A few words about Kingsborough's common reading for 2014 - 2015:
Just Kids, by Patti Smith
A Funny Thing happened when I finally read Just Kids. I wasn't reading it last January entirely of my own volition: wasn't reading it because I came of age with punk rock and Horses and have always been a Patti Smith fan; wasn't reading it because I grew up in a house of music and can’t imagine life without it. In fact, I had given a copy of Just Kids to my son—a musician like Smith, a drummer—without getting one for myself. And even when he told me, while on tour a few weeks later, that it was one of the most brilliant books he’d ever read, I still didn't get it, still didn't read it.
Just Kids was, at that time, just work: I was reading it because I was on a break from teaching and our colleague Paul Ricciardi had nominated it for KCC Reads. The book was in the running as our next selection, along with three others. So, I had to read it... and this experience turned out to be truly strange as I shortly found myself in awe and completely overwhelmed and fully inspired by the book. I soon realized it had impacted me like few others in my life. In time, I dramatically pronounced: Just Kids, it is a marvel! I wasn't worried, then, about the book being chosen. It was simply that, as a literature professor, as one who has devoted her life to writing about imaginative writing—what mattered was the unique power of this book. Just Kids is powerful not simply as "one of the best books ever written on becoming an artist" (Washington Post), but because Smith manages to do what only a handful of great writers (e.g., Langston Hughes) has achieved: to write in an entirely accessible English (as she said she wrote it "for the masses") while also managing to create an artistically stunning, beautifully poetic piece of writing.
Patti Smith: recipient of the 2010 National Book Award for Just Kids; member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; a Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honor bestowed on an artist by the state of France; a musician who has recorded twelve records; the voice of punk rock and, our author for the 2014 - 15 academic year...
As to why her book is so powerful, this is captured, I believe, in a quote from Rimbaud’s Illuminations. As we learn in reading Just Kids, this book and author are very important to Smith: this was the book she took to New York City, the one she would later bring to Paris. Rimbaud writes:
"I am an inventor more worthy than all who precede me;
a musician, even, who has found something like the key of love."
I feel this quote sums up Just Kids, a book written, we find, in the key of love. Of course, love is the oldest literary theme; that and justice. But few writers really "get" love. Even fewer convey it, with force and authenticity. And—along with the beautiful writing, the fascinating New York City history, the incisive representation of what it means to be and to become an artist—it is that which makes this book utterly remarkable.
An undeniable critical illumination of the book is that it defines love meaningfully, profoundly, memorably. Smith's music is a perfect "gray area" between poetry, aurality and performance; in the same way, her book calls us to contemplate the gray areas of our lives and worlds. It is honest and real and speaks to the messy, confounding truths of life and love and growing up and living for and in the city. It is one of those great American "rags to riches" narratives that calls us to think about the struggles and the crises and the heights and the inexplicable luck we encounter—and what we do, or don’t do, with those opportunities. Reading Just Kids, our students will grapple with the questions and the quandaries Smith grappled with: with truth; with forgiveness and grace; with what family and friendship and love (really) mean and with the différance of these, our most profound relationships: how love and loving so often fall and occur and travel and grow or wither outside the boxes we believe frame us. Or think should. How love cannot always be pinned down or made tidy or neatly fitted. Just Kids asks us to think about how and why she and Robert Mapplethorpe "love on!" despite betrayals and transformed orientations and the impossible distances that grow, the wounds and intervals and territories of love.
Patti Smith is Rimbaud's "musician... who has found something like the key of love. The book likewise calls us to ask how Patti Smith’s story is (or is not) like Jay-Z’s, and other musicians and artists who made it big when all the proverbial "odds" were stacked against them. It makes us think about art and the role of art in the world, its purpose, small or large, in American society specifically. Just Kids beckons us to attend to many weighty "meanings": the meaning of poverty and homelessness and class mobility and pregnancy and loss and life and death and AIDS and sexuality and gender and The American Dream and New York City, the degrees and forms of "theft," the types and extremes of hunger, the political life of the 60’s and 70’s, the political spirit of punk rock, and, of course, the wonder of poetry.
As we know, Kingsborough students are remarkable people—full stop. Most already understand vitally important things about all these things. More, in some cases, than, we, their professors often comprehend—about the mortar and the brick, the despair and thirst and grit of a hard-knock life. A vital function, then, of a book like Just Kids is that it validates and embodies, re-members and gives voice to many of their truths. Gives them back to the reader... in words on paper in black and white. In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser reflects: "[w]e wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along." This, she said, is the finest, divinest function of poetry: to give shape and language and sound, to embody and crystallize, our truths, our knowledge, our experience, our selves. In a certain way, that is education. And, among the many and various functions of great literature, this must surely be one of them.
