Rated 5 out of 5 by RoyT Surprisingly Captivating
I got this course despite earlier dismissing it as unnecessary, assuming it would likely be a fussy series of lectures about something I have been doing well (or, so I thought) for decades. After listening to Professor Spurgin’s TC course on ‘The English Novel’, however, I was eager for more by him and followed that up with the ‘Art of Reading’. I am so glad I broke through those assumptions about my abilities and spent 12 useful, absorbing, and entertaining hours with Professor Spurgin. For me, this has been a breakthrough course. Not that I had previously been a failure at reading “serious” literature, but I had not been going about it “artfully” enough, had not been patient and sensitive enough to fully appreciate what the author had created.
Professor Spurgin goes right to the heart of the matter in distinguishing artful reading from everyday reading and how important it is for us to take our reading to a higher level. If we go about reading literature in the same direct and often unreflective way in which we read the newspaper and e-mails, we are going to miss out on a great deal in those short stories and novels, both in content and in enjoyment. This was not an entirely new idea for me, and over the years I stumbled on to and/or developed some of the practices advocated by Professor Spurgin. But the great value of this course is how Professor Spurgin brings everything you might need together to become a more artful reader. He does this in a well-crafted series of lectures that incrementally takes you up the ladder of knowledge and skill, with every lecture enlivened and illustrated with exceptionally good excerpts from a wide range of literature. A side benefit of this course is being introduced to a number of new authors, not only the well-known classic authors but also excellent contemporary ones as well. Though this is a course primarily for readers, it has a great deal in it that would be useful to aspiring fiction writers as well. In fact, at several points in the lectures Professor Spurgin pitches his remarks to them.
It is hard for me to believe that I actually enjoyed discussions of such elements of fiction writing as diction, subtexts, character development, dialogue, free indirect discourse (fondly referenced as FID), narrative voices, plots and stories, and summary and scene. But I did. Considering the subjects, these were not the tortured and complicated lectures one might expect. This is because Professor Spurgin related the subject of each lecture to specific works of fiction, from which he quotes often and sometimes at significant length. I was surprised to learn, for instance, that there are two master plots in fiction, the stranger comes to town and hero takes a journey, and that short stories and novels need a destabilizing event that knocks the characters off balance and set the plot in motion. I never really thought about these and a great number of related matters, though I suppose much in this course is no great revelation to literature majors.
Professor Spurgin labors throughout to give us what we need to know in order to better appreciate literature. He “…challenge[s] two common misconceptions: first, that smart, sensitive readers are born, not made; and second, that sophistication and intelligence are the sworn enemies of pleasure and delight. From start to finish, it should be clear that the art of reading can be taught—and that mastering this art is both exciting and rewarding” (Course Guidebook, Page 1).
Among the many easy practices that Professor Spurgin recommends (and elaborates upon in the lectures) are pre-reading; giving the book a 50 page test before rejecting it; stopping a third of the way through “…to take stock, formulate questions, and make predictions… think about the characters and plot…[and] take time to reread the first chapter to see if they seem different this time…[as well as] close reading, which is looking at a passage and thinking about the language ” (Page 79). There’s a great deal more, but Professor Spurgin cautions against trying to apply all the tools and practices to every book, “Instead, let yourself play it by ear when deciding what to focus on” (Page 78). There are significant depths to this course, as well, and it could have an impact on you as you develop into an artful reader. As Professor Spurgin notes, “In time, this sort of reading inevitably forces you to confront yourself. You see that you have underestimated a character in a story by Chekhov, or Mansfield, or O’Connor—and you ask yourself how you let that happen. What set of prejudices or presuppositions was operating there? What made you feel superior to that sort of person? What made you so sure that your own life was so different?” (Page 78). Moreover, there are “… practical benefits to this sort of reading. It sensitizes you to language and makes you more alert to verbal nuance and texture. This in turn can feed back into your own writing. It inevitably forces you to confront yourself. Finally, it helps you to accept yourself” (Page 80-81).
