Read. Return. Repeat.

A ReadICT podcast

Season 2, Episode 6: There's an End to This Monster Book

In this episode, co-hosts Sara Dixon and Daniel Pewewardy tackle category 3: A Book That Intimidates You. Joining them is Dr. Francis Connor, an Associate Professor of English at Wichita State University. They talk about Shakespeare, Classics, how people’s relationships to reading and books have changed in the past six-hundred years and why we should read more books that intimidate us.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription. Some errors may occur. If you find a transcription error, please contact us with any corrections and we will make those corrections as quickly as possible.


DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Hi and welcome back to another episode of Read. Return. Repeat. I'm Daniel Pewewardy.

SARA, VOICEOVER: And I'm Sara Dixon. We're your librarians and your hosts for today. We're going to discuss category 3, a book that Intimidates you, in an episode titled "There's an End to This Monster Book."

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: This can be a pretty heavy topic, so we thought, why not bring in an expert on this?

SARA, VOICEOVER: Like a professor, but make it fun?

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Well, you're in for a treat.

SARA, VOICEOVER: Joining us today is Dr. Francis Connor, an Associate Professor of English at Wichita State University, where he specializes in Shakespeare and early English literature. He joined the issue faculty in 2012 and has offered courses on topics such as John Milton, the history of the English language, early modern drama, and revenge tragedy.

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: According to his faculty bio, "he looks forward to turning today's bratty slackers into scholars, performers, writers and textual editors of tomorrow."

SARA: Hi, Dr. Connor, welcome.

DANIEL: Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

SARA: And we just heard you just got chair. So congratulations. Let's give you a shoutout on the podcast.

DR. FRANCIS CONNOR: You know, it's... it's an interesting job. I'm not sure it deserves the congratulations.

SARA: That's all right.

FRANCIS: But it's fun. I love opportunities like this to actually talk about books because it's a respite from scheduling and budgeting and all the other things the chair has to do so thank you very much for inviting me.

SARA: Yeah, so glad to have you.

DANIEL: So can you tell us, tell our listeners a little bit about your path to teaching English literature?

FRANCIS: It was a wild path to teaching English literature. I wasn't, I wasn't much of a reader in high school. I liked sports and music and things like that. But I was on the football team and I broke my leg one semester and I was in like a 20 pound cast for six months and didn't have a whole lot much to do. So I actually did the required reading for my classes that semester, and it was... it was my senior year so we were reading things like Sartre and Camus and Kafka, right? The big, deep mysteries of life people. And when I went on to college, I didn't have a profession in mind. I started as a communication major because I thought I might do something in radio or broadcasting or whatever. But my first semester, I took a class with a professor named John McInerney, who was also a playwright. It was an intro to drama class.

And we read some things that I was supposed to have read in high school and some new things, and he had a way of explaining it that these weren't just dead words from old people on a page, that these were living texts that we were supposed to do things with. He made them active and living. And reading something like Lysistrata and realizing that some of the gender conflicts we have today were also in Ancient Greece, and this ancient Greece text could be a way of working with our own was just illuminating. And so I wanted to be an English major, and I was, much to the chagrin of my parents.

SARA: I think Daniel and I can attest to that.

FRANCIS: Exactly. Let the chips fall. But I knew I wanted to study this and I did. And after I graduated, I spent a couple of years working at the late, very lamented Olsson's Books and Records in Washington, D.C. as a... as a bookseller and a manager. And I loved that an awful lot. Great to see the book trade from the retail side of things.

One semester, my girlfriend at the time who's now my wife, she was working on her MFA and she took a course on Finnegans Wake on James Joyce, class on the book. And I love James Joyce. And I love James Joyce. We both love James Joyce. We named our kids after Joyce characters and I decided, you know, I'd enroll in this M.A. program just to take this Finnegans Wake class. And I liked it. And so I still had a Jones for reading and writing about tax.

But the real breakthrough was in the course of that program, I got to take a class at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., a class on the history of print. And I got to work with medieval manuscripts, Renaissance texts. And it really... I'm used to, as a bookseller, handling 20th century, 21st century books. And now I'm looking at Shakespeare as a reader of Shakespeare's time would have experienced it. And it gave me a... a new way of looking at literature. And from then on, I went for my Ph.D. and now I teach Shakespeare and book history. And there we are.

So I kind of became a professor by accident, I sometimes joke. So that's the way life goes.

SARA: I feel like I became a librarian by accident so I think a lot of us just fall into these professions and then it's meant to be.

FRANCIS: Absolute, agreed. Absolutely, right. And this is part of what, say, college is for is for, you know, opening a lot of different... you don't know where it's going to take you. You have to open yourself up to finding something rather than insisting on you're going to do something.

SARA: Awesome.

Well, you know, speaking of book history, one of the things when we were kind of deciding what questions to ask you was reading up that that was part of your areas of study. And so can you talk to us about this evolution of the written word? Like what was the early days of pleasure reading? What kind of reading continues to cap -- I'm sorry, to captivate people? How has our relationship to reading changed since been like? Walk us through all of that.

FRANCIS: Yeah, I think of it at the very start, like a work like Beowulf, all right? A lot of a lot of the subplots in Beowulf are people around the table telling stories and this is what unites the community, right, is the storytelling and the digressions and things like that. One of the reasons that Grendel is the bad guy in Beowulf is because he hates hearing their stories. He's not part of their community because he doesn't want to engage in this, this literary thing. So there's always been a sense of literature and storytelling being a communal, fundamentally communal activity.

FRANCIS: In the age of print, right? When more people had access to texts and more people could learn to read text, there's still a lot of social reading, but there's also a move towards private reading and private fun reading. But even in the early modern period, something like... Francis Bacon has that famous quote, right? Some books are to be tasted, some to be swallowed, some to be fully digested. Even a philosopher like Bacon realizes, well, some things you're reading for fun and some things you read because they tell us about the essence of humanity and you should do it to be a studious person, you need to kind of do both.

And in Shakespeare's time, you'll find a lot of complaints about, you know, apprentices reading their idle romances. Or Shakespeare's first published work that made him famous was "Venus and Adonis," which is essentially an erotic poem that was actually probably his most popular work during his lifetime. But it was kind of a slightly dirty poem. And you have comments at the time making fun of people for sort of... for sort of reading that.

So there was always this, this tension between, I would say, books you... books that people in the culture thought you should read and books that people in the culture actually read. Like if you look at... if you were to take the year like 1958, which was kind of the year that Shakespeare broke out and --

SARA: Just throwing a random year out there, 1958.

FRANCIS: It's less random. It was, it was kind of the year where Shakespeare kind of emerges as the author.

DANIEL: He just blew up, right.

FRANCIS: He just blew up. His name starts appearing on Play texts for the first time, and he's starting to get really, really recognized. If you look at what was published in 1598, it's dominated by sermons, philosophical books, dour histories. Like very, you know, very serious, studious tomes. And literature is a very small, small part of that: romance, plays, poetry, and things like that.

