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REQUIRED READINGS

Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages

Category

Twentieth Century

Casino Royale

Casino Royale
Ian Fleming
1953

In April, 1953 the world was introduced to one of the most enduring and iconic fictional characters of the Cold War 20th century. Casino Royale is the first of the James Bond novels, and launched a series of 13 books, numerous adaptations for the big and small screens, comic strips and more. And made Bond the symbol of the western spy – at least until John Le Carre showed up and did his best to offer an alternative, darker and more realistic version. James Bond is the guy – the epitome of the masculine ideal, he’s charming and suave, brave and cool in the face of danger, sipping martinis and bedding women across the world as he saves us all from assorted evils and takes care of the bad guys. Oh, we swoon, we drool, we aspire and emulate – Bond. James Bond.

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Simulacra and Simulation

Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard
1981

You’ve got to be quite the academic mind to pick up Simulacra and Simulation – or anything by critical philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But that doesn’t mean you’ve not been impacted by his work. Indeed, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve been introduced. The film was profoundly influenced by Simulacra…, and the book was required reading for actors who were going to participate in what became one of the most important and successful films of recent decades. Now, Baudrillard himself  certainly had his concerns about the link between his philosophizing and Keanu Reeves, calling The Matrix’ interpretation of his work a misreading or distortion at best. But whatever, Baudrillard. That’s what happens when you toss ideas out there. They get altered with every reading.

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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost
1923

“And miles to go before I sleep.”

The last line (well, two lines, as it’s repeated) are among the best-known of Frost’s poetry and have found a place as common reference in North American culture, used particularly as eulogy. Parts of the poem were used in reports on the death of John F. Kennedy, and in the funeral of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. It’s a simple little poem, like so much of Robert Frost’s work, and one that best represents the poet’s ability to capture quiet moments of daily life, the emotional states they inspire, and the calm individual reflections that touch on universal experience.

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The Souls of Black Folk

The Souls of Black Folk
W.E.B. DuBois
1903

W.E.B. DuBois’ collection of essays is a foundational work not just of the politics of race in America, but of processes of racialization and of sociology in general. Based upon a series of articles first published in The Atlantic Monthly it is at once a work of history, political struggle, social theory and literature. The Souls of Black Folk is huge. And essential reading for anyone who wants to examine how social relationships are built, maintained, and potentially transformed. As a biographer wrote, “Few books make history and fewer still become foundational texts for the movements and struggles of an entire people. The Souls of Black Folk occupies this rare position. It helped to create the intellectual argument for the black freedom struggle in the twentieth century. Souls… justified the pursuit of higher education for Negroes and thus contributed to the rise of the black middle class. By describing a global color-line, Du Bois anticipated pan-Africanism and colonial revolutions in the Third World. Moreover, this stunning critique of how ‘race’ is lived through the normal aspects of daily life is central to what would become known as ‘whiteness studies’ a century later.”

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Curious George

Curious George
H.A. (and Margret) Rey
1941

Curious George – that crazy little monkey whose ADD-like hijinks always got him into trouble. There’s alot of them, and as a kid I loved them all, and still can’t stop myself from flipping through when I come across one. But, as with many such series, it’s the first one that is the stand-out for our purposes here, that introduces the character that becomes iconic, the idea that lasts. The original Curious George – the one in which George comes to live with his great friend, the Man in the Yellow Hat. It’s quite the story to reflect upon and reconsider so many years later.

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The Power of Myth

The Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell
1988

When George Lucas was putting together Star Wars, he didn’t just want to tell a good story or introduce some crazy special effects. He was reformulating some of the central myths of the western world, adorning their archetypes in new garb, and telling a tale that is as old as human memory. And in this, George Lucas was profoundly inspired and influenced by Joseph Campbell, a scholar and author who delved deep into comparative mythology and religion to understand how and why some stories last, how and why some stories differ according to time and place, and how and why some stories are near-universal, their central contours of plot, character, and meaning recurring again and again in human history. And so in the mid 1980s the creator of science fiction history invited Campbell and journalist Bill Moyers up to his ranch to talk about myth-making and why it matters. Those videotaped interviews played as a series on PBS in 1988, shortly after Campbell’s death, and were published in book form later that year – packaged as The Power of Myth, the discussions became massively important, popularizing Campbell’s scholarship and significantly increasing cultural literacy around myth and ritual not only in the past but in the here and the now.

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The Velveteen Rabbit

The Velveteen Rabbit
Margery Williams
1922

Pinocchio wants to be a real boy; the Velveteen Rabbit wants to be real, too.  Margery Williams’ first book for children is her best-known, still selling huge and seeing adaptation after adaption almost 100 years after its initial publication.

He’s not the most exciting of toys to appear on Christmas morning, and initially not paid a whole lot of attention. But over time he becomes the constant companion of his young owner, until the boy is diagnosed with scarlet fever and all his toys are marked for burning to eliminate further spread of the disease. Tears for the plush rabbit, a new stuffed friend for the boy, a magic fairy, and… A children’s classic.

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Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness
Jean-Paul Sartre
1943

He wrote novels and plays and stories that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1964 – thought he refused to accept it; he became a prominent socialist (and later, he said, anarchist) thinker and hung out with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara; he was partner to Simone de Beauvoir, a literary, philosophical and political heavyweight in her own right, and – many would argue – smarter and more significant historically than he; and his name became synonymous with existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre was 4’11” of smarts. And Being and Nothingness probably the best-known of his smarty-pants ramblings. Continue reading “Being and Nothingness”

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz
Frank L. Baum
1900

OK, it’s The Wizard of Oz. It’s Dorothy and little Toto, Scarecrow, Lion, Tin Woodsman, witches good and bad. It’s one of the best known children’s books, the inspiration for countless re-tellings, and the source material for Gregory McGuire’s Wicked series – which is, I gotta say, one of the greatest adult variations on an old standard I’ve read, and one that each and every one of you should read, too. I don’t need to tell anyone why this book is culturally important, or how it continues to shape us. So instead, I’ll focus on something else about Frank L. Baum’s fairytale. Continue reading “The Wizard of Oz”

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