Banned Books and Novel Contexts

Undergraduate course, The University of Texas at Austin, Department of English, 2011

We will read a diverse, but relatively small selection of texts, all of which have at one time or another been banned for their content. The first two books we will read are novels, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; the first is short and disturbing, the second long and disturbing. We will then continue back in time, and shift to poetry, to the ecstatic transcendent chants of Walt Whitman. The last readings will be a very small fraction of the glory that is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which you will read in the original Middle English.

The purpose of this course is to prepare you for later literary studies courses. In order to accomplish this task, you will learn how to close read a text, how to do library research to support your own arguments, and learn about the broad outlines of historical and cultural criticism. Although the course is organized around literary works that have been banned and will, therefore, regularly engage the issues of literary value in cultural and historical context, the primary goal for this course is to teach you the basic skills you will need in future courses. You will learn, for example, how to close read a text through a lot of practice. You will discover, if you don’t already know, that things like commas and line breaks are meaningful and the basis for many an argument.