But as the book trade develops, right, publishers want to make money off of books. And I think they realize that there is money to be made in those romances and plays and poems. And so they created, they realized this market for leisure reading and created it. And then by the 18th century, you have the novel sort of dominating everything. So I think... you asked about the history of reading. I tend to think of that in terms of continuities rather than differences because I always think there's this... there's this tension between, again, what serious people expect people to read and what people actually want to read. It's just that those categories of books change. In 1598... in 1598, you should be reading sermons and you shouldn't be reading Venus and Adonis, right? That's... that's idle, fun, leisure. And now, right, we would read Venus and Adonis as literature, we read Shakespeare's sonnets as literature. And there's always... if you like airport thrillers or James Patterson, right? That's a guilty pleasure. And you kind of feel you shouldn't read that. That dynamic has always kind of been there. I don't think it's a great dynamic. I think... I think I'm not sure whether that conflict is helpful. I think you should kind of read what... read what you want.

SARA: But it's the mission of what we're trying to put out there with libraries, right? Like stop trying to read what you think you're supposed to read, like read what you want. That's part of the fun of this challenge is that you get to broaden your horizons a little bit, but still very much read the things that you want to read.

DANIEL: I think it's --

SARA: Sorry, kind of jumped right in.

DANIEL: Oh, I just think it's interesting that there's always this idea that people have this idea that a long time ago there was only high art and that was it. But like, I always think it's interesting that if you look at like that letter, they found that like that inscription that was a complaint letter about someone selling copper. And like, you know, if you look at the graffiti from like ancient Rome, it's all swear words. And like it's like, yeah, the regular people, there's always been people, like, consuming, like, stuff that might be considered lowbrow by, like, certain people.

FRANCIS: So yeah, absolutely. And if you look at a lot of court poetry, especially stuff written in manuscripts. Right, we think, you know, we think Queen Elizabeth's court. Elegance, you know, high art and things like that. The filthiest poems you will find were written by courtiers. You know, privately, they often wouldn't print them, but, you know, they would circulate among one another, these... these absolutely hilarious, but... but filthy and obscene, obscene poetry. So yes. You know, and in Shakespeare's time, it's slightly anachronistic, even to think of the concept of literature as something that people in Shakespeare's time would have recognized. The way they would think of it is the term, the closest term they would use is posy. Posy represents imaginative romances, arts, you know, poetry, things like that. But... but it wasn't considered, how can I put it? It wasn't, it wasn't necessarily elevated. It was, it was sort of part of the mix. They really didn't have a notion. Let me change that a bit: insofar as they had a notion of the great books that you should read, they were kind of classical texts: Seneca and Homer and Virgil, and that... that was the high art. But I think one of the reasons Shakespeare and a lot of his contemporaries really made an impact on English literary history is that while they respected those classics, they also decided we're not going to be beholden to them. We are going to, you know, sure, thank you, Seneca, for telling us how to structure a play. We'll pay attention to that, but we're going to do our own thing and create kind of kind of new stuff. So this is why I like this period in particular, because the rules for literature aren't there and they're being created on the fly and there's a lot of weird stuff that happens.

DANIEL: I never thought about Shakespeare being like democratizing for the common folk, taking those old classics that, you know, were kind of being gatekept and like, making them in like a form that everybody can, like, enjoy. And so that's really cool. I didn't know that.

FRANCIS: Yeah, absolutely. I was just talking... the class I'm teaching this semester is on early modern drama and I was sort of like, if I gave me some... some English plays from the 1580s, they have super long speeches like no more than two people on stage. And you know, I hate to dismiss a work as dull, but they're kind of dull. You know, we read them for the historical value. But I certainly would not... if I had my students read John Lyly on day one, everyone would drop the class. So, you know, read it as a historic curio, I think like that. But yeah, but once you get to... to Shakespeare or Marlowe or Kidd and a lot of these 1590s playwrights, they're sort of, well no, we're going to have dialog, we're going to have action on the stage. We're going to have, you know, we're not going to obey the unities of time, place or event. We're going to, like Dr. Faustus traveling the world in Marlowe's play was an innovation because that's something that classical authors wouldn't do. And so yeah, it's that respect for the classics, but also the... the need to, well, we can't just keep doing the classics over again. We have to use them to build our own literary culture. And that's what Shakespeare was a big part of.

SARA: Yeah, very cool.

DANIEL: Yeah. So you mentioned a little earlier about the... we didn't get to the novel until the 18th century? Like what we consider the novel. So the evolution of books and reading is kind of a fascinating topic on its own. We could probably talk about that. But so before like the book, like novels with book covers and like chapters and everything --


DANIEL: We kind of had like manuscripts and stuff. So do you have any interesting insight on the evolution of the book and how things changed and --

FRANCIS: Yeah. This is... this ties into novels quite a bit, I think. But one of the things I find fascinating about book history and my own book that I published deals into this a lot is the notion of what I call bibliographic integrity.

SARA: Okay.

FRANCIS: And that is, right, we go to a bookstore, we choose a book from the shelves. It has a cover. We expect it has page numbers. It is bound. There... there's a picture on it with the name of the person who presumably wrote it on it. There are thousands of copies like it --

SARA: "Presumably."

FRANCIS: Yeah, I'm sorry?

SARA: Sorry, I'm caught on the word, presumably wrote, I'm like, oh, okay. Yeah.

FRANCIS: Well, you know, autobiographies tend to not be autobiographies, especially if they're a celebrity or something like that.

SARA: I did not mean to derail your train of thought. Please --

FRANCIS: No, no, no, no. Trust me, I need no help in derailing my own thoughts.

So we'll just take fiction as a thing here, right? You know, we expect the author to have written it. We expect if we get a copy in Wichita or buy one in Kansas City, it's going to be the same... the same book. We expect it to have a beginning and some sort of end. And it's complete in itself unless the author teases a sequel. But that's different. That's narrative. We expect the book to be complete.

We often think of print and popular histories of print, the idea that of the main innovation of print was that things could be replicated more economically, all right? That we can print these books now and everyone will have the same copies and that way we'll be able to spread knowledge more accurately. But it really, especially in the early days of print, it wasn't like that. It was actually more akin to manuscript publication, right? Because in manuscripts, you would... you would write your text down, you would have to bind them and things like that. In the early book trade, right, when you went to a bookstore and you bought a book, you didn't actually buy a book. You bought paper with the text printed on it. And for the most part, you had to have it bound yourself. So... and if you... if you were into something like plays or short romances, like early texts that would be the prototype for the novel, all right? Often those works were actually too small to bind. Like a play is only going to be about 40 pages, so they'd be sort of stitched together. Or a book of sonnets might be either 40 or 50 pages. So you would... they would be stitched together, but not bound. But if you had a bunch of them and they were the same format, you might get them bound together. So you might collect like five sonnet sequences and have them bound together and you would essentially create your own book.

