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Vol. LXIV, No. 38
 
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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Sarah Hirschman to Speak at Public Library On the Pleasures of Reading and Connecting

Ellen Gilbert

“If you ask people who’ve just read a story, ‘well, how did you like it?’ you’ll just get inanities,” said People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos founder Sarah Hirschman in a recent interview.

Ms. Hirschman, who will be discussing the program at the Princeton Public library on Thursday, September 30, at 7:30 p.m., speaks from experience. Working solo, she began the literature-based discussions in 1973. With numerous awards — including a recent NEH grant — to its credit, People and Stories/Gente y Cuentos now reaches dozens of groups and has a book that documents its history and training style.

“Coordinators have to work very carefully on a story,” said Ms. Hirschman. “They have to notice the important knots and moments” from which to “build questions.” Rather than asking about one’s general reaction to a story by Hemingway, Joyce, Garcia Marquez, or Rolfo, for example, a coordinator will ask something along the lines of “what does it mean when the mother says that everything she eats tastes like blood?”

“People may not understand a whole story, but they will understand what it means to be eating food that tastes like blood,” said Ms. Hirschman. “They use their own lives as a frame of reference.”

“I didn’t want to talk with academics,” recalled Ms. Hirschman as she described the origins of her groundbreaking reading and discussion program. Instead, she said, she asked “the man standing next to the priest,” the “sweeper in a church in Trenton,” and other people “who never had a chance to talk” to join her early groups. “I recruited in churches, parking lots, and public housing,” she recalled. That spirit of working with “everyday people” still infuses the program as it reaches prison populations, people in rehab facilities, and youths at risk, as well as ordinary communities.

“You start from the premise that people have lived complicated lives and they’re wise and interesting in their own way, even if they haven’t been to traditional schools,” said the Lithuanian-born polymath who was raised in Paris and now lives in Princeton with her husband, political economist Albert O. Hirschman. Although her own background is rich in university based studies and extensive reading of classical literature, she clearly doesn’t see that as a pre-requisite to nurturing a love of reading. “People get involved and they say most the extraordinary things,” she observed.

“They’re proud to hear their voices commenting on high literature,” she continued. “They may not have gone to school, but here they are participating.” For the program participants (“we don’t call them students”) who don’t know to read or have had only a couple of years of school, “we have a way to educate them at their own level through these stories,” rather than “demean” them by reverting to primary school lessons, she said.

In between Paris (“my favorite city”) and Princeton, Ms. Hirschman has moved 22 times across several continents, a consequence, she said, of having “a very adventurous husband.” When people say that they’re upset about having to fix up a new house, she added, “I take it with a grain of salt.”

Ms. Hirschman’s new book People and Stories/Gente Y Cuentos describes what she refers to as “our method.” A Spanish-language edition is also planned for the volume which is subtitled, “Who owns literature? Communities Find Their Voice Through Short Stories.” A website, www.peopleandstories.org, also describes the program.

“Sarah Hirschman´s book does two important things,” said Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, the Princeton University professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures who will introduce her at the library program. “It tells the story of a significant contribution to a more enabling and democratic collective experience with literature. And it also offers great insights into specific texts in English and Spanish and the role played by the reader in making them come alive.”

Success, outside funding, and the inclusion of additional trainer-coordinators has meant that Ms. Hirschman has to deal with writing formal evaluations of the program — not an easy task. “The humanities are very hard to evaluate,” she observed Ever the innovator, she used a report she had read on feelings of “well-being” as a taking-off point for beginning a paper on what makes the program work. “I found out for myself what happens to me when I read,” she reported. “Different people have different experiences; can I figure out what happens to them?” With the help of others, she believes she is on her way to articulating the process for a paper on evaluation.

Reporting that she has already identified three potentially useful ideas about the kinds of “well being” that reading elicits, Ms. Hirschman said that she looks forward to describing them in her talk at the library on September 30.

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