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Katie Mohar


Reading Recommendations from English Professors

May 12

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Text copyright © Katie Mohar. All rights reserved.

Library: Reading Recommendations from English Professors
Photo by redcharlie on Unsplash.

Many young people (and their parents) feel anxiety over preparing for college. Wouldn’t it be cool if kids could get reading recommendations from English professors before they get to college?

Students may feel more prepared for – and benefit more from – their college investment if they learn to approach literature from the perspective of a wise professor. Here’s my interview with Dr. Lon Otto and Dr. Mary R. Reichardt.

About Dr. Otto: Dr. Lon Otto is the author of three collections of short stories: A Nest of Hooks (U. of Iowa Press), winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction; Cover Me (Coffee House Press); and A Man in Trouble (Brighthorse Books); and a novel, published this spring: The Flower Trade (Brighthorse Books). He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, is Professor Emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, and has taught for many years in the University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival.  

About Dr. Reichardt: Dr. Mary R. Reichardt is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Thomas. She taught in English and Catholic Studies for 33 years there. Dr. Reichardt has published 14 books on Catholic and American literature. As a Saint Thomas student, I was fortunate to have Dr. Reichardt as a professor. Last month, I heard her fabulous lecture at the Church of Saint Agnes on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. She discussed Purgatorio: Seven Terraces.

Enjoy the sage advice of these Professors Emeriti with nearly 75 years of collective teaching experience in college-level English! 

What are three (or more) books that you recommend young people read by the time they finish high school – and before entering college?  

DR. OTTO: “David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day (short, fiercely funny memoir pieces); Gordon Grice, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators (fascinating and scary natural history); Louise Erdrich, Tracks (a novel). Or any other three books. Or thirteen. Or thirty. After teaching college freshmen for 40 years, I’m convinced that the best way to prepare for college is not to read selected classics. The best way to prepare for college is to develop the habit of reading books, to practice the sustained attention that books demand, paying attention to how they’re written as well as to what they’re about. It’s to read different kinds of books; it almost doesn’t matter if they’re good or bad from a teacher’s perspective, though getting suggestions from a teacher who knows you and your interests (that’s essential) can save a lot of time. A community or high school library where you can browse and choose books freely (and for free) is a fantastically useful resource. Follow your heart into those treasure rooms.” 

DR. REICHARDT: “More than 3!: Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Death of Ivan Ilych, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, My Antonia, O Pioneers, Hamlet, MacBeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

For young people who dislike reading, what are some benefits of reading quality literature that they may be overlooking?   

DR. OTTO: “Reading good literature can tell you things about being human that nobody and nothing else will. It can put language in your ear that makes your brain buzz deliciously. It can save you from ever being bored. It can give you courage. It can help you become a more interesting person. It can teach you how to write well. (It’s the only thing, really, that does that.)” 

DR. REICHARDT: “Among other benefits, literature gives language to young people, allowing them to put words on their emotions and feelings. It provides a vicarious arena where moral values can be tested and the consequences of actions explored. It gives views of the world from different time eras, countries, and sensibilities, providing for a liberal education in the broadest sense of the term. A person who does not read cannot be broad minded.”

Are there any poems – or poets – that you recommend to a young person seeking hope, direction or inspiration?

DR. OTTO: “I don’t think I’d send a young person to poetry for hope, direction, or inspiration, though all of those good things can certainly result from reading poems. I’d send a young person to poetry for the pleasure and power of its surprising language and imagery and sound. Sound, maybe, above all, feeling the words in your mouth as well as in your ears. That’s how it hooked me, anyway; reading Dylan Thomas, I didn’t understand most of it, but it was thrilling to read aloud. And then I felt hopeful, somehow, and inspired, and maybe even directed. (For anyone, young or old, interesting in writing poetry, I recommend Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet, the best book ever written about becoming a poet. Illustrations by Maurice Sendak.)”

DR. REICHARDT: “Longfellow, Tennyson, Hopkins, Denise Levertov, T.S.Eliot, Richard Wilbur.”

What was one of your favorite books to read as a child? 

DR. OTTO: “The Wind in the Willows remains a favorite–funny and honest and strange and beautiful. I loved reading about mythology as a kid, especially Norse mythology, the gods were so wonderfully weird and disreputable.” 

DR. REICHARDT: “I loved the Brontes: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, in particular, as well as Dickens’ works.”

Reading Recommendations from English Professors: Next Steps

I hope you enjoyed these reading recommendations from English Professors Emeriti. We’ll never be 100% prepared for a milestone like college, but small steps of proactivity give children confidence and a solid foundation. While the four-year college route is not for everyone, reading is an enjoyable recreation and valuable life skill for all of us.

For further inspiration, check out: Five Tips to Get a Child to Love Reading.