“A Ripple Effect that Turned into a Tidal Wave”: The Journey of a Discarded Book

13349681555_cf5b9466ac_o (1)

One day eighteen years ago, a senior colleague at the small South Carolina college where I taught found more than $300,000 worth of stripped Penguin paperbacks at a local thrift shop.

Other than the piece of each cover that had been sliced off, the books were in excellent condition, but the prison to which they had been donated couldn’t accept them and the store where they’d ended up couldn’t legally sell them.

They were being hauled to dumpsters, not to be pulped and recycled, but to be burned.

That is, until English professor Ann Moorefield stumbled upon them. She was horrified at the prospect of the destruction of perfectly good books. Within a few hours, she had administrators, maintenance staff, faculty members, and students filling their cars and delivering boxes of books to an old house used for hosting social events on campus.

There was a buzz of excited energy in the air as we rallied to save those books, unloading them haphazardly onto tables, mantels, windowsills, and countertops.Continue Reading

The Physical Body in the Psychological Novel: On Knut Hamsun’s ‘Hunger’

6324791305_c1804a7d72_b

Norwegian author Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) is widely regarded as one of the pioneering works of Modernist fiction. Telling a semi-autobiographical story of a starving writer’s decent into madness, the novel is celebrated for its deft explorations of the mind. Notably, Hamsun’s innovative use of internal monologue and stream-of-consciousness directly influenced major writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, and Charles Bukowski. According to Isaac Bashevis Singer, “the whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun, just as Russian literature in the nineteenth century ‘came out of Gogol’s greatcoat.’”

Yet for a work of such incredible originality, Hunger is steeped in material that in different hands might fall flatly into cliché or melodrama: A starving artist! Unrequited love! A man who spends his days wandering the streets of Kristiania (Oslo), moaning and weeping, shaking his fist at God. How does Hamsun navigate these scenes in such a way that renders them unforgettable? Why does this book haunt me and so many other readers?

One possible answer is that Hunger explores not only thoughts, but also their origins and expressions—how the psychological is informed by the physical, and how in turn abstract thoughts can be physically felt. This intimate treatment of the corporeal is precisely what allows Hamsun to bring inner consciousness into such sharp relief; throughout the novel, the body serves as a point of access into operations of the mind. Rather than a narrator who “steps off the page,” the reader seemingly steps into the narrator. We feel the pain inside his anger, glimpse the famine within his madness. We come to better understand how the body can change the mind. Continue Reading

Up and Out: Five Things We Can All Learn from Roald Dahl

dahl 1

Dahl: Not the nicest guy, apparently. But a hell of a storyteller.

When I was six years old, I copied out the entirety of Roald Dahl’s The Twits. By hand. When I filled  one lined page, I’d apply an inch-wide swath of rubber cement and attach the next paper to the bottom, so that I wound up with a scroll the diameter of a car tire. I do still wonder why my teacher allowed me to do this during school time. She was the one who’d read us the book, so maybe she saw it as flattering. Or maybe she saw it as a way to improve my abysmal handwriting. Or maybe she was a genius.

I should acknowledge here that Roald Dahl was, by all accounts, a pretty terrible human being. (If you aren’t familiar with his personal life, this philippic should convince you to take him off your “Writers I’d Have Dinner With” list.) But my five-year-old has discovered Dahl this summer, is already three books in (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Esio Trot), and I couldn’t be happier. She doesn’t want help reading these, and even though this means she’s missing a bit of plot, I agree—Dahl should be consumed in private. But I can’t resist flipping through after she’s gone to sleep, and I’m remembering what made me love him. I think I absorbed something in all that Twit-copying, but even thirty years later, I’m still trying to break down what those lessons are.

Continue Reading