The Desert Island Book List, or what can you not bear to live without?

I mentioned the Kalevala was one of my Desert Island books last week. It is. The Desert Island list is what it sounds like—if you were stranded on a remote island somewhere away from the honking of traffic, the onslaught of internet information, and could only carry ten books, what would they be?

It’s worth thinking about, and, I think, revisiting at various points in your life. It’s a good way to check in and see what’s changed in terms of values and passions, and to see if you’ve discovered some new treasure since you last thought about it.

So if I were stranded on an island in 2018, the books whose words I would feel lost if I could not read again are as follows, and you should know ahead of time that I intend to cheat:

A Collected Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. (See what I did there?) I don’t think I could live too long without access to the Canterbury Tales, but he has other lovely works, like the Legend of Good Women and the House of Fame that I would want those too, if we’re talking about forever.

Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler is also a frame narrative, or a story full of stories, and it’s the kind of book I’d reread once a year even if I didn’t teach it. It’s all about reading and writing and reading like a writer and writing like a reader, and I love it. There is a character who talks about translating like flow—moving in and out of languages like a fish swimming—and it has never left me.

Franz Xaver von Schonberg’s Collected Folk Tales. I used to say the Grimms,’ and I still love them, but if we’re only granted a limited number of books and they might be used to build a new civilization, I’d want the ones with more neutral gender roles, so we don’t have to relive all that damsel in distress nonsense.

The Arabian Nights. I get lots of stories here too, and since I know less about this area and language, I’d defer to the translation by Husain Hadawy, my first year composition instructor from the University of Nevada, so many moons ago.

The Mabinogion, a collection of medieval Welsh folklore and legends with some marvelous characters and scenes, like Caumniated Wives and Wizards who use transfiguration as a punishment.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoesvsky because we probably should have a traditional sort of novel, and Grushenka’s onion was instrumental in my forming healthy adult relationships.

Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson because we probably should have an American, and Dickinson’s poems craft images as if out of clouds.

A World Mythology collection because it’s good to know where we came from and how much we have in common.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and I favor Allen Mandelbaum’s translation. But let’s face it, if I were on an island, I’d have lots of time to work up my Latin, so I should have a dual-language edition. I love so many of these stories so deeply, but the stories of Proserpina and Orpheus alone would merit its inclusion—Proserpina/Persephone so we remember that death and life are inseparable, and Orpheus so that we remember that while art can do almost everything, it cannot bring back the dead—nor do we mortals need it to.

And last, but not least, The Kalevala, because of all the reasons I mentioned last week and because it’s good to remember that words are magic and can change your world.

This is where I am now. If I were honest, I’d say I need ten picture books, ten children’s novels, ten poets, ten novels, ten essayists, and ten non-fiction, but this is where my mind lives most often at this stage in my career and life, and it is a happy place. A folkloric, mythic, medieval wonderland with only occasional forays in to the modern world, and usually by those who value the past.

Of all the personality inventories and internet quizzes that crank out a conclusion about us based on what we like, I think which stories we could not live without is probably the most accurate, at least for me. I need magic. I think in archetypes. I revel in beautiful words and compelling images. And I view story as the most valuable thread back to our collective past and in to our individual selves.


