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Also

On a trip home to Western Pennsylvania last week, seven of us piled into my sister’s SUV and spent the day visiting the sites of my mother’s childhood. Serendipitously, the tiny house she grew up in was being renovated, so it was empty. At the worker’s invitation, we walked through it, the first time we had been inside since my grandfather died in 1967. Among my immigrant relations, Mum and her family were the lucky ones, with a home of their own and an educated (albeit alcoholic) father with a steady job. I took a picture of her looking out the window of the bedroom where she and seven of her siblings all slept, and I could visualize them there, hiding under the bed when Grandpa came home, or running outside to climb the fruit trees that used to blossom in their back yard. Through that window, I know she still saw those trees.  

Across the street is the Jewish cemetery that is the setting for one of our favorite family ghost stories, and I filled in the details as I walked through it with my eight-year-old niece, Gracie, who also knows every word. Later that day, when we visited the graveyard where my maternal grandmother, Anna Cecilia Daley Kurtz, is buried, my mom recalled where another relative’s grave was by remembering how the pallbearers slipped on the icy hill as they struggled with the coffin. There was the hill, and there the tombstone. And a grayscale image of a somberly dressed funeral party under a steely Pittsburgh sky, my young and lovely mom vivid among them, now has a place in my imagination. 

What is memory for my mom has become story for me and my sisters. And her mother’s stories are now our children’s stories. In a family of readers, these stories live richly among us. When we get together, usually once a year, we retell our favorites, adding detail, repeating phrases, playing with words—the time Danny kicked his first-grade teacher, the day I led a party of toddlers across a busy street to steal some gorgeous plastic flamingos, the time grandma gave Mitchell a banana. None of us actually remember those days like Mum does, but we can tell the stories.

There is a lot of talk these days about reading inspiring empathy. Studies in neuroscience gauge the effect of reading on the brain, and, in light of new information, literary critics constantly reconsider what reading does for us. (And then another article appears on the Internet about why we should study the humanities.)

Empathy. It requires an imaginative leap, and, like every leap, it becomes easier the more we repeat it. Like the athletes we’ve been watching these past two weeks, readers, too, learn to leap by repeating the effort with every novel, every poem, every biography that has us imagining our way into someone else’s life. Envisioning stories into reality is a skill of Olympic proportions.

Last summer, popular Egyptian writer Alaa Al Aswany wrote in the By Heart series in the Atlantic about reading Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (8.18.15):

There is a scene in the novel where one criminal, a young man, is dying. As he dies, another criminal stands watch before his bed, and he begins to cry. We must not forget that these are people who committed terrible crimes. The narrator describes how a soldier was looking at him because he was crying for another prisoner. And the prisoner says:

“He, also, had a mother.”

“Also” is the important word in the sentence. . . . To me, the role of literature is in this “also.”

I, also, have a mother. And her stories live and breathe in me; they smell like fresh plums; they sound like glass milk bottles rattling by the front door; they feel like fear and loss and love. I know this through experience—and with the help of the scientists and literary theorists and novelists.

The practices of reading hone my imagination and color my memories; and they find their best expression in luminous moments of empathy like those that visited me last week in Pennsylvania. 

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Summer Reading: Go!

I just finished teaching one of my favorite courses, "Summer Reading," in which we try to make sense of the endless book recommendations available at this time of year, of the standards of literary merit they call on, and of what constitutes pleasure reading for different people.  The point, as I say repeatedly, is to get students to their next good book--and the next one, and the next one after that. You get the idea.

Because unlike in Pokemon Go where you want to "catch em all," most readers try to get to just the right ones. Who wants to get to the end of the book and think, "I should have spent that time cleaning the garage"? It's happened to me (I'm looking at you, Jodi Picoult). And I hate that. 

It was an intimate class this summer, with only eight students, so we got to know each other pretty well over our five short weeks together. As I read through the final set of essays, I was reminded again of how much I learn when I teach this class, of how much professors like me can miss when we assess books professionally. Here's the truth: Novels are bigger, more capacious, unrulier than we give them credit for. They are more than collections of beautiful sentences, well-wrought structures, or striking ideas. They are more than their genre or period, culture or nation. More, even, than their authors. 

