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books in the library

Reprise of essential reading list brings new books — and new questions about books


Published September 8, 2015

“One of the reasons for teaching Sophocles is not simply what he says about Greek culture, but to study the emergence of this form called drama and to begin exploring what plays see that novels don’t.”
Ken Dauber, professor
Department of English

What would you consider to be the Top 10 books that a college student should read? UB English professor Ken Dauber has an answer.

Dauber’s class, Top 10 Books, is comprised of selections from a poll of what he and many of his fellow faculty members consider essential reading for college students.

“This course is a remarkable course,” he says.

Dauber previously taught the course in 1999 and 2000. He leads each class after other faculty members have introduced the texts that are specific to their discipline.

The basic structure for this semester will be the same.  The lists will not, and their differences have raised many questions for Dauber.

He remains excited about revisiting for the first time in 15 years a class that he enjoys teaching, but like all good teachers, he enthusiastically reflects on the issues inherent to his subject matter.

To be fair, the list capturing Dauber’s attention is not the product of science. It’s more a deckle-edged work of art, a faculty collaboration splashed with suggestions that beg interpretation more than they support firm conclusions, and Dauber reads the list as he might read the books that appear on it.

To understand how much the lists have changed, Dauber overlays the current selections with the suggested titles that failed to make this semester’s cut, a process that produces a dissonance the noted scholar wasn’t hearing 15 years ago.

“We have clearly tilted, and in a significant way,” he says, waving his unlit cigar as though on a board. “It’s not that books aren’t still important, but their place in the university and across the country is in some way challenged.”

Today’s list is broader, more diverse in its sensibilities, but not to the extent that it can be read as a complete revision of its predecessors. The final tabulated lists from then and now still have similarities, but only in the aggregate, seen in the many lists populated with nine surprises, but rounded out by “Hamlet” or “The Odyssey,” the top vote-getters in 1999, 2000 and 2015.

But these individual submissions varied tremendously.

Forty-two percent of the lists included none of the books that were finally selected. Twenty percent of the individual lists included only one of the books on the final list and another 15-percent included just two books.

“That very much suggests personal preference,” says Dauber. “The questions certainly read by many of the faculty are not what books are necessary reading, but what books have I liked, that have been meaningful to me.

“There is less of a sense than in 1999 that these selections constitute a core of necessary reading.”

Dauber is quick to factor history into his analysis.

The turn of the millennium inspired the placement of cultural markers, and much of the literary discussion at the time centered on debate over the canon. Should it be constant? Does the existing canon lack diversity? Should there be a different canon?

“Now canonicity itself has been called into question,” he says. “We’re not arguing over what the canon is or should be, but if there should even be a canon.”

Only two 20th-century books are on the current list — Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — yet close to 60 percent of the individual lists had 20th- and 21st-century books, some fiction, some non-fiction. Some good books and other not-so-good books, he says.

For Dauber, this represents an opening to new possibilities, but one that comes at the expense of consequentiality and determining if a book is important because it had consequences for other books.

With so many contemporary suggestions, consequentiality becomes less important than what currently is interesting to individual readers.

Personal preference is not the same as a judgment of what counts, says Dauber.

“That distinction has very much faded.”

Dauber says books increasingly are seen as transparent to the issue they’re talking about.

“One of the reasons for teaching Sophocles is not simply what he says about Greek culture, but to study the emergence of this form called drama and to begin exploring what plays see that novels don’t.”

But it doesn’t matter if it’s a play, a novel or a poem. It’s the issue that counts.

That means the book as a “book” doesn’t mean as much and the labor of the writer working to get the book right is lost, according to Dauber.

“This is a problem to my mind and it’s one that universities need to address in some deliberative way,” he says. “Either ratify that shift away from the book and toward the issue on intellectual and cultural grounds, or try to counteract it.”

“I don’t think that discussion has really occurred.”

Top10 Books, 2015

“Hamlet,” Shakespeare

“The Odyssey,” Homer

“Crime and Punishment,” Dostoevsky

“To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee

“Beloved,” Toni Morrison

“Pride and Prejudice,” Jane Austen

“Huckleberry Finn,” Mark Twain

The Bible

The Declaration of Independence

“The Republic,” Plato


Books from 1999 and 2000 not on the current list

“Anna Karenina,” Tolstoy

“Moby Dick,” Melville

“On the Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin

“Ulysses,” James Joyce

“The Interpretation of Dreams,” Sigmund Freud