And you would choose your authors to put in there, you would do that with plays. And maybe if you had, if you wanted to, you could find some blank paper in there so that you could include your own poems in this book of poetry or other poems or things like that. So when you bought a book in early modern England, in Shakespeare's time, the book was not an integral artifact. It was part of an artifact and you could make your own books from that. And even larger books, often individual chapters would have individual page number rings. Typography wouldn't be consistent throughout the book. Often the type that was used would change depending on what print shop was printing it. And also errors. Because we're talking about the hand printing era... hand setting, whatever it's called, I'm sorry. Edit that out. The hand press era where every bit of type was picked out of a case, put in a device, put in another device and the paper was slammed on top of that. Not a lot of time for proofreading because the print shop was always... and they would proofread as things would come off the press. And if they found an error, they would stop the press, make the change and continue printing it. But the sheets that were already printed with the error? Paper is really expensive so we're just going to put those sheets with the errors, we're still put those out there. So there'll be some versions of a book that have errors in them and some that are corrected. And so you can't buy the same copy of the book in England because some might have errors and some won't.

So the notion that... so it's not... it's not until later in the 17th century, I... I credit Ben Johnson, who is kind of a contemporary of Shakespeare, who demanded that people understand his work, as one of the first authors to really demand some sort of integrity to his book, to unify his works. But for the most part, readers had a lot of say in what their books would... would look like, and the books themselves were not consistent artifacts. So this notion of the book as something that is again, integral, complete in itself, is one that actually had to develop over about a century and a half of print. And it's things like that that I'm kind of fascinated by and work on.

DANIEL: They're like mixtapes.

SARA: Yeah!

FRANCIS: They're like mixtapes, yeah. And of course. And again, yeah. And a lot of early modern man -- even wall print is a thing, people are still making mix tapes of poetry, right? Collecting sonnets that they like and writing them in a book or collecting phrases from plays that they read and making commonplace books and doing things with them. Print did not stop that. Print was very adjacent to that. There are books that are part print and part manuscript, right? It's only... it's once the book trade becomes substantial that we start seeing publishers bindings and things like that. That doesn't happen until the 18th century, I think, but even more the 19th century and whatnot. So our very notion of what a book is... has changed from the age of print to today. And now, of course, with digital publishing, the notion of the book is further contested, which is just fantastic.

SARA: Well, I think everything's kind of an evolution. So I love that. I love that we started there.

DANIEL: Yeah. No, it's kind of cool.

SARA: The story of the book. I love it.

FRANCIS: The story of the book, yeah.

SARA: Okay. So let's go back to Shakespeare for just a second. We talked about how he was kind of the gateway for a lot of people of his own time. But, you know, I took a Shakespeare class and you almost have to have another page that like translates all of the... the language ind there in order to understand it today. So how do you take somebody who was so approachable back then and make it approachable to your students today?

FRANCIS: Yeah, I often... obviously something I deal with a lot. I kind of wonder why, what makes Shakespeare unapproachable? And there's a couple of things I try to make him a little more accessible. One is, first of all, I want to take him down a notch as I think part of the issue is that, right, "Shakespeare, the great English author, right? You're not cultured if you don't understand Shakespeare." I don't like... you know, that creates expectations and I don't like that. Shakespeare, this is a metaphor I always use in my career, I always use in my class when I teach Shakespeare -- the Globe Theatre, where a lot of his plays were staged, his early theaters, were in kind of the bad part of town in London. And almost kind of across the street, literally, from that was a structure called the Bear Garden. And the Bear Garden was where they would have bear baiting.


FRANCIS: Where they would put two bears in a pit and have them fight. And I bring that up because, you know, Shakespeare's audience would literally go from Hamlet and the deep philosophical things there, and then they'd watch a bear fight a tiger. So this is the milieu Shakespeare is working in. He is... he is popular culture. And I think Shakespeare would be... if he were alive today, he would be absolutely shocked to hear that his works were taught in a classroom because he meant them to be fun. So the first thing I want to emphasize is Shakespeare is a regular dude just like us. And he was he was from Stratford. He was a middle class guy. Stratford is a city not unlike Wichita. It's... it's kind of -- and I love Wichita, this is not an insult -- it's kind of a city that people think of when you pass through rather than live.

So he's not from one of the big urban centers of... of England. He had a passion for the theater, he decided to join it and he ended up being good at it, right? He found his... his way in. He might have been a school teacher for a little while, then he found his way. So the first bit is just to try to sort of dampen our expectations a bit, right? Shakespeare kind of wants to be fun. But for that, that other part of it, so the being intimidated by... by footnotes and things like that, I like to emphasize that you don't get points for reading the play and understanding it without help. It's okay to get the plot from Wikipedia. It's okay to, you know, to use a Shakespeare teacher. It's easier. If you know the story, right? Even speeches that might sound like a digression are kind of... kind of there. And when you cite these secondary sources or when you when you try to see what other people said about this play to help you get into it, you're really, even already then, you're joining in the conversation about this play. You're joining the critical conversation that's been happening about Shakespeare for 300 years, right? You're not a passive "I'm trying to understand this." You are dialoging with people who've read Shakespeare and you're dialoging with Shakespeare. So which is to say, you know, it's okay to get help.

The other thing and this is kind of a practical thing that I apply to everything. If you're reading something seriously, especially literature, especially something that's going to be a complicated: to read seriously, you have to read with a pencil in hand. You have to -- I know we're librarians here so I'm going to be gentle.


SARA: Don't check out a book from the library and pencil in the margins.

DANIEL: Personal books, this is not for library books.

FRANCIS: With your own books. Although I would say, right, leaving notes in a library book would leave a historical record of readership but don't do it.

SARA: You could do it in your own library.

FRANCIS: In your own library and then pass that library on to a library after you pass. That's, that's a great way to do it. But the thing is, yes, if you read... there are material languages between Shakespeare's language and ours. Although I... you know, it... if you dive in, you'll... kind of it's like learning a foreign language, by learning Spanish, by going to Spain for a semester, right? If you... if you stick with it, you will get it through osmosis. But really, especially for a first time pass, as you know, use your pencil and dialog with the text because the goal is not "there is something to get in Shakespeare that if I do not understand, you've wasted your time or missed the point." You're dialoging with Shakespeare and you want to try to... he has a lot of things to say and what do you want to hear in Shakespeare? What does he say that sticks out to you? And mark those down. So as you're reading, like, write, "Henry seems angry here," or just as people of Shakespeare's time would do here, mark off passages that you think are cool even if you don't quite understand where they are. Because if you're intrigued by something but don't understand it, right, that's the beginning of really getting into Shakespeare's works. And I encourage students to just latch onto the things they understand and build from that. If there's... if there's the passage you don't... you just don't get, just put a question mark by it and... and move by. That's okay. I don't understand all the Shakespeare. Nobody does. You want to, but what you do understand, leave a record of that, leave breadcrumbs. Because Shakespeare shouldn't be... I would hope it isn't a one and done where you read it and you're done, you never think about it again. To understand Shakespeare, to understand any classic text is a lifetime's work. And if you read these records for yourselves, you can go back for them and understand it more and better, right? Sometimes a text you read at 18 is gibberish, at 35 is sort of like, yep, that's... that's profound to be to me now.