My students wrote about how the books we read helped them to escape to different times and places, find solace in this challenging time, revisit significant childhood friendships, understand social issues better, stretch their imaginations, find their places in the world, and connect with characters they were sure they wouldn't like--until they did. They wrote about how they love to read, and read constantly, or how they prefer dystopia, fan fiction or manga over literary novels, or how they seldom read and often don't enjoy it. 

They were a diverse bunch, these St. Kate's women. But they reminded me that finding the right book for the right moment is a constant quest, one that I aim to send every liberal arts graduate who crosses my path on. To do this, I offer them my "READ IT" tool (more on that in the weeks ahead), that compiles and defines the qualities both readers and critics most often look for in books. 

Here's hoping that, even after the class ends, my summer readers pursue their quest with the enthusiasm of the Pokemon trainers currently roaming my neighborhood. 

Because who wants another Weedle when there are Jigglypuffs to be found? 

Gotta catch the gems. Go Team Readers!

What are you reading this summer?

 

And FYI: Here is a link to a recent article in our alumnae magazine, all about summer book recommendations: Read This! 

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A Good Time to Read

During this violent week in the US, as the world seems to be falling apart around us—even here at home in St. Paul where Philando Castile, another young black man, was shot during a traffic stop—I hear calls for empathy everywhere. We need to understand what each other are feeling, goes the plea, walk in one another’s shoes. Stop militarizing our streets, stop shooting people, stop throwing rocks, stop the madness, and listen. President Obama spoke of compassion and national unity, David Brown, the Dallas Police Chief, of an end to divisiveness; and Black Lives Matter activists continually challenge all of us to practice peace, “to intentionally build and nurture a beloved community.” 

My friend Sun Yung Shin, a poet and educator here in the Twin Cities, recently edited a collection of writings called A Good Time for the Truth. And it is. After hearing her introduce her anthology about race in Minnesota in a discussion at SubText earlier this evening, I agree that we absolutely must work together across our divides, talk together about what it means to live in one place, but separately. And for her, for me, for many of us, a positive step is to encounter one another in the written word. 

I am not arguing that reading books can substitute for human interaction, for the difficult work of social change and community building. But I do think literature can deepen our connections. It can even pave a way for encounters to take place, inviting interactions we might never have considered without first trying them out in books.

Like many working class women, I grew up in a white supremacist environment, one where Dr. Martin Luther King was dismissed as a troublemaker, where I rarely encountered a person of color, where racist language was a part of our nursery rhymes and games. And while I knew hometown legends about Andrew Carnegie and Joe Namath, stories by Annie Dillard and Rebecca Harding Davis, it came as a surprise to me several years ago to discover that my beloved Pittsburgh was also August Wilson’s Pittsburgh, a city I never knew until I saw his stunning plays. I lost myself in the whole ten-play cycle, then, thanks to the Guthrie and Penumbra Theaters. I understand my first home and its history differently now because of that encounter with literature. More deeply. Better. 

As a graduate student, I became passionate about issues of gender and class. They were personal; in noting the absence of women and working-class writers among the books I was invited to study, I was defending myself and claiming my place in the world of higher education. But there was a moment at the beginning of my doctoral studies when one woman, with one sentence, changed the direction of my work. “What about the black women?” Linda Susan Beard, then a professor at Michigan State, asked me. And so my education began again. 

Because of that brief encounter with Professor Beard, I realized that my voice, my empathy, my studies were limited by the same prejudices I was railing against. And I was missing so much—like a whole side of Pittsburgh. So I set out among the most magical novels—Passing, Love Medicine, Meridian, The Joy Luck Club, House of the Spirits, The Women of Brewster Place, The Woman Warrior, Sula, Ceremony, and Zami. So much gorgeous literature! Today, Zora Neale Hurston is at the center of my modernist literary canon, and Toni Morrison is the American writer I most admire. I have several Langston Hughes poems in my head that echo when I need them. Because of these books, and the many, many others they led me to, my world is deeper and more complex. Better. These books help me with the work of unlearning the racism I grew up with. 

