Monday, 28 April 2014

Guest Post by Alice-Catherine Jennings, Poet, Reader, Medievalist

Epic-mania in the Global Reading Group: How It All Began

We all have those books, right? The ones that are always on your “must read” list but never quite make it to the top—year after year.  Mine was The Inferno by Dante Alighieri. It seemed like every time I read a poem, a story, a novel, Dante’s name would pop up.  Good grief! There was even a reference to The Inferno on Mad Men.

It was time to get to the bottom of this Dante thing. Oh, I wasn’t totally clueless.  I had read snippets of it in high school. I knew it was about sin and punishment and that Hell had nine levels. Yet, what else was I missing? Why do so many writers refer back to this epic work of literature?

This would be the year, the year to read Dante. The timing was perfect. It was March 2013 and it was Lent.  I could begin now and end on Easter Sunday.  I had a deadline but I needed a support group. My memories of Dante weren’t favorable. I thought the reading would be a slog—something that one endures because it good for you, like getting your teeth cleaned.  I needed people to keep me accountable.

But where could I find these other readers? My family said, “No way” and close friends said they were busy. They had other books to read. It was time to clean their closets, file their nails.  I decided to look further afield, to mine my Facebook nation. I posted and posted and sent out invitations. At first, the response was tepid but steadily it grew.  

Forty-five! I could not believe it.  By the start date, my original idea had morphed into a literary salon of forty-five members. It was all so exciting. We would journey to Hell together, with Dante and Virgil (more on him later) as our guides.

We considered form, mythology and structure. The architects in the group gave us their version of the construct of Hell. We thought about the worst of the worst and whom we would put in Hell’s lowest circle. All in all, it was a terrific read.

At the end of month, the group asked, what’s next? “What’s next?” I never considered the reading group to be an ongoing thing. I just wanted to read Dante. Anyway, that’s how we got hooked on the classics, especially the epics. Dante led to Virgil and Virgil to Homer and Homer to Beowulf and so on. The list of future salons continued to grow—and, so too did the readership. For the Beowulf salon, there were over 65 members. The average group size, however, is 35.

At last count, there have been more than 350 participants (including many, many repeats) from 15 different countries worldwide.  Although I do not know everyone personally in the salons any longer, I do sense a personal connection to each and every reader.

What attracts folks to the classics? I imagine there are as many reasons as there are readers but I suspect there is a yen for an opportunity to reflect on the things that are elemental, universal and important—the things that make us human. And, the stories are good, really good.

Each month The Global Reading Group reads one classic work of literature. For the schedule and how to join, visit:

Alice-Catherine Jennings is a student in the MFA Program in Writing at Spalding University.  Her poetry has appeared in In Other Words: MeridaHawai’i Review, Penumbra, The Louisville Review, Boyne Berries and is forthcoming in First Literary Review East. She is the recipient of the U.S. Poets in Mexico 2013 MFA Candidate Award. Alice-Catherine divides her time between Austin, Texas and Oaxaca, Mexico.    

Monday, 21 April 2014

Epics on a Global scale

'Milton’s Paradise Lost and Seamus Heaney’s Translation of Beowulf have been neglected. My new challenge is to work on finishing the unfinished and immersing myself in the epics.'

This is a quote from my blog post dated 31st December 2013. Imagine my surprise when a week later I saw an offer on Facebook to join a Global Reading Salon set to read epics in 2014, the first of the selection being Beowulf. Of course I joined. 
And when I did join I found that Milton's Paradise Lost was on the calendar for March - perfect.

This closed group was created and is managed by Alice, a lady in Oaxaca, Mexico. So how does is work? Alice invites participants through her normal facebook links, you message her and she adds you to her closed reading groups. Each book has its own group so you do not have to read them all. There is four weeks allocated to read and comment on any particular epic.

About a week before reading commences, Alice posts some introductory information and invites the groups to introduce themselves to each other. She also sets out the reading itinerary, breaking the book into equal parts. Each week we are given a particular aspect of the book to focus on for example architecture, the role of women, heroism and that sort of thing. The group sizes could range from half a dozen to over thirty depending on the given book. Participants came from all over the globe although the discussions tended to be generated by the same few.

The thing I enjoy most about the Global Reading Group is the discipline of having to read a set amount each week. If I fall behind I work hard to catch up. It is invigorating to imagine people all over the world reading the same book as you, but I think the best part of the experience is the satisfaction I feel each time I finish what can sometimes be a very difficult read. Below are my reviews of the first three reads of 2014.

This is an epic poem written in Anglo Saxon sometime between seventh and tenth century. I thought the read would be heavy going but I was in the safe hand of the Seamus Heaney translation; beautiful flowing lyrical verse. The story is a rollicking good read. Poor Beowulf, not only does he have to slay a monster and monster mummy, but just when you think it's safe to take the chain mail off, a dragon appears. The reading group definitely enhanced the experience, with loads of online chat and additional information about the epic. I would recommend it.
Five Stars

This German Epic is not for the faint hearted.  It tells a very gruesome tale of love, lust, rape, murder, revenge and bitterness.  The story takes place between the lands of the Rhine and the Danube around 400AD and 600AD.  The most astonishing thing that struck me about The Nibelungenlied is the small value of life and the treatment of women, even those of noble birth. The armies' warriors were measured in thousands, many of them slaughtered. This is an interesting account of the nobility and changing fortunes of that period in time. Four Stars

This is one of the books I had sitting on my shelf for years and knew it would be good for me to read so I was happy the Global Reading Salon had it as the March read.  It wasn't what I expected which was a holy, holy poem about Adam and Eve and the creation.  God in the poem is scary, fierce and ruthless. And Satan has motives and seems quite rational at times. I read the poem aloud and enjoyed the beauty of the structure and language but I have to admit that I was often confused and lost concentration many times when the story spun off into different points of time, naming people and places I had no reference to.  I am going to give it four stars because it is a cracking poem and an immense body of work. Four Stars