Reading to Live

WHY IS IT that so many of us cannot think of life without books? That is precisely the question that French professor Olivier Delers and his students are aiming to answer in their Sophomore Scholars in Residence (SSIR) class “Reading to Live.” Whether their passions lie in fantasy, non-fiction, or mysteries, one thing unites all 16 of the class’ students – a true love of reading. Together, this class has embarked on a journey around the world through novels in order to explore the meaning of literature and the human experience of reading well instead of simply reading a lot.

“Reading to Live,” currently in its inaugural year, was started by Delers, a professor who is described by his students as highly effective and laid back, with the intention of giving students the opportunity to not only read a novel but also to experience it. “I thought the SSIR would be a good way of recruiting interested students and giving them the opportunity to experience knowledge differently, and for me to experience things with them,” Delers said. In order to make this a reality, Delers hopes to teach his students to value reading well over reading a lot. When asked what it is to read well, the professor responded, “Slow[ing] down to spend some time with those novels and with those characters and really get into the text.” The result of this is a deeper understanding of literature and ultimately a richer and more valuable experience.

Like all SSIR programs, “Reading to Live” features a travel component to enhance the learning experience. The group took two trips, one to Tucson, Arizona, and the other to New York City. The Tucson trip was designed as a three-day, pre-semester reading retreat at a small ranch in the desert. According to Delers, “The goal during our trip was to really get to know each other and to read books together in a beautiful place.” The students found this trip to be a good way to get to know the other people they would be living and learning with over the next year. One member of the class, Abby Sanchez, found the retreat especially rewarding. “Because we went before the semester started, a lot of us didn’t know each other,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to get to know them before our class together. It was a nice way to make friends with people you might not have hung out with otherwise.”

Upon their return to campus, the students began their course with full force. Delers began the year by having the students facilitate their own discussion while he stood by, simply observing and taking notes. The result was a rich, organic conversation about the meaning behind the literature they had read in Tucson. The class does not meet frequently enough to allow for such discussions every week, but they are indicative of the spirit of the course in that they allow the students to share their reading experiences with each other and to learn from one another in the process.

“People have these diverse interests and somehow everyone in the class cares as much as I do,” Sanchez said with a sense of wonder in her voice. “It’s like finding out that you have a common background with these people you’ve never met before because they’ve read the same things you’ve read. It’s such a great feeling.”

By the time that friendships had begun to form in the class, the students had their second opportunity to travel by going to New York City over fall break. The group went to New York “in order to look at reading a book from a different perspective and as an object by being surrounded by beautiful and rare works of literature,” Delers said. The students went to the Morgan Library, which houses the private library of J.P. Morgan. Sanchez remarked that she was most impressed by the library’s possession of three of the world’s 48 Gutenberg Bibles and its first editions of the works of William Shakespeare.

The students then visited the Argosy Book Store, New York City’s oldest independent bookstore, in order to see rare pieces of writing, including George Washington’s letters, Dr. Seuss’ autograph, and Marilyn Monroe’s signature, all of which are for sale. The group was able to speak with one of the owners of the store and to shop around the immense collection of one-of-a-kind pieces. “I really enjoyed the bookstore because it was more personal and we could touch and see things,” said Sharon Lee, another student in the class. “I was able to buy a beautiful copy of the Book of Psalms.”

Lastly, the class met with the curator of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library who showed them even more rare works of literature. Though they had the opportunity to experience the rest of New York City, including a Broadway show, the students say that they were most moved by the gravity of the pieces they had seen and the impact such works had on them.

In the coming semester, the students in “Reading to Live” will undertake an exciting and meaningful project to fulfill the SSIR community involvement aspect. The class will split off into four different groups and spend a week helping others in the community share in the experience of reading. Three of the groups will go to public schools in the Richmond area (one elementary, one middle, and one high school) in order to help teach students how to read or to become better readers. Sanchez said she was looking forward to her experience working with middle school students. “Middle school is where I learned to really love reading, and I can think of nothing better to give back to the community than that same love of reading,” she said.

The remaining group will go to The Hermitage, a local senior center, to read with the people living there. Lee said she is planning on working there: “I want to read with them and talk about their lives and experiences to learn from them.” In addition to the fulfilling nature of these projects, Delers believes “both show the students the importance of reading in life beyond reading for a class, and that it is a skill we often take for granted and should share.”

The Sophomore Scholars in Residence program has offered students incredible opportunities to experience the world differently with a new group of friends, and Delers has successfully enriched that experience with “Reading to Live.” His students have nothing but wonderful things to say regarding his class. “It’s a lot of work, but I really love it so far!” Lee said.

As far as anyone involved is concerned, Olivier Delers’ course, “Reading to Live,” truly embodies the essence of the Sophomore Scholars in Residence program and is continuing to enrich the lives of Richmond students every day.

Contact Assistant Lead Writer Dylan McAuley at dylan.mcauley@richmond.edu.

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