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Monday, September 20, 2021

English Professor Tobias Menely’s favorite reads

ZOË REINHARDT / AGGIE

Get new recommendations for fiction, poetry

The Aggie sat down with English professor Tobias Menely to discuss favorite books, genres and poetry. He is currently teaching “Introduction to Modern Literacy & Critical Theory” and “18th Century Literature” and will be teaching “Milton and Blake” in Fall of 2017. Check out the interview below for some new book recommendations and more.

The Aggie: Is there a particular genre that you like to read?

Professor Menely: I’ve been reading a lot of science fiction.

The Aggie: Are there any specific authors that you like?

Professor Menely: I’ve been reading a lot of novels by a local Davis sci-fi writer, Stanley Robinson. He’s considered one of the greatest sci-fi writers. His most famous novels are the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars and Green Mars) and they tell the story of the colonization of Mars. It’s just really interesting because it’s about these colonists are not only thinking about the implications of creating an atmosphere and biosphere for Mars, but they’re also thinking about new systems of political economy, new kinds of government and the economic systems. It’s basically all about revolution, and the possibility of revolution. There’s this suggestion that Earth (in Stan’s books) in the future is still defined by conflict and capitalism, and nothing’s really changed — it all gets worse. So the colonization of Mars becomes this occasion to re-think the basis of society.

The Aggie: How do you recommend that students find out about other genres and writers? How do you find things that you like to read?

Professor Menely: I read the London Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The LARB. I think one of the things that they [undergraduates] can do is to read the journals and magazines like [these] which present them with new literature, new art and the world of ideas.

The Aggie: Is there a book you’re currently reading/recently read that you are enjoying?

Professor Menely: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante are really good; she’s just one of those writer who is a realist. In the first of the four Neapolitan Novels, she’s describing these girls who are growing up in Naples in the ‘50s and they have very different personalities, and they’re grappling with historical change, their economic conditions — they come from working-class families. And I think that a lot of times, realist novels present us with characters who have some kind of unique capacity to see the world and to know the world, and these characters are like that. I think that we all do have that, that ability to see the world for what it is, or see the world in its strangeness, and its mysteriousness, and these little moments of luminosity that appear.

In [her] work, every word is in the right place and is doing something precise, and that’s part of the pleasure of reading her novels. There’s this perfection in the use of language, and that’s part of what’s amazing about it. You can kind of see what a word can do to generate a view of reality and what precisely the use of raw language can do.

The Aggie: How do you like to read books? Do you use post-its, highlight, etc.?

 

Professor Menely: I read every night before bed for personal reading. I’m usually reading a contemporary novel, or I’m reading The New Yorker or the London Review of Books. And when I read for class, I read with a pen or pencil in my hand and mark up the text, which I really push my students to do, just because it makes you get closer to the text and notice what’s happening. Because there is a difference between reading for pleasure — and for all sorts of things — and reading for class with the intention of possibly writing a paper. So to mark that difference, you have a pen in hand, and part of what that allows you to do is to highlight those moments in the text where there is something concentrated happening. When you’re reading just for pleasure, the whole text just kind of washes over you, and when you’re reading critically for a class, you’ve got to be able to take the text apart and find that moment where something special is going on that explains everything else.

The Aggie: Is there a book that you believe should be required reading?

Professor Menely: Everybody should read The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The great 19th century realist writers in England — George Elliott, in France — Balzac, in Russia —Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. What they’re able to do is to range across different scales, so you can think about the great sweep of society, and of history and of class conflict. But then you can also think about the experience of being an individual, grappling with some sense of guilt, or whatever kind of inner things we’re dealing with. So there’s this kind of commitment to realism, to realist detail and to describing history, and people in their historical setting. There’s also this willingness to treat individuals in the fullness of what it means to be an individual with their own conscious.

The Aggie: What is your favorite novel?

Professor Menely: My own favorite novel is Passage to India by E.M. Forster. I’ve read it a number times — and taught it too. I think Forster is kind of an undervalued writer, and he’s as great as Joyce. Passage to India allows for some kind of gap in understanding that people have to find a way to work around because it can never be overcome between these different characters and the different worldviews that they bring. There’s a kind of gap and you can’t overcome it just through conversation, because conversation creates all sorts of misunderstanding.

 

Written by: Pari Sagafi — arts@theaggie.org

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