So that's kind of kind of... so to summarize, just right, Shakespeare is writing popular entertainment for common people as well as not-so-common people. And certainly with our, the... our inevitably limited human capacities, we're not expected to get all of it at once. And in fact, we're not expected to get any of it. We experience it and enjoy what we can and go back and, I don't know, pursue a lifelong learning of Shakespeare, I think. I don't know if that answered that question at all, but --

SARA: I think it did. You broke down several ways that, you know, anybody is feeling intimidated, hence the name of our category, this episode, can go back and try to get into Shakespeare a little bit.

DANIEL: I had a weird passive introduction to Shakespeare. I was like obsessed with Disney's Gargoyles as a kid, not knowing that the show was like part of that education credit '90s television thing. So to make a show about these gargoyles that fought each other, they had all the kids -- all the like secondary characters were Shakespearean characters. And so, like, I watched it and then I like, I was like, oh, like Oberon's like one of my favorite villains on the show. So when I get the high school, I was like, oh, Oberon shows up in this or whatever. And so like it was kind of like a weird passive introduction.

But did you have... did you have like a first introduction to Shakespeare? Like something you recommend for people that never have even like talked about or ever read Shakespeare or been intimidated by it?

FRANCIS: Well, I'll... actually, I know we're talking about reading, but as part and parcel with that idea that you don't get points for reading Shakespeare without help, right? You... you know, don't lose points if part of your experience of reading Shakespeare is watching a performance or a movie version of it. In fact, that is... that is kind of part of... of the play. I have a lot of students with stories like that. A big film in recent years -- and I do teach a Shakespearean film class from time to time -- but Ten Things I Hate About You.

SARA: Oh, I love that movie.

DANIEL: Oh yeah.

FRANCIS: Yes. Which is an adaptation, a loose but an interesting update of Taming of the Shrew. And you know, there's a character there who's a Shakespeare fan and things like that, but it's really... I think that's a very important film because it's, one, the history of Shakespeare and film is an often kind of sort of everyone tries to be reverent to Shakespeare and the films end up being kind of turgid and dull. But Ten Things does what you're supposed to do with Shakespeare, which is take the text and have fun with it and break it down and things like that. So I do think pop culture representations of Shakespeare are a great in.

I'm trying to think of what mine was actually. I remember a teacher in high school having me read the part of Falstaff in Henry IV. And that was the first germ of, "Oh, maybe the Shakespeare guy isn't so... isn't so bad." The scene where Falstaff and Henry IV are pretending to be... taking turns, pretending to be Henry's father and whatnot. So I think that that passive way into Shakespeare is a valuable way into Shakespeare. And I often wonder about that with... with secondary pedagogy. I think, is it kind of unfair to expect... I'm going to go the other way about it. The first Shakespeare I ever had to read in high school was Romeo and Juliet when I was a freshman and, you know, a 13-year-old boy who's interested in baseball and stuff like that, right? It just did not grab me. But now I'm working on an edition of Romeo and Juliet and it's fascinating and I just needed to... to find that that in.

I've often found with students that some of Shakespeare's maybe less heralded plays but crazier plays like Titus Andronicus are often kind of good entry points into him because they show that they're not all Julius Caesar with his high classical speeches and things like that. There's also, you know, blood and insanity and stuff like that. So yeah, again, I don't know if that answered your question.

DANIEL: Oh, it helps.

SARA: I think it does quite a bit. I think for me, though, you know, I was going to say, oh, I remember having to learn the speech in Julius Caesar, right? We had to memorize it in high school and... and it is kind of fun, though, to like have that "I am so highbrow, I can speak Shakespeare," like I know the speech of Julius Caesar. But then also you are talking about Romeo and Juliet. And I was like, oh, that. We did have that in freshman year. And then Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet came out very soon after that, and that's one of my favorite films. [CHUCKLES] I love it.

DANIEL: It's so beautiful.

SARA: It's wild.

FRANCIS: It is. I mean, my... my hook into Romeo and Juliet, ultimately in the way I teach it now, is that it's really... it's 90% of a comedy. And part of the problem with approaching Romeo and Juliet, and this might be a thing with classic text in general, we know it's a tragedy and we expect it's a tragedy. And so, you know, we see Romeo and Juliet plots everywhere, right? Lovers who come to a tragic end and things like that. And Shakespeare's audience kind of would have known it was a tragedy, too. It's not a... there were no spoilers back then. But it's easy with the first half of that play to forget that you're watching a tragedy. Because Romeo is sort of a cliched Petrarchan lover. Juliet has like comically oppressive parents, right? The balcony scene is super funny. It's not until Mercutio dies that it turns. And that's from a narrative standpoint, this is why Shakespeare's great because he takes your expectations for what this play is: "Wait, I thought it was a tragedy but it's beginning like a comedy. Maybe we're wrong here." And then he makes it, then he pulled the rug out from you and that makes it makes it tragedy again, right? This is a good example of that's something that would have horrified a classicist in 1597 when he wrote it, "because you should stick with one genre." But Romeo and Juliet, he's playing with your perceptions of genres, right? You can have a comedy that becomes a tragedy and things like that So yeah.

SARA: Yeah.

DANIEL: So there's some intrinsic, intrinsic value in reading books that are challenging. But why would you encourage people to face the books that scare them? What can they learn from getting out of their comfort zone?

FRANCIS: Yeah, I have... I have a boring pedagogical answer to that, and that's just simply... the one I the one I give to administrators is that it's really in the same way that you would run to get faster, lift weights to become stronger, you read difficult texts to become better readers. And I do sincerely believe if you can handle a John Donne metaphysical poem, you can read a mortgage or something like that. So that's my practical thing, but that's boring. I think the important thing, though... I also think to step back a second, like reading popular entertainment is important, right? You need to read things to shut your brain off and unwind. Romance novels, thrillers, magazines, stuff like that. Reading for simple, unalloyed fun is necessary. And all professors do that, right? I do not sit at Home on weekends with a Shakespearean tome and read. I'm usually reading music magazines.

In my office, I'm very serious. At home, you know, I read to kind of relax. The reason these are popular is because they... they kind of reify the familiar. Maybe they'll do it in a novel way. But, you know, their texts, the comfortable plot beats, the recognizable characters, the recognizable humor and things like that, they entertain us, but don't necessarily try to take us any deeper into the problems of humanity. And that's what I think literature does. I think literary works fundamentally ask you to... to reconsider the familiar, to see something profound in the mundane because, right, we're... we're all complex people navigating a complex world. And we all wonder every day, you know, am I doing what I'm supposed to here? Am I making a difference? What are my goals, my person to this world? What, you know, what about my mortality? Things like that, right? These are... we all have complex inner lives and we don't muse upon it every day because we have to go about our jobs and our families and friendships and trivia and stuff like that, too. But literary authors are the ones, they let us know that we're not alone in feeling this way and they give us models for asking questions about them. Even if they don't have answers. And I think good authors don't have answers. Good authors raise questions and leave it up to you to... to decide. They help us and guide us through these big, challenging issues but in a fun way. And I think. It's challenging fun, right? So I think that's... that's my answer to why, why we should approach complex texts, because I think we gain something from them that might impact our lives in a positive direction, I think.

