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The Uncommon Joy of a Shared Interest in Books

By Way of Introduction

My admission to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to commence a doctoral program in Literary and Cultural Studies at the English Department is an exciting opportunity for me. When I was notified of my acceptance, I was so thrilled that I couldn’t have imagined the immigration challenges I would face in the coming months. But my friend Cheta Igbokwe, an MFA candidate in the playwrighting program of the University of Iowa and author of the play Homecoming, quipped what, in retrospect, I now consider my earliest intimation on the inevitable trauma associated with migrating to the US from Nigeria and with a Nigerian passport. He had said, “Darlington, say your farewell to sleep, because you’ll be awake all night, for several weeks, trying to secure a favorable interview date.” I’d never thought of Cheta as a prophet, but his prediction was sadly true. Although my class start-date was August 14 2023, my interview appointment—after a search that seemed like crossing seven seas on one leg—was scheduled for August 17. I had almost given up on the possibility of arriving in Lincoln this Fall until Professors Stacey Waite, Kwame Dawes and Abel Marco intervened. Since, by the department’s consensus, I was permitted to arrive later than the class start-date, I decided to write to the professors whose courses I had selected for the semester, to inform them of my itinerary. Stephen Behrendt’s response was so surprisingly beautiful:

Dear Darlington, the fact that you may not yet be physically present here in Lincoln for the first meeting of my seminar will not be a problem for me. The first session is always mostly about meeting one another and getting oriented for the semester. So, if you are unable to join us in person for that first meeting, please don’t worry about it. We can simply catch up once you have arrived safely in Lincoln and have begun your work here. Please know that I understand your situation, and I appreciate your efforts to get here, which I know must be very stressful for you. I’m hoping that what I have suggested will reduce your stress, even if only slightly. I look forward to welcoming you to Lincoln and to the English Department. All very best wishes for safe travels.

Born in Marinette, Wisconsin, Behrendt earned a PhD from the University of Wisconsin and is a University Professor and the George Holmes Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His expertise in British Romanticism is demonstrable in his books of scholarship: Reading William Blake (1992) and British Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community (2008). He is also the author of the poetry collections Instruments of the Bones (1991), A Step in the Dark (1996), and History (2005). But more than his magnificent poetry and scholarship, what made me sign up for Behrendt’s class, “Seminar in 19th Century Literature: The Survival of the Book,” is my intimate relationship with books. This leads me to my saddest immigration experience. I’d never imagined that one day I’d leave my books and travel without the hope of seeing them soon. When I realized that this was certain to happen, I selected the ones I thought I’d need in the US. It was a painful choice.

Behrendt designed “Seminar in 19th Century Literature” for creative writers, literary and cultural scholars, communicators, historians and rhetoricians, who are “increasingly invested in what’s at stake when it comes to the future of ‘the book.’” So, the seminar will provide opportunities for us—a class of nine graduate students from various countries and cultures—to explore questions at the heart of book studies in recent times, some of which are: “Is ‘the book’ really dead? Or are ‘books’ morphing into other forms, formats, and media? Can ‘books’ survive in a media-rich world – or perhaps a post-media world? Should they?” Essentially, we’re required to reflect on “both the forms and the functions of books as physical objects, as aesthetic products, as commercial commodities, and as socio-economic and cultural ‘signs’ or ‘signposts’ on the ever-shifting battlegrounds of culture wars.” In thinking about these, the class ultimately makes more convoluted inquiries into the nature and structure of the book, by exploring the question: “What is a book, and what is not?” We’ll be thinking alongside authors who offer useful insights into the subject. Angus Phillips and Miha Kovač’s Is This a Book? and Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers are some of our most engaging companions. I hope to overcome the loneliness of leaving my cherished books behind with the warmth that Behrendt’s class offers.

I didn’t attend Behrendt’s first lecture on August 24, which, as he informed me in the email, was an introductory class. But a few days later when I arrived in Lincoln and found the time to read through the class exchange on Canvas, I was stunned by the heart and mind that went into the meeting. The amount of brilliance and kindness it took Behrendt and my classmates to transform the Canvas from a pedagogical to an intimate space of self-sharing, inspired by their mutual creative and intellectual interest in books, is remarkable.

