Guest Column

My Roadmap for a Lifetime of Reading

by ARTHUR STELLAR JR.

Don Thomas, a friend and professional colleague, now semi-retired, has been acknowledged as one of the most literate superintendents of the last three decades.

Don's writings, based upon his steady diet of reading, contributed to his designation by the American Association of School Administrators for the Distinguished Service Award.

A few years ago, at the annual Horace Mann luncheon, Don paid me the ultimate, if somewhat lighthearted, compliment when he announced to those at our table that he was passing on to me the mantle of "Sovereign Superintendent of Letters."

The pressure he had knowingly applied was not lost on my professional psyche. Until recently, with a litany of published articles, booklets and hundreds of book reviews, I considered myself to be a good writer and, by reading more than 60 books per year, to be well read. My bubble was permanently burst when straying off my usual path of non-fiction, predominantly educational works.

Last year an account of David Denby's Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World caught my attention, perhaps because he was an age peer who had returned to college classes to rediscover these masterpieces of Western literature. Besides adding an intellectual log to the cultural fires engulfing the controversy of reading classical thoughts of dead white European males, I was struck by learning that I was an outsider. The great bulwark of these repositories of Western civilization had passed me by. Outside of the titles themselves, fewer than a third of these works were truly known to me.

An Insatiable Urge
An itch was spreading. It had to be scratched. William Bennett, the former education secretary and author of virtuous tales, would be proud of my newfound desire to partake of this formidable literature of our heritage. A remedial plan of attack was called for since the classics number too many to explore without a system. How to begin?

What I was looking for was a roadmap--a reading list similar to those we give to school children. My search led me to the newly released and aptly titled Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now. The author, Andrew Delbanco, was educated at Harvard University and now teaches humanities at Columbia University.

The writers selected for Delbanco's analysis are Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, Henry Adams, Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. Upon scanning the table of contents, my first reaction was what about Mark Twain, Walt Whitman or the other names I knew? My education had begun.

I should not have been surprised that Required Reading had not included some of my favorite books. As a seasoned superintendent, my experience with reading lists is that someone usually objects to the titles--too hard, too easy, these books are not in the library, content too mature for this age, students at this grade level will not find this book interesting, that's a title used in social studies and should not be used in English, etc. The selection of works for any required reading list is ultimately subjective.

Delbanco had selected these writers and books because they expanded the repertoire of American language and American political possibilities. These authors addressed both the ideas of human existence and the aesthetic delight of language.

Required Reading has a chapter on each of the aforementioned authors with a penetrating analysis more of style and prosody than the abstract themes of relationships and philosophical underpinnings. My own time as a student spent discussing any of the classics, which was slight, focused upon contemplation of viewpoints--those of the authors or audiences.

has a chapter on each of the aforementioned authors with a penetrating analysis more of style and prosody than the abstract themes of relationships and philosophical underpinnings. My own time as a student spent discussing any of the classics, which was slight, focused upon contemplation of viewpoints--those of the authors or audiences.

Gifted students often can participate in such dialogues without opening their books. The stress on comprehension by educators may be a culprit even for those who pore over every page. Without Delbanco's guidance, I would likely have picked up on the belief in transcendence common to these American writers, but my propensity to search for meaning would have caused me to overlook the joyful manipulation of words. That makes me half-a-reader.

I may have found one key to great literature. However, my ability to grasp the richness of the English language is below par compared to my own expectations for college-bound high school students. Solo practice is my main recourse, although I may start observing more high school literature teachers for the indirect benefits. A more daring strategy would be to enter the classroom as a student or as a substitute teacher.

A Personal Quest
The springboard to my dreamed-of destination reading, Nirvana, also published in 1997, was discovered on the pages of a Book-of-the-Month Club catalogue. My find was The New Lifetime Reading Plan, by Clifton Fadiman and John Major. Three previous editions published over a span of 40 years have introduced readers to the traditional Western canons. This version goes further with many more works by women and non-Western authors.

The New Lifetime Reading Plan has introductions to 130 of the most enduring aspects of world literature. Readers are inspired, educated and entertained with a taste of the classics. A few well-penned scientific writings are included for spice. Authors are cross-referenced to create pause for reflection and conversations across the ages. The chronological listings are presented in the neutral form of "Before Common Era" and "Common Era" rather than the Christian signatures of B.C. or A.D.

has introductions to 130 of the most enduring aspects of world literature. Readers are inspired, educated and entertained with a taste of the classics. A few well-penned scientific writings are included for spice. Authors are cross-referenced to create pause for reflection and conversations across the ages. The chronological listings are presented in the neutral form of "Before Common Era" and "Common Era" rather than the Christian signatures of B.C. or A.D.

The test of time is what determines when the label classic is applied. Since authors and their works move in and out of favor, some writing is herein appropriately termed as "temporary classics." Perhaps for that reason, 100 additional 20th century authors are briefly touched. The New Lifetime Reading Plan is a guide for those who enjoy the best literature or who want to complete their education. As I fall into the latter category, my enthusiasm for this work is hard to restrain. Others with a liberal arts background or more widely read than I, might quarrel with the selections.

In my own personal quest for the quality of life, the written word occupies a significant space. The New Lifetime Reading Plan maps out a route to the mother lode. I should have moved along this path earlier. My reading will now be more balanced and include more classic literature. My steps will be lively to catch up on a lifetime of reading.

Art Stellar is superintendent of the Kingston City Schools, 61 Crown Street, Kingston, N.Y. 12401. E-mail: kcsadmin@ulster.net