Last night, I led another book discussion, this one at Avon Free Public Library. The book was Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler. It's a very experimental novel with different narratives interspersed within a meta-narrative about reading, writing, publishing, and translating. The woman who coordinates the discussions was in the room when I arrived, and we discussed whether people would show up or whether they might have given up on the book and skipped this time around. Several people did show up, though, and we talked for well over an hour. It was actually almost ninety minutes.
I've led a couple of other discussions there before on books I knew rather well. The last one was on The Bell Jar, which I could talk about in my sleep. This time around, I told the coordinator to let me know what she would like to have discussed. I was game for anything. This being such an odd, experimental text, I was a little concerned about what to say about it. I made it clear at the start that I'm not a Calvino expert or even all that knowledgeable about Italian literature, but I threw out some thoughts I had about why I think he might have written the book and what it was about his life that might have influenced this book.
Toward the end of our discussion, one of the participants brought up that he would not have finished the book if it weren't for the discussion, and he was interested in hearing what an expert would say about the book. I reminded him that I was an expert, and I told him how my background in rhetoric influences my reading of any book because it pushed me to think about such things as the cultural contexts in which books are written and how the author's life influenced the text, which is why I gave the speculations I did at the start.
He then asked me if I would have read this book on my own, and I said that I probably would have picked it up, found the beginning interesting, but stopped before the book was done. That gave everyone a good laugh, and he said he was glad to hear it. He'd said earlier that he wondered if he didn't get the book because he wasn't smart enough to get it, and I said that certainly was not the case.
It was one of those moments when I remembered that some people do look at university professors as a different breed of people, a group that is smarter and perhaps even more refined than the general population. Thoughts like that always make me laugh. Anyone who has earned a PhD knows many professors who want people to think we are a step above the masses, but we also know that's clearly not the case. As much as it would annoy some of the professoriate to hear me say, it's not intelligence that makes us who we are. Our education makes us look at things in a certain way in the same ways that any training affects anyone, but it sometimes takes effort more than intelligence to get that education.
Shh, don't tell anyone.