Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What I'm Reading Now: Soldier's Heart

Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth D. Samet

The author has been an English professor at West Point for over a decade. So far, I'm absolutely loving it.


"What does it mean for a student to spend the morning reading Milton's Paradise Lost and the afternoon jumping out of an airplane? To spend a summer in the field learning how to defuse an IED and a winter writing about the poetry of Anne Sexton? To read T.E. Lawrence's account of his operations in Mesopotamia in Seven Pillars of Wisdom as a firstie in a British literature elective and to be deployed to Iraq the following year? Sometimes the sheer variety of their experiences causes cadets to become confused about what it is they are supposed to be. One asked me whether West Point wanted him to be a soldier or a scholar. If it wanted him to be both, he added, the days needed to be much longer."

But try to be soldiers and scholars, they do, and Samet chronicles it all with a clarity I admire. I've laughed out loud, and gotten teary, and am constantly surprised by all the literary connections she weaves into her narrative. For example, did you know that during WWII, cargo pocket sized books called Armed Services Editions were distributed by the thousands to servicemen overseas? And even some regular paperbacks were issued with the following message stamped inside:

"BOOKS ARE WEAPONS. In a free democracy, everyone may read what he likes. Books educate, inform, inspire; they also provide entertainment, bolster morale. This book has been manufactured in conformity to wartime restrictions---read it and pass it on. Our armed forces especially need books. "

And now, today, a non-profit company is re-issuing other books in the cargo pocket sized editions, including---get this connection--- a translation of Arabian Nights by Printz Award winner, Geraldine McCaughrean, who made me scream when her book, The White Darkness, won earlier this year.

Samet's students get up on desks to recite Tennyson's Ulysses. They take Rumi with them to Afghanistan, where they discuss the poet with Afghan colonels. And when she suggests to a class of plebes that "the shape of a particular poem reminded (her) of the formations and cadences of military life: of marching and drilling on the parade field..." they respond that she's been "ruined." Or as she puts it: ""They've got you, ma'am," said one in mock horror."

One other note. Last Friday, I blogged about the poetry of Robert Graves. Who does Samet mention on page 11 of Soldier's Heart? WWI veteran Robert Graves. I can't wait to see what other connections I discover.

Signs like these make me feel I'm reading the right book at the right time.

1 comment:

  1. My librarian self loves that "BOOKS ARE WEAPONS" stamp. I need to get a stamp like that.


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