The Darkest Novel

May 6, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I recently attended Great Books Chicago 2016 to discuss utopias and dystopias. One of our readings for this event was George Orwell's 1984. At the end of the session, someone asked me whether I believed 1984 to be the darkest novel I have ever read. My immediate response was no, but I have been thinking about this question ever since. I typically enjoy 'dark' literature, and so I have read a number of different novels that would fall into this category. After thinking over the question some more, I am going to stick with my previous answer for a few reasons. While 1984 is certainly not shining a ray of sunshine on me, I do not think it is the darkest novel I have ever read. Here are some reasons for my decision. I welcome other ideas and comments on my reasoning or on the novels themselves.

First, Big Brother allows the proles to exist in a semi-catatonic, but also, semi-autonomous state. Since there are so many proles, I have hope that a future resistance is not impossible.

Second, Winston's journal exists only because there was a shred of doubt (hope?) in Winston himself. He mentions that he writes the journal for O'Brien, in fact to O'Brien. Of course, this is before he understands who O'Brien truly is. The gesture can also be interpreted in the sense that at some point Winston may influence O'Brien. If minds can change, I saw no evidence to tell me that O'Brien's mind is not also susceptible to that struggle.

Third, the clearing where Julia and Winston first meet gives me hope. If this green, pristine and edenic spot physically exists, then a chance for someone else to desire Eden also exists. As long as an Eden exists in this world, then the idea of redemption exists.

In my mind, a novel like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is much darker. The shame, degredation and deprivation of this world is unavoidable. As the Bundren family travels it literally carries death to all the neighbors and towns, even the reader. Not only do they influence minds and opinions, they introduce futility into each characters' life. For example, the shop-keeper clearly does not want to sell cement to Darl as a cheap form of cast for his brother's shattered leg. However, the shop-keeper gives in and from this experience learns of regret, of disgust and helplessness in the face of an uncontrollable force. The family persists in the utterly ridiculous, dark narrative of finding a burial spot for Addie Bundren. Therefore, I would list a novel by William Faulkner or perhaps Cormac McCarthy as the darkest I have read. I am sure, however, that there are many opinions that would disagree with mine and I appreciate any thoughts on the novels listed in today's blog.

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When Traveling....

September 4, 2015

Labor Day weekend offers the chance for a quick weekend getaway before the long haul of fall and winter. It is a good time to plant seeds, enjoy a walk, or to take the day trip that you keep putting off. Since so many of the HMU staff travelledl this summer and fall, we felt that today's article should celebrate travel itself. We are all long time book-lovers who also like to travel and see the places that we read about. Therefore, we thought it might be fun to have some staff members post a few of the items that they always carry with them. Some of the staff even shared their recent/upcoming destinations. It is a really fun celebration of difference to see the way a person packs. It also invites a bit of conversation, which is, of course, one of the things that HMU does best. We hope you enjoy a safe and fun weekend....take that day trip, and don't forget to pack your essentials!

Also, since some folks mentioned music as a necessary travel companion...feel free to read while listening to Willie Nelson sing "On the Road Again".


Deborah Deacon:

Since I went to Vietnam in January, I’m not doing any travelling, other than to the Poconos for a Great Books event in early November. But here’s what I usually take with me on the road:  my rainbow person-shaped pillow, a junk novel or two, Wen conditioner for my hair.

I used to always take my running shoes (26 states and 21 countries) but now that I’ve gotten older I take my bathing suit and goggles (18 states and 11 countries). 


Rebecca Fisher:

open mind, big appetite, historical fiction set in the region I am travelling

Recent travels: The Baltic Sea


Gary Schoepfel:

My most-packed (and highly valued) travel item? Space. In other words, I always try to take as little as possible. I’ve been all over the world. I’ve yet to be somewhere that I could not purchase another shirt, dental floss, the hat I couldn’t live without, etc. Good travellers know that fashion is second to function and ease. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen miserable travellers lugging extra pounds when running to catch a train, walking the 13 blocks to the hotel, paying baggage fees on the plane. And all for that extra pair of red heels. Nope! I take space.


Dominique Wagner:

Must-Haves: My running shoes, Ear buds, Bluetooth Speaker, Phone with my pre-programmed playlists (anything from jazz, 60/70s pop,  classic rock to electronica/dance)

Recent Destinations: Pacific Beach in San Diego, North Shore of Lake Tahoe, Flagstaff, AZ, and (saving the best for last...), Chicago over 4th of July weekend for the Grateful Dead 50th Anniversary shows @ Soldier Field


Margaret Metcalf:

layered clothing, 3 pairs of shoes - casual slip on shoes like Tom's, athletic shoes, simple dress flats; go-to little black traveller dress/slacks, sun visor, windbreaker, cell phone & iPad, 2 credit cards, driver license and car insurance info, sunscreen, medical insurance cards, cash.


