A couple of weeks ago, I was feeling a small wave of despair about being a writer and teacher at a time when common wisdom holds that "no one reads anymore." But then some of my UC Riverside students sought me out on campus to thank me for introducing them to a book.
"'Winesburg,'" one student said. "That was the book."
"Winesburg, Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson, published in 1919, is one of my favorite novels. But I'd always been hesitant to assign it. My students are often first-generation children of immigrants in West Covina and East Los Angeles, and the book is about Midwesterners in a small town of brick buildings surrounded by cornfields. Last fall, though, I decided to give it a try.
It was a rough year for the University of California, with strikes, pay cuts, crowded classrooms and borrowed chairs. The senior seminar in fiction that I teach was more than twice the size it had been the previous year, with 34 instead of 15 students.
I gave them several novels to read. And I tried a new approach. Instead of standing before them, proclaiming what I believed about the books, I broke the students into four groups and asked each group to present its book in a way that would make their classmates pay attention and feel something.
Initially, the students couldn't believe they were being given such control. They wanted guidelines. But they quickly settled into their task.
The first book the students read, by Los Angeles author Cheryl Klein, was "The Commuters," which is told in numerous voices by people living and working all over the Southland — in Koreatown and Hancock Park, West Hollywood and downtown. Each narrator is connected by geography and friends and work.
The group decided the book was about home. For their presentation, they stood in front of us and drew maps of their hometowns — Fallbrook and Hemet and La Habra and others — and how they intersected. A Loma Linda native talked about growing up among crowds of medical-coated health professionals and vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists; then a student from San Jacinto explained that she was connected to Loma Linda because it was where her infant was on life support for three days before she died. The whole classroom became silent.
"Still Water Saints" by Alex Espinoza, the second novel, is set in fictional Agua Mansa, which resembles Colton. The characters are all linked by their visits to a Mexican-born curandera, or healer, who runs a botanica. This group talked about belief. One student laid out an altar of cures from her grandmother, who was born in Mexico's Michoacan state — teas and herbs, foods and prayers. The student's mother had died when she was a baby, and her father raised eight children alone, in a small house in San Bernardino, with the help of the abuelas. Another student told of a horrific car accident in which his car rolled over and he should have died. Instead, he told the class, the Buddha hanging from the rearview mirror split in half and absorbed his spiritual death. He told the class how his Chinese-born parents kept him away from windows at night so that wandering ghosts wouldn't see him. A young woman from Rialto told of taking her mother home to rural Cambodia to be healed of a jealous rival's spell; the healer prayed and rubbed the mother's skin, pulling out embedded shards of broken glass in different colors for different agonies.
And then there was the book I'd worried about. "Winesburg, Ohio" is about secrets, shame and guilt, and the students loved it, passionately and argumentatively. On presentation day, I couldn't imagine what the "Winesburg" group would do. (A naked woman runs through town in one story — that had gotten a lot of attention.) The group presented us with small pieces of paper and a leather satchel, and directed us to write down the most shameful secret we'd always held inside. Something we'd never told anyone. The folded pieces of paper were mixed inside the bag, passed around, and we each read one secret aloud.
Students had poured out their guilt: about a pregnant cousin who had been ignored when she was desperately in need of love and counsel, about a lizard burned alive in a jar, about a childhood injury inflicted on a relative who never fully healed.
Even now, I can hear us reading aloud, in our desk chairs, all facing forward. A 90-year-old book brought us there.
Humanities are under fire at the moment. Teach students something practical, many Americans say, something to help them get jobs and support themselves. But I believe that to thrive in the world, we must also understand what it is to be human. As Socrates said, an unexamined life is not worth living. And right now, when retreat and distrust and anonymity divide us, it's more vital than ever to examine not only our own lives, but the lives of those around us.
The students in that seminar learned some things about literature, and a lot about writing. They wrote detailed essays about each book and a long, final paper that tied the books together. But the most important things they learned, I suspect, had little to do with the course subject matter.
They got glimpses of the world through the eyes of their fellow students. They saw life from the vantage point of a mother whose newborn died; or a quiet young woman from East L.A. who has witnessed surreal violence.
My seminar students graduated last weekend, but I keep thinking about the way they reacted when I read aloud to them the first week of class. There was nothing on the board, no PowerPoint. Just an old book, held in my hands. They were initially skeptical, questioning. Who needs books, in this age of digital technology? their expressions seemed to ask. But then their eyes met mine while I read.
Who needs humans to tell secrets and listen and watch wide-eyed as their compatriots reveal their lives? We all do.
Susan Straight's latest novel, "Take One Candle Light a Room," will be published this fall.