How I Introduce College Undergraduates to the Novel

I’m teaching a literature class this coming autumn, on the history of the novel. The only difficulty is — now I need to choose which books to teach.

This class is a 200-level course at the University of Tennessee, and it’s intended as a general education / writing intensive course for undergrads. The goal is to introduce students to the broad history of the novel, to read several novels, and to guide them to write good papers about those books. I’ve been advised that five or six novels is the usual reading load, and that they should range in time from the eighteenth or nineteenth century to the contemporary period.

How to represent the whole of the novel in six books? If you had to design a reading list to teach the history of the novel form, what six books would you choose? And why? Would you also include short stories?

At first I thought about a very global perspective, including books by Achebe and Murakami. But then I wondered if my students would know the English language tradition. Should they be more urgently taught the “standard” Anglo-Irish-American historical run, before learning about all the great books written elsewhere? Another problem: how to make intriguing and surprising the very long books that seem to best characterise the nineteenth century, and which would most likely take up the first month of the course? How, too, to do justice to all the types of writers who have composed great novels, and how to create an inclusive reading list?

Here is my current long-list, mostly novels with a few short stories. Who would you eliminate, include?

Emma, Austen

Jane Eyre, C. Bronte

The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas (probably the first 300 pages, only)

Moby Dick, Melville

Great Expectations, Dickens

The Cossacks, Tolstoy

“Talma Gordon,” Hopkins

The Dead, Joyce

Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando, Woolf

Nightwood, Barnes

Native Son, Wright

Lolita or Pale Fire, Nabokov

Norwegian Wood, Murakami

Station Eleven, St. John Mandel

“Who’s Irish?” Jen

5 thoughts on “How I Introduce College Undergraduates to the Novel

    • At AWP, there’s no need to apologise for missing anything. The time is a bit of a whirlwind 🙂 I saw you from a distance in the book fair at one point, but I was telling someone about the Hands On Festival, and when I looked back you were gone. I foolishly thought — I’ll have lots of chances to talk to him again…

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  1. Wow, that is a tough decision. Thinking about the nineteenth century – when I took Victorian literature in university, we had one novel, Vanity Fair, which we read throughout the course as a serial, exactly how it was originally published. We had to take notes as we went to record our experiences of reading it that way. I found it a great exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

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