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What I Read – Jill Stukenberg

by on May 27th, 2011

Jill Stukenberg teaches Composition and Creative Writing at UWMC and is the faculty advisor to Mush, the annual student-run magazine of literature and art. She’s the host of the reading series 1,000 Words Wausau, which you can find and like on Facebook here. She has creative nonfiction forthcoming this month from Magnolia JournalIf you’ve seen her around town, you’ve likely seen her with her steady, the poet Travis Brown, also a new instructor at UWMC. He keeps her up to date with the verse.

It’s a little exciting to me that books like Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 can still inflame a school district. Views differ on obscenity, not to mention pedagogy, but how poignant to realize—when prime time TV shows begin regularly with murdered prostitutes and decapitated sorority sisters—that some people still do ascribe to reading the power to affect and move us. (Even teenagers!) The view that images can desensitize might be falling out of fashion, but Literature, the printed word, can still corrupt our souls. Even those who—apparently to me anyway—don’t read much Literature agree.

I can’t imagine what I would do if I couldn’t read. (I’d listen to audio books, but that’s ducking the question.) The printed word, on the page and online, informs my day.

In this era of the cell phone novel, I recently purchased my first subscription to a print newspaper—the Wausau Daily Herald, and that is how I start. I was waylaid in the County Market, routine groceries on my mind more than the roiling politics of my new city (I moved to Wausau this year). It had as much to do with the man selling the subscriptions, his kind eyes. That, and maybe some nearby bakery, newly glazed—a supermarket psychologist could explain it. Now each morning, I like that I must open my front door and step outside to get the paper—a metaphor for reading if there ever was one; for how reading opens our minds, confronts us with the elements. I also like that the pages are cold, the bag sometimes wet or snowy, and that I can never refold it. I dribble milk on the especially shocking Community Conversation letters, a little like liking a Facebook post.

I am fully ensnared in the Facebook zeitgeist (since I don’t think FB’s gonna last, I allow myself this—the way I’d like to go back in time and just be a Monkees fan for that moment). For years, I began my day with the New York Times online, which still comes to me in my email, though my cereal milk ruined one keyboard that way. Now, I sometimes check out NYT but only after Facebook. I need to find out what my friends’ cats are up to.

Through Facebook I find news, recipes, photos and scientific factoids that my friends either care about passionately or find ridiculous. And that’s what matters with information, right? That it be meaningful to us or to someone who means something to us. Advertisers who love the person-to-person marketing entwined within Facebook know that’s true—and for that reason alone I am also wary of Facebook becoming my sole provider of information. (Plus, how with-it are my friends anyway?) But this brings me back to Literature—which, by the way, should not be grouped so simply under “information.” I do find new (and old) creative works via Facebook, maybe because I’m lucky enough to have the friends I do. In just the past few days, I was ferried to a friend’s story in The Kenyon Review, to another friend’s poem in ink node, and to something someone simply liked in Harp & Altar. More proactively, I’ve “liked” and “joined” pages to ensure I get updates from small presses, like Greying Ghost and Engine Books, and reminders to check out Andrew’s Book Club, which recommends new short story collections. When I log off Facebook, I have my browser’s home page set to the NewPages Blog, which leads me to literary magazines—online and print. I subscribe to email newsletters and updates from other magazines: Narrative, Fence, One Story, Glimmer Train, Freight Stories.

I am an English Instructor—which means on the one hand that I can’t answer the question of what I read and how I find it without mentioning my students’ writing. The semester just ending, I finished a bumper crop of essays, letters to the editor, poems, short stories, creative non-fiction, plays, and even drafts for dream literary magazines. Seriously, I was reminded of how lucky I am to have a job where I get to read works—academic and creative—that new writers, fresh to the craft, have put their hearts into.

On the other hand, being an English Instructor means I’ve also been stockpiling books—good old fashioned print novels, mainly—for summer reading. I do read novels during the year (as well as my print subscriptions of The New Yorker and Creative NonFiction)—but more slowly and mostly at night. I just finished Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, 1989 Pulitzer winner. On my new pile are Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (this year’s Pulitzer winner) and Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. I bought those books from Amazon, but I was stoked at Et Al’s the other day to stumble across some titles I wanted but didn’t know I wanted: some Ann Beattie short stories and a copy of Dalva by Jim Harrison, recommended by my colleague, author of the A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac, and from the Wisconsin Literature section H.R. Holand’s Old Peninsula Days (I’m from Door County) and La Follette’s autobiography.

Maybe one reason Facebook has found success is the way it mimics a dusty, used books store’s ability to thrill us with the unexpected—though used book stores offer us the unique find, whereas Facebook’s tendency (maybe someone could come up with a good counterargument here) is to ebb toward the popular, to create swirls of groupthink.

Since I was a kid I knew myself to be a reader. But as I’ve grown older it’s been truly intriguing to discover how my reading interests change, widen, drift. Before bed last night I read poems from Abraham Smith’s collections Hank and Whim Man Mammon. (I’d love to get Smith, an NYC Literary Death Match winner from Ladysmith, WI, to read in Wausau next year.) And then I picked up the Guide to Wisconsin Hook and Line Fishing Regulations 2011-2012, which I got for free from a stand at the DNR station. I’d read such a great feature in the Daily Herald about the Walleye Wars, a Wisconsin event I’d missed at the time, too young. Back then, I didn’t yet understand the role reading would play in my life, the power it would have to change me into me.

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