New Video: All 38 of Shakespeare’s Plays Ranked

Since putting it up here over two years ago, my post grading and ranking the plays of Shakespeare has become by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written. It’s been the #1 post here almost every day since then.

Last week, I got an email from a guy who said that he’d recently turned 60 and set a goal of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. He looked online for guidance, found my post, and wanted to tell me that following it was genuinely helpful.

So, making a video version is overdue.

A lot of people have told me that I’m too fast and hyper when I narrate videos, so I purposely made this one slow and mellow. I’m not super happy with the result, but let’s see what the world thinks.

Enjoy!

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Two Nice Student Notes

One class recently finished a unit on Romanticism. After a couple of days on Transcendentalism, I sent them out into our quad to take notes on as much “nature” as they could find there, with directions to imitate the style of Thoreau. The last section of the notes focused on drawing life lessons from these observations, like Thoreau did in Walden.

One girl turned in her notes with this awesome little addendum at the end. Clearly, she got the point. I drew the smiley face.

note1

Another girl turned hers in with this attachment:

note2

The New York Times Crossword

One of the little perks of my job is having access to free copies of the New York Times, because I love the crossword. This is from Monday of this week–Monday puzzles are easy, but still fun. I admit, I love the puns in the theme answers (23 Across: “Article of outerwear for a champagne drinker? Bubblewrap” 53 Across: “Article of outerwear for a General Motors employee? Chevy Blazer”).

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The Versatility of Virginia Woolf

This wonderful woman knew every possible combination of words and then some. I don’t think she ever used the same sentence structure twice. She took the same basic raw materials of grammar that we all know, and turned them into complex prose masterpieces that defy any attempt to discern the nature of their creation. They’re like the notes that become a majestic symphony or the biological building blocks that become the most deftly graceful organism.

[On reading To The Lighthouse for the first time.]

Salvador Dali and More at UNLV’s Barrick Museum

The Marjorie Barrick Museum at UNLV is celebrating its 50th anniversary with three cool new exhibits. Since I walk past it all the time and it’s free, I figured I should check them out. The most interesting one to me is the collection of Salvador Dali illustrations of classic literature.

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I knew right away I’d like this room! Tangential anecdote: back in my 2nd or 3rd year teaching, I thought it would be funny to put a sign with this quote over my classroom door. My principal disagreed and made me take it down.

The illustrations are to each volume of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Boccaccio’s Decameron. Each display gets turned to new pages twice weekly, so I suppose I’ll drop back in each time I’m on campus the rest of this semester. Go a minute out of my way to see more original Dali work up close? Yes, please.

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Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

“Naughty Baggage”

I’m currently teaching The Scarlet Letter, which uses the insult “naughty baggage” in chapter 2. I told the students that I’d never seen the term before, but that it clearly meant “bad woman” (as a weirdly high number of English words do).

But then I remembered–I own a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary! A nearby library was selling it used last September for $20. I talked them down to 15. A 99% savings on the cover price.

Anyway, here’s part of the relevant entry for “baggage.” Note the definitions: “a worthless good-for nothing woman; a woman of disreputable or immoral life,” “trashy, worthless, beggary, trumpery, despicable,” among others. Also note that all of them are marked “obsolete!”

All uses of the #naughtybaggage hashtag are clearly people also reading this book. I encouraged my students to get it trending, but alas, no dice so far. Maybe you could help?

#NAUGHTYBAGGAGE

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Some Funny Student Writing

Last month I taught a lesson on parallelism as a rhetorical writing tool. At the end, I assigned students to come up with some examples of their own, based on templates I gave them. Here are some of my favorites:

  • There should be a woman in tears, running from the past; a man in love, chasing the girl; and a person in agony, awaiting the end.
  • It is not nice to play with dead bodies, to talk with them, or to dance with them.
  • Kermit the frog abuses his fame, ignores his children, and denies his dependence on PCP.
  • There should be a cat in labor, birthing the kittens; a dog in heat, attracting the males; and a centipede in solitude, contemplating the electoral college.
  • Obama created life, destroyed the housing market, and ate my parents.
  • Mr. Huston was a huge fan of showing the “relevant” episodes of The Simpsons, spoiling the Star Wars episodes, and disappointing the sociopaths of fourth period with bad jokes :)

Scarlet Letter / Trump Joke

slI love dropping bits of pop culture and current events into my classes. They often involve insulting famous people–it’s not personal or ideological, but teachers need to make things relevant and interesting, especially dry 19th century novels.