I suppose it is obvious by now that I narrated my personal story not to lament my disappointment with the immigration process—something I still hope to do in the future—but to highlight the serendipitous joy of encountering Behrendt’s class. Behrendt will retire at the end of 2024, so I consider myself fortunate to be taking his class at this auspicious time. But I imagine that even in retirement he’ll continue to spread his love of books and humanity. I share the transcript of that introductory class with the hope that someone will discover for themselves the uncommon joy of a shared interest in books and the electrifying power of the classroom.

*

Stephen Behrendt: While you’re getting acquainted with the course goals and protocols, I’d like you to introduce yourself, right away, to one another and to me, so that we can begin to get acquainted as a group of individuals who may discover in the process that we have connections and mutual interests that will help us throughout the semester and maybe even beyond. This discussion post is ungraded, since it’s an opportunity for you to try out the mechanics of submitting your work and your thoughts on Canvas, and also because I’d really like each of us to get to know a bit more about one another and about what we can do to make our time together as pleasant and rewarding as possible, as we negotiate the still-evolving circumstances of the continuing pandemic.

For this post, then, please tell us about yourself: where you’re from, what areas of English Studies you’re pursuing, why you’ve signed up for this seminar, what your own personal interests and skills are, and how all of these things relate to what you hope to get from this seminar, other than a brilliant grade. And say, too, what questions or insecurities or concerns you may have, and how each of us, including me, can help.

Quentin Steadman: Hello, my name is Quentin Steadman. I am a fiction writer who enjoys reading and exploring Latin and Southern American literature. My skills include being able to go to sleep in any situation. I’m excited to be discussing the current sales manipulation tactics that authors and publishers employ in recent years and to identify specific functions of books that I may not have been aware of. I’m also curious to understand the cultural and commercial attributes of books as they exist in other countries—how they differ as well as how they’re similar.

Stephen Behrendt: Hi Quentin, welcome to the group. I’m intrigued by what you’ve shared. I hope that we’ll be able to take up some—perhaps even all—of the issues you mentioned. Marketing and merchandising are increasingly big parts of the publishing scene today, especially as things get ever more competitive. But the history of books as saleable commodities goes back several centuries. My own work with late 18th and early 19th century British literature has been eye-opening when it comes to how “market savvy” both publishers and authors were becoming already by the 1790s. And then when steam presses and annuals entered the picture by the late 1820, it was “Katie, bar the door.”

Your point about how books function in other countries and cultures is an important one. Indeed, I want us to think about the metaphorical uses to which books have increasingly been put in contemporary culture. Just today, I was reminded of this when someone on the news remarked that at some point in the coming week Donald Trump is to be “booked.” Anyway, I look forward to meeting you in person next Thursday. Meanwhile, do try to keep reasonably cool. I’ve wondered whether we might be able to meet our seminar in a large refrigerated space.

Vida Davidovic: Hi, my name is Vida Davidovic. I’m in the Literary and Cultural Studies program, but I’m primary a playwright and a novelist. Or I was, when I was living back in Serbia, which was five days ago. I’ve written several staged plays and published a novel back in the Balkans, so I am eager to share my experience with you and to find out more about books and publishing in America and, of course, about authorship and representation. Also, I’m interested in exploring the fetishization of an author as a commodity in the market.

Stephen Behrendt: Hi Vida, thanks so much for your post. It’s great to have you in the seminar. We seem to be a wonderfully diverse group, and I’ll do my very best to make sure that everyone can be fully involved and get as much out of the seminar as possible. We seem so far to have lots of writers, and I will especially value your contributions from the European perspective. One of the things I’d like us to talk about and explore is the variations that exist from country to country, culture to culture. So, I hope you’ll feel free to join that discussion. I very much look forward to meeting you on Thursday. Welcome Aboard!

