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Susan Straight

New insights from a 90-year-old book

A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a small wave of despair about being a writer and teacher at a time when common wisdom holds that "no one reads anymore." But then some of my UC Riverside students sought me out on campus to thank me for introducing them to a book.

“Winesburg," one student said. "That was the book."

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, published in 1919, is one of my favorite novels. But I'd always been hesitant to assign it. My students are often first-generation children of immigrants, and the book is about Midwesterners in a small town of brick buildings surrounded by cornfields. Last fall, though, I decided to give it a try.

I gave them several novels to read. And I tried a new approach. Instead of standing before them, proclaiming what I believed about the books, I broke the students into groups and asked each group to present its book in a way that would make their classmates pay attention and feel something.

Initially, the students couldn't believe they were being given such control. They wanted guidelines. But they quickly settled into their task.

The first book, by Los Angeles author Cheryl Klein, was The Commuters, which is told in numerous voices by people living and working all over the Los Angeles area. Each narrator is connected by geography and friends and work.

The group decided the book was about home. For their presentation, they stood in front of us and drew maps of their hometowns — Fallbrook and Hemet and La Habra and others — and how they intersected. A Loma Linda native talked about growing up among crowds of medical-coated health professionals and vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists; then a student from San Jacinto explained that she was connected to Loma Linda because it was where her infant was on life support for three days before she died. The whole classroom became silent.

And then there was the book I'd worried about. Winesburg, Ohio is about secrets, shame and guilt, and the students loved it, passionately and argumentatively. On presentation day, I couldn't imagine what the Winesburg group would do. (A naked woman runs through town in one story — that had gotten a lot of attention.) The group presented us with small pieces of paper and a leather satchel, and directed us to write down the most shameful secret we'd always held inside. Something we'd never told anyone. The folded pieces of paper were mixed inside the bag, passed around, and we each read one secret aloud.

Students had poured out their guilt: about a pregnant cousin who had been ignored when she was desperately in need of love and counsel, about a lizard burned alive in a jar, about a childhood injury inflicted on a relative who never fully healed.

Even now, I can hear us reading aloud, in our desk chairs, all facing forward. A 90-year-old book brought us there.

Humanities are under fire at the moment. Teach students something practical, many Americans say, something to help them get jobs and support themselves. But I believe that to thrive in the world, we must also understand what it is to be human.

The students in that seminar learned some things about literature, and a lot about writing. But the most important things they learned, I suspect, had little to do with the course subject matter. They got glimpses of the world through the eyes of their fellow students.

My seminar students graduated last weekend, but I keep thinking about the way they reacted when I read aloud to them the first week of class. There was nothing on the board, no PowerPoint. Just an old book, held in my hands. They were initially skeptical, questioning. Who needs books, in this age of digital technology? their expressions seemed to ask. But then their eyes met mine while I read.

Who needs humans to tell secrets and listen and watch wide-eyed as their compatriots reveal their lives? We all do.

© 2010 Los Angeles Times

New insights from a 90-year-old book 07/09/10 [Last modified: Sunday, July 11, 2010 9:13pm]
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