moats to protect themselves from their neighbors and forming accidental draw-and-quarter mobs might approach some of the same issues.
Heroes, Saints, and Everyday Ethics
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Let’s just go back to the days when Atticus Finch wasn’t a racist and morality was simple and everything made sense.
The Idea of Drugs and Addiction
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Wallace’s masterpiece is about nothing if not addiction: addiction to drugs, yes, but also to entertainment, to stuff, to ideas about ourselves. That said, there’s plenty of dramatized drug stuff, including long sections on Boston AA, often hilarious and disturbing and sad in the same gulp. I’ve never read a novel that got me closer to understanding true addiction.
Sensation and Perception
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
My favorite thing to say about To the Lighthouse is that the writing in it feels like experience. This luminous book is all about the way things feel and are perceived — even by the house vacated by the ostensible main characters. It’s a practical course in watching, in seeming.
White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
Really, hundreds of novels could fit into this category, so feel free to explore, but I’ll suggest this strange and glorious book about a girl with pica (a disorder that causes her to eat non-food substances uncontrollably), and about the many voices that swirl around her, always hungry.
Myth and Contemporary Experience
The Last Illusion, Porochista Khakpour
Tons of literature draws on myth (and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t mention the Kate Bernheimer-edited anthology xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths here), but the most recent one I read and loved was Khakpour’s The Last Illusion, based on a myth from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings. In this novel, a boy is raised as a bird before being released into the streets of New York City, where he finds himself not quite a bird and not quite a man, obsessed with a flight he can’t quite obtain and a girl he can’t quite understand.
Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World
The Complete Works, Sappho
The most famous female poet of Ancient Greece wrote widely and beautifully about her love for women — among other things. She was also a total badass.
History of Rome
Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar
Yourcenar’s novel is framed as a letter from Hadrian to his cousin Marcus Aurelius, telling the story of his life. A most fascinating “self-portrait” (the real autobiography of Hadrian has been lost) and investigation of the nature of history.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
You won’t learn any Greek, but you will learn a thing or two about Dionysus, and his lingering influence on the lives of college students.
Gender and Society
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin’s classic imagines a society — a whole planet, even — devoid of gender. Or, to be more specific, a planet whose citizens can be either gender during mating time, but are normally completely gender neutral. It’s a problematic novel in some ways, but it’s sure to generate lots of fruitful discussions, even if they’re with your cat.
Race in Contemporary America
Citizen, Claudia Rankine
Obviously, this class could be and cover and read a lot of things. But Rankine’s Citizen, a book-length poem that investigates the state of race in America today, from the media’s treatment of Serena Williams to ludicrous violence perpetrated against people of color, is an excellent place to start.
Home, Violence, and Spectacle in Literature
The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
In this novel, a girl who is raped and murdered watches everything that comes after that from some kind of heavenly plane. It sounds like a hokey premise, but it fully investigates a terrifying part of violence that is so often just the coda to a grisly tale: the aftermath.
Anthropology of Everyday American Life
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, Leanne Shapton
This novel-as-auction-catalog unravels the unraveling relationship between two people in what might be the most American way possible: through their stuff, from the meaningful to the throwaway. What else makes up our everyday life?
Diasporas and Homelands
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is one of the best writers working today, so reading her would make pretty much any class relevant. In this novel, two lovers leave their homeland: one makes it to America, where she has to deal with (among other things) being “African American” (she is, of course, not American); the other is shunted to London. Fifteen years later, Nigeria a democracy, they reunite.
Society and the Individual
The Trial, Franz Kafka
Kafka, like, let’s face it, many writers of fiction, was haunted by questions of society and the individual, constantly estranging and pitting them against one another in his work. What society does to Josef K. at the end of the novel makes this my pick, but it’s standing in for a whole oeuvre.
Deviance and Social Control
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
Three words: the Ludovico Technique.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Lots of books would fit the bill here, but let’s go back to a favorite: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning debut collection, which deftly portrays the aches and joys and struggles of Indian Americans negotiating culture and time in a new (or not so new) place.
Sociology of the Family
What the Living Do, Marie Howe
Again, there are endless books about family. But this slim volume of poetry is one of the truest, and gives one of the most intimate views of a particular group of people: death, sex, love, hate, growing up. What else is there?
