Monday, December 20, 2010

Happy Holidays!

santa 1

This blog will return--and my reading project officially start--on January 1st.

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Still Under the Greenwood Tree

What were the circumstances that led me to my current read? Every year the Washington Revels stage an incredible winter production--and this year, the performance is based on Under the Greenwood Tree (discussed on Wednesday).  One of our favorite annual tradition is attending the Revels with our friends and seeing community members (including several of our young friends) sing and dance on the stage.

The Mellstock Band
The Revels performance is not a direct adaptation of the entire novel.  Instead it is a celebration of the Winter Solstice, complete with singing and dancing (including Morris dancing!), which is set in Hardy's world and which has many references to and echoes of Hardy's novel.  For a sample of a Revels performance, check out this short video of the Cambridge Revels performing their version of the same show:

*  *  *

My family also enjoyed the 2005 BBC adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree, (currently on Netflix instant-watch).  The plotline in the film adaptation revolves less around the experiences of the musicians and more around the love story between the Fancy Day and her suitors.  Fancy is much more likable in the adaptation than she is in the novel.

The BBC production was filmed on location in the stunningly beautiful Channel Islands. As the story progresses, we see the seasons pass and the landscape change. The scenery alone could make this a show to watch.

I was also quite taken with the filmmakers' ability to show enormous sexual tension between characters through the very subtle displays that would have been the norm at the time of the story. Suffice it to say that this movie contains the sexiest handwashing scene I have ever viewed. And for those who love Colin Firth's lake scene in Pride and Prejudice, just wait until you see the ending of this film!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

My intention over the last few months has been to read tons of contemporary fiction and literary non-fiction before starting my classics project in January.  During this period, I especially enjoyed A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book.  And I am especially looking forward to holiday reads of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Edward Jones's The Known World.

I also found myself reading classic literature from the 19th century--knowing that it might be a while before I can get back to books from that era once I start my project.  The Classics Circuit inspired me to read Trollope (as you saw last week), and Christopher at the blog ProSe inspired me to read Thomas Hardy.  Although I planned to start with Far from the Madding Crowd at his recommendation, circumstances (which I will talk about next time) encouraged me to read his lesser known novel Under the Greenwood Tree.  Be sure to check out Chris's review of this novel.

*   *   *

Under the Greenwood Tree (Penguin Classics)The novel establishes the the setting of many of Hardy's later novels: Wessex, his representation of rural southern England.  Under the Greenwood Tree tells the story of the social life of Mellstock, a small town in Wessex, though the lens of the community's musicians.  Joining the community as the story starts is Fancy Day, the attractive--and ambitious--new school mistress.   Although the Mellstock musicians have served as the parish choir (or "quire") for many years, the community's vicar decides to replace their traditional music with a harmonium played by Fancy.  Like Trollope's Rachel Ray (discussed last week), Under the Greenwood Tree--written less than ten years after Trollope's novel--gently explores the issues that arise as an isolated rural community goes through great social changes as it enters a more cosmopolitan world.

The novel begins with fiddlers and singers caroling throughout the village on Christmas Eve. When the musicians come to the schoolhouse, Dick sees Fancy for the first time and is entranced. But others in the town are charmed by the schoolmistress as well: a wealthy farmer as well as the parish vicar.  Eventually Fancy faces a choice: marriage to the man she loves of whom her father disapproves, marriage to someone who can give her status and luxuries, or marriage to a man who shares her modern worldview.

I loved the pastoral imagery of the novel as well the gentle loving portrayal of the wide variety of "rustic" characters.  When I was reading a bit of the novel aloud to my eleven year old son, he pointed out that as I was breaking into my native dialect and making them all sound like they were raised in the US South.

This is a charming novel, although I gather that it is quite different from Hardy's later (darker) style.  Although the novel is a very happy one in general, there is a small complication at the end to keep you thinking.  Hardy is also known for his insight into character--something not especially well developed in Under the Greenwood Tree.  If you know those limitations going in, you'll find this a perfect holiday read.

*  *  *

Similar to what Trollope does in Rachel Ray, Hardy uses characters' names to reflect their personality.  Miss Fancy Day does, in fact, try to usher in new days of  what she sees as lavish and modern elegance.  As Tony points out, she is flighty and subject to the whims of fancy.  And Dick Dewy has the naive dewiness of first love.

