If you’ve bought into the argument that books are dying a slow and painful death, spend time talking to nearly any St. Catherine graduate. She will tell you that reading books — and getting together to discuss them — is an honored tradition at the University, a place where literature is more alive than ever.
One venerable institution that helps fan St. Kate’s literary flame is Conversation With Books. Led by Catherine Lupori, professor emerita of English; Judith Martens Flahavan SP’60; Ruth Haag Brombach SP’60, alumnae relations liaison; and Cecilia Konchar Farr, professor of English and women’s studies, the book-discussion gathering has been a much-anticipated event since 1965 — an opportunity for book lovers to gather for lively discussion and literary inspiration.
The annual event started small, but quickly grew to welcome an audience of more than 400. This year’s gathering, scheduled for February 22 in Rauenhorst Ballroom on the St. Paul campus, looks to be no different. But the beloved tradition, like our ways of reading and discussing books, is in a state of change.
Recently, Lupori (founding panel member) and Konchar Farr (who joined the panel in 2013) sat down to talk about their shared love of books, their take on today’s literary scene and the future of Conversation with Books.
On the best book talk
Konchar Farr: I wrote a book about the old Oprah’s Book Club [Reading Oprah: How Oprah’s Book Club Changed the Way America Reads]. In the early days, she would have readers sit and talk about the book. Later on, she would invite the author and just inter view that person, or she would have celebrities make comments like, “This is the best book I ever read.” And it was never as good as when you put readers in the room and say, “Let’s talk about this book. Why did you like it?” I thought that was brilliant of you to figure that out so early on. Oprah never figured that out.
Lupori: My students figured it out for me. In those early days, I always liked teaching classes when I could persuade the students to talk back and get a lively discussion going. That’s what happened at the first Conversation with Books meetings. That’s why it was interesting. People wanted to come. We were talking to each other, not listening to a lecture.
Konchar Farr: Exactly. In the best English classes that’s what happens. Do you ever watch Book TV on C-SPAN? It’s terrible. Somebody will be doing a reading in a bookstore and basically they’ll just turn on the camera. There’s no conversation. It’s the most boring channel on television. I love books, and I can’ t even watch it. It makes me mad because it could be so exciting.
Lupori: Because books really become alive when you talk about them. It’s the only way.
On the joy of repetition
Lupori: I love to try to persuade people to re-read books. People don’t re-read very often anymore. Back when I was teaching, I’d encourage students to re-read a book, and they’d say, “What do you mean, ‘Re-read?’ I don’t have time to read.”
But you miss so much of a good book if you read it only once, because while the book stays the same, you change over time. Did you ever say to yourself, “I’ve heard that Beethoven once. I don’t have to listen to that again.” Or, “I’ve already seen that Cézanne. I don’t need to go back to the museum.” Writing is art.
Konchar Farr: Oh, that’s really good.
Lupori: What makes you think that you couldn’t go back and re-read it, and find something different? That’s what I’m trying to say.
Konchar Farr: Every time I’m back in Paris, every single time, I go and stand in front of the same paintings. I always tell my students the best reading is re-reading because then you’re not interested in the plot anymore. You can notice so many other things.
Lupori: That’s it! In really good books it’s the surprises of the way characters develop or change, or are complicated and contradictory. With re-reading, you begin to learn that people are like that, that they’re not the same forever. I remember the first time I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I liked Mrs. Ramsay. Somehow I missed Lily. But then I taught a summer session on Woolf, and I went back to it. The book revealed new layers of meaning.
On finding the words
Lupori: When you read a good book, you get to know yourself. I was reading Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat [one of the 2013 Conversation with Books selections], and I was surprised to learn about the different kinds of people who live in Haiti. I realized that before I read this book, I’d actually been thinking of Haitians as only a group of impoverished people. Here I am, 94 years old, and I discovered this about myself. Reading does that for you.
Konchar Farr: Then you can correct it.
Lupori: You hope you can correct it. I’ve never been very good at correcting myself. But I learned that about myself. My eyes were opened.
Konchar Farr: My students always say, “ This book gave me words for things I didn’t have words for yet.” I know what they mean. I felt that way when I read The Bell Jar for the first time. I was 18. Sylvia Plath articulated feelings I’d held inside. I never would’ve been able to express them that same way. She gave me the words.
On intellectual joy
Lupori: I remember exactly where I was sitting when it happened. I was in college. We were studying [Scottish philosopher, essayist and social commentator Thomas] Carlyle. I’d always thought he was such a hard read. But I wanted to please the teacher. I thought, “I’ve got to understand this.” I really buckled down, and it made sense, suddenly. I still remember what it felt like. Intellectual joy. I’ve always wanted to create that sensation for my students.
Konchar Farr: I call that feeling “fireworks.” It’s how I felt when I read Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf. Fireworks went off in my head. My brain was so excited.
Lupori: It’s that moment when you understand something. There’s nothing else like it. There are all kinds of pleasures in life, of course. But that’s one of the most exciting ones. It’s what you try to create when you’re teaching.
Konchar Farr: I work to create a community with students so that they can stretch themselves. I start from where they are and figure out what they love. When I do that, they will be able to listen when you say, “This is what I love.” You can’t really start students with Toni Morrison or Virginia Woolf if they are not readers. But you can start with what they know — and eventually they can get to Morrison or Woolf.
On the future
Konchar Farr: Do you have a vision of the future for Conversation with Books? Do you think it will keep going? Do you think people will keep listening?
Lupori: Well, we don’t want to get stale, so we talked about trying two or three different ways to branch out from the traditional format. I suggested asking an alumna who writes poetry to come and read a poem, or a local author to talk about her books and what she’s been reading. For a long time, we wondered if you were interested in joining us.
Konchar Farr: Oh, really? Because my version of that is: I kept going, “Hint, hint, hint. I’d like to do it.”
Lupori: Apparently we were kind of dumb to that. Anyway, now that my voice is so bad, I’m thinking 50 years is a good time for me to bow out. I think from now on, perhaps I’m just going to listen.
2014 Conversation With Books List
Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist, (HarperCollins, 2012)
Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)
Alice McDermott, Someone: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)
Alice Munro, Dear Life: Stories (Vintage Books, 2012)
Roy Adkins and Lesley Adkins, Jane Austen’s England (Viking, 2013)
Anna Badkhen, The World is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Village (Riverhead Books, 2013)
Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)
Sonia Sotomayor, My Beloved World (Alfred A. Knofp, 2013)
Saturday, February 22, 1 pm
Rauenhorst Ballroom, Coeur de Catherine
Tickets: $25/$20 (groups)