Alec Miller: Hello, my name is Alec Miller. I’m a first year MA Literary and Cultural Studies student from Lincoln, Nebraska. I’m interested in 20th Century fiction, the power of the imagination, and the dynamic relationship between writer, text and reader. I have so many questions about books that I’m excited to explore. How do people choose what they read? Who are their guides, teachers? How do readers imitate what they read, even if they aren’t aware of it? I’m interested in enjoyment vs use. In this age of productivity, some may ask why read anything but personal development books, books that are “useful”? Why read fiction? Some religious communities may wonder, why read anything but the Bible, etc.? I’m also interested in how we treat physical books. Are books for people or are people for books? Is it alright to make them our own, to annotate, crease, wear them out, make them look “loved”? Or should we be careful and “leave no trace” that we even read the book?

Stephen Behrendt: Hello Alec, I want to welcome you to what I hope will be a lively and productive seminar for all of us. It appears that we’re a very diverse group, with everyone seemingly having something special to contribute. That’s the best chance for us to learn from one another and to build the sort of dynamic and thriving community that I always strive to develop in any seminar I offer.

Your questions and interests seem to me very much at the heart of what I’d like us to explore. In looking at the cultures and book conventions of the past—while also considering the challenges produced by today’s technological explosion, not to mention AI—we may be able to put ourselves in a position from which we can gain fresh insights into the business of books, writing, and audiences with which we’re all concerned in one way or another.

Karie Cobb: Alec, I am one of those people who like to wear out books. I also adore finding books with notes from previous owners—it just makes the book feel more like it has a history of its very own outside of the story it holds.

Gwen Klinkey: Alec, I like the question you asked about how people choose what they read. I helped teach a Contemporary Adolescent Literature class last semester at my undergraduate institution and we spent a lot of time talking about how children and teens “choose” what they read; oftentimes it is chosen for them. I enjoyed being a part of those discussions and I hope that during this class we can speak in more depth about those ideas.

Karie Cobb: Hi, I’m Karie, a first year MA Literary and Cultural Studies student. I’m beyond excited to be here at UNL. I’m originally from Alaska, but due to being a military brat turned military member turned military spouse, I struggle calling one place home. I think my favorite of the places I’ve lived is by far western Germany in the Rhine region. It was during my time in Europe wandering old cities that I began to collect old books; I found gorgeous copies of Wordsworth, Whittier, Longfellow, and Elizabeth Browning, while perusing used bookstores. Since then, whenever I travel, I make it a point to seek out used bookstores or antique shops to see what I can find. I went to Cape Cod this summer and found an absolutely stunning copy of Folk Songs, which was published in 1866.

I’m interested in discussing what exactly makes a book qualify as such. This seminar snagged my attention because this very question was proposed in the course description. I read Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave, and was shocked to find out that this work isn’t technically considered a novel, rather a novella, which often leads it to be left out of the discussion on groundbreaking works of fiction in Western literary canon. Behn’s work was published in 1688, thirty-one years prior to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and thirty-eight years before Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which are two of the works that are largely considered as the first modern novels in the Western world, yet Behn’s name is rarely mentioned during these historical discussions. This distinction has bothered me for several years now and made me wonder how many other works published by authors from marginalized groups have been looked over due to their classification. Continuing in this vein, I’m interested in learning more about publication bias and how factors such as the author’s sex, race, gender identity, sexuality, and ethnicity play a role in getting their works published and the level in which they are promoted. I’m also excited to discuss how technology is changing the literary game, especially with platforms such as TikTok being used by independent authors to promote their books and reach a wider audience. I hope to discover answers to these questions, and, more importantly, find answers to questions that I didn’t know I even had.

Stephen Behrendt: Hi Karie, welcome to the group. I’m delighted to find another avid book lover among us. I confess that I’m very much in that school of thought myself. I’m one of those people who can’t even take a cheap paperback mystery and crack it open, bend back the pages, and watch them gradually fall out. I’ve collected, too, over the years, although the English Department’s forced move from Andrews Hall to Louise Pound Hall over the summer has forced me to trim down my collection overall.

That must have been some wonderful time in Germany. I was a speaker at a Romanticism conference held in Koblenz about ten years ago—my first trip to that part of Germany—and I fell in love with the Rhineland. I think one of my versions of heaven is taking the little rural trains up—or down—the Rhine and then coming back by water. The old castles on the hillsides still haunt my memory, as does the wine, for that matter, albeit for somewhat different reasons.