*  *  *

The title of Hardy's novel is taken from Shakespeare.  In the play As You Like It, characters gather in the forest of Arden--a place removed from the troubles of the rest of the world--to celebrate the possibilities of love.  The only troubles possible, says the song, are "winter and rough weather."  I wrote about the  fluidity of gender roles and sexuality in the forest of Arden in a post called "TransShakespeare" on my old blog--but Hardy really doesn't play with that kind of idea in Under the Greenwood Tree.  He does echo Shakespeare's idea that society removed from urban concern and rooted (so to speak) in the natural world of the seasons is the place for love to grow--and a place that is seemingly changeless and at the same time a place of profound change.

Shakespeare's work is also echoed in the similarity between the Mellstock Choir and the Rude Mechanicals of A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Like Shakespeare, Hardy draws his characters with a loving and gentle humor.  Sometimes the Bard is a bit broader, but both authors encourage us to think of their characters as deeply rooted in the land, full of both wisdom and naivete, and connected to each other in ways the modern world does not always allow.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Uncommon Reader

The Uncommon Reader: A Novella Alan Bennett's little book The Uncommon Reader is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.  While you're reading this gentle novella, you might enjoy a cup of tea and a plate of watercress sandwiches. 

The story begins as the Queen of England is walking her corgis.  Her adventuresome dogs pull her into a bookmobile parked outside the palace.  Not wanting to be rude, she checks out a book--out of a sense of obligation rather than true interest.  She returns that book and borrows another--Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love.  This second book turns the Queen into a passionate reader--that is, a Reader--who seeks out more and more books.

At first, the Queen is guided in her reading by her young kitchen assistant who soon becomes her amanuensis.  Because of his own interests, he steers her subtly to gay authors.  Some of the palace staff question whether this is appropriate and are curious if she even recognizes what she is reading.  Although some might feel this detail is little more than amusing, it highlights the disconnect between her vast experience of the world and her everyday sheltered life.

Although the Queen's life continues to be removed from the world around her, reading teaches her that this is not the whole story.  She discovers that "books did not defer.  All readers were equal."  The Queen is finally able to imagine being normal: the experience of reading is available to all and therefore "it was anonymous; it was shared; it was common."

Soon she becomes as obsessed about reading as any book blogger could be.  She neglects her duties and abandons her fastidiousness in order to cram in a few more pages.  My favorite fictional image of the fictional Queen is her waving to the gathered throngs from her carriage, all the while looking down at the pages in her lap. Apparently the current Queen has not discovered that strategy yet.

Not Reading But Waving

The palace assistants become concerned about the Queen's new obsession and try to nip it in the bud.  After she tucks her book under the carriage cushions while she attends a function, the assistants remove the book.  When she asks where it is, the assistants respond that it was a matter of security: sniffer dogs had confiscated it and the book had probably been exploded. 

"'Exploded?' said the Queen. 'But it was Anita Brookner.'"

Although the Queen's reading tastes are broad, she does have her limits. When people tell her they are reading Harry Potter,  she responds in her beautifully superior way, "Yes.  One is saving that for a rainy day."

Reading opens up a whole new perspective for the Queen on human nature, on relationships, and on emotion. The novels she consumes transform her and humanize her--and eventually give her a voice of her own. "Books have enriched my life in a way that one could never have expected.  But books can only take one so far," says the Queen, "and now I think it is time that from being a reader I become, or try to become, a writer."

*  *  *

I discovered this charming book after reading Thomas's review on My Porch.  Check out his blog if you do not know it already.  I especially love his discussion of whether or not there are American cozies.  Thanks, Thomas!  Also check out Teresa's post on Shelf Love.  She listened to the audiobook, read by the author.  I very much enjoyed the discussion in the comments after her post as well.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creating My Own Classroom

Book Blogger Hop

I am honored to be participating for the first time in the Book Blogger Hop, sponsored by Jennifer at Crazy for Books. This week's question:

"What is the thing you like most about reading book blogs? Is it the reviews, author guest posts, articles, giveaways, or something else entirely?"

I started keeping this blog to keep me organized in my classics-reading project and to give me a place to write about my experiences.  (I've always been able to think better when I am typing than when I am speaking.)  Both of these initial goals were about my private experience of blogging.

