Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

Susan R. Snively, associate dean of students and the college's writing counselor, gives this account of writers and books studied in her course, "Writers and the Writing Life" (First Year Seminar 18): This is a course in reading and writing about the life of a writer–not as a celebrity but as a person struggling with words and ideas. Writers as diverse as Montaigne, James Baldwin, George Orwell, and Anne Lamott have much to say about this struggle, and their words–humorous, feisty, agonized, angry, witty–show how writers reinvent their lives in crafty, memorable sentences. Besides reading personal essays, memoirs, literary journalism, and poetry, students have the opportunity to meet real writers and ask them how—and why—they do it. In the past four years, visitors to the course have included James Carroll, Shirley Abbott, Jay Neugeboren, Madeleine Blais, Ted Conover '80, Chase Twichell, Daniel Hall, and Hannah Nyala. The list of invited writers changes every year.

Among the books we read last fall:
Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined By Reading (Beacon Press, 1996). A brief, elegant memoir of Schwartz's reading life, from childhood to adulthood.

Philip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor, 1994). This hefty, rich anthology includes "classic" essays by Montaigne, Turgenev, and others as well as vivid personal episodes by Scott Sanders, James Thurber, Gayle Pemberton, Richard Selzer, Annie Dillard, Adrienne Rich, and Edward Hoagland, among many others.

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird (Pantheon, 1994). A wildly funny, wise discussion of the writer's life with its pains, frustrations, and joys. Lamott offers lots of practical and philosophical advice about confronting failure, perfectionism, ignorance, and paranoia, as she tells about her own life as a writer trying not to be "a gelatinous narcissist."

Ted Conover, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House, 2000) is Conover's account of a year as a corrections officer in the New York State prison system. The book offers vivid and disturbing accounts of this experience of being "inside," revealing how writers' lives cannot always be safe.

David Sedaris, Naked (Little, Brown, 1997) and Me Talk Pretty One Day (Little, Brown, 2000) are collections of humorous autobiographical essays. The humor is laced with the pain of self-consciousness and the awkwardness of family relations; Sedaris's second book tells about his life in Paris and his attempt to learn French,"bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult."

Madeleine Blais, The Heart is an Instrument: Portraits in Journalism (Massachusetts, 1992) is a collection of essays by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who teaches at U.Mass. The essays, written during the author's time at The Miami Herald, offer finely-drawn portraits of people in trouble or working at difficult jobs.

William Zinsser, ed., Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (Mariner Books, 1998) includes essays by Russell Baker, Ian Frazier, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, and others about the writing of their own memoirs, and their struggle, as Morrison says, to distinguish between "facts" and "truth."

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (Anchor, 1995) is a book for re-reading. Newer editions of the diary offer a fuller and more complex portrait of the adolescent Anne, as she comes to terms with sexuality, writerly ambition, and her own knowledge of her family.