Loving the World: The Literature Approach

I had a cousin who was always fascinated with Japanese culture. He spent a lot of time and travel learning everything he could about it, and he worked it in to his life in lots of ways. With a Welsh last name, he didn’t know he had any genetic tie to Japan until he did a spit-in-a-tube DNA kit, which confirmed for him what he had always felt and even hoped: 5-10% East Asian ancestry.
But what about when you love something you have no claim to—just love?
My relationship with the Finnish Kalevala is long and convoluted. And there is, so far as I can tell, not a cell of Finnish in my body. I don’t care.
When I was nine, my aunt gave me a book about eggs for Christmas. It was a weird little book—not really for kids, I don’t think. I have seen it since (and books like it) in gift shops and bookstores over the years. It’s a little, hardbound, dust-jacketed gift book, with lots of folklore, vintage postcards, customs, and legends about eggs from all over the world. If it were bigger, it would be a coffee table book.
I read the whole book, but a few pages I must have read a hundred times over the years. Some had images that worked on my imagination, sticking there, rolling around, popping up when tangentially related topics or stories crossed my path. I grew up wanting to know how to make Ukrainian pysanky (I learned in grad school, as one does). I knew a Slavonian tale about a witch who turned an egg shell in to a boat. And I learned the weird, spell-like word Kalevala.
One two-page spread had an excerpt from the Kalevala, titled CREATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, which, in retrospect, seems momentous enough to catch a kid’s attention. The text describes the water mother Ilmatar, who lifts herself out of the sea, becomes a perch for a bird’s nest, and uses the eggs that fall when she twitches her knee as raw material to shape the cosmos: the shell for the dome of heaven and the earth below, the yolk for the sun, the white for the moon, the mottled parts for stars, the black bits for clouds.
There was a picture. I was done. It stayed with me forever.
All it said at the bottom of the page was Kalevala. Neither of my parents had ever heard of it, and there was no Google in 1980. That was all I knew of it for years and years.
One day in grad school, a friend and I were talking about what it meant to be well-read; we listed all the medieval epics we knew and felt we should know. He mentioned the Kalevala.
A bell chimed in my head, and that image of Ilmatar was right there, as if it had been fifteen minutes, not fifteen years, since I’d thought of it. Clearly I had to follow up.
A professor of Old English recommended the translation I love and teach now, by Eino Friberg, and the Kalevalabecame one of my “Desert Island” books. (Do people still do that—think of which ten books you’d need on a desert island?)
When I had the opportunity to design a course around epics, I included the Kalevala. It rounds any epic discussion nicely, being so lately “gathered,” like the Grimms gathered folktales, with similar nationalistic fervor in the 19th century. Students come in to the class expecting the Odyssey, which they get, but not many think of epics as still being a genre so late as 1870. It feels like a relic, with its shamanism and magic, but the culture it depicts feels fairly modern. It puzzles students and enchants them.
Two years in to my teaching of epics, I stood in line at Subway in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the conference on medieval studies I attend every spring. While chatting up the gal behind me (we all sported the spiffy lanyards with our names and institutions), I learned she was a Finn studying in the states, and she had never met any American who taught the Kalevala. Did I know, she asked, “The Canine Kalevala”?
Of course we’re still friends. The picture book she referred to was hard to find in the United States, but it was available in English. She sent me a copy from Helsinki filled with museum postcards because the illustrator had used famous art depicting scenes from the text, and she wanted me to see the originals.
I shared these “scholarly materials” with my students, and I read that children’s book to my kids any number of times. When my daughter was in second grade and the principal suggested–in light of the “wonderful problem” she presented as too advanced a reader–that I teach her a second language. My daughter chose Finnish. (She lost—I know several other languages well enough to teach a seven-year old, but still not Finnish).  And the Kalevala circle kind of closed.

We have no Finnish ancestry—just a deep love for the characters, the magic, and the world of the Kalevala. That’s enough.

Living · Reading

We Read to Remember

I said this on a podcast (in a podcast? This is a very new world for me) recently, and when I said it, it rang with more truth than I could articulate at the time. I hope to parse it out more productively here.
Reading has always served a cultural purpose, preserving our past and providing a way for us not to repeat mistakes. We read to remember how wars began, in hopes that we can avoid more. We read to remember our cultural history when we read fairy tales or myths, but also biography and history. Biography tells us one woman’s story; folklore tells us Everyman’s.
When I teach literature and folklore, students are delighted (or aghast) to find themselves in these stories. I taught the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied a few years ago, and we talked not only about the obvious influences on works like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, but also the repetition of political dramas relevant to the upheaval in the Ukraine at the time (2014). We read to feel connected and understood when the world seems chaotic beyond measure. Because more than likely, we’ve been here before.
Those are big, sweeping reasons to read to remember. There are more personal ones, of course. We read to remember people we knew and loved. There are lots of books that remind me of my parents—mom loved biographies and romances; dad loved historical fiction, especially set in World War II, and he idolized Frank Lloyd Wright. Every time I pick up a biography I think of my mom because I argued with her for years about their usefulness. I loved to read stories, but true lives held no interest. The older I get, the more interesting people are to me, though, and I know she’d be tickled by that. I still don’t find myself tripping through World War II novels, but every time I read about some new building or, let’s face it—any time there’s any significant structure in a book I’m reading, I read it like an architect’s daughter, and I remember his lessons and esthetics.
That seems pretty personal, but I think the most important reason we read to remember is even more intimate. We read to remember who we were. When we read a book we’ve read before, part of our experience is remembering what we thought the first time—where we were; if someone had made us read it and whether that colored our encounter; and we even find parts of our identity that may have changed radically since then—nearly forgotten past selves—until we dig them up like archaeologists of the soul.
This happens to everyone every time we read books that take us back. But since I had fifteen years of reading to my kids, and since I sometimes teach Children’s Literature, it means the most to me when I reread a children’s book I’ve loved. It’s one thing to read 100 Years of Solitude at 20 and then 30, but it’s quite a different experience to read “The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes” and be able to pinpoint the moment it first occurred to you that women could be something other than mothers. I was little. That was huge. Reading it to my Children’s Lit class was both a return to my youth and a call to arms for the next generation. Reading it to my daughter was a homecoming. I watched her face. I looked for sparks. And I rolled around in the images and ideas, bouncing back and forth between child-me and mommy-me, feeling all the goodness and love important ideas and charming stories fill us with.
Because that’s what it’s about. Feelings. We read to feel, so we can read to remember how we felt. This could be a book that reminds us of a particular person or a time in our lives, or it could be the book just makes us feel great, and we read to capture that feeling again and again.
We read to remember how we feel, how we felt, where we came from, whom we love, who we were. We read to become ourselves.
(The podcast I refer to was a conversation with the brilliant and gracious Steve Zelt, and can be found, if you’re a listening type of person, at:
Reading · Teaching

