A Book Worth Reading

We all know the feeling; everything becomes secondarily important until every word is read, from cover to cover. Good books have an incredible knack for climbing the priority ladder in our lives, no matter how high that ladder may be. Harry Potter, Twilight, Eragon—hell, even 50 Shades of Grey (perhaps for different reasons)—may have once made a mockery of our priorities for a short time while we read them.

How often, however, are great books read for school? How often does a professor assign a book that completely consumes us? And before people ask—no, Moby Dick and other books that bear the oft-questionable label of “classic” do not qualify. It is an egregious violation of the integrity of academia that a book of the caliber described above is scarcely used in a classroom or educational setting.

The book that prompted this article was the first assigned book for my History of Paris and London class. It isn’t a classic like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (although that “classic” certainly deserves its label), nor is it about anything particularly interesting (it's about disease in 1850s London). What it is, however, is an absolutely terrific, put-everything-else-on-hold read.

In a recent conversation with my professor, the one who assigned this book, she explained the thought process behind the selection of the literature for her classes. “People want to be educated,” she told me; that was a comment that I thought would resonate with most CMCers. What her first book assignment made me realize, however, is that the desire for education is not divorced from the desire to enjoy education. An appetite for learning need not be satiated by unentertaining, boring books that are deemed to be “healthy” for a student’s educational wellbeing.

Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World is masterfully written, incredibly engaging, and more relevant to the class than any historical textbook has ever been in any of my prior classes. Johnson tells the story of a disastrous, deadly outbreak of cholera in London in the 1850s. Although the book is rich with history, the most critical aspect of the book is simple: as opposed to regurgitating dates and turning points of the event in question, Johnson tells a story. By focusing on characters instead of events, Johnson manipulates information to create a suspenseful atmosphere—always rooted in fact—that has his audience (me) turning pages voraciously to find out how the story of a relatively unknown historical event developed.

The point begging to be addressed here is that Johnson, although a marvelous writer and one of my new favorites, cannot be the only author to write an examination of history in an entertaining fashion. Simply put, there must be other books derived from historical events as riveting as The Ghost Map. Wherever they are, these works of art must be actively sought out by professors and used, exploited even, for their wonderful ability to capture students’ interests, imaginations, and, ultimately, attentions. It’s a natural progression: If students love the book, they read the material. When they actually read the material, as opposed to skimming it, they engage with the information presented and understand it. Class discussions become much more spirited, stimulating, and fun.

“Engaging with information is cool and all, but what about grades?” asks the rare CMCer concerned with tangible academic performance. Well, should you be faced with the sensational prospect of being assigned a great book, I implore you to see if the marriage of paper-writing and material you understand doesn’t make the academic process infinitely easier.

The sheer pleasure that comes from reading a good book transcends the reason for which it is read. “Literature and life have an interplay with each other,” said my professor, and given that we spend a good deal of our CMC lives in intimate contact with literature, shouldn’t we be granted the opportunity to participate in that interplay — with a book worth reading?