Book Hunters

Douglas Boin
Dec 19, 2018 · 9 min read
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Past and future meet at a bookshelf. A production photo from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). From Colossal.

Their history class had an unusual assignment. Write a letter to your future self, describing three imaginary books you hoped to read one day. As I perused their finals in Google Drive, I found myself having a conversation with them — sharing links to real books and other ideas. Who was learning more, the students or their professor?

There comes a time in every professor’s career where you just have to change things up. The current class doesn’t respond to the readings as earlier students did. Names and dates become readily available on-line. Screens shrink; so do attention spans. You look up from your once-trusty syllabus, and the world has changed.

The past twelve months, I’ve learned quite a bit about this new world, the one my students inhabit. For almost nine years now as a professor, during my time teaching at two universities, I’ve always started the semester the same way. I hand out index cards to learn something about who is looking at me from the desks. What’s your favorite movie? What exciting thing did you do over the winter holiday? What band are you listening to right now? Over the years I’ve had to add one or two new ones, like What podcasts or YouTube channels do you like? But for nine years, there’s always been a core group of questions; and the most fascinating one, to me, has always been, What’s your favorite book?

Over the years, I’ve gotten a whole warehouse of fun answers: from books by Ken Follett to graphic novels about Dante to the still-indisputable champion year-in, year-out, the Harry Potter series. I literally do have in a drawer the index cards with answers for almost every student I’ve ever taught going back to 2010 — quite a data set, too. In the past year or so, however, I started to notice a disturbing trend in it. The number of students who replied to the question about favorite books with “I don’t read books” or “I don’t have a favorite book” had creeped up. It wasn’t an overwhelming number of every class, but it was there; it was undeniable; and it had me worried.

I became a professor because I liked writing. At every stage of my life, I’ve always been writing: newspaper articles, yearbook features, poetry (published), short stories (never published), academic articles, later, a dissertation, and, of course, eventually books. Reading was foundational. I still have among my prized possessions the hardcover copy of one of the first books I remember sitting with as a child and enjoying. I was flopped on a chair at home with Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, a book I think I really took to because of the “pest” nature of the protagonist. It also happened to include Ramona not-very-nicely pulling at the curly hair of her classmate and saying “Boing, Boing, Boing” — which was how our family pronounces its short last name but one which, in Dallas where we were living at the time, many Texans could not bring themselves to say without stretching all the vowels to absurd lengths. Or so my mother told me.

What would it be like to grow up in a world where people didn’t read books? Increasingly, with everyone of every age — not just college students — consuming content online, it’s a real and scary possibility. But would I have ever become a teacher and a writer if I hadn’t read books? I can’t imagine not having those constant companions — or even the experiences of finding them. One summer in college, I had stayed in Washington, D.C., to work instead of going back home to Chicago; and I remember how fun it was to stroll the campus bookstore before classes started that summer to see what had been assigned for which courses. I wasn’t taking any classes myself, but I knew that if a professor had picked something, there was a chance it might prove entertaining or educational or both. And it would give me something good to read on the bus or in between my shifts at the restaurant where I was working.

I found John Fowles’ The Magus this way, and the English translation of my own favorite book, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, which — many years and cities later — I learned to read in Italian. I also made a mental note that summer to sign up for the undergraduate class that was reading Beloved and Maus. Eventually, I did (Prof. Randy Bass’s “American Literary Traditions.”)

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The first-edition cover of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest (1968).

What drove me on these mini quests? There were the feelings of personal discovery that I liked but also the sense of dislocation that reading brought and a deeply-felt need to be in the presence of people who were different. I was not out of the closet back then, so reading was one way for me to see how others dealt with life experiences and with family expectations and disappointment and sometimes even failed love. I liked history, too, and The Name of the Rose was probably oddly meaningful to me, as a college student majoring in classics, because I could read all the Latin. But I’m not going to lie; I liked Eco’s detective story format first. Murders in a monastery? Stolen books? A mysterious library? I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

College students are page-turners. Their lives are in progress; things are always happening; and they are often impatient to skip ahead to what comes next. Some of them want to find themselves by breaking from where they came from; others know that their next chapter is one that fits perfectly into the family story. There are many ways to grow up, and that’s as true today as it was for me in the late 1990s.

