The Modern Scholar Series

From Here to Infinity by Michael D.C. Drout

We are all about lifelong learning at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, and we hope that you are, too. Whether it is through our collection or our classes and events, we offer ways to educate for so many different types of learners. I learn best by listening, so one of my favorite methods of acquiring new information is though our Modern Scholar audio courses.

According to their website, "The Modern Scholar presents a series of recorded, easy-to-understand, high-interest, college-level courses by the great professors who teach at top colleges and universities.'' This is certainly true, but it does not even begin to capture the sheer joy, entertainment, and knowledge that I have gained from some of these courses.

BaseballEach course has 14 lectures, giving the instructors a chance to get in-depth with their subjects. The best of these professors keep their talks breezy, engaging, and even funny. It is also quite apparent that they care about their subjects and enjoy teaching them, a factor that cannot be faked.

I would like to recommend three courses that I think make the best first impression for someone who would like to give The Modern Scholar a chance. They focus respectively on rock 'n' roll music, baseball, and science fiction literature. All three explore their subjects' birth and maturation, citing important contribitions to the form.

Rock 'n' Roll and American Society is taught by William McKeen, and you can tell that he loves his subject. In the first lecture, he suggests that his listeners say the words "Rock 'n' Roll" out loud. McKeen asks, "Doesn't that just sound great?"

McKeen dives into the roots of the genre, starting with blues greats, such as Robert Johnson, and gives a voice to lesser-known entities such as Jellyroll Morton and Professor Longhair. As you can see, bluesmen had some pretty inventive names.

He then discusses how Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry furthered matters by speeding up the music, adding electric guitars into the mix, and fusing African-American blues with the white genre of country-western.

From there, things take off with Sun Studios and the man who only needs one name: Elvis. There are two Elvis lectures on here. You could call them the Thin and Fat lectures. The course closes out with the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens and the state of rock music at the close of the fifties.

McKeen is at his best when telling anecdotes. From exploring the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul at the Mississippi crossroads to explaining how an amplifier falling off the back of a truck led to one of the first instances of guitar distortion on record.

I am so glad that McKeen's lecture is listed as "Part One." His syllabus from his Boston University course hints at another volume which would include the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, with whom Muddy Waters played later in his career. When he came back to America, Waters was quoted as saying, "Those Englishmen want to play the blues so bad—and they play it...so bad."

For the sports fan, there is Take Me Out to the Ball Game, the story of baseball from its birth to the mid-2000s. Professor Timothy Shutt has gruff voice, which complements the history of the game. Each decade is presented as a lecture. It was fascinating to hear how the focus on "small ball," a more strategic form of the game which eventually became the calling card of the National League, emerged. Meanwhile American Leaguers hopelessly tried to bash every single pitch into the stands.

I also liked learning that certain decades became known has pitchers' or hitters' decades. Simple changes like the material that the ball was made of or the height of the mound would lead to an explosion of home runs or no hitters depending on the alteration.

We get to know the character of certain players, such as the notoriously unpleasant Ty Cobb. One of the greatest players of all time, Cobb was also the meanest. He sharpened his cleats to a fine point just in case any infielders' hands got in the way as he rounded the bases. These stories go all the way up to Barry Bonds, who Shutt defends for his playing ability even if his likability is lacking.

The last and my absolute favorite course is Michael D.C. Drout's From Here to Infinity, which thoroughly explores science fiction literature, suggesting both thought-provoking and reader-friendly titles. Drout is kind of a superstar for the Modern Scholar with over a dozen courses recorded, mostly about literature and the English language.

There is a reason why he has contributed so often. Drout's tone is soothing and positive. There is a gentleness to his words as well as a youthful enthusiasm as he explores entire universes of aliens, androids, and unfamiliar worlds. Starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Drout discusses the best, most popular, and weirdest novels and short stories of the genre.

This course has given me hours of satisfaction because Drout's short summaries and analyses are both intriguing and encouraging. From the earnest spirit of Robert Heinlein to the 1960's paranoid buzz of Philip K. Dick to the hilarious "What the heck is going on here?" of Rudy Rucker, Drout's picks have fueled my reading list for the past several years. Though I do not always like every suggestion, the number of hits far outweigh the misses.

If you enjoy From Here to Infinity, I also suggest Drout's take on the fantasy genre—Rings, Swords, and Monsters. It is incredibly Tolkien-heavy, but worth it.

With almost 200 courses in the series, there really is something for everyone. Tap into our lifelong learning resources today with the Modern Scholar!