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Pregame the Texas Book Festival With These 50 Classics

We haven't crammed this hard since senior lit
Anne Harris, 4:31pm, Mon. Oct. 21, 2013

Do electric sheep dream of pathos? Rummage through Philip K. Dick with author Kevin Smokler, and they may.

Possibly the first self-help book to use literature as its prescription, Practical Classics serves as a primer for personal development, demonstrating how one may apply various literary tinctures to the more troublesome areas of the Human Condition. Sections include: working ("Bartleby in the Break Room"), family ("Why To Kill a Mockingbird Makes a Great Father's Day Gift"), growing up ("The Midlife Crisis of Huckleberry Finn"), as well as pain and loss (two words: Dorothy Allison). Smokler, who says that 20th century teaching practices drained him of all joy for reading, revisits previously assigned works from an older, more pointed outlook.

This reader, struck with a chuckle regarding how the much-eulogized David Foster Wallace's work might bring catharsis, is rewarded with an entire chapter, in the section called "Working," that examines identity in vocation through a reread of a cruise vacation piece titled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Meanwhile, a new appreciation for Amy Tan twists our perspective on family, as evidenced in her blockbuster, The Joy Luck Club, and unpredictably, an apt comparison is made of Spiegelman's Maus to the seminal film The Birth of a Nation. For the final list of these 50 books, Smokley drew from his own high school teachers' syllabi, the College Board's list of most-cited works in advanced-level English, and canonical works as prescribed by Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan and Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why. Though reading about rereading may seem esoteric, Smokler is no slouch. He is a terrific, if ponderous, essayist (Joyce Carol Oates "… is lean and fierce at eighteen pages; reading [her] is like looking a rat in the eye"), and he holds forth with confidence and a good slathering of wit about coping with our common, human plight.

Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School
by Kevin Smokler
Prometheus Books, 320 pp., $18 (paper)


Our full Texas Book Festival preview hits stands this Thursday. Keep up with all of our TBF coverage at austinchronicle.com/texas-book-festival.

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