The Wife of Bath’s Experience

Last week, as Americans and others watched testimonies before the Senate Judiciary Committee pertaining to a Supreme Court nomination, millions of people relived their own moments of traumatic assault and discussed why women fear they won’t be believed. And I taught “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” In fact, we were discussing how survivors are treated (and were in the middle ages) at the same moment Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was under oath.

The Wife of Bath is, sadly in some ways, still screamingly relevant.
Her name is Alisoun and she is from Bath. Let’s start there. She is the only pilgrim among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims whose prologue is longer than her tale, because in a very real sense her prologue is her tale.
She begins by establishing the basis for her authority, and it is not the standard. In the medieval period writers based their stories on previously attested, authoritative works.
People who wrote (and read) were overwhelmingly male, educated by studying languages and literature and theology–what Chaucer affectionately refers to as “olde books.”
Alisoun, traveling in a group of mostly men, of clergy and members of the lesser nobility, as well as tradesmen and middle class managers, asserts her voice and her authority and their basis in experience.
Her subject is marriage, or more precisely the relationship between married men and women. Really she’s interested in who has what she calls “maisterie” or “mastery” in the relationship. She has been married five times and is ready for a sixth; she describes herself as being of “five husbands’ schooling.” And she has a lot to say on the subject.
There are several remarkable things happening here. First, Alisoun is claiming authority for herself in an environment where it is both challenged (by the Friar, who tells her to leave off “preaching” and tell a nice story) and sought out (the Pardoner asks for tips, for her to teach him her “practice”—the same word you might use to describe work in law or medicine).
Second, her tale really is biography and a kind of testimony, where she explains how her marriages worked and gives voice to her experiences, some of which we would characterize today as abuse. She enters the masculine, patristic arena as she challenges St. Paul’s doctrine of chastity and the story of Jesus and the Samaritan, where Jesus tells the Samaritan her current husband is not her “real” husband.
Surely God gave us sexual organs, she argues, not just to purge urine, but also to make begetting children pleasurable. How many of the Samaritan’s husbands “counted,” she wonders aloud, and why would Jesus fix a number on marriages? She advocates for gentler rules—for acknowledging that the highest goal is virginity, but that people who do not maintain such austerity can be virtuous too. In a century of plague and a society with an outrageous mortality rate, she advocates for remarriage as a necessity, but also as humane.
When she’s done arguing, she recounts an overview of her first three marriages, but it’s structured as a laundry list of all the anti-feminist ideas circulating among scholars at the time. She knows these stereotypes and biases, and she manages to turn them back on her husbands, gaining mastery—of her husbands and their finances. These are all the accusations she’s had levied at her since she first married at the age of twelve.
The last part of her story recounts her fourth and fifth husbands, one of whom kept a mistress, and the other of whom beat her regularly, but these two were the ones she loved. That was the problem, she deduces.
Chaucer has done something here. He has let a woman speak, validated her experience, and given her a full, flawed, beautiful character. She explains herself on her own terms and enters a discussion that has not been designed for her presence.
We literally haven’t gotten yet to the Tale she tells about a rapist knight whose life is forfeit to the queen and who is rehabilitated when he discovers that all women want authority over their own lives. Today we don’t need to.
What we need to do is hear Dame Alisoun’s story. We need to believe her. We need to learn from her not exactly what she says, but what she shows—that these problems are centuries old, and it’s past time to fix them.