One of my passions over the past fifteen to twenty years has been to throw myself into the ongoing efforts to recover and reassess the works of historically marginalized or otherwise neglected women writers, especially of the Romantic period. So, I understand what you’re saying about Aphra Behn. It’s painful to be reminded of just how many women writers have suffered form that sort of marginalization. Fortunately, things are beginning to change, even if too slowly still. I look forward to welcoming you to the seminar, and to meeting you in person on Thursday. Try to stay cool in the meantime.

Azaria Brown: Karie, publication bias is something that intrigues me as well. I publish under the name A. Brown, rather than my full name. At first, I did this because I didn’t want potential publishers to feel confused about its pronunciation and take that confusion with them into the writing. I even toyed around with the idea of leaving out bios when I get published, so that my race and gender don’t impact the reader and publisher. But now, it feels more like I’ve done it for my own protection. My name is important to me and for some reason, publishing under my full name feels more personable and vulnerable than I’m comfortable with.

Gwen Klinkey: Karie, I also love looking for independent bookstores whenever I travel. There’s so often a hidden gem. One of my favorites is the Book Loft in Columbus, Ohio. If anyone ever visits Columbus, I would highly recommend it. I also collect books. Now I am a less avid collector since I’ve been moving for school so often, but I still grab unique finds that I see. One of my most recent ones was a large illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno. I’m also excited to speak about how technology is changing the landscape of publishing and literary consumption.

Stephen Behrendt: Hi Gwen, welcome to the group. I’m happy to have another confirmed book lover among us. It’s a great pastime. It’s too bad it’s getting so expensive now. I used to be able to find some Romantic-era books that I could actually afford. Now most of those are way out my league. I’d have to be a football coach at UNL to afford them.

Yes, I hope we can get into some of the issues with the new and emerging technology, since it impacts all of us. I’ve arranged for the director of the University of Nebraska Press to come visit us later in the semester. I suspect that will be a most interesting conversation.

Arka Maitra: Hello, my name is Arka. I’m in the second year of my PhD in the Literary and Cultural Studies program with a focus on early colonial and anglophone literature pertaining primarily to south Asia and the Indian subcontinent. I’m interested in the historical progression of how books have been used and seen as socio-political devices, how books influence contemporary times and future, as well as how the times—socio-cultural and political context—influence the creation of books. I’m highly skilled at not knowing the difference between a sentence and a paragraph when writing.

Stephen Behrendt: Hello Arka, welcome. Your interests in books and book history within diverse cultural contexts will be a valuable asset to us as we work during this semester. I, too, am deeply interested in books not just as collectors’ artifacts and as commodities but also as rhetorical tools that their authors shape and manipulate in order to deliver particular messages to particular audiences. This is a side of books—and indeed of much of what we think of as art—that is far too often overlooked by scholars, critics, and general readers.

Azaria Brown: Arka, I’m also interested in how context influences the creation of books. After learning why older books have clasps and/or metal corners and the functional purposes that they used to serve, I’m curious about how physical books will continue to evolve and what context will cause that evolution.

Emily Case: Hi, all. I’m excited to be a part of this group. I am a first-year MA Creative Writing student and will be bringing a perspective informed by my background in journalism to the conversation. I got my master’s in journalism from UNL in 2018. I work on East Campus as a communicator for the National Drought Mitigation Center, which publishes the U.S. Drought Monitor every week. In my role, I use my writing, editing and multimedia skills to collaborate with a team of climatologists and communicators. As a reader I appreciate a wide swath of genres, but my interests as a writer include creative nonfiction and multimedia storytelling—photography, videography, graphic design, even badly-drawn comics, when the mood strikes. In this class I’m looking forward to learning more about the publishing industry, as well as gaining insight and inspiration from others.

Stephen Behrendt: Hi Emily, I’m happy to welcome you to what appears to be a very diverse group with a great assortment of talents, interests, and potential for the sort of collegial seminar I hope that we can create together.