Because this hot summer moment in the US is an unsettling one, it is, indeed, a good time for the truth. It’s a good time to stop and listen. Our best books let white people, privileged people, do some of that listening work without constantly demanding that people of color teach us everything. These books also invite people of color to make connections across the whited walls we’ve constructed in our weary world. And I promise that once you have stood beside Sethe on the riverbank, eavesdropped on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son, encountered truth with Sun Yung Shin and her essayists, or whirled in the tender night with Langston Hughes, you can’t easily unlearn the lessons of empathy you find there. Good books aren’t just beautiful or entertaining. They do important work among us. 

This week, I’m putting on my teacher hat to challenge us to do our own work—our home work. Nurture compassion, stretch our imaginations, and hear the various voices of our American experiment.

Let’s do it. Let’s read a book.

Start by picking one about someone completely different from you. Here and here and here are some recommendations. Please leave your suggestions—and stories—below. 

Talk to me about your books. 

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Still Waiting for Our Hogwarts Letters

This weekend my Twitter feed reminded me of an important Harry Potter anniversary: 19 years since Bloomsbury published the first book in the series. It took another year for Scholastic to bring it to the U.S. as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and one more year after that for me to find it and start reading it with my kids.

Some book lovers shrug their shoulders and toss off a dismissive remark about “children’s books” when I mention J.K. Rowling’s famously successful series. And by successful I mean that as of 2013 they had “sold more than 450 million copies worldwide, making them the best-selling book series in history” with a brand worth over $15 billion, including the books and their tie-ins—movies, merchandise and theme parks (as Wikipedia informs us). But here’s what this college literature professor wants all novel lovers to understand: This is not kid stuff. These books are not the literary equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.

Harry Potter has affected our culture profoundly, and continues to influence how, what, and why we read. See this article and this one. And innumerable others. A part of me suspects that reading these books might even explain why younger Brits were smarter about Brexit than older ones.

I teach a course on Harry Potter at my women’s college in Minnesota. Courses with titles like mine (“Harry Potter and his Reading Generation”) are often cited in laments about how customer-oriented higher education has become, how we care more about pandering to and pleasing our students than about challenging and educating them. I’ll admit that I first taught the course in 2010 because a couple of English majors asked me to, and because, as a feminist teacher, I am committed to destabilizing authority, to learning in community, to taking students’ desires into account. Even so, I’m pretty sure that teaching Harry Potter affected me even more than it did my students.

It took about ten minutes of sharing a classroom space with readers who grew up with Harry to see the balance of power tip, to realize where the real knowledge resides. My students know Harry Potter, all seven volumes, thousands of pages, the way I know The Great Gatsby or Their Eyes were Watching God—chapter by chapter, character by character, intimately and thoroughly, the knowledge of avid book lovers. They know these novels from years of reading and re-reading those thousands of pages as they waited for the next book or movie release. I had to come into the classroom honoring their knowledge and de-centering my own—a good lesson for a senior professor.

Those first Harry Potter students were also more engaged and eager than any group of students I had taught in 25 years. When I offered them critical tools and questions, they knew exactly how to use them to deepen their understanding of the novels. And though few of the students in that class were English majors, they all knew what it meant to love these novels. Again, though we keep saying kids these days don’t read, more people have read these books than any other series in history. No other books published in the past 15 years even come close (see Kate Glassman’s essay in A Wizard of Their Age).

Right now I’m teaching the series again, this time at the request of the English majors in our program for women returning to college—women in their mid-twenties and beyond. They wanted to know why only the traditional-aged day students got to study Harry Potter. So here we sit in a night class, a seminar-style course for skilled literature students, reading about 800 pages a week, deconstructing and psychoanalyzing the texts, asking postcolonial questions, examining gender and race, exploring word origins. But these professional women, these moms and grandmas, these serious students would be just as happy to find a Hogwarts letter in the mail as any 13-year-old you know. They, too, love these books.

So happy birthday, Harry Potter.

Thanks for reminding me that listening to other people who love big books—from my nine and seven-year-old kids to those twenty-something students to the mature women in my night class—yields delightful discoveries and life-changing insights.

I like to remember that loving novels is what brought us together in the first place.

And always.

Still waiting for my own Hogwarts letter,

Professor Konchar Farr

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Absorption.

