March 24

Spring Break Reading

caucasiaI’ve noted before how excited I get when I have a break from teaching and can tackle the stack of “fun” and/or “mindless” books underneath my coffee table. Spring Break is no exception; I love this week of relief between meetings and grading and comforting stressed-out seniors, and my rest and recovery usually includes some kind of reading. For the past five years, I’ve spent my March break down South (Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee) working with a group of students for Habitat for Humanity. I remember reading collections of essays by Anne Lamott, Michael Pollan, and Bill Bryson on those trips, and several times I immediately passed the completed books on to the students road tripping with me. This year, I exchanged a week of swinging a hammer for one that included a (freezing!) ½ marathon, family time, and lunch/movie/board game dates with my favorite little people. In between oil changes and haircuts and other appointments, I also got in some reading.

Midweek, I finished a novel I’d been carting around with me for a while: Caucasia by Danzy Senna. Senna is scheduled to do a reading at my university in April, so I wanted to see for myself why several of my colleagues and students rave about her. Caucasia, a 1999 novel about two mixed-race sisters living in 1970s Boston, drew me in immediately and kept me reading even as I ate lunch or had ten minutes of free time. The characters and the context captivated me – it’s been a while since I read a narrative told by an 8-year-old, and I was both concerned about and fascinated by the challenges she faced and the choices she made.

divergent_hqMy other Spring Break read this year was Divergent by Veronica Roth. Honestly, I wasn’t too enthusiastic about reading it – my sister and I (and now my 8-year-old) joke that it’s a “Hunger Games rip-off” – but a part of me always wants to read what is talked about and ever-present in pop culture. So, I read it (or, admittedly, skimmed it) under a bunch of blankets as I battled my post-1/2 marathon cold.   The text itself didn’t really draw me in – I feel like nothing really happened until the end, which works well for a trilogy, I guess – but I was certainly intrigued by the many paratexts that followed the novel .   (paratexts = my fancy academic way of referring to “everything by the text” – title pages, prefaces, endnotes, etc. etc.) A student in my January Culture of the Book class wrote her final paper about the paratexts in Divergent, and she explored the significance of “extra” materials, including an interview with Veronica Roth, the author’s notes about her writing process (including writing playlists and other inspirations), and numerous addendums to the descriptions of the various factions in the text. These documents, indeed, are more evidence of what changes as we read and consume and write about books-that-are-now-movies and books-that-we-are-all-talking-about in our contemporary digital, media-savvy age.

Mostly, though, my Spring Break 2014 reading reminded of the diversity and value of the work by living and writing authors like Danzy Senna and Veronica Roth – something that tends to slip my mind as I get buried in lesson plans for my Shakespeare or 17th-century literature classes…