Friday, June 29, 2012

Guest Reader Interview: Twelve Questions with Cristine Hutcison-Jones

Today at the reader round table is friend Dr. Crissy Hutchison-Jones. We've known each other for a number of years and founded our friendship on a love of food (another passion of mine). That friendship evolved into one where movies and books quite naturally became shared passion. I was a reader and writer and she was destined for academia in one of the most academic cities in the U.S. -- Boston. Now, what we're reading and what we're working on is always of common interest. With a very different take on reading and books than you've seen up to now (which is what makes this so interesting to me), here's what she had to say...

M:What kind of a reader do you consider yourself? What kinds of books do you read and why?

Crissy: Voracious and adventurous. I read all the time, and I'll try almost anything at least once. I love taking recommendations for things that I wouldn't have picked up myself. I divide up my reading based on time and situation. I read mostly research-related academic prose during the day. But I had to make a rule: no research within an hour of bedtime. If I read something purely for the sake of absorbing new information or deeply analyzing the content too close to sleep... I don't get any. The same goes for relaxation: if my brain is buzzing with research... I don't relax. So no academic books when I'm lounging on the beach!

My "fun" reading runs the gamut. Sometimes I pick up old favorites like Jane Austen or Anne of Green Gables or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy or some sort of religious scripture (I can't help myself -- I'm an academic, and many scriptures are fantastic reading!). Sometimes I go for intellectually stimulating histories or memoirs that teach me something about American culture: for example, last summer I read Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello, about Thomas Jefferson's family with his slave Sally Hemings; I recently finished Henry Louis Gates's memoir Colored People, about growing up black in West Virginia in the '50s and '60s. Sometimes it's critically acclaimed literature (most recently, Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize winner My Name Is Red). And sometimes it's just a great story, like Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next books or a lot of the YA I read.

The key for me with fun reading is that there be a strong, coherent narrative (I am NOT po-mo) and a good story. It doesn't really matter what the specific shape of the story is, or if it's real or fictional. There just have to be characters I care about, circumstances I can somehow relate to, and situations in which I see the character changing. I don't say growing, because not all great characters "grow" -- just like real people, they don't always learn positive lessons from their experiences. But I have to know and care about the characters and see them grappling with life in a believable way.

I suppose, at bottom, that I want to learn something from everything I read. I've recently completed a PhD in religious studies with a focus on American religious history, and not surprisingly much of my reading focuses on related themes. I want the stories that I read -- real or imagined -- to teach me something about American culture, the human longing for belief in something greater than ourselves, or human nature. But if I don't walk away feeling like a book has taught me something, I'm not satisfied.

M: As a reader, what do you expect out of the author and the story you are reading?

Crissy: I want a good, coherent story that shows me how people interact and how they are shaped by the world around them. And, in my fun reading at least, I want to see people trying to do what they should, and not just what's easy.

M: How has the eBook revolution changed the way you read and how you buy books?

Crissy: My fun reading habits haven't been affected by e-books. I don't own an e-reader, or an iPad. I probably should, given that I'm allergic to book dust. [Insert joke here about historians who can't handle old books.] But I like books and libraries and bookstores – real objects provided to me by real people.

I will say, though, that as a scholar, I ADORE Internet databases. I frequently turn to Google Books, which has worked with major university libraries around the US to get materials online for all to see. I find nearly everything I need for research dating before World War I there. I also use searchable online databases to find and retrieve thousands of newspaper articles and audio-visual materials. To be able to do so saves me countless hours in the library poring over microfiche, and immeasurable time and energy locating, requesting, and ordering materials via interlibrary loan.

(That said, I want to say that the amazing interlibrary loan staff at Boston University got me ALL of the dozens of books, videos/DVDs, and articles that I requested that are still protected by copyright and aren’t online... So, in the end, the world would be a much sadder place for readers of all kinds without the expertise and support of librarians, bookstore owners and staff, and the countless other *people* who help us find materials that suit our needs.)