DANIEL: Thank you.

SARA: I think that's a great answer.

So we're actually going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we're going to talk a little bit deeper into what makes a book actually intimidating and what makes a classic a classic. So we'll be right back.

Commercial break

VOICE: Can't find a copy of an exam prep guide on our library shelves? We have you covered! The Wichita Public Library offers a wealth of online exam prep resources for high school and college students as well as professional licensing exam prep tools through the LearningExpress database. Best of all, you can access all of this through your Wichita Public Library card! To access LearningExpress, visit, click on Research & Learn, and scroll down to Prepare for a Test. Need help using the database? Library staff are here to help! Visit any Wichita Public Library location or give us a call at (316) 261-8500. Your Wichita Public Library!

DANIEL: And we're back and you're listening to Read. Return. Repeat., a podcast from the Wichita Public Library, with your hosts, Daniel Pewewardy and Sara Dixon. We're talking with Dr. Francis Connor, professor from Wichita State University.

SARA: Okay, so the idea of a book being subjective is -- I'm sorry, I'm going to start that over. The idea of a book being intimidating is incredibly subjective, because what I find intimidating, what you find intimidating could be completely different. I mean, I think we all generally agree that, well, I was going to say Ulysses, James Joyce was intimidating, but earlier you said you love Joyce, so I don't want to offend you, but I find him incredibly intimidating.

So what do you think makes a book intimidating? Can you share any books that maybe have intimidated you? And let's broaden that. Not just books, it can be works.

FRANCIS: Yeah, yeah. Joyce is intimidating. You can be intimidated by something and still loved him, right -- and still love it, right? I think that for me, the... the model for the intimidating literary work is Paradise Lost by John Milton. And Milton, I'm a Shakespearean by trade, but Milton is my first love and all of that stuff. But Paradise Lost opens, the first 30 lines are two sentences with incredibly convoluted syntax in the voice of the author, saying that he's going do things unattempted yet in verse or rhyme, and he says he is going to assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to man. So right off the bat, right, he's trying to intimidate you. It's like, "Whoa, this guy is going to explain the afterlife, mortality, everything to us. And it's a ridiculously complex poem. And Milton really enjoys reminding us that we're fallen and we misunderstand things. He'll do things like his description of the Garden of Eden is lush and gorgeous, one of the best pieces of pastoral ever written. But it's told from the perspective of Satan, and you forget that until he reminds you at the end, and then Satan. And that's Milton saying, "Ha, you enjoyed that but you enjoyed it through the perspective of Satan." He says you're fallen and you that's what you humans, you puny humans with your puny brains are capable of. So it's a work that's really designed to be intimidating. The thing is, for Milton, he also emphasizes that we're never really going to understand all these mysteries of the divine, the afterlife, mortality, free will. But we have to try. And he has angels who speak throughout the documents saying, "Well, I can't quite explain to you what God's plan is, but I have to try. So here It is and I'm going to do it." And for Milton, that's the important thing. It's not understanding what our purpose is in life as humans. It's trying to identify and define that purpose. It is... it's a bit of a cliche, but the journey, not the destination is the important thing in Paradise Lost. So, you know, no human can possibly understand everything that's in Paradise Lost.

No human can possibly understand everything that's in Ulysses, even though the stakes in Ulysses are lower. It's a couple of guys, right? Stephen Dedalus is... hates is roommates, he goes out for a walk. Leopold Bloom has a boring job. But the book goes into their complex internal lives and how they find purpose in this. And I think that's the way to handle complexity, I think.

When you talk about what makes a book intimidating, I think fundamentally, if you're approach... even if you're approaching a book like Ulysses or you're approaching Shakespeare, everything is kind of there In front of you. Intimidation, I think, is more inside of us, our feeling that we have to understand everything in this text. Our feeling that if we don't read the whole thing, we're a failure, right? It's when we approach a book like Ulysses and think we have to get it or understand it, when we treat it as a mystery that needs to be solved instead of an experience. I think that's what leads to being intimidated by complex literature. When they're not, these authors are writing books because they want to share something with us and they want us to inhabit their world. And the best thing you can do with a book is inhabit their world in some... in some way, right? Even if you don't read it to cover to cover, even if you read parts and dive in.

And again, like I said with Shakespeare, reading classics should be a lifetime goal instead of a one and done. "Yeah, I read Ulysses, now I'll never kind of kind of think... think about it again." It's why I emphasize writing in your books, right? It's a way of collaborating and experiencing literature. Your author is not your boss. Your author, the author is your collaborator. And if you... if you work with them and try to understand what you can, that's how you can experience literature in a profitable and enjoyable way. So you lower your expectations. You don't... don't feel like you have to grasp every pearl written on... on the page, right? Try to but, you know, acknowledge that you can't. And that's fine because we're humans.

SARA: I like that, the author is your collaborator, like not that you have to understand everything. I like that a lot. I think that really kind of breaks it down and can make almost anything approachable, you know? Whether it's Shakespeare or James Joyce. I still probably won't read Ulysses, I'm sorry.

FRANCIS: Just start... Ulysses is a great one to start with the last chapter, the Molly Bloom chapter, which is a stream of consciousness craziness, but it's great and lovely and lyrical and whatnot. So, but yeah, just dive in.

DANIEL: I've always noticed that like people that read as, like take on larger books and kind of work as a challenge and like they always talk about how fast they got through it cannot talk about the book as much as people that take their time. So yeah, it's important.

FRANCIS: Yeah, if you're treating literature as a checklist that, oh, I've read the 100 greatest novels, why? Better to spend months, right, detailing and digging into, fighting with, arguing with one book than kind of passively read 100, right? We have, you know... it would be great if we have world enough and time to read them. And maybe, you know, on the other hand maybe The Great Gatsby is something you can read easily for entertainment.

You know, we don't... we also don't have to read all of these texts in this great, detailed literary mode, right? Something like The Great Gatsby is important literature about culture and class and things like that. But it's also a great story and it's okay to enjoy it on that level. It is kind of okay to enjoy Paradise Lost just for because Satan is cool or something like that, right? We don't have to take everything as a, you know, the journey into the center of humanity. But I think it's good for everyone to have a couple of core books that they see as the sort of classics that are their guides through life, I think.

SARA: That's fair. Although I found it interesting that you chose Milton, who... his book is intrinsically complicated and intimidating, but he also writes about something that's complicated and intimidating because he's writing about the afterlife and what happens to your... anyway. Yes, very intimidating. But, you know, there are people out there that love that stuff.

