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October 12, 2012
Stanford's 'Another Look' to discuss the best books you've never read
A new book club will focus on short masterpieces that "have not earned the readership they deserve," according to English Professor Tobias Wolff. The first is William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow.
By Cynthia Haven
'Another Look' book club is the brainchild of Stanford English Professor Tobias Wolff. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
Book clubs have proliferated across the United States, though most stick to middle-of-the-road bestsellers. Once in a while, however, you run across an off-the-beaten-track book you may not know about, praised by a leading literary figure. Where do you go to talk about this unfamiliar, top-notch fare?
Look no further. Stanford is allowing readers to get an insider's look at literature via a seasonal book club, "Another Look," which will be offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation.
"Another Look" is the brainchild of award-winning writer Tobias Wolff, a Stanford professor of English, who will kick off the event with William Maxwell's 144-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.
Interested readers are invited to a discussion of the book at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 12, in the Levinthal Room of the Stanford Humanities Center. The event is free. Wolff will talk about the book with Bay Area novelist, journalist and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford Assistant Professor Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.
For Wolff, "Another Look" started in a conversation with colleagues: "We had occasionally held lunchtime discussions of a story or novel or poem for interested students and members of the department, and these had proved popular. Well, why not open our arms a little farther and invite the university community to participate; or, better yet, open our arms out wide to the community at large?"
Said Wolff, "Each of the faculty members are choosing books that really matter to them, and that they feel have not earned the readership they deserve."
The books will be on the short side as well. "We recognize that the Bay Area is a busy place – and we recognize that people have limited resources of time. We don't want to suggest books of discouraging length," said Wolff.
So Long, See You Tomorrow was originally published in two parts in The New Yorker in 1979. The book, set in rural Illinois, describes the effects of a murder on the friendship of two boys – one of whom, in old age, narrates the story. Wolff called it "a beautifully written, complex, haunting story of a boy's attempt to find warmth and companionship following the death of his mother in the Spanish Influenza epidemic – which killed more people than the Great War it so quickly followed."
He called it "a cry from the heart that, once heard, cannot be forgotten."
"It's been a project of mine since 1980 to make people read that book. Whenever I sit down with people to talk about books I love, I always make sure that I mention that one. I give it to people as a gift," he said. "This is my attempt to give this novel to the whole Bay Area as a gift."
Wolff hopes to encourage a rich community discussion of the book on Nov. 12. "The conversation will be much richer if people have read and thought about the book first," he said.
"The book club offers a wonderful opportunity for the writers and scholars of the English Department and the Creative Writing Program to introduce these neglected classics to a broader audience," said Gavin Jones, chair of the English Department. "I'm excited at this opportunity to continue our literary conversations beyond the classroom."
For the second event in February, poet Kenneth Fields will present Janet Lewis' 1941 The Wife of Martin Guerre, a 109-page novel. The name might ring a bell with some Bay Area readers: Poet Janet Lewis was also the wife of Stanford's eminent poet-critic Yvor Winters.
On Lewis' death in 1998, the New York Times wrote: "There are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written … in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century's Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville."
Although the Nov. 12 event is free, seating is limited. Reservations on the website anotherlook.stanford.edu are encouraged, or phone (650) 723-0011. The website includes Wolff's introductory remarks, as well as Cynthia Haven's retrospective on Maxwell's life, with interviews of his colleagues and daughter.
Cynthia Haven is the director of communications for the English Department and its Creative Writing Program.