On a Sunday morning, I’m perusing Google Image in search of a Mapplethorpe photo. Well it’s not going to be one of those images. I’m thinking about one of the iconic white lilies, but then I find something more appropriate to the mood: a dark rose against a stormy sky. It’s the sign-off of my last book club post.
I also post a short paragraph telling the students how much fun I’ve had, and indeed I have.
My colleagues and I have been experimenting with an extensive reading project involving Facebook. Each teacher chooses one book per term, and students may sign up to read any one of the books. The teacher then sets up a Facebook group for the purpose of discussing the text. It’s been a very productive exercise pedagogically, raising interesting issues about the value of extensive reading and the dynamics of the use of Facebook as a medium for academic study. My colleagues are studying these elements systematically as part of their research.
Personally, I’d like to focus on how this exercise made me feel.
The text I chose was Patti Smith’s Just Kids. It’s her memoir of her years spent with Robert Mapplethorpe. A fairly recent publication that’s received considerable media attention, it’s a fascinating record of the art scene in New York in the late 60s and early 70s. It’s actually a little overwritten for my taste, but the students seemed to lap it up.
Framing the discussion was a blast. I combined comprehension questions with ones that asked them to compare Patti’s life with their own. I interspersed these with assignments asking them to provide images of objects and scenes related to the events recounted. The facebook feed is alive with colourful images of Andy Warhol and drabber shots of traditional 1950s family life.
Two things really made this memorable. One was the way this novel intersected with so many contemporary events. After setting up Google alerts for Smith and Mapplethorpe, I realized how newsworthy they still are. Smith covered a Rihanna song and became a grandmother. Mapplethorpe’s works were featured in prominent and often controversial exhibits. Discussing the Chelsea Hotel led us to Leonard Cohen’s song, and we debated the relative merits of cover versions by Lana del Rey, Regina Spektor, and Rufus Wainwright. If nothing else, the students acquired enough Western cultural touchstones to get them through an average wine and cheese party, and they probably figured out what NSFW means.
What really struck me, though, was the sweetness with which the students received this material. These are, by and large, sheltered kids with very little exposure to homosexuality, recreational drug use, or even the general grittiness of Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives. Yet they followed the story of “Patti and Robert” as if the couple were characters in a favourite tv drama. When one student articulated how much she envied their way of life, I reframed it as a question to whole group. I was surprised to find that many, like her, yearned for a life devoted to art and imagination.
When I look back on the book, I think of the scene before the escape to the Chelsea: the lice on the pillow, the open sores, the trench mouth — I mean, my God, who has trench mouth in this day and age? — but my students, all they see is beauty. I’m not sure what this says about them, or about me, but it’s made the bookclub journey a magical one for all of us.