But very quickly I learned how exciting the world of book blogging is.  Reading through other people's blogs, I have learned about irresistible contemporary fiction, enchanting literature which has resurfaced after being ignored for years, and fabulous classics which I have never read.

Learning about the literature is certainly a terrific thing about reading book blogs.  But even better is the fact that whether I'm reading someone else's blog or the comments on this one, I get to enter a classroom full of amazing fellow students.  The questions and insights you offer in posts and in comments are the unexpected delight I have found in the blogosphere in the last few months.  Thank you all for being so welcoming.

Books in Art

A few weeks ago, my family spent a sunny Friday playing hooky from regular daily life and instead visiting two terrific temporary art exhibitions in downtown Washington, DC. As usual, I had books in my backpack just in case a few minutes appeared in our schedule--but the day was packed with images of reading and books completely aside from the ones I was carrying.

The first exhibition we attended was the Norman Rockwell showing at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Rather than being a general retrospective of the artist's work, this particular exhibition draws from the Rockwell collections belonging to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to point out how much Rockwell told complete stories in his individual paintings.

Rockwell told stories with his images, but he also illustrated the fact that stories create our images. I especially love this painting of a young boy reading his way into the chivalric book he holds:

*  *  *

After a wonderful bento lunch at my 11yo son's current favorite restaurant Teaism, we headed down to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art to take in their amazing Arcimboldo exhibit.  Arcimboldo painted in the sixteenth century, but his pictures of people entirely created out of vegetables or flowers or fish seem entirely modern.  While most of his pictures used natural elements to create his fantastical portraits, I am especially drawn to his painting of a librarian, made from books.  Check out those bookmark fingers!

* * *

I love checking out what C.B. James finds for his "Picture Reading" series, whether they are paintings or photographs, serious or funny. Do you have your own favorite pictures of reading? Please feel free to provide links in the comments!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Literary Pet Peeves

Literary Blog Hop

I am honored to be participating for the first time in the Literary Blog Hop, sponsored by the folks at The Blue Bookcase. This week's question:

What is one of your literary pet peeves? Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge? Be specific, and give examples if you can.

My biggest literary pet peeve used to be a text full of allusions to things I didn't know.

Don't get me wrong: I've always loved to work hard and think hard when I am reading.  Once I learn just a bit about a subject, I want to find out more and more, reading everything I can get my hands on about that topic.  I've always been someone whose knowledge is quite deep in certain areas.  The problem is that while my knowledge may be relatively comprehensive on some topics, it is completely missing in others. In other words, deep--but not broad.

For years, I was been intimidated by classic literature from Homer to Virgil. I didn't know ancient history well and and I couldn't keep all those gods straight.  Knowing so little about French history made me steer clear of Balzac and Zola--and also War and Peace.  And if you haven't read all those kinds of books, how can you hope to understand James Joyce?

Of course, calling this a "pet peeve" implies that the problem was with the literature.  Thinking of it that way, I could dismiss the books and justify to myself why there was no reason to read those outdated dead-white-men texts anyway.

But obviously, the problem was not with the classics.  Instead, it was with my own education and confidence.  So much of what I think are peeves--in books as well as in life more generally--are simply prejudices or fears.  A little patient work might allow me to overcome them--and find an undiscovered country of new pleasures.

So I am setting off on this journey of reading major classics in more-or-less chronological order to overcome my resistance.  You can read more about my background and project plans in previous posts.  Please join me!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Rachel Ray by Anthony Trollope

As those of you who have visited this blog before know, I recently decided to set a goal for myself: starting on 1/1/11, I'll start reading all those classic books I should have read already--from Gilgamesh and Homer's epics to Joyce and Proust.  In order to keep myself on track with this project and also to give me a place to write about my experiences with the books, I set up this blog.

It did not occur to me that other people might be blogging about their reading.  But I was extremely pleased to discover the rich world of book bloggers--many of whom are interested in reading classic literature.  I was especially thrilled to learn about The Classics Circuit, a monthly extravaganza of literary celebration.  Readers from around the blogosphere write about a book by a particular author, in a particular genre, from a literary time period, etc. then share their ideas or responses over the course of a week or more.

This month's Classics Circuit is devoted to Anthony Trollope, an incredibly productive Victorian author.  Make sure you check out the amazing lineup of posts.  Your to-be-read pile might be expanding considerably...

