Italo Calvino. Why Read the Classics?
Calvino has been one of my favourite authors since I first encountered him in graduate school. In
addition to being a skilled storyteller (though we read his books, like many of our older classics,
in translation) he also has a gift for literary analysis. Why Read the Classics is new to me this
year, and I have repeatedly fallen in love with his aplomb and with the agility with which he
carefully tries to identify the attributes that distinguish everyday books from true classics.
The Second Shepherd’s Play.
This is the most properly Christmas-y of my selections. I first encountered—and enjoyed—
this play in high school, but each subsequent adventure into the drama has brought even more
delight. The Second Shepherd’s Play is a medieval mystery play filled with Christian allusions
and slightly grumpy shepherds. The language may be a little old-fashioned for some readers
(probably not for the students in my medieval class this fall) but the story is charming and the
John Donne. Poems.
John Donne’s life is a study of God’s grace, and his biography is reflected in his verses. His early
works, largely directed towards young women, reveal his youthful desires for earthly pleasures,
but his later poems break sharply away from this form and feature a desperate, passionate, and
occasionally even playful pursuit of God.
Here’s the passionate but playful final stanza of his poem “A Hymne to God the Father”
I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, Thou hast done,
I feare no more.
Sigrid Undset. Kristin Lavransdatter.
In my mind, December is always a time of reflection and waiting—the liturgical season of
Advent—that culminates in a celebration of great redemption. (In my academic life, this season
is marked by a lot of reflection on my students’ work—or grading—that ends with a celebration
of literary splendor in which I read any books I choose for two weeks straight). Like Donne’s
poems, Kristin Lavransdatter reflects this pattern of waiting and celebration. Like The Scarlet
Letter, Kristin’s season of waiting includes some sin, but her redemption is glorious. Undset’s
novel in three parts is probably best saved for readers of high school age or beyond.
Gene Stratton Porter. Freckles.
I have loved Freckles since the day I first cracked open the copy my mother gave me one year
for Christmas. Like all the best books, it is suitable for readers of many ages (nine to ninetynine!)
and contains important lessons about trust in the face of despair, sacrificial love, and
redemption (apparently, I think, a theme of my Christmas list). I don’t want to say anything
about this book for fear that I will spoil it for would-be readers, but it is suitable for readers (or
listeners) ten and older, and would be a wonderful story to read as a family.