Paris Through the Eyes of Travelers
“No matter how you travel, how ‘successful’ your tour, or foreshortened, you always learn something and learn to change your thoughts.” Jack Kerouac, Satori in Paris
My career developed out of a dual obsession. Reading made me want to travel, and traveling gave me more to read about. (And, in the way that it often does, all that reading eventually led to my own writing.)
My first trip to Europe was an orgy of discovery, both literary and geographic. (Cultural, culinary, other things too, but those are off-topic.) Consumed with the excitement of all I was learning as I rode trains around the continent, reading with fervor, it was all I could do at times to keep from urging other Americans I saw on the trains to change their reading material.
Well, much of what I saw them reading was great literature, no doubt about that. But why were they reading it here, for God’s sake? Why read about the American South, or the Midwest, or even Russia or China, when it was the Spanish, or French, or German countryside speeding by outside our windows? Wouldn’t it be better to immerse yourself in something that would give you insight into all that? Why would you go to all the trouble to get yourself halfway around the world, and then zap yourself back out of the place you’d gotten to through the books you were reading?
I wanted to say this to them. I wanted so badly to tell them what to do. I wanted to take certain books gently out of their hands, and replace them with others. It was so hard to mind my own business!
Of course, it is socially unacceptable (and okay, I admit it, just plain wrong!) to dictate the reading choices of free citizens. Unless you are a teacher!
That is why I felt so fortunate to have the chance, nearly two decades later, to create my first literature course for Hunter College: Paris Through the Eyes of Travelers. Along with my first group of intrepid students from the City University of New York, I approached the City of Light with the intention of exploring Paris through the eyes of brilliant writers who had “been there, done that.”
The first discovery while planning my syllabus that first year was just how rich a vein of literature was encompassed in the words of my course title. I decided pretty quickly that I would assign my students only literature written in English, simply because I had to find an efficient way of thinning the list. There was still an overwhelming number of possibilities to choose from, but at least the focus was a bit sharper.
In the first few years the reading list encompassed a broad variety of Anglophone writers from the 18th century to the present, from Laurence Sterne and Mark Twain to Jack Kerouac and Diane Johnson. In the years since, I’ve narrowed the palette somewhat, out of respect for the limited number of hours available within one short month, zeroing in on the literature that best meets my students’ interests and needs during their first encounter (in most cases) with French culture. This has meant that most of what we read is 20th century American literature.
Twelve years and nearly 300 students later, Paris Through the Eyes of Travelers is still going strong. There’s another course based in Hawaii. And there have been stops in Florence, Italy and the Champagne region of France as well. One day I’d like to convince people from other places to follow me back to my home state of Minnesota, where a fascinating local history can be discovered through works of world-class literature by Minnesota writers. (I know this may take a bit of persuasion; but I also know that those who join me will meet with unimagined rewards. Even the ones who take the winter course I envision!)
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: through the years I’m sure I’ve learned as much from my students as they have from me. And of course, we’ve all learned wonderful things together from the writers we’ve read…and not just about Paris, or Hawaii, or Florence.
We’ve learned about love. About life. About the power and beauty of words. Most of all, about the power of literature to deepen, enrich, change, and inspire lives.
In this blog I will be reflecting on some of the writers, some of the places, some of the discoveries along this path. Thanks for joining me in the journey!