Alissa Simon:

Regardless of destination, I always take: swimsuit, chapstick, Tazo Awake tea, sturdy walking shoes, fleece (or warm layer), empty journal and pens.

I recently travelled to Pensacola and Nashville.


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MLA Convention 2015, Vancouver, BC

May 29, 2015

Thanks to Marcus Conley, HMU Tutor and Dean of Undergraduate Studies, for today's post.

In January, I attended the 130th annual convention of the Modern Language Association. The event was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, two enormous, hive-like complexes of meeting rooms with a view across Vancouver Harbour to the firs of Grouse Mountain. I’ve been a member of the MLA for several years, but I’ve never gotten around to attending the convention until this year. As an MLA Convention rookie, I’d like to make a couple posts here at the HMU blog to share my experiences.

The convention, often referred to simply as the MLA, is promoted as “the largest gathering of teachers and scholars in the humanities.” It is not small. In addition to several hundred research presentations on topics from across the humanities, the four-day convention hosts authors, publishers, archives, and other groups seeking to publicize themselves to an academic audience. Many employers use the convention as a way to consolidate job candidates, and so there are countless interviews taking place during the convention, whether in polished meeting rooms or at the tables of sidewalk cafes. The halls are filled with graduate students in search of career opportunities; scholars, writers, and teachers looking to network; and seasoned academics enjoying a few days of quasi-celebrity among other specialists in their respective fields.

The atmosphere of the MLA is one of earnest enthusiasm for the humanities spiked with a dose of self-promotion. It is surely intimidating to many attendees, especially those hoping to land a job or see that their research is well received by experts. Luckily for me, I was under no such pressure, and so I was free to enjoy thumbing through new publications, speaking with other academic professionals, and attending presentations.

In a session on literary approaches to teaching the Bible, I was struck by the work of Cynthia Wallace, who discussed the importance of the poetics of the King James, especially the patterns of sound and emphasis built into the text by the translators. Reading literature with what Wallace calls “musical attentiveness” to these patterns reveals an influence on the style of literary English across the centuries. One memorable example was Wuthering Heights, in which Wallace has traced far more Biblical allusions than have been noted by previous scholars. Wallace suggests that these allusions are drawn from specific books of the Bible in a way that can inform our understanding of Brontë’s work.

Listening to Wallace’s presentation, I reflected on the way in which core texts like the King James Bible influence the expectations and impressions of present-day readers, even those who have not read the original works. We are attuned to particular sounds and structures of the prose we read—this is part of how we experience the literariness of a given text. Often, when we are especially moved by a certain line or phrase, we are reacting to the echoes of a much older textual music. If we wish to read with care and clarity, we must know how to trace these roots, to read not just the words on the page, but also the way those words converse with a long history of cultural practices.

Later, in a session on Victorian animal studies, Danielle Coriale spoke about George Eliot, with special attention to the way Eliot’s Middlemarch reveals the author’s scientific literacy. In order to describe the scientific interests of her characters, Eliot had to be familiar with the cutting-edge science of her time; however, the influence of science on Eliot extends farther than that. Eliot’s narrative style also shows a subtle but consistent attentiveness to the way human life relates to the natural world—Coriale cited Eliot’s frequent references to “lower” animals, as when the spread of gossip through a community is likened to the pollination carried out by bees—so that Eliot’s novel, even beyond an unmistakably science-minded character like Lydgate, is shaped to some extent by the work of her scientific contemporaries. Coriale’s remarks offered a productive means of opening up Eliot’s text in a new way. More generally, her work reminds us that the boundaries between science, art, and culture at large are permeable, and that these fields are in a continual process of mutual influence.

In the various talks I attended at the MLA, I was impressed by the diversity and the interconnectedness of studies in the humanities. I learned new approaches to texts I knew well, and I learned that the list of texts I ought to read is even longer than I imagined. I was also reminded that there is more going on in this field than I could ever fully grasp.

Next week, I plan to write a bit more on my experience at the MLA. Specifically, I would like to comment on an idea that came up continually during my time at the convention—the conviction that the great books tradition is integral to the larger field of the humanities.

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