FRANCIS: Yeah, yeah. It's also... I mean, and I think he does it not because he's being a jerk. I think an author who's just being intimidating and obscure to be intimidating and obscure, I doubt they're very much worth reading. But Milton is trying to set it up as a challenge, right? Like you want to face life, here's how you do it, right? Here's the obstacle course that I'm going to then, I'm going to put you through. Because, again, he certainly doesn't have all the answers in his... in his text for all of that bravado at the beginning of his play. We're still left with a lot of poem. We're still left with a lot of questions at the at the end of it. And as I think I've said before, right, great literature produces questions more than it produces answers.

SARA: I like your way of looking at things.

DANIEL: Yeah, I remember reading, yeah, John Milton, I remember reading Paradise Lost in college in like a literature class. And I was just kind of like, yeah, just seeing how all the different characters that showed up and things like it really did kind of take that like the older like creation story and give it a new life. And so thinking about historically for people that hadn't heard the creation story like seeing that as well, this is really revolutionary so it's really cool.

FRANCIS: Yeah, yeah.

DANIEL: So you -- speaking of classes, you taught a course on The Wire. Some have argued that shows like The Wire or The Sopranos, Breaking Bad could actually be the new great American novel. Even though they aren't books, it's still a form of literary entertainment on some level. Do you have thoughts on this? What do you think is the great American novel if you had to pick one?

FRANCIS: I would say... I'll say fundamentally for one thing, right, we don't necessarily need to see books and, television and movies in competition with one another. I really advocate for a balanced cultural diet, right? You don't want... you don't want to sit all day watching sitcoms. But, you know, you probably would be kind of a bore if you just read 17th century royalist rhymed epics all day too, right? You want a little bit of everything for them. And I do think, you know, The Wire got compared a lot to Dickens and I think that that's sort of fair, right? This complex layered account that that raises some of the... some issues about policing and the drug war and things like that, but also develops character that we really feel it. And I think those are things that television can do really well They can play on sympathies, they can... they can create visually stimulating and compelling representations of problems we face and things like that. So it's great that television has emerged as a smart, literate medium.

I would also say, though, television is... you're always going to be one removed from a television program or a movie because you can't hold The Wire in your hands, right? You can hold the artifact that contains The Wire in your hands. Or maybe you can pick your television up while you're showing The Wire but you can't really... you can't read The Wire with a pencil like you can with a book. And that's why I think, as great as it is that books and films can do some things that arguably novels can't do or do differently or things like that, the reason I think books are still valuable and classics are still valuable is that you're always... you're engaging with the author. Milton for one thought... thought the book was the embodiment of the author himself. And so when you're writing -- and again, the author as collaborator, right? -- when you are even in a modern edition of Paradise Lost or Shakespeare, when you're making your notes on that text, you're arguing with Shakespeare. The author is still there. You're having a conversation. That's something that television doesn't quite do either. And that's not a knock on television. That's just to say why you should have a balanced cultural diet, right? The Wire can be literate, but it's not going to replace, it shouldn't replace Shakespeare, Milton, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and anyone else.

For the great American novel -- I love that question. I'm not an Americanist but... but I've always... this back to my bookselling days. When I read by Don DeLillo, it's one that just right off the bat hit me as it's... it captured something fundamental about where we were. Especially it has that just bravura opening chapter that juxtaposes Bobby Thompson hitting the home run that wins the National League pennant for the Giants. The shot heard round the world with J. Edgar Hoover discovering that the Russians have dropped an atomic bomb, have tested an atomic bomb. And it's the very DeLillo thing, right? This baseball is our humanity, the atomic bomb is the modernity that threatens that humanity. And we kind of follow the baseball through the book. And I think for DeLillo, that's an emblem about how It's important in this... in this age of junkyards and these technologies of destructions and crime, we have to retain a piece of that. And he wrote it on the cusp, it was 1997, I think, when the World Wide Web, the Internet was still just a thing. But nevertheless, that novel was structured around networks of people, people who don't realize they're kind of connected. And it's that search for common humanity that... that unites them. And I think is the book that it would be my pick for the great American novel, at least from... from my very modern perspective as one that really anticipates a lot of the struggles we have... we have now with integrating things like social media in our lives versus our desire to remain civil and helpful to one another. I hope they never make it into a movie.

SARA: I had to read Don DeLillo for... I think it was actually like the great it was an American novel course in my English literature degree. And I couldn't get into it. But honestly, hearing you talk about it makes me think that like, you know, you have to read things in a certain time and maybe I just was not in the right frame of mind for Don DeLillo. And maybe that's something I need to go back and try again.

FRANCIS: Yeah. And you know what? Maybe it won't work. And you know --

SARA: I will try it.

FRANCIS: Exactly. And the trick is to, you know, fair play, open mind, fair hearing, you know, and this is why it's, you know, easy to say, but, you know, try not to be intimidated by it, right? And maybe... I would highly recommend the opening chapter of , which is which is a standalone -- I think it's actually been published as a short story on its own. And it's just... I've got, my eyes are welling up with tears just thinking about it.

SARA: You can't see it, he's doing a chef's kiss.

FRANCIS: Yeah. Yes, that was --

SARA: That was for our listeners.

FRANCIS: Yeah. And that's just for classics in general. That's what I would say. I mean, if you're approaching it fairly and you, you know, you're marking with a pencil and you're just not finding things, it's okay. You're not a failure. They're just... we can't explain why we don't like some things and it's okay. The important thing is to try and particularly when other... you know, when other people -- "Oh, Shakespeare. I never liked him. What kind of person --" you know, try not to do that either. But try to, you know... there are authors I'm not a fan of, but I like hearing people talk about who their favorite writers are, even if I'm not a reader of them myself or don't know them myself, right? This is how culture operates. It's conversation. It's not authors on a page, it's not words on a page. It's us, librarians, scholars talking about what works are worth reading.

SARA: Yeah, for sure.

Okay, so let's switch gears a little bit. A lot of the books that we consider to be classics that are required in our classrooms have been the standard for many, many years. With that in mind, there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in these books. You know, there's typically a white protagonist just written by a white author, etc. There's a "decolonize your bookshelf" movement going on in certain segments of our social media. So how do we begin to tackle this issue, if you can speak on it? And are there any new required books that you would add to this list? And let's just for the sake of this argument -- discussion, not argument -- pretend that there's currently no book banning going on anywhere on in the country.

DANIEL: Yeah, no ongoing censorship.

SARA: That's not a thing that exists right now, yeah.

FRANCIS: Were only that were true. Yeah. I'll just say -- Go ahead.

DANIEL: Oh, no, go ahead. Go ahead.