If you ask me what the most important quality of a good novel is, I have to say “absorption.” At least that’s what I have taken to calling it. Literary criticism seldom theorizes it, so we don’t have a general vocabulary for it yet. But we all know it when we fall into it. It’s that can’t-put-it-down quality, that read past any reasonable bedtime compulsion, that je ne sais quoi of the books we love most.

Let me show you what I mean.* One of my most vivid memories is from second grade when I had just come back from the school library with a new book. My teacher had arranged our desks into two half circles, and I was placed near the front of the outside circle, the path to the back of the room just behind me and thirty-some children all around me. On that particular day, I went right to my seat, just as we were supposed to do, and started my book. It was about a forest fire, as I recall, maybe with a donkey in it. The details are gone, but I can still smell the trees burning and remember what it felt like to be completely gripped by this story.

As I sat in my assigned space, reading time ended, and the entire class got up and went to the back of the room for square dancing. Our teacher turned on the music and started the activity. I mean, they were stomping and sliding, whooping and do-si-doing just a few feet from my desk. Suddenly, my teacher was towering over me, wondering if I cared to join them. I returned from the forest with a jolt, embarrassed as the room exploded with laughter.

Remember what that felt like—not the humiliation, but the total absorption? I’m willing to bet most of you have a story like this, when you were so lost in a book that reality was edged out. Nancy Drew also inspired this for me—and Jo March, Trixie Belden, Up a Road Slowly, and the Black Stallion. I know many adult readers who fell so deeply into the Harry Potter series that they are still waiting for their Hogwarts letters. (They’re the ones who walk into Universal’s Wizarding World and say, “I’m home.”) I’m pretty sure that absorption is the one thing Stephenie Meyer got right in Twilight. Apparently, it was enough.

When I read Anna Karenina in college it was that forest fire all over again. I just couldn’t put it down, so I, an A student who always sat on the front row, continued to read Anna discretely, under my notebook, right through Environmental Biology—only this time I was more skilled (from years of practice) and didn’t get caught wandering so far afield from reality.

But getting lost is something avid readers aim for. We long for that forest fire. If this quality strikes a chord with you, you might try Sarah Schulman’s The Cosmopolitans or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, my most recent forest fire books.

What books exemplify “absorption” for you? I know you’re out there, literary pyromaniacs. Talk to me about books.

 

* This story is taken from The Ulysses Delusion: Rethinking Standards of Literary Merit (Palgrave 2016).

Talk to me about books.

Let me introduce myself: I am a reader. That is probably my most distinctive quality. I read, talk about, study and teach novels for a living now because I first identified deeply as a reader. Even before I could read I wanted to. Longing to go to school is one of my earliest memories.

I know we are legion, the passionate readers, the Kindle addicts, the proud owners of library cards, the interior decorators whose primary medium is books. And when we meet each other we don’t (usually) share a secret handshake or a discrete nod; we talk: Don’t you love that book? Do you mind if I look at your bookshelves? Who is your favorite writer? Some of us propose that Loyd Peregrina of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams may be as ideal a romantic hero as Mr. Darcy (and most of us have opinions about Mr. Darcy), but just putting that proposition out there can provoke an hours-long (even years-long, in some cases) debate. Charlotte or Emily Bronte? Phillip Roth or Toni Morrison? Fun Home or Watchmen?

We’re a clan, a club, a family. You are my people.

And you are the ones I hope this blog finds.

Let me tell you why. One of my favorite teachers and mentors (a woman I never met until I was 35 and already a professor) started a now more than fifty-year long tradition for alumnae at my university, and she named it “Conversation with Books.” Catherine Pribyl Lupori would sit in front of crowd, even at 94, and, with her panel of friends, talk about the eight or ten books they had tabbed as among the best books of the year. People turned out to hear her witty and honest assessments, to get her recommendations of classics for re-reading, and to join the conversation.

The day before she died her two long-time collaborators in Conversation went to visit her. She had refused a feeding tube and knew she was dying, but she still had her (inimitable) wits about her. When Judie and Ruth sat down and said, “Catherine, tell us what we can do for you,” she said, “Talk to me about books.”

Talk to me about books.

That’s the life I aspire to, full of fun and friendship and conversations about books to the very end.

And it is now my philosophy, my tagline, my (god help me) brand. It is the point of this blog.

So, welcome. I’m glad you dropped by to join the conversation.