Rachel Ray (Oxford World's Classics)For "Trollopolooza" (as Dwight calls it), I read one of Trollope's lesser known books, Rachel Ray.  Although this novel is not as widely read as some of his other books, it is a wonderful place to start.  The book shows off the author's strengths, is shorter than Trollope's average tome, and is quite accessible.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have found myself thinking about it quite a bit since I finished.

I should warn you of a couple of weaknesses.  First, there really is no plot.  Girl meets Boy and they fall in love.  Everybody thinks Boy will be dishonorable and leave Girl.  He doesn't, and the two get married.  Yep--that really is pretty much it--and you know it from the beginning.

The second thing you should be aware of if you are new to the Victorians is that Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time.  Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting.  (For the way this issue plays out in a different novel, check out Falaise's discussion.)

Another problem is that Rachel Ray herself is kind of a sap.  Unlike those fascinating young women of Victorian literature like Jane Eyre or Dorothea Brooke, Rachel doesn't seem to have much of a spine or intellect of her own.

While Rachel may seem boring to the modern reader, Trollope's other characters do not.  The author's strongest suit is his painting of marvelous portraits.  Some seem almost like caricatures, but they have just enough depth to them to make them real.  They are also complex: not simply good or bad, but instead both sympathetic at moments and irritating at others.  We wind up loving them warts and all, as if they were members of our own families.

Rachel's mother is one of those women "who cannot grow alone as standard trees" and instead "in their growth will bend and incline themselves toward some prop for their life."  She is warm and loving, but easily persuaded by others.  Her elder daughter, the widowed Mrs. Prime, is fierce and sharp--like her Calvinist friends Mr. Prong and Miss Pucker with their greedy distasteful lives.  Even their names show their personalities!  The family clergyman is Reverend Comfort--another perfect name--who wants to do what is right but sometimes leads his flock astray.  Rachel's love interest, Luke Rowan, is an outsider to the community, eager to exert his right to a place in the local brewery--run by a man with the perfect brewer's name, Mr. Tappitt.

In addition to the character portraits and the author's wit, other reasons to read Rachel Ray are for its fascinating discussions of complicated and changing webs of authority.  How Rachel chooses to submit to Luke, to her mother, and to her sister is clearly a major plot line, but issues of power and respect appear everywhere: between young and old, between men and women, between high church and Evangelists, between Jews and Protestants, between between workers and employers.

Trollope was focusing on these questions of authority at exactly a moment in history when the English-speaking world seems to be turning upside down.  Charles Darwin had just published The Origin of Species, the United States was becoming embroiled in the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution and mass production was reshaping the meanings of everything from labor to wealth, and the British Empire was coming to its peak.  Suddenly, traditional interpretations of power and control were thrown to the wind.  People found themselves at odds about how to go forward.  Questions filled every relationship in this changing world.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the novel has more to do with its production than with the book itself.  Trollope was originally hired by Good Words, an Evangelical magazine, to write a novel for serialization in its pages.  When the editor saw what Trollope was producing--a book that absolutely skewered Evangelists as people who cared more for money than love--people with "no warmth and little life" as the introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition says--he told Trollope that the pages of his Evangelical paper were perhaps not the right place for invective against Evangelists.  Surely Trollope did not think he would get away it--but as it turned out, several chapters were set in type before Good Words pulled the novel.

*  *  *

Just for a little fair-play turnabout,
here is a recipe for  
Trolloped Potatoes
a slightly altered version of
Rachel Ray's Scalloped Potatoes:


2 cups milk
1 cup broth (chicken or veggie) or water
1 cup brown ale (preferably from an English brewery)
4 cloves garlic
3 pounds potatoes, sliced 1/4 inch thick (peeled--or unpeeled for a more rustic look)
3 ounces of your favorite sharp English cheese, coarsely grated (about 3/4 cup)
Pinch cayenne pepper
Black pepper
1 cup heavy cream plus 2 tablespoons of spicy English mustard


Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large saucepan, combine milk and broth with garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add the potatoes and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to prevent the potatoes from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the beer and reduce the heat to medium. Simmer until the potatoes are tender but still slightly firm, about 8 minutes.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and, using a slotted spoon, transfer half the potatoes to a buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish.  Arrange the potatoes in an even layer.