M: What makes you pick up a book or author you've never read before?

Crissy: A compelling recommendation. I take staff picks in libraries and bookstores seriously. I've also found a number of good books (great literature or just good reads) based on NPR reviews and interviews. But the best sources are my reading friends and family -- they know me, they know good books, and they know how to pair the two things well.

M: List the five books that stick with you and tell why they do.

Crissy: Let's be clear... there aren't just five. I don't have five "favorite" books. But here are five that immediately come to mind:

- The Bible (I prefer the New Revised Standard Version):

I grew up in the rural South. My husband is a musician inspired by the American blues and folk traditions. I'm a scholar of the history of religion in the US. I pay attention to American politics, books, movies... The books that make up the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament influence all of that. And there are also a lot of great stories and fantastic writing in those books. Pick up a copy of Robert Alter's translations of Genesis (the creation stories; the formation of the Israelite people, the foundation of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) or The David Story (the biblical books about the fabled Israelite king David) some time. Or just grab any old copy of the Bible and read the Book of Job. You'll see what I mean.

- All things Jane Austen:

Austen was incredibly insightful and sharply funny. Her books are surprisingly clear-sighted in their portraits of her admittedly limited subjects, and they say some very universal things about people in their daily lives and relationships. And she does a remarkable job of critiquing her society in ways that are still relevant -- for instance, her assessments of tensions based on socio-economic class, and of the limits the world places on women and girls.

- Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-53):

I had to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school and I HATED it. But after seeing the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Bleak House a few years ago, I decided I’d try him again. BH was my first attempt and remains my favorite. Like Austen, Dickens was a masterful social critic, and he created characters who are unforgettably real. He also wrote beautiful, memorable prose, but always in the service of his story.

- L. Frank Baum, The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913):

My mother has a collection of Oz books that were given to her when she was a child, and I read them all several times over when I was very young. The Patchwork Girl was always my favorite. It's about a willful, tomboyish girl who begins as a wholly selfish creature but learns to be more caring -- WITHOUT sacrificing her self-confidence or her zest for life. It's also about a young boy who undertakes a quest to save his uncle, collecting a motley crew of companions who also become his family along the way. In other words, it's about how we build our own loving communities. Finally, (spoiler alert) the little boy turns out not to be a little boy after all, but an enchanted little girl. While she resists being changed back to herself at first, she comes to realize that she is the same person, whatever the exterior, and the people who love her, love her for herself and not who she is on the outside. For me, the book is all about self-determination -- of ourselves as individuals and of the communities we build around us -- and how successfully people can make themselves good and loving and compassionate and surround themselves with the same.

- Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980):

Robinson, like so many of the authors I love, writes believable, human characters in wonderfully detailed prose. Although her second novel, Gilead, is the one that earned her a Pulitzer, I prefer Housekeeping. The story is told through the eyes of a young woman who is sent to live with relatives in a small town on the shores of an enormous lake in the middle of the plains. The novel's landscape, mood, characters, and plot all blend seamlessly, as Robinson tells a story of the struggles of different women to live in a culture that doesn't have a place for them outside of the home. (In one of my favorite passages, Robinson uses the story of the biblical Noah's nameless wife to image the struggles of all women. Did I mention that I'm convinced that the Bible is essential reading in order to fully appreciate Western literature??)

M: What does reading give you in your life that nothing else can?

Crissy: I become absorbed in books in a way that isn't possible for me in any other medium. Books allow me to completely inhabit someone else's world for a time -- whether in order to better understand some real person or event, or to experience something imagined. And I get to inhabit that world on my own terms, by constructing the sights, sounds, and smells of the story (around the framework of the author's description, of course) as they work for me. I'm not subject to anyone else's vision -- like directors, cinematographers, art directors, actors, etc. Books are a highly personal and personalized way to experience a story.