But what’s changed, I think, is the overwhelming number of options for who we can be, where we can find fulfillment, and what we want out of life. Jobs are different. The way knowledge is taught is different. Textbooks (and I have written one) can seem in theory as outdated to the classroom experience as slide rules and the abacus. They do serve a purpose, I believe, but technology has irrevocably changed how students learn. In one way it has atomized it — potentially turning all learning into links — without ever giving students a chance to go out and really explore what spending time with someone else’s thoughts might do to their own future selves. It was scary and sad the moment I realized reading a book could no longer be taken for granted.

“When you describe what book you’re hoping to find, have fun. Does your imaginary book have a title? What kind of person do you think will have written it? Do you think it’s written yet? Will it need to be written by you? Do you want to find a work that would be shelved with history, a novel, a set of poetry, a biography, a cookbook, a comic book? Why?”

I thought long and hard about what to do about this problem until I realized the best approach was to reverse engineer a solution. If I wanted students to develop that same sense of exploration and discovery and sustained empathy and historical wonder that I knew reading could provide, then my answer to “I don’t really read books” would have to become, “Yes, you do. You just don’t know it yet.” The idea for a new final history assignment was born.

The instructions were simple. “Write a letter to your future self in which you identify three books you would like to find and read one day, and explain why.”

We had been reading Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which is about Poggio Bracciolini’s hunt in the Renaissance for a lost copy of the Roman writer’s Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things. The class introduces students to a lot of material through individual stories and perspectives. We use The Odyssey to set the scene for the Bronze Age but think about how Homer gets things right and wrong about a much distant time, and we use the poem to talk about memory and history as we inch slowly into Archaic Greece (a trick I learned from one of my own graduate teachers, Adam Rabinowitz, at The University of Texas). By the time it’s over, students realize that even something as invented as a piece of fictional poetry can be a source for telling lost histories. And lost histories, as it turned out, was exactly what I wanted them to think about when they graduated from my core-required class.

The nature of the new final assignment took shape from there. “When you describe what book you’re hoping to find, have fun. Does your imaginary book have a title? What kind of person do you think will have written it? Do you think it’s written yet? Will it need to be written by you? Do you want to find a work that would be shelved with history, a novel, a set of poetry, a biography, a cookbook, a comic book? Why?” If I could get them to imagine what might be out there of interest to them — if I could turn the whole world into a library and have them envision sitting down in just one corner of it to pick up a volume — would would they hope to find? And why would they be interested?

Their answers and their imaginations exceeded my expectations, partly because of how inventive they were, partly because many of them imagined books that already exist. And that’s where turning their final projects in to me on a shared document in Google Drive really opened up some fun. One of them had told me in advance about wanting to “find a different perspective on being Christian in the Roman Empire, perhaps a woman’s perspective,” and I told her it would be a great topic to think about and explore more deeply. Where did this anonymous woman live, for example? What century? What challenges did she face? I knew full-well, as a scholar of early Christianity in the Roman Empire, that such a source does exist: the “diary” of Perpetua from Carthage, describing her arrest and martyrdom in early third-century North Africa. But all of a sudden, I saw the benefit in holding back what I knew — until the very end — when I could post a link to the final project with a note that said, “Guess what? If you’re interested…”

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Perpetua’s story has received the “graphic history” treatment, courtesy of a new series of history books from Oxford.

All of them talked about all sorts of fascinating topics that, I knew, they could eventually learn more about when they had the time. They were impressed by the dome in Florence’s cathedral and how it had been built; they imagined Chinese doctors treating patients of the plague as counter-stories to the western evidence for the spread of disease in 1400s Europe and wanted to learn more about those medical accounts; they imagined finding the writings of one of Muhammad’s first followers, one of the “Believers,” which they hoped which help put big issues of faith and society into some larger context for them and for their own family. They speculated about cook books, books of world maps — and, to my own delight, even stories about murderous monks. I walked away from the drudge of end-of-semester grading feeling like I had gone on a journey with twenty-five adults whose stories were just beginning, and I had gotten the privilege of watching as they turned their backs on me and set out to who they would become.

The final assignment for the class is on-line here. This post also appears at Doug’s next book, Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome (Norton), will be released in June 2020.

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