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
If you can learn to think like Sherlock, you have a bright future in catching criminals ahead of you.
The City and Its People
Speedboat, Renata Adler
Rather than read a book chock-full of city people going about doing city things, or a gritty, grimy look at urban streets, I’ll suggest a novel that evokes something more pointed (and more difficult): exactly what it’s like to be a young woman living in New York in this or any time.
Clones and Genomes
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
So, it’s not exactly a biological breakdown of how cloning works, but it is a terrifying vision of a future that could very well come to pass if we head down that route. Consider it a major argument against.
Human Anatomy and Physiology
A Guide to Being Born, Ramona Ausubel
Ausubel’s amazing collection is (loosely) organized backwards, with sections that move from “BIRTH” to “GESTATION” to “CONCEPTION” to “LOVE.” Many of the stories within are about creation, birth and rebirth, growing and (sometimes) lack of growing — like “Atria,” in which a teenage girl finds herself pregnant and spends her time fantasizing about the strange creature(s) she is growing in her womb — anything other than a human child.
A Sport and a Pastime, James Salter
It might not cover all the bases, but it’ll at least rev the engine. So to speak.
The Woman in the Dunes, Kobo Abe
You can only really understand the ecology of the desert when you get trapped in a town made up of enormous sand holes with houses at the bottom and are forced to spend every day shoveling so that you aren’t consumed by the never-ending crush of the desert. Right?
Complex Variables with Applications
Remainder, Tom McCarthy
In this amazing and amazingly weird novel, a man who has survived an accident he’s not allowed to talk about receives an enormous settlement — and uses the money to finance a small recreation of reality, played out by actors, that he can control. Then the recreation, the set, gets bigger. I actually don’t know exactly what the title of this class means mathematically, but it sounds like this novel, and when dealing with the unreal (numbers, experiences) that’s good enough for me.
The Computational Age
Book of Numbers, Joshua Cohen
Among the many things in this expansive, ambitious, and often brilliant book is the story of the modern age of computers. But what’s more convincing, the rundown of 40 years of our developing relationship with our machines, or the way Cohen’s voice feels like the Internet, all interconnected and hyper?
Introduction to Probability
The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dostoyevsky’s novel about roulette addiction was written in a hurry — to pay off his own gambling debts incurred by, you guessed it, roulette addiction. Nothing will introduce you to the stark truth of probability faster than that spinning wheel.
Theories of Language
Notable American Women, Ben Marcus
Final paper: but what would happen without it?
Introduction to Semiotics
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll
Carroll loved meaning-play, metaphor, and symbols that could either be nonsense or brilliance. Just consider “Jabberwocky,” which could really fuel the entire class. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: / All mimsy were the borogoves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.
Monuments and Ideas in Modern Architecture
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Calvino’s classic is half conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, half description of elaborate, fantastical cities. For those budding architects who wish to spend their time dreaming up urban landscapes unfettered by constraints of reality. You can always figure out the physics of the thing later.
Architecture and the Environment
The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss
For what is possibly the most famous treehouse (or as the Swiss Family father calls it, their “tree-castle”) in all of fiction.
Knowledge and Reality
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
Two concepts Borges knows (and muddles) well. Case in point: the most famous story from this book, “The Library of Babel,” in which the universe is an infinite library, populated with books in every combination of characters — most meaningless, but some, necessarily, containing all knowledge and the best things ever written.
One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses, Lucy Corin
Volcanoes and earthquakes are not the only kinds of disasters we have to watch out for. Corin’s apocalypses are smaller (in both form and scope), but can be just as mean.
Arctic and Alpine Environments
My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer, Paige Ackerson-Kiely
Poems about literal and emotional arctics, of course. Plus, in how many books of poetry are you likely to find poems about what an asshole Robert Peary was?
Introduction to Cartography
Atlas of Remote Islands, Judith Schalansky
Subtitled “Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will,” this book turns atlas into poem, describing and illustrating islands that you will probably never visit either — but you’ll think about for years.
Introduction to Oceanography
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne
Who better than Captain Nemo to introduce you to the mysteries of the ocean?