FRANCIS: I'll just it's certainly an important conversation to have. And again, when you talk when we think about what is a classic, right, a classic is a book is... there is no set in stone list of what are the great canonical books as much as people may have tried years past to do that. We all create our own canons. And by we, I mean those of us who are readers, those of us who are our teachers, those of us who are librarians, those of us who publish everything they read to Goodreads or something like that. People who buy books, booksellers. We're the literary community. We make... we have these discussions. And I think the books that get discussed the most are probably going to be the ones that capture our imagination the most, and they become the classics. So it's important that we have these conversations, and now we're at a perspective where we think, well, we've had 300 years of white dudes writing things, and maybe that's... that's a bit too much and we should rethink the canon. That's fantastic.

When I teach Shakespeare to undergraduates, one of... the thing I do on the first day is I say 20 years from now, I'm going to be retired. I won't be teaching Shakespeare anymore. You guys are going to be the teachers, the booksellers, the librarians, everything else. There is no law that says Shakespeare has to be the great author, has to be the one taught everywhere. Every generation has found the reason for Shakespeare to be that. You're going to have to decide whether or not that is. And I want you to take my class as my argument for why Shakespeare is important and you should, we should keep reading it. You may decide, no, that's fine. You're making the canons, I'm leaving the stage. So I think a lot of these arguments about diversity, I think they're important, you know, for one thing, because they force us to really steelman what we've thought are the classics. Why is Moby Dick important in the face of this of these new movements? Or why is Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf or Joyce or something like that? I think they're important.

Even so, I would hope the argument stays in a direction where we're thinking about adding to the list of classics rather than saying there are things we shouldn't read anymore. Because just as there is no set list of canon, there is no size of that canon too. And I think as literary history develops right now, most of English literary history is a very white dominated forum, but that's changing, and that's going to continue to change. And 100 years from now, we'll have a different view of the canon than we do now. And it will certainly be more, more diverse and things like that.

I think a fundamental problem behind a lot of these issues -- and I'm going to climb up on a soapbox for one second.

SARA: Please do.

FRANCIS: Yeah. Censorship is certainly an issue now, but I don't think that's... I really don't think it's the biggest issue facing what we choose to read these days. I think for a lot, I think there's a problem with our educational priorities, I'll put it. I'm really not sure that there's actually a lot of required reading in schools anymore. And, you know, you can kind of go through college without taking a literature course or without taking a history course or philosophy course or things like that.

SARA: Can you? You can?

FRANCIS: Oh yeah.


SARA: Maybe it's just because I have like a very tunneled view. Okay, keep going. I'm so sorry.

FRANCIS: Yeah, yeah. No, this is my soapbox, right? The importance of humanities.

SARA: Yes. I'm so sorry.

FRANCIS: No, no, no, that's fine. Yeah, so but things like Common Core encourage reading as a skill, but not so much reading as enjoyment or literature, you know? Literature should instruct in delight, right? Right now we kind of focus more on reading as a skill in the instruction rather than the delight. So there's part of the problem is that then there's smaller space for the classics in some of our institutions. There are fewer opportunities to read, you know, much Shakespeare, Jane Austen, John Donne, right? A lot of people who I read in high school. And that's the sort of thing that makes these debates about diversity, I think, more intense because you have hundreds of years of authors clamoring for this increasingly limited, limited space. And, you know, my dream is a kind of social recommitment to this idea that literature is a good -- is good in itself a good conversation for us to have, and that we should read more, not just so we can become better businesspeople or whatever jobs we go into, but because literature is the eternal conversation. It's the one thing we've been doing from Beowulf to today and continuing that has value. And I worry that structurally some of important people don't value that as much as we can and I worry that we're going to lose a lot from that. So soapbox put away.

SARA: Okay.

DANIEL: Thank you. Thank you so much for your insights on intimidating books. Hopefully our listeners will feel more confident tackling those books and get, you know, get the pencils out for their own books and then take on those books have been challenging.

FRANCIS: Very important.

DANIEL: Before we go, are there any projects you're working on that you'd like to talk to us about? I saw something on your website about a post-punk book with bands in Kansas.

FRANCIS: Yeah, I'm doing... [LAUGHS] Yeah, I'm doing... I will, I am doing a couple of good scholarly things. I'm still working on a new volume of the New Oxford Shakespeare. I'm also part of the editorial team of the Oxford Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe so I'm going to be working on an edition of his poetry. But yeah, my colleague at Wichita State, Darren DeFrain, and I are working on -- we're both big music fans and we're both interested in Kansas musical history, and we're interested in indie rock of the '70s and '80s, which was a time when, right, the music was dominated by Los Angeles and New York and the perception was the Midwest, they might have had some hard work in rock bands, but nothing was happened there. But we actually had a lot of really interesting artists come from the Midwest. And our book is called, the title we're working with is No Choice But Action, which sums up that ethos, right? If you think Wichita is a boring town, well, you know what? Do something about it. You have no choice but to make it interesting. And groups, local groups like The Embarrassment made it a very cool place. So we want to kind of document that, that history a little bit and talk about what it meant to be a midwestern punk band. So we're working on that.

DANIEL: That's cool. I just saw The Embarrassment are doing reunion show soon, or it might have just happened. But that's really cool, yeah.

FRANCIS: They are at the end of September, I think. Yeah, yeah. That should be very cool.

DANIEL: I listen to a lot of The Embarrassment. Like the band coming out of Wichita, you're like, wow, this came out of Wichita, this is really cool. I'm excited to read the book.

FRANCIS: Yeah, well, we have to finish it first, but we're getting there.


SARA: Good luck. That sounds really great. Thank you so much. This was so just interesting and took me in ways that I didn't really think that it was going to take me. But I really like your approach to the intimidating book, so thank you so much.

FRANCIS: Yeah, well, thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun. I appreciate it and I hope your audience and you get something out of it. So yay.

SARA: I think that they will. Yeah.

DANIEL: Thank you so much. Have a good one.

SARA: Take care, Dr. Connor.

FRANCIS: Cheers.

Commercial break

VOICE: Attention ReadICT superfans! If you’re looking for a place to chat about your favorite books, get excellent reading recommendations for challenge categories, or just meet some new friends who love books as much as you do, check out the ReadICT challenge Facebook group. To join us on Facebook, simply search for groups using "#ReadICT challenge" and click join. For more information on the ReadICT challenge, visit

SARA, VOICEOVER: And now let's hear some reading recommendations from library staff about some books they found intimidating but worth it.

