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Dear friends,

A lasting effect -- what we read for & what our reading does to us. Do people realize the popularity of Hunger Games and this money-making hit movie (for the day) comes from teachers in the US (and elsewhere) using a "Dorothy Canfield Fisher" list of prizes and on it is this book. I found an old bad dream in a diary entry and thought about it in terms of this teacher's essay, a class discussion we had this week, and a couple on listservs.

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I found this prose-poem on Reveries under the Sign of Austen for December 4, 2010; it was marked "hidden," and was never published. I'm putting it in public so as to contextualize it by my life as a reader:

I awoke & found I had been dreaming a happy dream, an experience I long for that cannot be. Odd, I continued to be happy. Is this what people feel when someone has died & in their minds they dream of meeting again to do what they used to do togidres. But my heart was beating hard, & I thought it was not good for me, so I arose, went where I could put on a light, and turned to read.

Nighttime, having take a pill to sustain sleep, E.M


Vanessa Bell, The Artist's Daughter

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To wrench myself away from my dream of longing I had turned to read:

A teaching experience:  In an article I had assigned the teacher showed (unconsciously indicting herself) that teachers choose from lists of books which win prizes or are cited by prestigious groups (right now it's the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award and this and last year's winners included Collins's Hunger Games) without knowing what's in them or what's the agenda of the organization or its funding -- at least the teacher never once said why she thought this list produced good experiences or what was literally the content or themes: it was filled with quotations from students: "the author did a good job of characters;" "it was amazing;" "it was really sad."  She also admitted hidden injuries of all sorts happen in dividing classes up and giving them reading-level appropriate books. Kids are stigmatized according to how well they decode a book and the moral inferences they can gather. She says that social identity and relationships are really what's fueling what's happening but all the actions she does in class ignore this. (She's not to blame; unless she teaches to a test she'll be fired.)

In the class when we discussed this essay I was startled to discover that in the two classes a preponderance of students raised their hands and said they chose to read what they did as teenagers to be on the same wave length as their friends!  as part of a social identity.


A favorite book in fourth grade

I never did that until I got on the Net and joined reading grouips.  When I was in grade school, I became aware one day (I don't remember how) that most children around me read nothing much. I was startled, shocked.  Somehow I managed to ask my 3rd grade a teacher about this and she told me (when I also asked) why we read these simpleton dull books and said at home I was reading Nancy Drew and The Secret Garden -- that most of the children in the class read nothing outside the class and what they did read it was really at the level of the books we had in class (Dick and Jane type). I have not forgotten this awakening.

My students were talking about their teen years when they said they read what others were reading - now many do read nothing. Well then too I had no idea what others were reading. I did know their favorite movie star was not Ronald Colman and made it a sort of joke to myself he was for me and I was alone in this across the city maybe, but I never extrapolated out about what that meant.


Ronald Colman, Lost Horizon

Returning to here and now and my classroom of students today:  I asked the class:  How about the child who uses books to escape others? how about different reading levels?  This way of looking at it ignores the child who does read much better than the others as well as the child who reads poorly. It ignores the class the children come from, their parents, what they see in their home. It pretends there is one norm and that's right. Not different social psychological identities.

Afterward in both classes a couple of students came up to thank me for talking as I had that day.

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I had turned to read:

The written dream above comes out of my anguished experiences of  family life; over on Wompo as a result of threads about Adrienne Rich and her career success, privileged origin turned to "career risks" (how this morphed into this one cannot trace visibly) insisting really how the role of mother was so wonderful. After detailing harrowing ordeals trying to bring children up, support them, and yet write and read and live as an individual the examined fulfilled life, several have said they'd "do it all over again in a minute" (or a phrase like this), meaning they would not change their basic reaction or the past much.  I can hardly think not at all. They all showed how they were forced to ignore their children, or husband or someone who was calling on them for attention, care, selflessness.

My reaction is bare hard simple words because I don't want to be fictitious at all, which I now I rather think was what was happening, people were speaking out of a social situation:

I don't know that I would relive the past exactly as I did it. Of course it's useless (as in the proverb) to cry over spilt milk, but, like many, I still regret much in the past. It's ever "knowing what I know today" but then we can't get out of retrospective. Many, perhaps most autobiographies are written out of a sense of compensation, loss, a need to create an identity against or justifying what was. I don't know that I would do it differently because I'm still the same person in some fundamental ways.

