Entertaining—and Enlightening—with Faulkner

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The cool ocean waves were calling out to you, but you couldn’t leave your beach towel. You had to finish another chapter of The Sound and the Fury and then e-mail Dr. Thadious Davis on your laptop to find out what all the shadows in the book symbolize.

Davis, a Penn professor of English, was one of three Faulkner experts chosen to serve as virtual beach-reading companions this summer in Oprah’s Book Club. She taped five lectures at a college in Chicago, which are viewable online (www.oprah.com), and answered readers’ questions on topics ranging from the meaning of bluegums to the biblical allusions in Benjy Compson’s character.

“One can never be certain about these things, but I think I was selected because I did a C-SPAN live show on [the book] from Oxford, Mississippi,” Davis writes in an e-mail. “But as one of the senior Faulkner scholars around (yes, among the ‘old’ folks publishing on Faulkner since the 1970s), I could have been recommended.”

Teaching the classic online to a general audience is not too different from teaching undergraduates, she says. “In both cases, I assume a certain amount of knowledge and experience in reading, and then try to think of familiar, popular, contemporary touchstones for facilitating access to the more ‘obscure’ or allusive parts. All readers now are so much more sophisticated than we sometimes think, but many of the groundbreaking, experimental techniques of modernist authors, like Faulkner or Joyce, are more familiar because of the techniques used in film and television,” such as flashbacks and voice-overs. “We just have to make the connections and associations clear.”

Though Davis misses the old version of Oprah’s Book Club, which showcased contemporary writers, she says, “I applaud Oprah’s effort to take on major authors in the book-club format. The very idea that reading can be entertaining is one we have come close to losing as a given in our society. I think it was very brave of her to take up Faulkner, and three of the major Faulkner novels, as summer reading. Being entertained by Faulkner—isn’t that a marvelously bold idea today?!

“Of course, the difficult part for me and I suppose for other academics in a virtual general classroom is being able to offer expertise in an accessible way and finding the right balance between the specialized language of an academic discipline and the informed talk of serious conversation,” she adds. “All that, and not being boring, which is precisely the work and balance that goes on in the university classroom. Teaching is hard work, no matter the format.”


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