I do not want to go too far in describing the course content, and hopefully what I have written provides sufficient hints of scope and depth. I should note, however, that not only is Professor Spurgin a top-notch lecturer, but he is also quite personable and regularly anticipates questions. He makes sure that the lectures have some fun and interesting content. For instance, in lecture six on style, Professor Spurgin demonstrates how Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might handle writing about “feeding the dog” (a laugh out loud moment for me), and in lecture eighteen he shows why film adaptations of literature often do not work out well, using the example of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (the TV version falling far short, while the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ comes surprisingly close to the impact of Conrad’s story). In the last lecture he has great suggestions for book club participants, and even book-related games for families and friends. What more could you want in a course on reading and writing?
I highly recommend this course!
November 15, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Moshen Entertaining and instructive, But...
I am not sure who the intended audience for this course was. It seemed to be pitched at a high school level or for undereducated adults who approach literature with trepidation. Maybe it was designed for members of book clubs who feel inadequate at their club meetings?
The professor had a clear voice and a supremely confident manner, but this was overdone to the point that at times he was almost unbearably condescending.
Despite those flaws, I enjoyed the course. It's a nice survey of fundamental concepts for approaching and appreciating quality fiction. Examples were well-chosen and varied, including some well-known American and British novels and short stories as well as some Russian ones. I liked the professor's creative little thought experiments and felt they added interest to his topics.
I'd read EM Forster and a few of the other works of criticism he cited, but nevertheless I still learned a few points that will inform my future fiction reading.
If you read a lot but never formally took English classes, you may find this course valuable.
September 24, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by BGZRedux A Fine Intro to Literature Course
This is exactly the course that ought to be taught to every high school student in the country, or to college freshmen if they missed it in high school.
It covers the very basics of reading literature, from figuring out the difference between the author and the narrator, to essential plot analysis (the characteristics of the beginning, middle, and end, a la Aristotle, and the contrast between the story and the plot), to the difference between showing and telling (scene and summary), to a consideration of various components of realism (presentation, content, psychological, and moral), to some very brief and simplistic analysis of works from short stories to "War and Peace" (yes, "War and Peace" in 30 minutes), and much else besides.
All of this is important for anyone desiring to appreciate literature - that is, the stuff some pretentious bookstores put in the "literature" as opposed to the "fiction" section. None of it is deep or complex; once the points are made they will often seem obvious. Yet many get through our educational system without ever considering how to appreciate and enjoy reading. It is for these folks that this course is ideal.
At the same time, if you have had a few good English lit teachers, in high school or college, you have likely learned most of what is covered here, and the course may not be worth your time or money.
Professor Spurgin speaks very well, with excellent voice control and modulation that helps keep your interest, even if it is obvious he's reading from a teleprompter. He is well organized - perhaps too well organized, in that he is constantly telling us what we are going to do and what we have done, far more than is helpful. Also, as another reviewer has noted, he often sounds like he is talking to elementary schoolers, given the level of many of his comments and the unnecessary yet frequent tag questions. You know what I mean, right?
Perhaps most disappointing, the discussion of evaluation in lecture 20 was extremely simplistic, and covered only the evaluation of theme, ignoring all of the other components of literature which he has been covering.
(As a small aside, I also found his analysis of "Bliss" in lecture 7 to be completely wrong-headed, and his explanation of ambiguity in the same lecture to be, well, ambiguous, if not just wrong. I'd appreciate hearing others' comments on this.)
And I agree with others that the Course Guidebook is pitifully short and unhelpful.
So - Yes, I do recommend this course, even recommend it highly, for beginning students of literature, at whatever stage of life you may be at. Those with more experience in this area may be disappointed. In any case, enjoy your reading.
September 19, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by Ythrix Reading and writing ideas
Solid course, helpful for readers of all experience levels and even for aspiring (fiction) writers. The course both introduced concepts that were new to me and also gave explicit names and definitions to some of my previous intuitions about reading. The range of topics seemed very appropriate, as was the length of the course for the material. However, for some reason I usually felt ready for the lectures to end about 5-6 minutes before they were finished.
Professor Spurgin's descriptions were clearly understandable; he used analogies well to help clarify several of them.
As a bonus, I added several of the discussed works to my reading list.
May 13, 2016