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A community read of ‘Les Miserables’ drives a thread of ICBF programming


'Les Misérables' film (France, 1958) and Talkback with Anna Barker and Ben Delgado

FilmScene -- Chauncey, Iowa City, Monday, Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m., $12

Anna Barker: Teaching classics on Facebook, 'Les Misérables' at 160

Iowa City Public Library -- Meeting Room A, Friday, Oct. 7 at 4 p.m., Free

'Les Mis' in Concert

Riverside Theatre, Iowa City, Sunday, Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Free (ticket required)


Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, which depicts the July Revolution of 1830. The image is used as the header for Anna Barker’s Facebook group “100 Days of Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables'”

Anna Barker hadn’t even made it into her chair in the patio seating area of the downtown Java House for our interview before she posed a question. “Thirteen hundred pages in 92 days? Who does that?”

The answer, of course, is that she does — and so do her hundreds of reading companions. The 1,300 pages in question at the time made up Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the then-current book in an ongoing series Barker has been hosting on Facebook since the beginning of the public health emergency in March 2020.

Barker, an adjunct assistant professor who has taught in a number of literature related areas at the University of Iowa, had been scheduled to visit her parents in Budapest with her daughter when the pandemic shut everything down. With the trip canceled, she pitched an idea to John Kenyon, director of the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization: What if she took to Facebook and Twitter to lead a community reading of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a 14th century book of stories narrated by characters who are waiting out an epidemic?

With Kenyon’s encouragement, Barker got to work. But she had one significant obstacle to overcome.

“I didn’t have a social media presence. I just had absolutely nothing,” she said. “So that was a learning curve for me that had to be done very quickly.”

It would soon become apparent that Twitter was not going to accommodate the detailed and exuberant posts that would become Barker’s hallmark style on social media (“The three exclamation points that are all over my posts stand in for my hands,” she said, waving her hands in the air to demonstrate her kinetic live lecture style). Facebook would have to do.

Screenshot from the 1958 film ‘Les Miserables,’ screening at FilmScene on Oct. 3.

The Decameron, which highlights themes of resilience and flawed humanity, struck Barker as “the perfect book for a pandemic.” But as she came to the end of the book, neither the pandemic nor her readers’ desire to connect via literature had waned.

“I realized I got myself into a mess,” she said with a laugh.

Her next pick was John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “We were losing a paradise in many ways,” she said. “Life will not go back to what it was.”

Milton’s famed poem about the fall from grace of both man and Satan explores “what it means to be a human being—the good, the bad, the ugly and the transcendent.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh (“No wiser book has been written about death,” Barker said) followed, and then she and her readers turned their attention to Russian literature. Her guided read-throughs of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov attracted huge followings.

“That reading,” Barker said, speaking of War and Peace, “really went viral. We had over 1,000 readers from around the country and around the world.”

The Brothers Karamazov attracted similar numbers and, between the two novels, Barker posted 250 times and wrote over 200,000 words (and included an awe-inspiring number of exclamation points along the way). Barker sensed a fair amount of pressure from her reading community to tackle Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina next. She, however, had other plans.

“I decided not to engage with Russian literature for a year,” she explained. “Instead, I wanted to do two books that really ignited my literature loving heart in my teens.”

Those books are Stendhal’s The Red and the Black and Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. They have become part of a series of French literature which started with Balzac’s Colonel Chabert followed by The Red and the Black and The Count of Monte Cristo.

Currently, Barker is guiding a Facebook group of 455 through Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (to be followed by Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary). Things kicked off Sept. 1 and are expected to wrap Dec. 22. The Iowa City Book Festival, which began Sept. 28 and will run through Oct. 13, is centering several events around the book and this project, including a presentation by Barker on her Facebook teaching experiences.

Screenshot from the 1958 film ‘Les Miserables,’ screening at FilmScene on Oct. 3.

This journey through French literature by “writers who wrote in the aftermath of Napoleon’s fall from grace” is, it turns out, leading back to where Barker’s readers have urged her to go.

“Tolstoy considered Anna Karenina to be his first European novel,” she explained. So this deep dive into European literature has a larger purpose. “I’m using it as a stepping story to Anna Karenina.” That shared reading adventure is on Barker’s schedule for the spring of 2023.

In the meantime, Barker invites readers to jump into the current reading or to read any or all of the previous books in her series. All of the posts and discussions can be found on Facebook — which has turned out to be the perfect medium for her enthusiasms.

“I found my way of communicating my love of literature outside of the academy,” Barker said.

Readers in the City of Literature and well beyond are fortunate that she did.


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