M: Some people read, some people don't -- why do you think you ended up becoming a reader?

Crissy: I can't remember ever NOT reading. I'm told that I was reading at age 3. I'm sure that it had everything to do with my family. Both of my parents are readers, and my mother read to my younger brother and me all the time.

The most important influence, though, was without a doubt my grandfather. We read constantly when we were together. In fact, according to family lore, I learned my letters by sitting in his lap and watching him do crossword puzzles, and my numbers by turning the pages of his books as we looked at the page numbers and counted out loud. Later, he helped teach me to read with little phonics books and children's books he ordered through a mail service (my favorite to read together was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham). He taught me to while away long afternoons with Scrabble, and he treated my childhood illnesses with bags of books from the public library. Reading wasn't just a pleasure for him -- it was a way of life. He did a brilliant job of passing it on to me.

M: What makes a book disappointing to you?

Crissy: Cheap plot tricks will ruin a book for me faster than just about anything else. If I see it coming from a mile away and I believe that the author intended readers to see it coming -- or, perhaps worse, if I feel that the author thought they were being clever and didn't realize that the typical reader would see it coming -- I'm seriously unimpressed.

M: Do you judge a book by its cover?

Crissy: I'm not foolish enough to say no, because I'm sure that a good cover attracts me without me thinking about it. But I often go into book stores with something in mind. Great cover art is usually just a bonus. But I will say that if a book's cover is bad, it may influence me not to get it. I've been slightly involved with cover designs on a (very) few academic books, and I know how much you can manipulate a book's image -- and readers' expectations -- by changing the cover. If a book's cover looks thrown together, I'm turned off. Also, if a book's cover doesn't seem to match its contents, I'm suspicious and less likely to trust it.

M: Do author blurbs, cover jackets, and awards seals matter to you when choosing a book to read?

Crissy: Author blurbs matter a lot more to me with non-fiction than fiction. If I recognize heavy-hitting scholars among the people blurbing a work of non-fiction, I'm more likely to take it seriously.

Awards seals catch my eye, but unless it's a really big award (Pulitzer; National Book Award; Newbery; or from a specific academic organization that I recognize and respect), it's not likely to sway me.

M: Have you ever read a book that surprised you, one you didn't expect to like but did?

Crissy: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850):

I avoided reading this "American classic" all the way through high school, a dual major in American Studies and Religion in college, and my graduate coursework in American religious history. I figured it was one of those "must-reads" that's actually a crashing bore. But I finally decided a few years ago that I really ought to read it... and it's brilliant. Gripping story, great character development, wonderful descriptions (I love Hester's walk "into the mystery of the primeval forest" that surrounded colonial Boston), and a fantastically gothic story. Everyone should read it.

M: Have there been books you didn't finish reading? Explain yourself.

Crissy: Off the top of my head...

Anne Rice's Cry to Heaven (forgive me... it was high school): It's incredibly sexually explicit just for the sake of being sexually explicit. I'm fine with explicit descriptions of sex... but I'm not fine with material that's there to "impress" or "shock" the reader without having any clear purpose in the story. If it doesn't help me understand the characters or their relationships, set the scene, or advance the narrative, please don't waste valuable pages that you could have put to better use actually TELLING THE STORY.

Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life: I wanted a more honest and less hagiographic biography that would step away from the usual lionizing narrative, and this isn't doing it for me. I haven't given up entirely, but it's been sitting unopened for months.

M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves: The first volume was brilliant. The second was promising to be so. But the story is committed to brutal realism, and at a certain point it got too painful. It’s still sitting on the shelf next to my bed, but I haven't gone back.

Crissy Hutchison-Jones received her PhD in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University in 2011. She is a cultural historian of religion in the United States with a focus on the problem of intolerance. Her dissertation explored images of one minority, the Mormons, in American news, fiction, and film. She lives in Boston with her husband. You can find another of her articles here and you can check out a panel she participated in here.

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