A Common Experience

We are sitting in a semicircle on the stage of the Mahaney Center Concert Hall, grappling with Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

The concert hall is empty, though just a few moments earlier, the room had been filled with every first-year assigned to Brainerd Commons, along with Brainerd staff and the Common Reading Group facilitators. That’s why I’m here, to facilitate one of the groups. I have to admit that I volunteered to be a facilitator because I saw it as an opportunity to force me to read a book that I’ve been intending to read since it was published a few years ago. (Oscar Wao has been on the bookshelf in my den since its release, tucked between a couple of other important books I haven’t found time to read yet). But as the rest of Brainerd Commons decamps for other nooks around the building  and my group somewhat nervously settles in on the stage for our discussion, I chuckle to myself. Fool, my inner voice scolds me. You and your selfish impulses. What do you know about facilitating a reading group?

The students arrayed around me have come from Switzerland and Seattle, Memphis and Montana, the Bronx and Long Island, and they are looking at me expectantly, as though I should know what I’m doing. And we start to talk . . . about the protagonist, Oscar de Leon; about the reliability of the narrator, Yunior; about the disjointed narrative; about the use of footnotes and our collective ignorance of Dominican history and popular culture references that some of us understand and others absolutely do not.

Ninety minutes have passed, and it’s time for our discussion to end, over before it really began. But it hasn’t ended at all. As we walk out into a warm evening (“I just want it to snow!” says the Seattle-ite), the students continue to talk about Oscar Wao as they make their way toward Proctor and points beyond. One of the more animated kids is one who admitted an hour earlier that he wouldn’t have picked up this book if it hadn’t been assigned and that he would still place it in the category of a book he had to read, as opposed to a book he’d read for fun.

A few weeks later, I’m sitting in the McCullough Social Space, listening to Shirley Collado, dean and chief diversity officer of the College, quiz Díaz, himself, talk-show-style on the stage of the cavernous space. It’s an exclusive event—only first-years and Commons faculty and staff have been invited to this discussion (Díaz’s evening talk at Mead Chapel is open to the public). The venue was chosen to accommodate 600-odd people, and while the room isn’t filled to capacity, there is a very good turnout, especially on a warm and sunny autumn afternoon.

Collado is asking Díaz questions that emerged from the group discussions, and he doesn’t disappoint, speaking to the first-years as honestly and wisely and authentically as anyone could possibly hope for. He addresses his struggles as a writer: “Sometimes you’re in a situation where you are really good at something that you happen to find really, really hard to do.” He explains why individuals should be confused when reading Oscar Wao: “Nobody understands life. That’s the way life is. It’s absolutely normal, when reading, for you not to know something. A community is required to achieve understanding.” And he talks about why, when doing research, he prefers to observe rather than to ask questions: “By the very nature of your question, you are skewing the answer.”

But it’s toward the end of the discussion that Díaz says something that, to me, brings this entire experience into its proper context. “I wrote this book from the memory of being a reader. This Common reading? It’s how books should be read. We are all present in one space, together, at the same time. In this world, we have to fight hard to find that. And this is the muscle that we will survive on.”

Comment Policy

We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

Leave Comment