I'm moved by the stories of writing in the interstices. I did that too. One real motive for my translation of Vittoria Colonna's nearly 600 poems was they were short, sonnets, I could do one at a time, a little bit at a time even. It was feasible. Ditto Gambara's.

Yes I kept my door shut when I got a room of my own in my house. Today I have no daughters at home (at least during the day) but I do keep my cats out. I feel bad about the cats too, but I do it.



Looking out my workroom window one winter: what I could see that day from an angle

They had called the thread "career risks" and persisted in this. I tried to substitute enemies of promise but it did not find favor.

Another objection to this header of "career risks" on wompo is women's careers look quite different from men's.  The minimum criteria for a woman must be different or we must eliminate say Emily Dickinson and many other foremothers and present women too. The header does suggest an equivalence between writing great poetry and having a successful career. What do we mean by successful career? Are they the same thing? I wrote:

In the 1940s a famous book was written by Cyril Connolly called The Enemies of Promise and what he discussed beyond the pram in the hall (which it seems got in men's ways too) and time-consuming making a living, was what crippled the spirit.

What are the enemies of promise? What leaps to mind for me are public conventional ways of reacting to individuals in their specific contexts which wither and frighten and silence ...  Reputation, the need to keep a reputation ... that sort of thing ... who are you writing for, what is expected of the writing itself.  Do you think it's your duty to cheer people up ... what is the task of the poet?


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Lastly,

A question my classes and I discussed and we also discussed on Trollope19thCStudies is: what do we read for, and what does our reading do to us -- that matters to us. I had asked which book by Dickens people thought his greatest or was their favorite; failing that, what was his signature book, the one they thought that most epitomized the way his genius was seen. Just at that moment all three criteria produced Little Dorrit.

I found myself drawn to someone who cited Barnaby Rudge using the criteria of a "lasting effect." What book has a lasting effect on someone. If by somewhat changing the course of one's life insofar as our activities are concerned is meant, for me, it might be Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton which led me to find the first Trollope listserv, join, and eventually start leading group reads. In a number of central ways it resembles Dr Thorne, the first Trollope novel and book I consciously read as by Trollope.

My favorite Trollope and those I respect most are odd ones, short stories mostly ("Journey to Panama, Spotted Dog, Aaron Trowe, Why Frau Frohman Raised Her Prices") (See Trollope's short stories). I thought last summer maybe Trollope's signature book should still be The Last Chronicle of Barset, but signature books mirror their own times too, so I guess the contemporary ones which were recently filmed are the ones: He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now. I know though when someone asks me, Which Trollope should I read first, I say The Small House at Allington or Can You Forgive Her? followed by Phineas Finn.

A lasting effect for me is probably Austen's Sense and Sensibility, first read at age 13 and returned to around 17. Austen's novel helped shape what I became by presenting an ideal self I could bond with.


Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood -- a favorite still

For The Vicar of Bullhampton I meant it led me to a listserv and then I began to lead group reads and that led to a 5 years stint writing a books and many years now on and off reading Trollope. So that's a lasting effect -- to have become a sort of Victorianist and certainly a Trollopeian if numbers of books read and understood count. His books though, what I found in these, did not change me.

For me looking back it's unfortunate no one gave me the books I needed when I was young truly to help me. Had I read Reviving Ophelia in my teens I could have pointed to that; as it is, one feels silly saying I came across books that changed my outlook and thinking and feeling too when I was in my early 50s. It seems so delayed a development :) I now think too many girls don't reach the books they need in time -- or never, such books never reach them. A group of feminist books in the id-1990s changed me and have had a lasting effect ... And not just that, it deepens as time goes by. What were these? Nancy Miller's Subject to Change, Emily White's Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut, Beatrice Didier, L'Ecriture Femme, a library of female gothic -- and all made the later 18th century life-writings and novels by women meaningful to me

So, for example, at first I would have said (say 2001) that my favorite Trollope was "The Spotted Dog," now I realize that can only be if I blind myself, pretend not to see, the presentation of the wife.

Sylvia

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