Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Games for Book-Lovers

Last week, Caroline posted her thoughts on why there's no reality television show about publishing. Well, today I'm going to advocate for another incorporation of literature into popular culture: we need more games for people who love books. Here's why.

I'm a member of the listserv for c19: The Society of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. It's a new society, one that had its first conference in mid-May. But despite the success of that conference, and despite the fact that the listserv went live immediately following it, the community has seemed dead for the last two months. I had expected discussion and debate on the listserv, but-- nothing.

Nothing, at least, until yesterday.

On Monday morning, Marcia D. Nichols, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota-Rochester, emailed the group asking for advice. She's teaching a course in the fall on nineteenth-century medicine and literature, and was soliciting suggestions for texts about dissection. Suddenly the listserv exploded. Everyone had ideas, ranging from poetry to fiction to nonfiction, some of it famous, some of it obscure.

I recognized some of the names of the participants-- in particular Wyn Kelley and John Bryant, who are both on the editorial board of Leviathan, the journal of the Melville Society. Others I didn't. Some suggestions were repeated multiple times, the writers perhaps not seeing the earlier responses in their haste-- but collegiality was the dominant mode, with responders seconding books and recommending each other's critical work. Jennifer Greiman, of the University of Albany, suggested The Life of P.T. Barnum, as well as "Benjamin Reiss's amazing study [that] fills out what Barnum omits."

Reiss's response? "Gulp." And some thoughts of his own.

Anyway, this all reminded me of the kinds of games that my boyfriend and I play on occasion. Sometimes we'll design pretend courses and syllabi-- we did this a lot after we both were counselors and TAs at an academic summer camp. At that camp, course descriptions were very general; for two summers, I was a TA for a Twentieth-Century Humanities class. The shape it took was very, very different under the two graduate students who taught it. The first summer, the grad student was writing his dissertation on modernist poetry, so the kids read "The Waste Land" and some Pound-- but there was also a heavy emphasis on ambiguity, media, and the viewer, so they additionally read Henry James's The Ambassadors and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. The next summer, another grad student was writing on feminism and the grotesque in Southern literature-- so the kids read, among other books, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and Gertrude Stein.

How would we teach such a course, we asked each other. What books best framed the twentieth century, for us? What if the summer camp (which is turning more and more to science and business classes) made the unlikely choice of a Nineteenth-Century Humanities class? How would we teach that? And near and dear to our hearts, always, has been the thought of a summer Land Art class, a road trip for students from Marfa to the Spiral Jetty to the Lightning Field, and beyond.

The C19 discussion also reminded me of the most recent session of our book club, where the participants alternated weeks assigning short readings to the group. One member chose a series of excerpts on boredom; another the most excessively violent pieces she could find; I looked for meditations on place and loss. What distinguished all of these-- the course planning with my boyfriend, the book club, and the C19 discussion-- is how they illustrated how much is internalized when we read, and how few chances we get to flex that muscle, to demonstrate our knowledge. Even academics are limited in terms of how much literature they actually get to discuss in their work-- unless any of these authors were actually writing a book on medicine and literature, they wouldn't have many chances to dig deep, to remember the strange and wonderful texts that are out there.

That's why we need games for the literary. Such a game shouldn't necessarily show how well-read you are, if being well-read means knowing how to regurgitate authors and titles. It's become too obvious, working in publishing, how that ability is used to mark boundaries and exclude others from a group. The way we talk about books seems to be more mired in general connections between texts, or meant to signify small victories over other people. In the absence of critical writing-- something we do too little of since finishing our English degrees-- we need games that allow us to revisit all of the works we've read, to keep that knowledge alive and crackling, to remember and discover nearly forgotten themes and topics. Even if that topic is dissection.

Any suggestions?

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