Sprinkle with half the cheese and the cayenne.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Repeat with the remaining potatoes and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Whisk together the heavy cream and mustard, then pour the mixture evenly over the top. Bake the scalloped potatoes until golden and crisp on top, 40 to 45 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Enjoy--with a good book.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Personal Odyssey

More than a dozen years ago, I stumbled across a copy of Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan while I was in the little bookstore of my local train station.  I knew the author's daughter's amazingly literary work of medical anthropology, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down--but I had never heard of her father.  (I suspect that fact would have tickled her famous father.)  I skimmed a few entries in Papa Fadiman's book and was utterly enthralled.

As I boarded the train, I turned the first pages of Fadiman's book--and began to imagine actually reading all those books.  When could I start such a project?  "As soon as I finish my dissertation" was my first answer--but it soon became "As soon as I finish turning the dissertation into a book" and then "As soon as I have tenure."  Then there was a more long-term delay: I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

That baby is now eleven years old--a homeschooled violinist who loves fencing, brings great joy to his parents, and drives me bonkers as he begins his path into teenager-dom.  Luckily, like his mother, he lives for books.  Now that my son is old enough to spend long afternoons reading his own books beside me on the couch, the idea of making a "Lifetime Reading Plan" for myself--not following Clifton Fadiman's exact recommendations but certainly inspired  by his example--seems like a real possibility.

Over the last few months I have been making my lists and checking them twice.  What I have at this point are broad outlines of literature--ones that may change dramatically.  Although I have probably listed more than I will ever be able to read, I'm sure I'll wind up adding many more books as well.

My current lists fall into six general categories:

1. The Ancients--from Gilgamesh through the Greeks and Romans, ending with a purely literary reading of the Hebrew Bible.  Although I read both Homer's Odyssey and the entirety of the Bible (in a non-religious way) when I was in early high school, I read both of them without guidance.  I suspect that as a more mature adult, I might get something very different out of them now.

2. The Medieval Period--from the New Testament through Beowulf and Dante, Chaucer and Boccacio, and Don Quixote.  Again, although I've read bits and pieces of much of this literature, I've never read them seriously or completely.

3. The literature of the 17th and 18th Century--starting with Shakespeare (whom my 11yo son adores) and his contemporaries and continuing on to the beginnings of the English novel.

4. The literature of the 19th Century--starting with the Romantic poets and hitting the major novels of France, Russia, England, and the US.

5. The literature of the 20th Century--focusing primarily but not exclusively on English and American literature, including an increasing proportion of literature by women and by African Americans as well as the writers from the American South.

6. Books about Reading--including both personal accounts of the how reading matters in the lives of individuals as well as guides to reading the classics.

*  *  *

My plan is to start reading chronologically--although you will see that in my current lists, my chronology is not exact.  Instead, I'll follow particular themes within that general structure.

There will be a few major exceptions to the even these basic chronological narrative, however.  One example will be my very next post this Wednesday--in order to participate in a blogosphere event.  There may also be exceptions if I get too crazy with the idea of reading yet another book from Rome, or one more poem, or whatever frustration I might feel at any moment.  In addition, I will plan on a few scheduled "vacation" periods when I will read and discuss whatever books I want to read--even if they are contemporary and unrelated to the period I am studying at the time.

I am looking forward eagerly to starting the project in earnest on the first of January.  Until then, I plan a few more posts in December followed by a brief holiday.  I hope to see you all soon!

*  *  *

Of course, this plan is going to last me a lot longer than one year.  To see other people's reading plans and challenges, check out the entries over at Weekly Geeks.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Tangled Web

There was a time when writers and politicians assumed that educated people had been exposed to certain books and ideas. They made references to those works with the understanding that their readers would know what they were talking about. For them, the literary world was a web whose connecting threads were visible or even obvious. To a large degree, writers producing Western literature at least until World War II wrote quite consciously in that web, connecting themselves to writers who had gone before and adding their own threads to the matrix.

To learn to read this web in the modern world is an utterly ridiculous project. And I’m committing to it.

Today’s writers and thinkers know that the world is a much bigger place than we used to imagine. We are influenced by a great number of cultures and have access to an enormous body literature from around the world. No longer do our writers necessarily assume even the best educated people the United States or in the UK have a common knowledge base. There is too much to know, too much to learn, and everything is changing and growing with incredible speed.

