Reading to Live

"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." —Victor Hugo

"I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me." —Ralph Waldo Emerson

"If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking." —Haruki Murakami

Inside the Classroom

The central question of the course is the following: Why do literature and books matter? We tend to think of fiction—whether it is novels, films, plays, or more hybrid forms of storytelling—as a product of the imagination: in other words, a "re-presentation" of the world, and thus, a source of information that is, by its very nature, less trustworthy and valuable than other more scientific ways of accessing and analyzing the world that surrounds us.

This course is designed for students who love to read and love to talk about books, but it is not a traditional literature course.

The course will explore the extent to which fiction can enhance (and often inform) our understanding of complex political, social, and personal issues. Students will discover and discuss new categories of analysis that will help them understand why fictional depictions of social values, character behavior, and moral choices can make both practical and theoretical contributions to the question of how we, as readers and social actors, might want to live our lives.

In our weekly seminars, we will spend time discussing how what we have read has changed us and has changed our understanding of the world. In this class, you can expect to read novels and watch films that you won't be able to forget and to explore ideas that will matter during the rest of your college years and beyond. We will read novels written in English, but we will also read works in translation coming from different national traditions. We will privilege reading well over reading a lot. And there won't be any busy work or assignments that do not help you learn or grow as a thoughtful reader.

Outside the Classroom

Travel for this SSIR experience is different every year. In 2014-2015, students participated in a "reading retreat" in Arizona and traveled to New York City to visit the Special Collections Room at the New York Public Library. In 2016-2017, students traveled by train from Chicago to the West Coast and explored the legacy of the Beat Generation in San Francisco. In 2019-2020, students spent five days in Lisbon studying Portuguese authors Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago. And in 2021-2022, students traveled to Palm Springs and Los Angeles to think about how desert and city spaces are represented in literary works.

Research and Capstone Project

Over the course of the fall semester, students carry out research culminating in a research paper on one topic due at the end of the semester. Over the spring semester, students work in groups with their classmates to create a capstone project and subsequent presentation to the University community on those projects.

Sample Course Readings

Readings for this class change every year based on student interests and on the location of the class trip. You can expect to read recent works of fiction (and perhaps a few works of non-fiction) from all over the world.

Readings from recent “Reading to Live” courses:

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Ruth Ozeki, Tale for the Time Being

Gael Faye, Small Country

Karen Tei Yamashita, Tropics of Orange

Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny

Han Kang, The Vegetarian

Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies

Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive