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Magazine Feature

A Community Collaboration Rekindles Interest in Classic Literature

by Currie Meyer on November 29, 2017

CURRIE MEYER is Manager, Council Tree Library ,at Poudre River Public Library District in Fort Collins (CO). Contact Currie at cmeyer@poudrelibraries.org. Currie is currently reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.


I arrive at the local pub on a Wednesday evening in April ahead of the night’s book discussion to prepare the space for our eclectic and boisterous group. Tonight, we’ll be spread out along an upcycled wooden table, sipping coffee, wine, and local craft beer, and diving into the nineteenth century provincial society of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Regular group members and newcomers roll in, complete with dog-eared paperbacks lled with sticky notes or underlined passages ready to get started on tonight’s classic novel.

“I have a bundle of books to get through with tragic women characters,” says one woman who is thrilled to be able to mark another title off her ambitious to-read list.

“French history is awesome,” another replies. And so it goes among the group of people gathered around the table this evening.

It’s another gathering of Poudre River Public Library District’s (PRPLD) newest discussion series, Rekindle the Classics.

Once per month, from September to May, program participants discuss literary powerhouses like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The program is a collaboration between PRPLD, the English department at Colorado State University (CSU), and a local Fort Collins (CO) business, Wolverine Farm Letterpress & Publick House. Graduate students and faculty from the English department are our expert guides, providing background on the author, historical period, significance of the work, and thoughtful prompts for discussion. The program is drop-in and open to all community members.

The Collaboration Begins

The Rekindle the Classics series was conceived by Ellen Brinks, CSU professor of literature. The idea for the series was sparked by Brinks’ involvement in another successful PRPLD program in which classic authors including Dickens and Shelley “came alive” in a Chautauqua-like presentation.

“I was so impressed with the community interest and appreciation for the ‘Literature Comes Alive’ program and the high level and seriousness of the discussions I had with participants. I never forgot it,” Brinks explained.1

When Brinks later became the graduate programs coordinator for the CSU English department, she sought ways her department could serve the Fort Collins community while fostering graduate students’ experiences in local public arts. She remembered the positive collaboration between the CSU and PRPLD for Literature Comes Alive.

“I thought that—with library interest—Literature Comes Alive could be tweaked somewhat: a reading club with graduate students or department faculty selecting old and new classic texts and leading discussions of them in the library setting,” she said.

Brinks, along with a motivated graduate student, pitched the idea and I quickly jumped on board. Together, we added a twist to the typical book club model: a hip, off-site venue.

I found the perfect space in Publick House, a casual, community- and arts-centered space that also happens to serve fantastic beverages. Owner Todd Simmons graciously donated the use of the venue’s eight-hundred-square-foot meeting room for discussions. The Letterpress & Publick House is Wolverine Farm’s creative outpost: part letterpress print shop, part community event center, part coffee shop, and part beer-and-wine bar.

“We view the Publick House as a cultural, environmental, and educational facility with really good concessions,” said Simmons. “It’s a place to learn, celebrate, and practice the art of living in a mindful and engaged manner.”2
His generosity allowed the Rekindle the Classics program to enjoy zero costs for supplies, equipment, or space, and brought increased visibility to this burgeoning local business.

Revisiting Classic Stories

We launched Rekindle the Classics in January 2016 with a graduate student-
led discussion of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Nearly twenty people attended the rst discussion including many who had not previously attended library programs, two library book club regulars, a retired couple, various young professionals, a high school teacher who teaches the novel in her classroom, and a handful of graduate students. Subsequent book discussions have enjoyed similar attendance.

For many at the table, Rekindle the Classics is not a typical book group but a unique opportunity to reignite their passion for some of the best works of literature, a passion they might not have known existed when they first read these books, often in high school or college.

“I like that the discussion is on a peer level,” said Lauren, a CSU graduate student and that night’s discussion facilitator. “These are perceptive discussions and not just critical. Plus, there are no papers to write or tests to take.”

Susan, a frequent participant in the program, said, “I’m all up in this! I need to talk about these books. There’s so much to unpack and discuss.”

“These stories are so ingrained in our culture and people are familiar with them,” she explained. “Some readers might think it will be hard to read and discuss them, but they aren’t. They’re just layered.”

For people who read or re-read classic literature—whether on their own or as part of a group like Rekindle the Classics —the draw can be the name recognition of the author or novel or a memory of having encountered the book when they were younger.

Having slogged through some of The Canterbury Tales in high school, I totally missed the point. Rekindle the Classics provided me the chance to give Chaucer another try. And, of course, I loved it the second time around—hilarious and bawdy! Who knew?

The “Better Person” Outcome

In addition to the simple enjoyment of a rousing tale or compelling character, some argue that reading literary fiction makes us better people. According to Science magazine, a 2013 study indicated that reading literary fiction gives readers enhanced “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand the “beliefs and desires” of people unlike themselves.3

After our discussion of The Scarlet Letter, Brinks said, “I loved that someone brought up the judgement that comes not only with women who are sexually expressive but who are simply trying to get through the world as single parents.”

Another evening’s discussion of Madame Bovary moved in a similar direction as participants reflected upon the changing roles of women in society and the social norms and morals of nineteenth century France compared to today.

Many of the liveliest conversations from Rekindle the Classics revolve around the critical lens with which each reader views the story and characters: historical, psychological, philosophical, and feminist perspectives are explored.

“I am more empathic when I read these books,” one participant commented. “They push me out of my comfort zone.”

Other Considerations

For all the success that we’ve enjoyed with the program, there are a few considerations other libraries should take into account when organizing any similar book group collaboration.

1. Plan Ahead and Define Roles

Our collaboration’s success is due in part to advance planning and clearly de ned roles and responsibilities. Rekindle the Classics meets monthly from September to May. Each discussion lasts two hours, with a ten-minute break midway through the evening. CSU graduate students and faculty volunteers facilitate discussions and choose titles meaningful to them.

On behalf of PRPLD, I coordinate all logistics for the program including scheduling, marketing, venue details, reporting, and evaluation. Brinks coordinates the graduate student facilitators and confirms their availability and preparedness. We also meet a few times per year to discuss the status of the program and share ideas for improvement. We also act as back-up discussion facilitators.

2. Recognize the Amount of Prep Involved

As coordinators, we make efforts to read every book and attend every discussion. Did we read and finish every title on time for the discussion? Actually, no. We had to let go of that and just get as much read as we could in one month. We felt only a little guilty reading Cliff’s Notes to help supplement knowledge of the book.

3. Be Flexible with Book Titles

Our book titles are chosen by the graduate students who have volunteered to lead the group discussion. This is a great way to ensure the facilitators feel comfortable with the book and author, but it also means that group participation is dependent upon their choices.

For instance, we noticed a difference in attendees based on whether the book or author was highly recognizable versus when the chosen title was less well-known.

Additionally, because we did not have a hand in book selection, it was difficult to ensure that there was a good representation of diverse literary voices, styles, and time periods; instead, we had to rely on the students’ familiarity and passion for specific works. While this approach ensured a high-quality discussion of each book, it also meant we could not change up titles to address current social issues. Owing to their politically driven popular resurgence, I wanted to add Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale to our lineup. Unfortunately, we did not have any graduate students who expressed interest in these titles at the time.

4. Conduct Ongoing Evaluation

It’s pretty typical for librarians to conduct some type of formal or informal program assessment, and we were able to use collected feedback to tweak elements of the program that were working well for our community and to make important changes for our next season.

Based on feedback from the participants which was collected via a simple six-question evaluation form, we found everyone enjoyed and learned something new from each program. Most people returned to one or two more programs during each season.

Participants did ask us to consider meeting where the parking was more plentiful and background noise a little less boisterous (Publick House remains open to the public while we meet). Program participants also provided suggestions for titles and authors, and encouraged us to include works outside of the Western, white-male canon.

Together, we concluded we were very happy with the program. The facilitators were well prepared with background on the author and the historical context of the book, and they also balanced directing the conversation and letting it go where it would.

As we prepared for the fall 2017 season, we took into account participant feedback and worked to create a diverse lineup of authors and titles. Among them were Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories.

Why Read the Classics

To read a great classic like Madame Bovary or King Lear in adulthood is an experience wholly different from reading it as a student in school. Even as the books remain the same over time, we have, as Italian author Italo Calvino points out, “most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing.”4

This sentiment is echoed among Rekindle the Classics readers.

“I always learn new things about the book discussed,” said Ravitte, an early program participant, “and the level of discussion is intellectually stimulating.”

Everywhere, people are looking for ways to connect with ideas and with one another. With Rekindle the Classics we have o ered that camaraderie and connection through classic literature.

References

  1. Ellen Brinks, email interview with the author, Dec. 21, 2016.
  2. Todd Simmons, email interview with the author, July 25, 2017.
  3. David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” Science 342 no. 6156 (Oct. 18, 2013): 377-80, accessed Oct. 30, 2017.
  4. Italo Calvino, translated by Patrick Creagh, “Why Read the Classics,” The New York Review of Books (Oct. 9, 1986), accessed Nov. 5, 2017.

Titles Discussed at Rekindle the Classics

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

King Lear by William Shakespeare

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Blood Meridian by Cormack McCarthy

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories by Washington Irving

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H. P. Lovecraft


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