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School reading: Karen Joy Fowler on 'The Hobbit'

November 5, 2010 | 10:20 am

Karenjoyfowler Author Karen Joy Fowler Fowler is known for her bestselling novel "The Jane Austen Book Club," but she's also an award-winning science-fiction writer. Her new short-story collection, "What I Didn't See and other stories," published by the independent Small Beer Press, includes both historical and fantastical elements -- a one-winged man, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth's brother -- and is described by Publishers Weekly as "genre-busting" and "thought-provoking." Fowler will be at Vroman's on Friday at 7 p.m. to read and discuss "What I Didn't See."

Jacket Copy: What was the most or least interesting book that you were assigned in school?
Karen Joy Fowler: I have always been a generous and enthusiastic reader. I can honestly say that not a single book in the whole of my education ever bored me, though I found Chaucer (junior year of high school) quite difficult. I'm still in touch with a handful of people from my English class (we were tracked so the class was the same people every year). From time to time, we argue and re-argue various book choices -- clearly, we were asked to read a number of classics we were too young and dumb to appreciate, and I seem to be in the minority in thinking that was still a good thing.

But if I'm made to pick one transcendent reading experience, then it was listening to Miss Sarzin as, if we'd been very very good, she read the next chapter of "The Hobbit" aloud to us. 
JC: What grade/class were you in, and what was the name of your school? 

KJF: I was at Addison Elementary in Palo Alto, Calif.  Sixth grade.
JC: Did you read the book?

KJF: I listened to it. I lived in it. I read it over for myself the minute Miss Sarzin finished.
JC: What did you learn from it? Why does it stand out?

KJF: I learned how to comport myself among trolls, elves, hobbits or goblins. I learned that a friend can be lost to greed and avarice. I learned that solving riddles may be as important a survival skill as bowmanship. I know how to talk to a dragon and that it's best not to.

Added to the pleasures of the book itself was the shared experience -- a whole class full of kids simultaneously transported to Middle Earth. We were all hobbits then. It was like a fever.
JC: Did you have to take a test on it, or write a paper? Do you remember what grade you got?

KJF: We did not take a test nor write a paper. We made hobbits by wrapping light bulbs in papier-mache and then painting and dressing them. I made a very creditable hobbit in a tux and top hat.
JC: Which teacher assigned it? Did he/she assign lots of good (or bad) reading?

KJF: Miss Sarzin was the best teacher I ever had.
JC: If you were teaching a similar class today, what book would you assign your students?

KJF: Kids today are more imperiled by advertising than by goblins. I'd assign "Feed" by M.T. Anderson.

-- Carolyn Kellogg