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Student creates a community through e-mail and books

May 29, 2001

Although Tahneer Oksman graduated this month with her University of Pennsylvania classmates, she still has tons of homework.

No need to sympathize - she brought it on herself. Freed of required readings, Oksman, who was an English major, went looking for a list of promising tomes to read this summer.

It began, as many things do these days, with an e-mail message.

On a recent Friday, Oksman sent a message out to the "hub" - a 90-member, volunteer group of Penn students and faculty who decide programming at Kelly Writers House, a campus hangout for students interested in poetry and prose.

Within days, she had accumulated a list of 163 suggestions from 24 people that covered five pages.

The group had, in effect, created its own best-seller list.

"It's as if we each went into our mental attics and said, 'Here are my personal treasures,' " Kerry Sherin, the Writers House director, said.

The list's eclectic selections, and the personal stories behind them, reflect how an old technology - the book - still links readers powerfully to important moments in their lives, and how a new technology - e-mail - can powerfully link groups of people into niche communities.

The first response to Oksman's e-mail message arrived two hours later, from Alan Filreis, English professor and Writers House faculty director. His message, which went to all members on the hub distribution list tersely cited two works: William Carlos Williams' Spring and All, and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita.

Soon, however, the messages grew more elaborate, with commentary on the books, and commentary on the commentary, and commentary on the literary share-fest Oksman had sparked.

Penn alum Holly Johnson proposed Homer's Iliad, which she waited until after graduation to read, "then gobbled up in one sweaty sitting . . . They spear people in the eyeball!"

Carolyn Jacobson, a doctoral candidate at Penn, explained her pick, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany: "The anticipation of this book got me through my last week of college. I kept it next to my computer and kept sneaking peeks as I wrote and wrote my final papers."

Jacobson noted that the e-mail anecdotes reminded her of the first time she read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in a freshman college course at the University of Iowa. She said the faculty member who taught the class "read to us a lot, in this great raspy Southern voice, and I think I became an English major because of the way he read the scene in One Hundred Years of Solitude where the trickle of blood flows all over town."

When Oksman provided her own suggestions, she included Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. That generated a whole subplot to the e-mail messages.

"Wow - I thought I'd never see or hear of that book again," student Julia Blank wrote. "When I was younger it was my arch-nemesis. Did anyone have one book that your parents just insist that you read, but that you despised?"

"I always just refused to read anything my parents insisted on," replied student Allie D'Augustine, "but what I remember most is Dickens. I decided, without having read any, that Dickens was awful."

"Ugh - yeah," Blank wrote back. "My mother's [pick] was David Copperfield. After 50 pages describing the room he saw as he exited his mother's womb, I couldn't take it anymore."

Within days, Oksman had a book list that would last her long past the summer.

"On the one hand, it's all over the map," Filreis said. "On the other, it shows that the Writers House community is interested in young or experimental writers - not just the obvious canon. These are adventurous readers."

"This is a crazy list - they're books from our own personal left fields," Jacobson said. "These are the books I'd never put in storage."

The list is at

The exercise got the hubbers thinking about works they consider old friends - books that helped them through troubled times or that led to some major self-discovery.

"When it comes to books, personal favorites are like blankets," said Jo Gruziak, a hubber who just graduated. She offered Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, because she has returned to the story when facing struggles.

Student Hannah Sassaman picked books suited to summer reading, set in Los Angeles. "L.A. to me is the land of eternal summer - and death," Sassaman said. That's why Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust made her list. "It's my favorite dark, depressing book about Hollywood," she said.

Sassaman also included Mother Courage, a play by Berthold Brecht. Originally an engineering major, she switched to theater after taking a course that introduced her to Brecht.

An unrestrained Peter Schwarz provided 38 list entries, some of which evoke important points in his life.

Schwarz, 28, just finished his freshman year at Penn. He included James Joyce's Ulysses, which he read in a hotel room in Italy, at age 19, when his pockets were so empty his stomach growled from hunger. "The many references to food in the book drove me crazy," he said.

And what exactly was Oksman going to do with all these suggestions? Start with Grace Paley's short stories - because several friends whose opinion she values recommended Paley.

Yes, and?

She'll get Williams' Spring and All, and Robert Creeley's Collected Poems, Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry, and Julian Barnes' England, England "because it was mentioned by a friend who reads more than anyone I know and whose taste in books I admire."

But the book-purchasing would have to take place in an airport - Oksman jetted off last week to Israel for her sister's wedding, then was bound for San Francisco to visit a friend.

"Of course," Oksman said, "the book list will have to come with me."


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