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 program I coordinate on campus. 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 for KCC Reads. It was simply that, as a literature professor, and 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.
Smith asks, in the quote above, "Is it necessary to define love?" Perhaps it is. Maybe it isn't. Still, 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. (And, in a certain way, in some cases, at a certain level, that is education.)
Just Kids… one of those books you hug to your chest because it has understood what you understand, has seen what you see, has siphoned "truth" through meticulously sculped words and the shaping of resonant sentences. Among the many and various functions of great literature, this must surely be one of them.
The entire KCC Reads Committee and I look forward to our year on Just Kids, to working with our campus community on this truly remarkable and profound book.
Our very best wishes for the coming academic year,
~Maureen Fadem, Asst. Professor of English & Coordinator of KCC Reads
~How To Get Books:
If adopting Just Kids in a class, club or center, books are available in Room M-386.
Faculty with evening or weekend classes, we can deliver the books to your dept. office. Write letting us know how many you need and for what class: firstname.lastname@example.org
For students with disabilities, Access-Ability Services has access to an e-copy of Just Kids; which students may use at their office, D-206.
We look forward to your participation in this year of spirited programming, community building and scholarly inquiry into Patti Smith's Just Kids!