The firecracker-hot days of an Alabama summer provide the perfect encouragement to get lost in the cool, crisp pages of a good book. But with infinite shelves of reading material available, where do you begin? We asked faculty members in UAB’s Department of English for inspiration, and they shared a few of the titles that sparked their passion for literature.
Danny Siegel, Ph.D., associate professor with a focus on Victorian literature and culture“David Copperfield is the most likable book I know. Unlike so many writers, Charles Dickens knew that kindness is more unpredictable — more maniacally funny — than cruelty. The book is a celebration of personality; the people in it are erratic, almost radioactive, and gloriously uncouth. I read this book at age 17, during my lunch breaks working in the mailroom of a respectable law firm, and I found it a mouthful of fresh air, especially after the gloom of the 20th-century novels I was reading in my high school classes.”
Lila Miranda Graves, Ph.D., associate professor specializing in 18th-century British literature“I remember loving books most in summer. I fell in love to the sound of my mother’s voice reading Winnie the Pooh as the music of tree frogs drifted through the open windows of our shotgun row house. Not long after I learned to read for myself, I laughed out loud at a book for the first time. I was seven years old, sitting on our screened-in porch on a warm summer afternoon, and clutching Tom Sawyer — which I had sweet-talked our local librarian into letting me check out despite her objections that it was for big kids and I wouldn’t like it. I was slowly sounding out page after page of prose when Mark Twain sprung Tom’s epic escapade with Peter and the pain killer on me. I understood instinctively that I had encountered a classic: a book that stretched my understanding and rewarded me with a charge of pure delight. In addition to Milne’s Pooh and Twain’s Tom, another summer favorite was Touchstone, Shakespeare’s motley fool. I had read As You Like It during the spring of the seventh grade, but the lovely pastoral drama was not through when school let out for the summer. Magnolias bloomed all over our little mill town in early June, and I found myself leaning against the big one in our backyard, breathing its perfume in my own east Alabama green world as I followed Touchstone along verdant pathways in the Bard’s Arden.”
Peter Bellis, Ph.D., professor, department chair, and specialist in American literature“I read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 as an undergraduate and was attracted by its combination of silliness and seriousness, complicated allusions and bad jokes. Pynchon’s work mixes important, even shocking subjects with comedy of all kinds; for me it still may be the best example of how literature can matter and still entertain.”
William Hutchings, Ph.D., professor, concentrating on modern British and world literature“By the time I reread Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations in graduate school, I had read it at least once per decade — and was astonished at how differently I understood it. In high school, I identified with its protagonist Pip, being about the same age he was; in college, it had become a novel about the nature and perils of ambition, a preoccupation in many Victorian novels and one about which I wrote my undergraduate thesis. Later, I became more interested in its characterization of the English working class, particularly through the character of Joe Gargery, whose experience and ‘truth of the hearth’ are no less profound; he is among the first working-class characters not condescended to by his author and not made the butt of class-based jokes. That a single book could be read in such widely disparate ways — that the novel is not one thing but many, depending on when and how one reads it — was an insight I wanted to share with students.
“James Joyce's Ulysses, which I regularly teach in a semester-long course, utterly transforms any reader's understanding of the capabilities of English prose; Joyce literally reinvented writing, challenging the reader's understanding in unprecedented ways. Accordingly, we must, as my graduate-school mentor Guy Davenport put it, ‘reeducate our eyes.’ It is my favorite novel, revealing new insights with every rereading. Sharing such techniques with my students — and watching them make their own discoveries, which have led to publications and presentations at International James Joyce Symposia — has brought me great joy.”
Kieran Quinlan, Ph.D., professor, focusing on 20th-century American, Irish, and British literature“I was already ‘doing’ English when I first read Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse, but it is always a reminder of why I left philosophy and psychology for literature. It is a reader’s book — very little action — for those who like to savor the passing moments of each day. Late in life, I find it a great comfort. Even mentioning it, I want to read it again.”
Cassandra Ellis, Ph.D., assistant professor and teacher of first-year writing and sophomore literature courses“Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle was given to me when I was in high school by my hometown librarian because its narrator and I share a first name. At the time I think the book was out of print, but lately, J. K. Rowling and others have praised and echoed my own identifications and captivation with this 17-year-old Cassandra's voice. The novel, set in 1930s England, is a charming romance in the tradition of Austen, the Brontes, and even classical Hollywood cinema. It's about family, coastal living, sense of place, intellectuals, poverty, fashion, classical music, Americans vis-a-vis the British — all themes I still love and so much more — delivered in a most conventional narrative package that nonetheless delighted and transformed me. It would be great book to take to the beach!
“My other recommendations from American fiction would be William Faulkner's Light in August, the first book which really haunted me; James Baldwin's bravely beautiful Another Country; and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, my pick for the finest first novel ever written.”
Kyle Grimes, Ph.D., associate professor, specializing in British Romantic-period literature“I encountered ‘Directive,’ a short poem by Robert Frost, in a freshman seminar in college. At the time I was 18 or 19 years old. I had grown up on a relatively isolated farm in Iowa, but now I was studying in New Hampshire surrounded by mountains instead of cornfields. The poem’s opening line perfectly echoed my teenage discontent and confusion in a world that was mysterious, vaguely sinister, and certainly beyond my ability to comprehend. The narrator of the poem, a ‘guide’ who only wants you to get lost, then brings the reader along on a walk up a New Hampshire mountainside to the remnants of an old village and a mountain spring.
“The movement from bewildered confusion to serene clarity was exactly what I needed at the time, and I still find Frost’s lines echoing in my mind in moments of overwhelming confusion — the squabbles of a faculty meeting, the cacophony of (anti)social media, the heat and horns of Birmingham traffic. For me, this sense of solace and joy is one of the great values of literature in particular and the humanities in general.”
Kerry Madden-Lunsford, M.F.A., associate professor of creative writing“I'm reading Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist. She's 80 years old and still teaches creative writing, and she has three children, sixteen grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. This is her newest book of short stories, and it's absolutely wonderful. She writes from all points of view — teenage girls, gay men, geriatric couples, and middle-aged single moms. She captures it all beautifully and with such humor in the catastrophes.”
By Charles Buchanan
Illustrations by Ron Gamble