Quintessential Kenyon: Student Life, Uncut

6 Best Readings I’ve Been Assigned For Class

Madeleine Thompson
February 26, 2015

I’m a big fan of reading. I like books and words and alternate worlds, but reading things for class has always been a struggle. Somehow it just isn’t as fun if you have to read it and then probably take a test or write a paper on it. And readings have made up 90 percent of my homework here. That said, I’ve always felt that Kenyon has done its due diligence as a liberal arts school to have us read the edgier texts of each field in addition to the standard ones. I also should credit the professors that have made even the standard stuff enjoyable. Among all the readings I’ve been assigned during my Kenyon career, here are the six I liked most, though this was very hard to narrow down and excludes many great reads. In no particular order:

The Nazi Seizure of Power, William Sheridan Allen
I read this book for “Modern Democracies,” which is a requirement for the political science major, and had a very rare experience of actual mind-bogglement. The book is about how the Nazi party — which you probably know less about than you think — was able to gain power in Germany. The extent of my knowledge about the Nazi party and Germany at that time was limited to very basic feelings of “yikes,” but this book used the story of one specific German town to describe exactly how the country’s economic and political situation conspired in favor of the Nazis. The most incredible, horrifying part was that the whole thing made sense and made me feel almost sorry for the people who fell for it.

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
This is now one of my favorite books. I read it in my “Literary Journalism” class and was blown away by Capote’s ability to bring to life, in explicit detail, the story of two men who randomly murder a family in rural Kansas. It’s debatable whether you could call the book “journalism” — creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction might work better — but either way it is a masterful piece of prose that will make you never want it to be over.

“The Great American Novel,” Edith Wharton
This fairly short essay by Wharton is a pretty disparaging take on the concept of the “Great American Novel.” Her idea is that American literary critics and authors have created something so narrowly and ambiguously defined that to actually achieve “Great American Novel” status would be like a magic trick. She writes that the weird pedestal we put this title on is detrimental and limiting to those who write great works that are not about mainstream America. I read this essay in my “Imagining America in the Novel” class, and it really made me think about whether there is such a thing as the Great American Novel” and about how filing things into categories can be damaging.

Page One: Inside the New York Times and the Future of Journalism, David Folkenflik
This book, and the documentary of the same name that accompanies it, have special meaning to me now because one of the journalists represented in both the book and the film recently died. David Carr was a beloved columnist and reporter at the Times and was a personal hero of mine. He is a star of the documentary and writes an excellent essay in the book called “Print is Dead: Long Live the New York Times.” I read this in “News Media and American Politics,” and the whole book is filled with intelligent, forward-thinking essays by big media names. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the present and future of news, and you should definitely watch the documentary, which is on Netflix and Amazon Instant.

“Forty-One False Starts,” Janet Malcolm
I can’t tell you much about this New Yorker essay without spoiling the coolest part about it, but I can tell you that it’s one of few times I’ve ever gasped aloud while reading. The essay is sort of a profile of artist David Salle, but the writing style and the fancy literary tricks used in it are brilliant. This essay was assigned in my “Creative Nonfiction” class, which consisted almost entirely of writing and workshopping essays of our own, and it certainly gave me something to aspire to.

“The Cartel of Good Intentions,” William Easterly
You know something really got to you when you still remember it years later. That’s what happened for me with this essay, which I read in my “International Relations” class two years ago and still think about it from time to time. The essay is about how the few powerful foreign aid organizations in the world have cartel-like control over foreign aid and thus can do a lot more harm than good. It’s a disturbing, thought-provoking piece about the consequences of the bureaucracy these organizations create on poor countries and their inhabitants. Recommended if you want to feel like there’s no hope for the world and/or if you want to have something smart to talk about at a dinner party.