MOOCing it up

Back when books were scribed by hand, the most impressive libraries held only a few hundred titles. A diligent reader with sufficient time could take in a significant chunk of everything ever written.

Today, there are roughly three zillion books released in English every year, and all available instantly through our wireless e-readers. So do we tackle all the books that have won prestigious awards? New releases that have earned reviewer stars? The time-worn classics in our favorite niche? The back catalog of our favorite authors? Books that come highly recommended by folks we trust? Books pressed upon us by folks we don’t trust? Books with kick-ass covers that we find in a bargain bin? We need to strategize because there’s no way to read even a fraction of a fraction of everything we want.

As an author, I have to take this task seriously because reading is part of my job. Reading connects me to my peers, gives me a sense of the market, and is a big part of how I sharpen my own writing skills. And reading is fun–I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t love books!

These days my reading time is limited, and I’m not a particularly fast reader to begin with, so I have no time to revisit the books I’ve already read. Why should I, when so many new stories are competing for my eyeballs? And especially those books I only read out of obligation, because they were assigned as schoolwork. Because they were true classics. Back when my brain wasn’t yet formed enough to truly appreciate them…

You see where I’m going with this. There’s a whole set of books that are already checked off my list because I have a fuzzy recollection of discussing them in a classroom when I was twelve. In addition, there’s a process of guided academic analysis I no longer undertake because there aren’t any essays, tests, or lectures involved. Those high school English classes that would serve me so well today were wasted on my childhood self!

Thankfully, I’ve made a discovery. The same technology that’s put a bookstore in my backpack has also put a lecture hall in my laptop. There are these things called MOOCs, which stand for Massive Open Online Courses. These college-level courses are offered through the Internet to everyone who shows up. Because they are open to the world and feature quality instruction, each MOOC may have tens of thousands of students. My 9th grade English teacher could barely handle twenty!

The one I’m doing now is Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, with canned lectures by Professor Eric Rabkin of the University of Michigan.

Most of the readings are things I’ve seen before, and therefore would not have picked up again on my own. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula were part of my high school curriculum and besides, I’ve seen the movies. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass were books I read when I was ten. But upon rereading, these books turned out to be nothing like I remembered them. And what am I going to get out of a collection of Grimm’s household tales? A lot, apparently, when combined with lectures, online discussion, and a writing assignment. Who knew?

I can’t vouch for any other MOOCs, but this one is worth your time when it starts up fresh again in October. The course is free and most of the books are in the public domain, also available for free. Check it out!

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