What We’ll Be Reading this Spring Semester

Today is the first day of the spring semester so I thought I’d give a run down of what we’ll be reading in my classes.

Western Civilization I

This class covers roughly the ancient and medieval world. We’ll be reading the same primary-source reader that I developed over the summer. This reader has excerpts from over a dozen texts. Highlights from the reader include Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Cicero’s “First Oration Against Catiline,” and Boccaccio’s description of the Black Death from The Decameron.

Western Civilization II

Western Civ II surveys the West from about 1500 to the present, which means we’ll talk about how our world became what it is today. I don’t teach Western Civ II that often, but when I do, I have a good time with it.

In Western Civ I, I make the students read excerpts, but in Western Civ II, I assign entire books that I think will help them understand the spirit of the age.

The first book we’ll read is The Turkish Letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq. Busbecq was the Holy Roman Emperors’ ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the middle of the sixteenth century. His mission was to settle relations with Suleiman the Magnificent, and his letters are full of observations on the land, customs, religion, and even the animals of Turkey. He also makes some interesting comparisons between western and eastern cultures. The book is also very entertaining (well entertaining from a historian’s point of view). One could argue that I should assign something by Martin Luther, but I talk so much about the Reformation in class that I figure students need a bit of a break.

For the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, we’ll read Voltaire’s Candide. Sure it’s a bit juvenile, but I think the Enlightenment as a whole was a bit juvenile. For the nineteenth century, we’ll read Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. It’s a challenging text, but I think the book raises interesting questions about freedom in a world that people were increasingly thinking of as being mechanistic. Our last book for the semester is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It’s a short, but powerful, novel about Communist Russia.

I’ve noticed that my readings for this class are a little angsty. We’ll manage.

Ancient Greece

My upper-level class on Ancient Greece has the longest reading list, and I’ve tried to represent all the appropriate genres—poetry, drama, philosophical dialogue, and history.

We’re going to start with Homer’s Iliad because it’s the book that told the Greeks what it meant to be Greek. And it’s awesome. (I’m Team Hector, by the way.)

In tragedy we’ll read Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and The Persians. In comedy, we’ll read Aristophanes’s The Clouds and Lysistrata. The Clouds is a cool little play because in it Aristophanes portrays Socrates as an old shyster.

We’ll get a different point of view on Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito.

We’re also going to read Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides was the greatest of the Greek historians—according to Thucydides anyway.

It breaks my heart to not read The Odyssey and to not read Herodotus, but I know that students are more likely to have read those books previously. And if they haven’t maybe they’ll be inspired to read them on their own.

So that’s what I’m going to be doing this semester.

If you’ve got book suggestions for future syllabuses or if you want to tell me about how awesome you think the Solzhenitsyn is, leave a comment or look me up on Twitter.

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