We are really excited about this year's selection, not only because it touches on so many disciplines--and (thus) is appropriate for many departments and courses--but also because it brings our work in KCC Reads to new critical scholarly terrains for the first time in the program's history. It is our first book focused on the fine arts, the first that regards art, period, or being an artist or the role of art in society. This is important if for no other reason than the obvious educational benefits of teaching art in various contexts (see under: The Muses Go To School, Kohl & Oppenheim, Eds.). It is likewise significant as our first LGBTQ book, a narrative that deals directly and honestly with questions of sexuality and gender identity. Just Kids is also an Urban Studies book--a great homage to New York City--a story about Fashion and how it gets set, a rags to riches tale of the triumph of the American Dream and--to borrow Smith's phrase--the “resilience of the dreamer.” In a large way, it is a Women's and Gender Studies book: it’s about being a woman, a woman artist, a woman of genius. It’s about being gay, about being a gay artist in a time when, unlike our own, “gay marriage” was a phrase unheard and LGBTQ civil rights were mostly off the radar of the wider struggle. Just Kids is a book, alas, about love, as I said above--friendship and romance, families and alternative families.
All this means the selection of this book affords manifold opportunities for teaching as well as coming together as a community at events. It also means the common reading program is brought to new and exciting collaborations. We’ll work in a year-long collaboration with Theatre Arts, with Gregory Fletcher and Paul Ricciardi as members of the cohort. We are tremendously pleased that both plays being produced this year were chosen in mind of Just Kids: the fall production is Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, and the spring musical will be the rock opera Two Gentlemen of Verona. We are likewise thrilled that all KCC Reads dramatic performances will be overseen and produced by Theatre Arts this year, and that Prof. Ricciardi is on board as Theatre & Performance Liaison. KCC Reads will also work hand-in-hand with Safe Zones for the first time, with Steve Amarnick, José Nanin and Marissa Schlesinger on collaborative programming for both campus-wide programs. We hope to continue our work with the Urban Farm, with Culinary Arts, with the Women’s Center and the Men’s Resource Center, the Honors Program and the Art and Health and History and Behavioral Sciences and English and all other departments and offices we’ve worked with in past years. On that note, I am happy to report that long-time KCC Reads participant-supporter Madeline Sorel has already begun working with her illustration students on visual interpretations of Just Kids; hopefully some of those will be on display at our Inaugural Day, 9/11.
EVENTS: The KCC Reads Cohort is working on putting together a wonderful calendar of events for the 2014 – 15 academic year. Full details to follow. Our next big event is our Annual Student Conference and Keynote Talk on Monday and Tuesday, May 4th and 5th, 2015. We are very pleased to announce that we have booked legendary punk guitarist and rock historian Lenny Kaye as Keynote Speaker for the conference. Kaye was Patti Smith's first bandmate; he has been with her all the way through and continues to tour and make music with Smith even now.
BOOKS: If you have not done so already, you may pick up the books, anytime, in Room M-386. Or, if you need books delivered, no problem---just email me with the course names and the number of students and we'll deliver them to your department office.
TEACHING SUPPORT: As usual, our wonderful colleague Wendy Chu has produced an amazing online Bibliography for Just Kids: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/bib .The content is organized around type of source (book, journal article, newspaper article, etc.) and then, within that, items are categorized according to several themes. It is very comprehensive and user friendly with many sources that are clickable. (Thank you, from all of us, Prof. Chu!) Additionally, we have created a themes listing for Just Kids. Neither prescriptive nor comprehensive, it lists themes we felt one might focus on in teaching the book, and, the bibliography uses a version of these thematic sets. It is still in draft form, so, any additions or suggestions? Give me a shout. In addition, we will again compile a Teacher Toolbox of teaching materials and resources; right now, if you visit that page you will hear only birds chirping. :-) In other words, there’s nothing really there yet. But, as in previous years, populating the Toolbox has been an organic process, as people begin thinking about teaching the book, then teaching it, then assessing their teaching of it, and then… forwarding resources and materials to me. As soon as I start receiving them, I’ll populate that page.
Some LINKS you may wanna Bookmark:
→ Main Page: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads (you can access all parts of the site from this page)
→ Bibliography: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/bib
→ Teacher Toolbox: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/toolbox
→ Events Calendar: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/events
→ KCC Reads Contacts: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/people
→ KCC Reads on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kcc.reads.cuny
→ Teaching Eating Animals? All resources from last year: http://www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads/Pages/book13_14.aspx
JOURNAL: As we’ve done the past two years, we will again publish a journal issue on this year's work around Just Kids. Issue 3 of Paideia: The Journal of KCC Reads will be out in the Fall 2015 semester featuring work presented by students at this year's May conference and events across the year. Stay Tuned!
We look forward to your participation in this year of spirited programming, community building and scholarly inquiry into Patti Smith's Just Kids!