Monday, September 29, 2008

ON ASSIGNMENTS

"Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith..."
*** the first line of "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert Heinlein


HANK: On the way to work this morning, I said to my husband--what books did you read in college? What books did you love?

You know Jonathan. He gave me that droll look. And he said: In college, I didn't read books for pleasure.

That's no doubt why he powered through law school, and my college career was spotty. At best.

I practically majored in a field the college did not know it was offering: listening to records and reading the books I wanted to.

Yes, I did devour some of the books that were assigned. Hemingway. Fitzgerald. Dickens. Austen. Tolkien's Ring books and CS Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet Trilogy were part of one course I took in my oh-so-liberal college. I think the class was called "Exploring Allegory." I also took the invitation-only "Seminar in Alice in Wonderland" which my mother still can't believe was an actual college course.


I was still devoted to Sherlock Holmes, of course. And all the Agatha Christie novels. But they weren't cool for school. So I was a closet mystery reader.

Was Catcher in the Rye college? I started talking and thinking like Holden the moment I met him--although my own language was carefully censored, I remember. (And I still think about him, every time I'm on the subway. Carrying the fencing equipment.) I forget who told me recently--the intial copies ofcatcher came out with the famously shy Salinger's photo on the back. He apparently freaked, and demanded all the copies be destroyed.

Stranger in a Strange Land. I just read something about that, how in revisionist criticism it's almost reviled as a screed against women, a pedantic rant. I don't remember that part. I remember "groking" and how that was one of them most evocative and descriptive made up words I'd ever heard. I still say--sometimes--yes, I grok that. And sometimes, people understand me.

I think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was just after college. That has stuck with me, profoundly. As a writer, the search for the understanding of quality haunts me every day. I found this copy in Amazon, as you can tell by the 'look inside' gizmos, which won't work here. But I really think my copy was pink.



I was so taken with Hallie's topic on our favorite books as kids--now I wonder, what books did you love in college?


ROBERTA: Okay, I'm drawing a blank on this one. I was busy making trouble I guess. And after wandering through biochemistry and art history, I finally settled on Romance language and literature as my major. So I was plugging through light reading such as The Stranger--in French!


HALLIE: I confess, I'm with Jonathan. College was a black hole for me as far as reading for pleasure goes. I’d read all the time through high school, but in college it was as if I’d undergone aversive conditioning… all those dense history and political science texts I ploughed through made reading painful. In four years I might have made it through “Exodus” and “Hawaii” and “Dr. Zhivago” but that’s about it.

When I finished school and could read just for the fun of it, I ploughed through all of Agatha Christie’s and Dorothy Sayers’ novels and short stories. Graduated to P. D. James’ “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman” with the delightful Cordelia Grey, and read everything else James wrote the minute it came out. Re-read all of Sherlock Holmes. Then I wallowed in the library mystery stacks and indiscriminately grabbed books, some of which I made it through.

When I got back to ‘real’ literature it was to discover Amy Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) and Dorothy Allison (“Bastard Out of Carolina”) and Barbara Kingsolver (“The Bean Trees”) and Carolyn Chute (“The Beans of Egypt Maine”) and John Irving (“A Song for Owen Meany”). And to re-read Alice in Wonderland and my favorite Sci-Fi novels (“Stranger in a Strange Land”, “A Wrinkle in Time”). And to rediscover the poems of e. e. cummings.

It should come as no surprise that I also got hooked on food writers—Calvin Trillin (“Alice, Let’s Eat) and Laurie Colwin (“Home Cooking”) and Ruth Reichel (“Tender at the Bone”), just for example.


JAN: During college, I think I was busy validating myself as a wild thing by reading books like: The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, On The Road by Jack Kerouac, The Electric Koolaid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe, One Flew Over the Cuckoos by Ken Kesey, and Kurt Vonnegut's short story collections.


I shifted out of my hippy theme years into a literary phase. This involved reading everything by Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Thomas Hardy and Somerset Maugham.

Then for a while there, I got into reading every single book by Barbara Pym. Her novels were always set around some sort of English vicarage. There was no real theme here, I just really enjoyed her books.

