Living · Reading · Teaching

Summer Reading During a Pandemic

So this has been a weird summer. And spring. You know; you’ve lived it too.

My campus went online after March 13, so we have been teaching, advising, and meeting from home for months. I have some thoughts. I have had some thoughts before now, but honestly I’ve had more feelings than thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to write this summer, so I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do, but in keeping with what I’ve been telling my family, my students, my friends, and my colleagues, I’m going to be gentle with myself and just pick up the keyboard and start, not fret about what I didn’t do this summer.

I often post a blog or two about my summer reading, in part because it’s such a big deal for someone who teaches literature to be able to read something not for class, and in part because many of you wonderful folks who read this little blog are also big readers. This summer was something else. Here’s what went down:

  1. Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I took a seminar on Dickens in grad school, and this was my favorite. I haven’t, however, revisited it in the twenty years since then. It’s still lovely, but I have to tell you, I started in March, and I’m not through it yet. I’ve been reading it in little bites—a chapter or three here and there, then nothing for two weeks. Somehow I haven’t been able to sustain the attention Dickens requires. From time to time I had twinges of guilt or shame at being less capable of reading a big novel, but this is just not the summer for (multiple) big novels. Whatever. Someday this fall Florence will get her happy ending, and that’s just fine.
  2. James Nestor’s Breath, a new non-fiction book about how we breathe and how we should breathe for better physical and mental health. I have gotten one massage  in the last six months, and when I did, my massage therapist recommended it. And now I recommend it. It’s readable, practical, and I found myself reading passages out loud to unsuspecting family members about how to calm anxiety and get better sleep. Timely, no?
  3. A Book that Takes its Time by Irene Smit and Astrid von der Hulst. This is basically a compilation of articles suitable for publication in the magazine FLOW, and I enjoyed all the pieces and their piecemeal nature. It’s easier to read two pages of something delightful than, for instance, 900 pages of Dickens.
  4. Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. I recently started in a new leadership position with a wildly different job description, so I was looking for resources. Tragically, my first 90 days were all online, during summer, far away from the fine folks I’ll be attempting to lead, so all this one gave me was a vague sense that I was missing opportunities.
  5. Patricia McKissick’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. This is a lovely collection of African American fiction for kids, and it was one of the several ways I started thinking about race and history and doing better personally and nationally. I also bought Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Walker is miraculous, but I haven’t read any Whitehead. I’m optimistic.
  6. Small Teaching: Online by Flower Darby and James Lang. Darby is adapting Lang’s Small Teaching, and I am frantically searching for ways to help my students stay connected to each other and the texts I teach. This has some good stuff, so I hope I finish it and put it to use in time. Cross your fingers for me; the countdown’s on.
  7. The first two novels in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. These were the first choices of a friend who did what it takes to guarantee that I read a book—she bought me a copy and started a book club. We had good talks on Zoom about whether the murderbot is male or female and all the other things one talks about when one reads science fiction.
  8. Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which I found via her TED Talk, and which gave me lots of little, happy boosts from reading it and consciously looking for sources of joy. For an incontrovertible happy-ass like myself (who’s been struggling of late), I now feel super-charged in the “Notice Cool Stuff and Enjoy It” category.
  9. Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folktales of Britain and Ireland. If you know me, this has my name written all over it. I’m reading one a night, and they’re perfect.
  10. Allan and Jessica Ahlberg’s The Goldilocks Variations. It’s a picture book. That one I finished.  But it’s also outstanding in every way, and I highly recommend it.

So what have we learned? I’m scattered, or eclectic, looking for comfort and inspiration, sometimes finding them, sometimes not finishing what I start or even starting at all. It’s been a wild summer, hasn’t it? What I’ve learned above all is to be gentle—with myself, with others, with the world. That’s all that’s working for me consistently.

I hope wherever you are, you’ve found some comfort, some solace, some insight and inspiration this summer, and if you’d like to talk about books—books I read, or you read, or books half-finished or waiting patiently on the end table, filled with potential, let me know.

Reading · Teaching

Reading Dante in Isolation

I recently moved my teaching online, along with the rest of the world. I was in the middle of Dante’s Inferno.

The course on Epics (this term) wound its way from Greek and Roman treatments of the Trojan War to Dante’s critique of some of those tropes and characters, and we were just about to talk about how low in Hell Ulysses gets placed when we disbanded. We left some things hanging as we moved in to a new, foreign medium.

But the conversation continued. We were fortunate to have built a good base; we were about halfway through our semester, so comfortable with each other and our content. And the content is all connected.

The last day we met in person, we talked about Dante’s treatment of thieves. As we considered why thieves get transformed in to snakes in hell, we teased out all the imagery and traced through-lines. For about four cantos, Dante winds the image of a coiling snake through theft and fraud and lying to achieve personal ends: thieves and liars, snakes and friars. In a  beautiful confluence of word and image, all of Dante’s snake imagery fits those who steal, like the serpent who stole Paradise from Adam and Eve, with his forked, venomous tongue, through Ulysses, who counseled fraud and convinced his men to seek that which was beyond their reach (the mountain of Purgatory). Because we had a firm grasp of the snaky thieves, our first discussion online went almost as smoothly as it would have face to face.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of a thief transforming to a snake

After that, though, two things happened. First we went deeper, and trying to envision the fractious Sowers of Discord and the ultimate traitors in the 9th circle were harder to get our heads around. That Dante places those who create division among humanity—divisions in religious sects, in families, and between people and their lords reminded us of our distance from one another during our quarantine.

We are stronger together in so many ways, but one of them is in education. Dante argues this negatively in Inferno, when he shows how destructive division is to humanity, and he argues it in Paradiso, where he shows that the unity of humanity is godlike. We are most like god when we gather together and support each other as one. That’s why the Sowers of Discord are in deep Hell. That’s why even the introverts are feeling the sting of a quarantine. That’s why we learn better in a classroom than on the internet.  

Lucie reads the Inferno. Her Italian is impeccable.

But sometimes we have to be apart. So I am grateful for all the ways we have found to create community virtually. The next big event was that the midterm took place as scheduled–a dramatic reading of seven cantos of the Inferno. People read from their own homes, some with sound effects (because they’re way cooler than I am), and on their phones or their laptops or with whatever means they had. And we heard Ugolino confess his cannibalism and Nimrod shout his babble and Satan mumble with his mouth full. And we shared in the horror of those scenes and the power of performance to unify actors and audience.

Finally, we discovered my cat and Dante share a birthday, so they decided my cat was Dante reincarnated. Therefore, despite what feels like the theft of our face to face community, I’m confident in our ability to come together in other ways, building unity and shared knowledge, and optimistic about the rest of the term.