Crash Course English Literature Part 1

Welcome to English Literature Crash Course! Our tour guide is John Green, New York Times bestselling author of Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars, and Turtles All the Way Down.  In this series, John will navigate through popular reading material for high schoolers. The material covered in the next 8 videos includes Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Catcher in the Rye, and Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  

Why do we read? What’s the point of reading critically? In the first video, John will argue that reading is about effectively communicating with other people. 

In video number 2 we take a critical look at Romeo and Juliet.  John delves into the world of Bill Shakespeare’s famous star-crossed lovers and examines what the play is about its structure and the context in which it was written. Have you ever wanted to know what iambic pentameter is? Then you should watch this video. Have you ever wondered what kind of people actually went to see a Shakespeare play in 1598? Watch this video. Were you aware that wherefore means “why?” Whether you were or not, watch this video.

In this video, John continues the discussion of Romeo and Juliet.  John looks into how the structure and conventions of society in medieval Verona led to the star-crossed lovers’ downfall. Along the way, you’ll learn about courtly love, medieval responsibility to church, family, and society, Chipotle burritos as a metaphor for true love, and even learn about literary sex. We may even tie in trapeze artists and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. You’ll have to watch to find out. 

Next, let’s look at The Great Gatsby, which just so happens to be my favorite book I read in high school.  In this video, John introduces Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, and the other characters in the novel, and tries to look beyond the surface story to figure out what this thing is ABOUT. Set in the 1920s against a conflicted backdrop of prohibition and excess, The Great Gatsby takes a close look at the American Dream as it existed in Fitzgerald’s time. It turns out, it had a lot to do with money and status, and it still does today. John will cover the rich symbolism of the novel, from the distant green light to the pale gold of wealth and decay. Also, Paris Hilton drops by. 

In video 4 John Green continues to explore F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. In this installment, John looks into the titular Gatsby’s purported Greatness. Gatsby’s single-minded pursuit of Daisy, his checkered past, and his checkered present all play a role in determining whether he was, in fact, great. Here’s a hint: you don’t have to be good to be great. It turns out greatness doesn’t have much to do with whether you’re a good person.  Along the way, John explores the relentless forward march of time, the use of poetic language, and the ironic titling of novels.

The Catcher in the Rye is introduced in this video.  John pulls out the old-school literary criticism by examining the text itself rather than paying attention to the biographical or historical context of the novel (that’s for the next video). Listen, words matter. The Catcher in the Rye has managed to endure without a movie adaptation because a lot of its quality arises from the book’s language. Find out how Holden’s voice, his language, and his narrative technique combine to make the novel work. 

We wrap our analysis of The Catcher in the Rye in video 6.  John explores how Salinger’s war experience, educational background, and romantic life inform the events of Holden Caulfield’s life. How did Holden get to be such a whiny, self-absorbed teen? While it’s not a great idea to read novels too biographically, Salinger’s life surely informed Holden’s. Watch on to get an idea of just how much. 

Our last stop on this English Literature train is the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Sure, John explores the creepy biographical details of Dickinson’s life, but he also gets into why her poems have remained relevant over the decades. John discusses Dickinson’s language, the structure of her work, and her cake recipes. He also talks about Dickinson’s famously eccentric punctuation, which again ends up relating to her cake recipes.