Joyce Hinnefeld wrote the wonderful novel In Hovering Flight, a complex and intriguing story about mother-daughter relationships- among other things (read my review). Joyce graciously agreed to write a guest post for Linus’s Blanket, and even though I threw her to the wolves and didn’t give her any direction with respect to subject matter, she took a peek around and offered some thoughts on the topic of the day, books as gifts.
I’ve been reading Nicole’s posts about giving books as gifts and about recommended books that end up disappointing the recipient, and this has me thinking about gifts I’ve given, books I’ve recommended—and what I do when I teach.
Though I teach college-level writing classes, I assign a lot of reading; it just seems obvious and important to me to stress to my students that if they want to improve as writers, they need to read widely and avidly. Of course, I
don’t always succeed in cultivating this (actually, I think the ones who read avidly for my courses usually begin the course as avid readers). But I persist in assigning things to read and talk about—to push my students to begin to “read
I just finished teaching a course I developed a couple years ago, called Writing and/as Activism. For this course I’ve assigned some fairly obvious writers, like poets Adrienne Rich and Carolyn Forché. But I also try to make the point that “activism” in writing can be quiet, even lyrical. This semester I assigned a good bit of writing about the environment, including excerpts from Rachel Carson and from a lovely book by Akiko Busch called Nine Ways to Cross a River. Akiko spoke to our class, and she and her work quickly became a favorite of my students. (I know what they like; they’re usually pretty direct about this in the written responses to assigned reading that I require.)
In a way, I think of selecting the books for a course like Writing and/as Activism as a process of choosing gifts for my students. I try to assign work that I feel they’ll enjoy, that I think is important for them to know, or that I hope will get them to think in a new way. Yes, I’m aware that they don’t see everything I assign as a gift; far from it. But quite often they express gratitude for being introduced to something they wouldn’t have read on their own.
My students give me gifts too. In recent years they’ve introduced me to graphic novels, and this past semester I assigned one that was recommended to me by my former student (now a wonderful bookseller), Stephanie Anderson: Derrick Jensen and Stephanie McMillan’s As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial. I wasn’t sure how this book—with its radical, anti-capitalist, anti-vivisectionist message—would go over with my students (for a handful of them, the more radical the better, but many of them seem to prefer less in-your-face works). But they loved As the World Burns. Many said it was their favorite book of the semester. Maybe because it was a comic book, I know—but they also appreciated Jensen and McMillan’s blunt, straightforward depiction of what we’re doing to the planet.
Remember reading for college classes? I still miss that particular way of reading: eager, curious, a little scared (sure the smarter kids in the class are seeing all kinds of things you’re missing). I wonder if reading for a book group meeting feels like that; I haven’t been in one, so I don’t know. But I think it’s wonderful to have someone recommend a book to you. “Read this. I liked it, and I think you will too”: To have someone tell you this is, I think, a sign of deep respect, and a true gift.
After reading Joyce’s post I was motivated to get up and search for the gift book I received last year and have discovered that it is Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. Still no word on whether I will actually read it anytime soon or ever, but at least I know what it is and where it is.