Summer’s finally upon us. And after the crescendo of finals-induced stress it can be all too easy to sit back and settle into a 2-month mental check-out. But summer is the perfect time to explore the world around you simply for the sake of your own curiosity — to divorce yourself from the idea that the only purpose to learning is to be tested and graded.
This summer, follow your own interests and take a lesson from some of the best teachers in the world– great authors.
Whether your interest is science, history, or poetry, great literature is one of the best ways to enrich your mind and develop your skills. We’ve carefully selected five works of fiction that are not only addictively good (and relatively short) but have a particular skill or subject to teach. So find your favorite subject, dive in, and use this summer to sharpen your brain.
Notes from Underground
Short story by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Have you ever walked down a sidewalk or hallway and noticed someone approaching in your exact line of path and wondered who’s going to move to avoid a collision? Are you going to move aside in advance? Are they going to move? Are they going to force you to move by refusing to make way themselves? What makes them think that you need to move aside and not them? What does that say about the way they see you? And, for that matter, what does it say about you if you let them do this?
If you’ve never have the above dialogue with yourself, be prepared to have it every single time you walk down the street after reading this short story. Notes from Underground tells the first-person narrative of a reclusive mad man as he becomes gradually obsessed with this dilemma, which he undergoes every day with the same man at the same street corner in St. Petersburg. It’s a fantastic dive into the depths of human psychosis, obsession and social psychology, and will fundamentally question how you view yourself and your fellow human creatures.
Novel by Jane Austen
Teaches: Language and Writing skills
Jane Austen has one of the tightest writing styles you’ll ever read. She has an incredible deftness in her control of language that’s practically unmatched by any other author. The first chapter of Persuasion is rife with great examples of this.
Persuasion opens with an amusing introduction of Sir Walter Elliot, the heroine Anne’s father (“Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character”), and then goes on to contrast this with a description of Anne’s late mother:
“Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and amiable; whose judgment and conduct, if they might be pardoned the youthful infatuation which made her Lady Elliot, had never required indulgence afterwards.”
In this beautifully concise sentence Austen wraps together the whole of Lady Elliot’s history. Some of Austen’s sentences are so tightly, perfectly coiled with meaning that you’ll have to read them a few times over to unfold it all. Not only are Austen’s novels delightful and absorbing, she’s a great study in the use of language and can teach you to sharpen and focus your writing skills.
In the Penal Colony
Short story by Franz Kafka
“‘It’s a peculiar device,’ said the Officer to the Traveller, gazing with a certain admiration at the machine.”
This is how In the Penal Colony opens. The “device,” you soon learn, is an enormously complex execution machine.
If you’re a fan a Japan’s best-selling author Haruki Murakami, you might have learned at some point that Murakami is totally obsessed with Franz Kafka. He even has an entire novel that pays homage to his hero: Kafka on the Shore. It’s in this novel that Murakami offers one of the most brilliant explanations of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. It will immensely expand your appreciation of the story and explains Kafka’s unique approach to teaching sociology.
The novel’s main character (Kafka Tamura) is explaining to the librarian Oshima why In the Penal Colony is his favorite of Kafka’s many short stories:
“I think what Kafka does in that story is give a purely mechanical explanation of that complex machine as sort of a substitute for explaining the situation we’re in. What I mean is…” I have to give it some more thought. “What I mean is, that’s [Kafka’s] own method for explaining the kind of lives we lead. Not by talking about our situation, but by talking about the details of the machine.”
War and Peace, Volume III Part I Chapter 1
Novel by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace is generally thought of as the most daunting novel in Russian literature– and the stereotype basically holds true. Finishing the whole 1200-page book is a many-months commitment and a laborious affair, with a labyrinthe of characters and storylines. And while Tolstoy’s genius for character development shines through blindingly in Anna Karenina, his genius lies elsewhere in War and Peace. The real brilliance of this book is that it offers a completely unique understanding of what drives human history.
For this reason, anyone with even the slightest interest in studying history needs to read some of War and Peace. But you don’t need to start at the beginning and see how far you can get. Skip right ahead, about halfway through the book, to Volume III Part I Chapter 1.
This chapter is basically a stand-alone commentary on Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812– a fatal move that would eventually lead to his defeat and exile. Countless historians have asked, in retrospect, why Napoleon invaded Russia, why he sowed the seeds of his own demise. But Tolstoy flips this question on its head. He suggests that Napoleon and Emperor Alexander II of Russia actually had no free will in this event and were rather slaves to the “unconscious, swarmlike life of mankind” which we call “history.”
A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Short story by J.D. Salinger
Teaches: Literary analysis
It’s a good thing that this short story is indeed very short because it will require a good two or three read-throughs. The bends of its narrative are so strange and unexpected–flowing along so pleasantly at first and then careening off a cliff–that you’ll be forced to comb over it a few times to understand it as a whole.
Almost the entire story is dialogue–very natural, sparklingly funny dialogue. Salinger has an uncanny ability to paint the entire character of a person in a single line of speech. His characters are supremely real and loveable, but at the same time twisted and bizarre.
Without giving anything more away, A Perfect Day for Bananafish is a fantastic way to exercise your literary analysis powers with a story that’s sweet, simple and so powerful it will leave a permanent imprint.