Annenberg Radio

Office Hours with Professor Amy Cannon

Julia Lin talks to Professor Cannon about the power of reading (and the best spot to read on campus).

In episode three, Julia Lin speaks with Dornsife Thematic Option Professor Amy Cannon about the magic of audiobooks, reading and self-reflection.

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In a time where things like trying to get your parents a vaccine and it’s like, I feel so motivated to protect the people I’m close to but is there someone needier who I should be waiting to serve instead? I think we’re in a time where these kinds of questions are really pressing.

Welcome back to Office Hours, that was Dornsife Thematic Option professor Amy Cannon on some of the questions that have been on her mind recently. Today, I’m talking to her about how reading has helped her approach some of those things. Come join us.

So, the basic outline that I have is sort of just three main questions and we’ll just kind of try to hit them along the way and in between we’ll have a conversation about books and what they mean to us, especially right now. So, the first question is pretty basic and it’s what book or books are you reading right now?

Definitely could talk about what I’m reading all day long. I came prepared. I actually wrote down a list and it surprised me how many books I’m in the middle of. “The Age of Phillis” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is wonderful. My background is in poetry, I have a special love for that. So she’s a contemporary poet who revisited and in really important ways reimagined the life of the poet we tend to know as Phillis Wheatley. I also, in this season, have really appreciated audiobooks, in particular, being able to be out and about in my yard, doing yard work, getting some vitamin D, getting that sun and also be immersed in something.

On this list you sent, I see you’re reading something called “Collective Trauma, Collective Healing.” That sounds like something very of this moment and I would love if you could elaborate on what you were saying about how non fiction can be helpful right now.

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling this way, that the pandemic has had different eras and stages for me by now. But it was pretty early in the pandemic shutdown that I saw a recommendation for this in an interview with Esther Perel who is a wonderful psychotherapist. It’s a bit more of a case study of a variety of different communities that have gone through trauma throughout history. I think sometimes when you’re undergoing a trauma, you don’t necessarily want to focus on that. There is a real focus on how communities heal in particular, and how important things like rituals and traditions are. And how important it is to recognize that each community is so unique and often has the best understanding about how to communicate care to one another. The findings over and over is that it’s best to learn from the communities themselves about the kind of support structures and networks that are going to be most healing for those who have experienced trauma together.

You mentioned healing and trauma and for a lot of us, reading has been a kind of therapy or way of processing what we’ve been going through recently, and even before the pandemic started. Have there been books for you that have impacted and change your life?

As someone who is a creative writer as well, often the books that feel like they’re rearranging my interior or, as Emily Dickinson talked about, poetry can make you feel like the top of your head has been taken off. For me, it’s often when I’m just so taken up in the writing. Annie Dillard is one of those writers for me. A real innovator of what we call now creative nonfiction and also a woman nature writer at a time when that was not a common identity overlap. As I sit here looking at my pile, Toni Morrison as well. Again, everything she’s ever written. Her novel, “Paradise,” which kind of examines a couple of different communities who are attempting a sort of utopian existence, maybe, to try and escape from the oppression of the wider world and the way in which being human tends to replicate those oppressions. She also has a short essay called “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination” I think is what that’s called and that’s very powerful writing about writing and writing about reading and particularly being in the U.S. and reading and writing in the legacy of anglophone literature. Reading is, in the whole arc of human history, a relatively recent skill. The kind of reading most of us have to do all day with emails flying in to distract us, with an ever-refreshing Twitter feed. It just feels like everything about the day-to-day literacy that we’re asked to practice fosters distraction. And when you think about the current attention economy, the idea that, not only are we being sold ads but we ourselves are being marketed as attention, for myself, being on this bridge generation of having a childhood that was shaped before the internet was predominant and accessibility via smartphone was as instantaneous, I really feel the capacity for extended, uninterrupted attention for immersive experience, and for honestly the experience of flow, the idea of being in this kind of state that I think is one of the most joyous and meditative we have as human beings, is something that can be accessed through immersive, uninterrupted reading. Your attention is worthwhile. You actually deserve some uninterrupted space where you’re not being pulled out from a million directions is a gift.

Professor Cannon sees reading as a gift, and she also left us with a little gift: the inside scoop on the best place to read on campus.

I definitely do have to shout out, especially for students who may not have spent a lot of time on campus yet, the Philosophy Library. There are a lot of little nooks and crannies that you can sit and read in, so it really does put you in a peaceful mindset amid a lot of books to want to read a book.

That was professor Amy Cannon on processing the pandemic, the value of audio books, and - you heard it here first - the best place to read on campus. Professor Cannon, thank you for joining me and thank you all for listening. This is Office Hours. I’ll see you next time.


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Phillis.