I will love to know more about your work with NDMC, which is such an important function of UNL and its consortium. You might be interested to know about a project I got involved in some years back, mid 200-teens, I believe. Having read a good deal about the Dust Bowl years, I found a diary that UNL has written by Don Hartwell, who lived most of his life just west of Red Cloud—Inavale, Nebraska. He kept a series of five-year diaries, but after his wife burned a bunch of his old things after his death, the only diary that survived her purge was for 1936-40. It’s an absolutely fascinating stuff. I published an article about him and his diary in GQP a few years ago, and I’ve always had this idea that I might publish a new and better transcription of the diary and provide historical and cultural annotations. It’s an extraordinary record of the worst of the Dust Bowl years in Nebraska.

Emily Case: Hi Dr. B, I found the article you referenced! It’s a very interesting read. Don’s entries provide a stark, up-close look at the failures of poor land management practices stemming from misinformation about the Great Plains. His sardonic “No Place Like Nebraska” quip is especially memorable. The article makes me interested in more of a deep dive into historical and cultural context, so the project you mentioned sounds like a good idea. Tangentially, the weather reports in his entries remind me of reports I see in the NDMC’s Condition Monitoring Observer Reports database. It’s a platform that allows people to share updates in their area. I enjoy how both Don’s entries and these reports provide a magnifying glass to big-picture issues.

Azaria Brown: Well, I completely forgot about this task, but I’m happy to be getting it done now. My name is Azaria and I’m in the fiction program. I enjoy magical realism, speculative fiction and writing/reading about how pop culture can intersect with literature and pedagogy. I have a habit of analyzing television shows and films for their merit and “meaning,” and inadvertently ruining the shows and films for those that like them.

I write short stories for the most part, but the older I get, the more long-winded I seem. I feel like I may have enough of a story to tell to write a novel, so I want to learn more about what makes a full-length work. I’m looking forward to adapting my idea of what a book is based on what this class has to offer. The world of publishing is also rather daunting, so I’d like to learn more about it. Specifically, I’m curious about how writing that focuses on cultural beliefs will be scrutinized by publishers and repackaged to sell.

Gwen Klinkey: Hello everyone! My name is Gwen Klinkey. I’m from St. Charles, Illinois, and I am a first-year MA student of Literary and Cultural studies. I enjoy working with feminist theory, particularly in relation to Young Adult literature that a lot of people would likely label “tween girl” books—think of TwilightThe Hunger Games, etc. I’ve also done quite some work on digital literature and wrote my undergraduate capstone on modes and methods of narrative story-telling in open-world video games. My interest in digital literature made me join this class. I am excited to see what everyone has to bring to this class because each person’s relationship to books—both with a specific book and the idea of books as a whole—is so different.

Afterword  

My experience of physically attending Behrendt’s class on August 31 consolidated everything I felt from reading the introductory notes on Canvas. From curiosity to knowledge, the class held “the book” open for me to look through and see the hopes and struggles of writers, editors, publishers, booksellers, publicists and everyone involved in the process of keeping the book alive, whether in traditional or technological forms. How do books simultaneously become what writers and readers want them to be, while also transcending the interpretative roadblock of being just one thing? That’s the magic I’m committed to discovering in Behrendt’s class.

————–

Image: Geralt via Pixabay cropped

Darlington Chibueze Anuonye
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a doctoral student in the English Department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a literary conversationist, editor and writer. He is the curator of Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories, co-editor (with Ezechi Onyerionwu) of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction and editor of the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus, and The Good Teacher: A Collection of Essays in Honour of Isidore Diala and Samuel Anthony Itodo. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship by CovidHq and the MasterCard Foundation, longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. His work has appeared in World Literature Today, The Hopkins Review, Brittle Paper, Isele Magazine, The New Black Magazine, Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. Unbound, his co-edited anthology of contemporary Nigerian poetry (with Nduka Otiono), is forthcoming in 2024, in North America and Nigeria, by Griots Lounge Publishing and Narrative Landscape, respectively. Anuonye is the nonfiction editor of Ngiga Review.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this transcript. I was worried for you, for the right to have this published but I am also glad you shared it. How else would we have learned so much? I do not write on my books. I cherish them too much to want my not-so-impressive handwriting on them. Cheers!

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