Today, as one class started their unit on The Scarlet Letter, I read the beginning with them and then summarized the flashback at the end of chapter 2:

“So this story is about a beautiful young woman who escaped poverty and married a deformed older man whose wealth gave her a life of travel and luxury.” I paused and they knew some punchline was coming.

“And then she became first lady of the United States.”

The REALLY Old Farmer’s Almanac

978053I recently read the Latin poet Virgil’s work The Georgics, a four-part poem about the world of rural shepherds. Pretty decent pastoral stuff, especially part I.

Still, with its emphasis on astrology, agriculture, and animal husbandry, I felt like I was reading an ancient Roman version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Allegorical Readings of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

7ac78a6837587-560b93258816dWhat if the world of The Road isn’t a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but is just the same world around us? What if, morally and spiritually, we’re already living in the nightmarish hellscape of that novel?

The Man’s and the Boy’s journey isn’t archetypal, then, so much as it’s symbolic for each of us, trying to make our way through life in a society that in many ways is falling apart. McCarthy’s rapacious marauders are actually just the neighbors in our own communities. The devastated environment is the poisonously corrosive culture in which we all now live.

The Road could simply be about life in America in the early 21st century. Our protagonists are in the same position as many who try to preserve the heritage of civilization today.

Or, if we want a more specific application, maybe the wife-and-mother’s suicide was the major catastrophe that soured the world, and wasn’t due to it. The world only changed for these two men. Because of her loss, the world becomes this twisted, broken shell of its former self. The Man’s and the Boy’s journey is just them trying to soldier on in the wake of a lingering grief that they can’t escape. The novel proceeds from their vantage point, and everything else in the world is seen through the soiled lenses they now wear.

And you thought this book couldn’t get any sadder!

Symbolic Book Titles

I just had the idea to list books where the title is also the book’s chief symbol. So far I have:

  1. The Catcher in the Rye
  2. Lord of the Flies
  3. Ulysses
  4. The Bluest Eye
  5. The Bell Jar
  6. The Color Purple
  7. The Maltese Falcon

Please add more in the comments.

I’d also like to make lists of books where the title is an allusion (The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury) and where the title is a complete sentence (Death Comes For the Archbishop, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

Anna Karenina

0451524497I don’t know if there’s ever been a bigger gap between how much I loved the writing in a book with how little I cared about the story.

Anna Karenina is a thousand-page soap opera. That’s about it. There’s a good couple and a bad couple. Things happen.

But hardly a chapter went by where I wasn’t floored by Tolstoy’s incredible insights into human nature. His talent for seeing into souls and painting them perfectly on the page is practically supernatural.

Anna Karenina had some of the same major story beats from War and Peace: the long aristocratic hunting vacation, the good man who publicly calls out the scoundrel who’s acting inappropriately towards his wife, the overt Christian sermonizing in the final act, the angelic woman who tends to a dying man.

That last part was by far my favorite part of the book. Perhaps it’s a cliché, but Tolstoy is never better than when he’s writing about death.

Are we supposed to sympathize with Anna? I didn’t like her husband at first, either, but he really does turn out to be a decent man, I thought. Clearly, this is a cautionary tale, but still, I would have called the book Kitty Levina.

My Year in Books: 2016

I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!

1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (2/6, literature, Garnett trans.)–A+

3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F

5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C

6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B

7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C

8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C

9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B

10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A

11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A

12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+

13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A

14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B

15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C

16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B

17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+

18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B

19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+

20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D

21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+

22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C

23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B

24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C

25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F

26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A

27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A

28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A

29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B

30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C

31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B

32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+

33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C

34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+

35.  A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B

36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A