Crossing Washington Square

Crossing Washington Square

by Joanne Rendell

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendall.

I think we all know when a book is good — the characters are relatable, the plot is compelling, the language speaks to us, and as I’ve said before, there’s something in there, even if the other qualities are lacking, that makes us want to know what happens next. Even if we don’t agree what makes a book good we usually can acknowledge that it’s got something going for it that attracts readers. I think the more difficult question is: what makes a book important? Do the themes have to transcend our everyday lives? Should the characters come of age during a time of war and crisis? Or must they just be old? Why are the domestic themes of Jane Austen taught in every school and those of Jennifer Weiner (for instance) snubbed? Jane may not be the best example because she’s straight up brilliant and should be taught no matter what she wrote about — but the question is one that’s becoming more and more important on campuses as professors try and decide what to serve up every semester.Ê The Red Badge of Courage for the eight millionth time? Or Harry Potter? Authors of color? Authors outside of the Anglo-European canon? The school year is only so long!

In Crossing Washington Square, Joanne Rendell comes at the argument from both sides, inhabiting two very different but quite wonderful women English teachers — Rachel is a young and inexperienced pop culture flash in the pan, Diana a black-clad Sylvia Plath-quoting multi-degreed campus icon. While Rendell’s sympathies ultimately lie with a diversified reading list, she makes a pretty good argument for teaching the classics. I should be quick to point out that this book isn’t a series of dry academic arguments — both women are passionate about their subjects, plus there are a couple of juicy love triangles, sketchy students, even a calamitous trip abroad. The more I learned about our two teachers the more I wanted to just plop myself into a worn wooden chair and listen to people talk about what they love most — good books.

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