RO: I was about to say that I was with Roberta...having too much..uh, fun..in college to remember what I read. Then Jan reminded me of all the hippie-type books I read. Vonnegut must be like Disney. Every generation gets to discover - and claim - him.


The cobwebs have cleared a bit and I'm probably getting the decades confused (all that sangria, I guess..)but I remember loving Small Changes by Marge Piercy, Something Happened by Joseph Heller..everything by Richard Yates.


I'll probably wake up in the middle of the night and say something like..Birdy! I loved that!! And wisely, my husband will sleep through the outburst.

HANK: I'm going to ask my interns--all attending colleges across New England--what they're reading now. After you tell us what you read during those four (okay, or so) years, or if you read at all, care to predict what the students will say?



AND COMING UP LATER THIS WEEK! A visit from current double New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris, whose darkly hilarious novels are getting even more fans after the HBO blockbuster True Blood made Sookie Stackhouse a household name.
And that's not all--we'll chat with the new owners of Murder by the Book, the beloved bookstore--and how they stood up to Hurricane Ike.

But wait, there's more. Come chat with Lori Andrews, whose newest mystery Immunity is just out. Her real life? Is just as exciting than any fiction.

8 comments:

beckylevine said...

Jan, what was it about Barbara Pym? During the undergrad years, I fell in love with the assigned Victorian novels and just lay there on the couch reading 700-800 pages at a time. By grad school, I was seriously burning out.

That's also when I turned to mysteries--Christie and Ruth Rendell, but also Pym. I read everything by her, all in row. Haven't picked up a copy in years, but every now and then I think about going back and seeing if she (or I) still has it. Oh, what the heck. I'm off to the library home page.

Jan Brogan said...

Hi Becky,
I don't know what it was, both the writing and the stories themselves were understated. I really liked that, but I sometimes wonder if they'd get published if she was a new author starting today.
But I was totally addicted.

Jody said...

I read and read and read - but they were all assigned novels, romantic poetry, Shakespeare, etc. - because I was an English lit major. I remember one semester taking 3 literature courses that each had at least 25 required books. I do remember reading Stranger in a Strange Land, but I think that was in a science fiction class I took two years after I graduated (keeping up my teacher's license). I didn't have time for TV or pleasure reading in college; I made it to a few movies.

Rhonda Lane said...

The summer my friends and I passed around Frank Herbert's "Dune" we all tried cinnamon in our coffee and imagined it was "spice."

Lise said...

Ro sounds like someone from my generation: Sangria and Vonnegut.

I had a grueling college curriculum - 2 years as a nursing major (can you say LABS?) and then 2 years as an El Ed major. BUT, whenever I managed to scrounge an elective, I chose English. I took Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Romantic Poets and The Great American Novel - which is where I read so much excellent stuff - Gatsby, Portrait of a Lady, (Moby Dick - ugh). But on my own (yes, when I should have been studying Statistics or Abnormal Psych or growing noxious substances in a petri dish) I read all of Vonnegut, Catcher In The Rye, Dorothy Parker's poems and stories - loved Big Blonde, The Yellow Wallpaper, and The Awakening- which was being passed around among the uber feminists. And Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer (and I got to use them for my women's study readings, too!). And I read some of my favorite children's books over: The Wind In The Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Little Women and Jo's Boys for my education courses which required we read children's books as well. But since I was a little tyke, and to this very day, there's never been a day I wasn't reading. Cool question, and I'm pleased that I remember anything about my college days - besides disco and whiskey sours.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ah Rhonda--he who controls the spice controls the universe...

Sheila Connolly said...

Ah, yes. I went on a serious sci fi binge in college, starting with Heinlein (sexist pig!). Loved John Wyndham's books. Ray Bradbury--beautiful language. I kept them all (have I mentioned that I never, ever get rid of books?), and my daughter read them in high school.

And a college friend handed me Gaudy Night my sophomore year, and just look what happened! I read every Sayers I could lay hands on, then dug into the classic mysteries.

BTW, I did manage to graduate with honors.

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