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SCAN"College of St. Catherine The College of St. Catherine

February 2009
 
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The Essential Book

Books that have shaped the lives of St. Kate's teachers.

BY TOM VOGEL

PEOPLE READ for many different reasons: for edification, as an escape from daily life, to find camaraderie — or just to be entertained. John Leonard, the late critic and journalist, once said, simply, "The books we love, love us back."

As an institution committed to the principles of a liberal arts education, the College of St. Catherine both attracts and strives to develop those who love books. Here, St. Kate's faculty and staff discuss their own relationships with books, how reading has played a role in their lives professionally and personally — and how St. Kate's fosters an appreciation of reading that extends far beyond the college campus.

Cecilia Konchar Farr
Professor of English and Women's Studies

Cecilia Konchar Farr grew up in a working-class family in Pennsylvania, reading a lot of romance novels. She remembers the moment she fell in love with literature.

"I would buy these books with the covers torn off out of bargain bins," Konchar Farr recalls. "I ended up buying Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, and I realized immediately there was something different about this one. After reading it, I decided to be a student of literature for the rest of my life."

Konchar Farr's love of literature has led her to examine the types of books readers crave. Her own book, Reading Oprah: How Oprah's Book Club Changed the Way America Reads, addresses the phenomenon of popular literature.

"I pay attention to best-sellers lists," Konchar Farr says. "Initially, I viewed them with a degree of skepticism, but I've come to understand 'well read' in different ways. Many readers are looking for a good plot or interesting characters. They're still well read and engaged in what they've read."

Konchar Farr says a liberal arts education, like reading, contributes to a person's curiosity and engagement in culture. "It teaches you to let your questions lead you," she says. "With a good liberal arts education, you realize how little you know, so you strive to learn more."

RECOMMENDATIONS:

Konchar Farr says she has "a few shining stars" from her American literature background. "The Great Gatsby is an amazing critique of American capitalism," she says. "Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is a beautifully crafted novel, vibrating with intellectual energy; and Toni Morrison's Beloved could not be more important in the United States right now."

Pamela Fletcher
Professor of English

From a remarkably early age, Pamela Fletcher was transfixed by words.

"My mother taught me to read when I was a year old because she noted that I loved words," she says. "I developed a relationship with written language that I didn't have with spoken language."

Growing up in a black family in predominantly white suburban California, Fletcher sought refuge in literature. From Archie Comics and Pippi Longstocking to Nancy Drew and James Bond, "Literature transported me elsewhere," she says.

As an eighth grader, Fletcher began working in a library, where she was "like a moth in clover." Today, she still stays close to the library, which she refers to as her home away from home.

"My work is an extension of my life as a lifelong learner," Fletcher says. "What is a teacher but someone who is continually learning and growing intellectually? I am fortunate to hold the position of reading and teaching books that expand and nourish my world."

Fletcher says St. Kate's mission — to educate women to lead and influence — means preparing students to develop critical thinking skills for personal and professional benefit. Studying the humanities, arts and sciences, she says, offers a vast and diverse educational experience.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

"Being black, female and a world citizen, I am aware of what is missing in the canon, so I make it my business to deem for myself necessary food for thought," Fletcher says. She recommends these works from various genres:

Seventeen Syllables and Other Stories, Hisaye Yamamoto; Lyrics of Lowly Life, Paul Laurence Dunbar (poetry); Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Derrick Bell (mixed genre); Half a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (novel); The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Dubois (essays); Selected Speeches, Abraham Lincoln; and Woman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (novella).

Chris Franke
Professor of Theology

"There are ways of telling truths about people, life and our experiences that only books can tell," says Chris Franke. "If you can't read, really read, you can't get an education."

Franke has spent her life — including 24 years at St. Kate's — discovering truths from books. "I read every day," she says. "I read at night for pleasure, and I love translating Biblical texts in Hebrew, trying to reflect what those poets were saying. I love to play with words."

Her love of words has led Franke from children's classics to academic works on Old Testament scripture. "As a child, I loved Black Beauty; I would read it again and again," she recalls. "And then there are the books I've loved as an adult and would like to reread, such as James Agee and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It's a reflective book about being alive and how we can talk to one another."

Franke says she is concerned by the lack of serious reading in American culture. "People don't have time to think," she says. "Amid all the cell phone calls, texts and e-mails, there's not time for reflection. It's not just about reading, but also about thinking about it."

RECOMMENDATIONS:

In addition to her favorite poet, Robert Frost (whose "earthiness" she likens to the Hebrew poets'), Franke recommends Lamentations and the Tears of the World by Kathleen M. O'Connor.

"It's very accessible to people with their problems of today," says Franke. "Many people don't like to question God, but the Bible is full of those who question. This book opens people up to think and feel with integrity."

Catherine Spaeth
Director of Global Studies

"One of the things students learn when they travel abroad is what others think of the United States," says Catherine Spaeth. "I approach reading from an international perspective on American culture. Before traveling, I might recommend reading about American exceptionalism [the notion that America has a destiny different from that of other nations], for example, and what those outside the United States think about that."

Spaeth views the liberal arts as indispensable in the development of not only a well-read individual, but also a citizen of the world.

"The literate person would not exist without the liberal arts," she explains. "One of the benefits of a liberal arts education is that it encourages one to read widely. As with international studies, reading and the liberal arts get you outside yourself so you can consider your community and world from different vantage points."

RECOMMENDATIONS:

Spaeth concedes to having a bias toward classics, such as Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and My Ántonia by Willa Cather, saying they "give one a richer life having read them." The recommendation that springs first to her mind, however, is the U.S. Constitution. "It affects us all on a daily basis," she says.

Catherine Lupori
Professor Emerita of English
Former director, Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women

Catherine Lupori counted herself lucky over the years to have been asked to teach books that she didn't know.

A perennial learner, Lupori was forced to study in order to stay a step ahead of her students. That got her thinking about books, talking about books and ultimately co-creating one of the College's most popular events — "Conversation With Books," the Alumnae Association's annual event that draws some 400 people to the St. Paul campus each January.

Now in its 44th year, the program allows book lovers to catch up on a season's worth of reading in one evening. Lupori and her three alumnae panelists discuss almost a dozen books, often contemporary fiction and almost always by women. This year's author list includes Louise Erdrich (The Plague of Doves), Jhumpa Lahiri (Unaccustomed Earth), Cokie Roberts (Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation) and Alan Bennett (The Uncommon Reader).

RECOMMENDATIONS:

"It's always hard to come up with your favorites," says Lupori, who often is asked that question given her responsibility to choose titles for "Conversation With Books."

Still, she is quick to name three noted authors — Jane Austen, William Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf — whose work has pushed her intellectually throughout the years. "Three Guineas got me thinking about feminism," says Lupori, referring to the Woolf classic. "Emma is my favorite Jane Austen. At least today it is. I think you change."

As for Shakespeare, to whom she was introduced in the eighth grade, Lupori likes The Winter's Tale. Her former favorite: A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Tom Vogel is a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis. He taught English and composition at the University of Minnesota for several years.

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