Even if we consider the books of earlier ages, there is nothing that absolutely defines a book as a classic. Nor is there any completely defendable reason to start one's studying with the so-called “Western” classics. Although I’ll talk more in future posts about why I’ve decided to start with these particular books, I’m never going to waste my time trying to convince other people that this is the proper way to be well-read or educated.

Please keep in mind that I am not a literary scholar. I wasn’t even an English major. I hope that some of you might be intrigued by--or perhaps provoked by--some of my posts--and at least that you will be inspired to read some of the books. But it is important to point out that I do not intend these posts to be instructional in any way.

I am writing primarily as a way to organize my own reading and thinking. A secondary reason for keeping a blog is to learn from you: to learn from your questions and comments, whether they agree with my readings or not. I hope you will not feel that you must accept my interpretations. Sometimes my posts will be merely personal responses different from yours. And often I may be just completely wrong about something. Always feel free to point out my mistakes and advise me better—but please remember that this is merely the book journal of a common reader, a reader who is learning as I go.

Wish me luck as I cast my own little threads into the web of literature!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Surrounded by Books

I spent my childhood surrounded by books. Our house was a nest of novels, of history, of poetry. My bedroom walls were filled with built-in bookcases.  At child’s eye level, there were picture books when I was young, Nancy Drew novels--then Agatha Christie mysteries--as I began to mature, and the books of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen when I was in high school.

The shelves near the ceiling were filled with my mother’s books. Before I was born, she taught high school English. During my childhood, she taught introductory composition classes at the local college. Her classic novels--from Flaubert to Salinger, from Tolstoy to Twain--called to me sometimes when I was searching for something to read. Often I pulled down volumes that pleased me enormously--such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which has remained a favorite. At other times, I wound up with books I hated with a red-hot heat, such as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The length of some of the novels (such as Anna Karenina) intimidated me so much that I never took those volumes down at all.

My father was a history professor and a writer. Every night after he read me stories and sang me traditional songs, I would fall asleep to the clickety-clack of his typewriter as he worked on his dissertation or a book in his study next to my room. Occasionally I slipped one of my father’s favorite books out of his study: Homer’s The Odyssey, Faulkner, John Dos Passos, the Bible.

Although I had bookish parents and I loved to read myself, I went to an anti-intellectual high school. In English lit when most students across the nation are studying Chaucer and Shakespeare and Keats, we spent months reading aloud every word of Jane Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, my teacher’s own favorite book-of-the-moment.

I graduated from high school having learned what I knew about literature only from my own pleasure reading and from casual discussion with my family. And from this background, I entered Harvard. There I was surrounded by fellow students who had learned Latin in high school and read Virgil in the original, studied numerous Shakespeare plays, and read Dostoevsky’s entire ouevre.

I spent days working on my first writing sample for my freshman expository writing class. When the professor handed it back, he complimented me on my ability to think beyond the standard 3-point 5-paragraph essay. All I could say is, “Thanks--but what’s a 5-paragraph essay?”

Because my college professors assumed their students had already studied the classics in high school, many literature classes looked at lesser-known works and authors. I was thrilled to find a course in southern literature where I stuffed my brain with everything from Thomas Wolfe to Eudora Welty. I read novels by mid-20th century African American authors like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin in another class, and followed up on my own with everything from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

I shied away from a college class on Shakespeare when I realized that the professor probably assumed her students had already studied multiple plays and therefore planned to analyze them in much greater detail. My own background was very limited--and I did not have faith in my ability to keep up.  (Now, more confident, I wish I had not wasted my chance to study with that professor, the renowned Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber.)

I wound up majoring in history, especially enjoying my classes discussing social history and the construction of race and gender. After graduating from college, I enrolled in a PhD program where I studied American history. Soon I found myself following in my father’s footsteps, typing my dissertation and books--quietly on a word processor, in this generation--as my son fell asleep beside me.

Although I still write (stuff like this book), I no longer teach university-level history. And, although I still read obsessively, for many years I have spent much more time reading non-fiction than the novels that drew me to a life of words in the beginning.

Over the course of the last few months--for reasons I can hardly trace-- I’ve found myself becoming more and more interested in filling in some of the enormous gaps in my literary education. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the project I’ve set out for myself and about how I intend to use this blog.
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