A Community Reading of “Les Miserables” Animates a Common Thread of ICBF Programming
Film ‘Les Miserables’ (France, 1958) and Talkback with Anna Barker and Ben Delgado
FilmScene – Chauncey, Iowa City, Saturday, October 3 at 6:30 p.m., $12
Anna Barker: Teaching the Classics on Facebook, ‘Les Miserables’ at 160
Iowa City Public Library – Meeting Room A, Friday, October 7, 4 p.m., free
‘Les Mis’ in concert
Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, Sunday, October 9, 7:30 p.m., free (ticket required)
Anna Barker hadn’t even made it to her chair on the patio of the downtown Java House for our interview before asking a question. “Thirteen hundred pages in 92 days? Who do this ?
The answer, of course, is that she does, as do her hundreds of fellow readers. The 1,300 pages in question at the time constituted the book by Alexandre Dumas the count of Monte Cristothe then-ongoing book of an ongoing series that Barker has hosted on Facebook since the public health emergency began in March 2020.
Barker, an adjunct assistant professor who has taught in a number of literature-related fields at the University of Iowa, was due to visit her parents in Budapest with her daughter when the pandemic brought everything to a halt. With the trip canceled, she pitched an idea to John Kenyon, director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization: What if she took to Facebook and Twitter to lead a community reading of by Giovanni Boccaccio The Decamerona 14th century storybook told by characters waiting for an epidemic?
With Kenyon’s encouragement, Barker got to work. But she had a major hurdle to overcome.
“I was not present on social networks. I had absolutely nothing,” she said. “So that was a learning curve for me that had to be done very quickly.”
It would soon become apparent that Twitter was not going to welcome the detailed, exuberant posts that would become Barker’s signature style on social media (“The three exclamation marks that are all over my posts represent my hands,” he said. she declared while waving her hands in the air to demonstrate her live kinetic lecture style). Facebook would have to do.
The Decameron, which highlights themes of resilience and flawed humanity, struck Barker as “the perfect book for a pandemic.” But as she came to the end of the book, neither the pandemic nor her readers’ desire to connect through literature had waned.
“I realized I got myself in trouble,” she laughed.
His next choice was by John Milton lost paradise. “We were losing a paradise in many ways,” she said. “Life will not return to what it was.”
Milton’s famous poem on the fall from grace of man and Satan explores “what it means to be a human being – the good, the bad, the ugly and the transcendent”.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (“No wiser book has been written about death,” Barker said) followed, and then she and her readers turned their attention to Russian literature. His guided readings of by Tolstoy War and peace and by Dostoyevsky The Karamazov brothers attracted huge supporters.
“This reading,” Barker said, speaking of War and peace, “has really gone viral. We had over 1,000 readers from across the country and around the world.
The Karamazov brothers drew similar numbers, and between the two novels Barker posted 250 times and wrote over 200,000 words (and included an impressive number of exclamation marks along the way). Barker felt good pressure from his community of readers to tackle Tolstoy’s problem. Anna Karenina Next. However, she had other plans.
“I decided not to engage in Russian literature for a year,” she explained. “Instead, I wanted to do two books that really ignited my literature-loving heart during my teenage years.”
These books are by Stendhal The Red and the Black and Dumas’ the count of Monte Cristo. They became part of a series of French literature which began with by Balzac Col. Chabert followed by The Red and the Black and the count of Monte Cristo.
Currently, Barker guides a Facebook group of 455 people through by Victor Hugo Wretched (to be continued by Gustave Flaubert Ms. Bovaire). Things kicked off on September 1 and are set to wrap on December 22. Iowa Book Festivalwhich began on September 28 and will continue until October 13, centers several events around the book and this project, including a presentation by Barker on his teaching experiences on Facebook.
This journey through French literature by “writers who wrote in the aftermath of Napoleon’s disgrace” ultimately returns to where Barker’s readers have urged it to go.
“Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina his first European novel,” she explained. This deep dive into European literature therefore has a broader purpose. “I use it as a stage story for Anna Karenina.” This shared reading adventure is on Barker’s schedule for spring 2023.
In the meantime, Barker invites readers to jump into the current reading or read some or all of the previous books in his series. All posts and discussions can be found on Facebook – which proved to be the perfect medium for his enthusiasms.
“I found my way of communicating my love of literature outside of the academy,” Barker said.
Readers of the City of Literature and beyond are lucky she did.