Like any good hipster, I was a hipster before they were a thing, and I was into listsicles before they were cool* — see, for instance, my Top Ten Dreams of 2004, and my Enemies List of 2005.** So, even though I haven’t dabbled in this noble oeuvre since the mid-aughts (and, correspondingly, my mid-twenties, ha!), I thought I would take a break from civilly discussing why everybody hates me, and revive the Overly Specialized Listsicle and make it even more specialized. So, without further ado, here are:
Top Ten German Books I Like To Teach Skeptical Undergraduates
1. Feuchtgebiete (eng: Wetlands), Charlotte Roche. Roche’s shock-porn debut novel — aka Fifty Shades of Gross, which centers on the fallout of a sexually-experimental 18-year-old schoolgirl’s anus-shaving accident — is so obscene that I recommend having students sign a release before you assign it, attesting that they are 1) 18 years of age or older, and b) aware in advance of how obscene the book is. This is especially important if you teach where there is a culture of prudery viz. talking about sex, and it has the added bonus of making your students think that whatever you’re about to hand out is exciting, being too hot for the classroom and all. I taught a course during my final year at OSU called “Sex and/or the City,” where I had students sign such a form on the first day. Imagine students’ disappointment when the first thing I sent them home with was…
2. The Nibelungenlied, anonymous. Since I am a normal person, I neither teach nor can really read Mittelhochdeutsch, so this is for courses in translation only. Nowadays, we know the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) primarily through its operatic incarnations, specifically Wagner’s Ring Cycle—or, in my case, the Elmer Fudd version thereof (“Kill the wabbit/Kill the wabbit/Kill the wabbit!”). But the story of Siegfried (dragon-slayer), Brünnhilde (superhuman strength), Kriemhild (fairest maiden in the land), and Gunther and Hagen (murderers) actually dates back at least to the thirteenth Century, when the Nibelungenlied appeared in print. Today everything is “epic,” but the Nibelungenlied is an actual epic — a marvelously long (or, if you ask my students, “torturously long”) poem that tantalizes us with, as per its introductory stanza, wonders many told/Of heroes rich in glory,/of trials manifold, not to mention the requisite “weeping and woe.”
3. Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher), Elfride Jelinek. Ostensibly, Nobel prize winners take home the big Smorgasbord for their lifelong body of work, but everyone knows that it’s usually for one book (Beloved, The Tin Drum, etc). Jelinek won the Prize in 2004 and everyone knows it’s for Die Klavierspielerin, which is an un-put-downable story of a psychologically terrorized (and terrorizing) young woman, her sexual predilections, her cutting, and her awful relationship with her mother (which may or may not be the direct cause of the aforementioned). Many students have experience with both self-harm and abusive parents, so although I personally despise the phrase “trigger warning,” it is advisable to discuss the more upsetting themes of this book before you hand it out, and be sensitive to those students who may identify with it in all of the most painful ways.
4. Jakob von Gunten, Robert Walser. The best thing about Walser’s masterpiece (which is about a boarding school for butlers where no classes are held, and students don’t graduate so much as they benignly stop showing up) is that the language is crisp and direct enough that you can assign it in German to third-year or bridge-course students and have a perfectly great discussion about its predominant themes. If you assign it in translation, then you’ll be stuck (or delighted) talking about Walser’s language of eternal self-negation, and that can make students’ heads a little explodey, but it’s usually worth it.
5. Die Marquise von O and/or Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist. Self-explanatory (or, at any rate, you can see these extremely lengthy explanations from the past).
6. Manifest der kommunistischen Partei, Karl Marx (excerpts only). Because every college professor must indoctrinate her students into Marxism or she’ll be cast out of the Club. No, seriously though, today Marx is a curse word, in which I mean it’s bandied about on the 24-hour news cycle like an actual curse, back and forth between talking heads until it sticks to someone and brands them as an inveterate Pinko America-hater forever. Students will be delighted and/or aghast to realize that many of Marx’s descriptions of capital and alienated labor apply to their jobs at Sunglass Hut today — and they don’t have to advocate full armed revolution to be mindful of who controls the Produktionsmittel.
7. Geschlecht und Character (Sex and Character), Otto Weininger, if only to watch their eyes pop out of their heads at its inappropriateness.
8. Der Proceß (The Trial), Franz Kafka. I have read this book so many times, and spent so much time thinking about it and over-thinking it and over-specializing about it, that it is nothing less than pure unadulterated joy to watch students read it for the first time — even if they hate it. Enough always like it (or at any rate waaaay identify with Josef K for some angsty reason or another) to make any time I’ve ever taught it more than worthwhile. Some students are simply proud of themselves for getting through it, because it is a difficult text. In German I wouldn’t teach it except in the most advanced classes.
9. Die Physiker (The Physicists), Friedrich Dürrenmatt. This one is an absolute gem for advanced-beginning German language classes: Do a dramatic reading! Assign roles! Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! Give extra credit for props and convincing emoting. Show up to class in a beret, sunglasses and turtleneck, and proclaim: DAS THEATER!!!!! The students who get really into it will learn a lot about the Cold War and German compound nouns. The ones who don’t get into it? Well, you’ll enjoy forcing them to pretend to be enthusiastic for DAS THEATER!
10. Faust, Motherfuckers! Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Yes, it’s a cliche, but there’s a reason for that. The story of Faust (a.k.a. “Faustus” or “Dr. Faustus”), unsatisfied genius who makes a deal with the Devil in exchange for untold glory and might, had been written many times over by the time Goethe got his mitts on it in 1797, but what he did with it was nothing short of astounding. Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus kept him second fiddle to Shakespeare—but Goethe’s Faust: A Tragedy made him “the German Shakespeare,” and singlehandedly made German not just an acceptable literary language, but a triumphant one. Why? Well, Faust has everything: a dog that (spoiler alert!) is really Mephistopheles; an old man who magicks himself young; a young woman who has that old man’s baby and then (spoiler alert!) drowns it in a pond; drinking, more magic, witches, and Walpurgisnacht (a Bacchanal in the mountains), rendered in virtuosic, hypnotic, acrobatic verse that expresses everything from terrifying might to deepest sadness, all while rhyming. In German. If you are only going to read one work of German literature in your entire life, then please, for the love of every deity referenced in this magnificent dramatic poem, make it motherfucking Faust.
*Part of this statement is a lie. Maybe all of it. You decide.
**For an extra and unintended dose of heartbreak, look how joyously, unmitigatedly excited I am about starting my PhD back then. It really tears me up to read that, but also makes me kind of want to cheer then-me on, wistfully: You GO with your naive self, Schuman.