ZOE, VOICEOVER: Hello. My name is Zoe Burgess. I am a team member of the Special Collections group at the Wichita Public Library. I'm going to recommend a book today from our third category, intimidating books. The name of the book is Hitler's Ovens by Olga Lengyel. It also goes by other names involving Five Chimneys and I Survived Hitler's Ovens. The book is a memoir by the... of the author of her experiences in Birkenau-Auschwitz extermination camp in 1944, mostly in 1944, it ends in early 1945. She and her husband and her parents and her two kids were put into a cattle car and sent to Auschwitz in 1944 where her parents, her children, were immediately sent to the gas chamber, which was sad. She did not know that,. And she was able to stay alive because she got a job at an infirmary. Her doctor -- her husband was a doctor and she was a physician's assistant. And the book is... tells a very raw story about what happened to her and what happened to all the other people that she encountered in this camp. One of the main things is that 1.3 million people arrived at this camp, Auschwitz and Birkenau, and 1.1 million people died there. This book is just... it's very intimidating because of the subject matter. But I recommend it to anyone who would like to know what really happened in those concentration camps during World War II. This has been my recommendation for the 2022 category 3: intimidating books. For more reading recommendations, visit

JOHN, VOICEOVER: Hi, I'm John Cleary, a librarian at Wichita Public Library, and I'm here today to recommend a category 3 book, a book that intimidates you. The title of the book is The Complete Photo Guide to Home Repair by the editors of Black and Decker. It has over 2,000 color photos on all the major items of your home. If you've ever had a plumbing leak and you panic and you don't know what to do and you wonder how much this is going to cost you, it could be something as simple of a turn as the turn of a wrench, or adding a washer which are simple things to do. This book will show you how to do those kinds of things. It covers worker safety and all the safety protocols, things like turning off your electricity. It also covers storing tools, storing materials, transporting materials and use of those tools and screws and nails. It covers all the interior repairs, things like basements, ceilings and walls, painting, floors, stairs, doors and windows, cabinets and countertops. It also covers the exterior of your home: things like roofing, gutters, chimneys, walls and siding, exterior painting, and concrete and asphalt. And inside the house, it covers system repairs: things like plumbing, electrical heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. There's also a maintenance schedule in the back of the book that tells you different seasons of the year and what you should be checking for to maintain your home and keep from having large repairs. To learn about more recommendations, go to

CHARLES: Hello, my name is Charles Hankins and I'm on the programing team here at the Wichita Public Library. This is my recommendation for category number three and intimidating book. France is a society of rules and therefore there are rules, rules and more rules when it comes to preparing food as much as eating it. Once upon a time, a friend's mother attempted to order a crudités in a Paris cafe. But unfortunately what she said was, "I'd like a crudity," which is the sort of thing I think we all pray we'll never actually say out loud. The book in question is François-Régis Gaudry's Let's Eat France!, also known as We Will Taste France. François-Régis Gaudry is an author and television host in France and a graduate, interestingly enough, of the Paris Institute of Political Studies. As his background indicates, his book is an encyclopedia of an argument that food in France is the intersection of absolutely everything from religion to law to art to regional identity to social standing, unsurprisingly. Another aspect of the book's intimidation, intimidating quality is that it weighs nearly 6 pounds -- that's 3.1 kilos to you and me -- so you'll probably have to get Charlton Heston to fetch it down from the mountain for you. I know I did. The layout style of the book -- or many styles, some vertically oriented, some horizontal -- appears to be drawn from the glory days of magazine design, which is to say the '60s and '70s before the chill of '80s chic arrived and everyone's margins turned into wintry meadows. Order in the book? Well, it's mainly intuitive, possibly associative, freely associative. Page 413 features a table of subjects, fortunately, and here are a few favorites: a history of France in Camembert packages; the alluring snail; philosophers around the table; chips are chic; the story of Garlic city beers, country beers; the degree of stench; let's take a look at lentils. The wine of the hanged. Yes, it's what you think. Sautéing frogs. An inventory of the cows of France. Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you how you vote. And if you think that last bit is a phenomenon unique to France, just think of what Cracker Barrel recently went through when they tried to serve plant-based sausage to their clientele. Or, as Kenneth Mars would say in the classic Streisand picture, "What's up, doc? C'est la vie, c'est la guerre." For more reading recommendations, please visit

SARA, VOICEOVER: Well, who knew intimidating books could be so fun to talk about?

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Right? Talking with Dr. Connor has me pumped to finally finish Infinite Jest.

SARA, VOICEOVER: Ooh, good luck with that.

A list of the books discussed in today's episode can be found in the accompanying show notes. To request any of the books heard about in today's episode, visit or call us at (316) 261-8500.

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: To end out this show, staff member Ian read a submission from our local short story program, a poem submitted by Andrew McCoskey titled "Holiday in the Sun (for Billie)." To find out how you can submit your own work to be distributed through our short story dispensers, please visit

SARA, VOICEOVER: This is one of the many short stories and poems you can get from one of our short story dispensers located at Reverie Roasters coffee shop, Evergreen Community Library, and the Eisenhower Airport.

IAN, VOICEOVER: "Holiday in the Sun (for Billie)" by Andrew McCoskey.

Twisted & knotted,
impossibly angled & woven
the Oak shrugs like atlas,
a stoic sentinel swaying
in the Carolina breeze

winds of human narrative shift
with pendulum motion,
acknowledging but never admitting,
bending but not breaking

Does Cause stay lost if you
forget what was found?

I think so

The big house,
painted white like picket fences
of southern memory

Its Ivory pillars hold slanted decks,
Its buried bricks built new foundations
Its Black bodies built business
And Its boards of directors hold quarterly conventions

For 40 acres and a mule they auctioned memory
Passing codes that reflect the past with symmetry

Erecting monuments to treason
Filibustering equality & reason

Their money since has never spoken,
only sworn

the ancient Oak endures,
swollen roots pulling up concrete pavers,
mere track marks of Civilization

No methadone in sight

Samuel traded his oriental pipe
for a needle a century ago
Here he sits, mining collapsed veins
for a frontier yet discovered

His needles made him heroic,
his cotton was king
his crown bought
Long satin gloves and pillbox hats
for his lady, call her liberty

The hat she wears with impunity at
her closed door cocktail hours
with her beloved Aunt Victoria

Stirring ironic riffs on mojitos
with long elegant spoons of silver

Telling tales of beasts of burden,
Laughing at how they danced and died
How they took the whip
and how they liked it too

Remarking how they sung and swayed,
gazing out parlor windows at twisted giants

tiny ornate framed portraits
sit on the buffet of her daddy
His hands pulled up bootstraps
His hands signed checks to senators
His hands pulled necks of Nat Turners too

Breath deep the sweet magnolia
Breath deep the maggots & the mildew
Breath deep for Billie

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: Thank you to Dr. Francis Connor for talking with us today. We'd also like to thank John, Zoe, Charles for the recommendations for category 3, a book that intimidates you. And we'd like to thank all of you for listening.

SARA, VOICEOVER: To participate in the ReadICT reading challenge, please visit Stay connected with other ReadICT participants on the ReadICT challenge Facebook page. Find out what's trending near you, post book reviews, look for local and virtual events, and share book humor with like-minded folks. To join the group, search #ReadICT challenge on Facebook and click join.

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: You can follow this podcast through the Anchor app or stream episodes on whatever platform you listen to podcasts. If you like what you heard today, be sure to subscribe and share with all your friends.

SARA, VOICEOVER: This has been a production of the Wichita Public Library and a big thanks goes out to our production crew and podcast team.

DANIEL, VOICEOVER: And viewers like you.

Works & Authors Mentioned in This Episode

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