Tag Archives: Well-Educated Mind

Diary of of a Wimpy WEMer

JournalsUnlike my super cute journals (Jeannette’s right, invest in ones you love,) I’m a mess.

I feel like you need to know that before you read this post about my WEM methodology.  Don’t let the doctored photos and wordy explanations fool you.  Those are pitfalls in the dangerous land of internet perfection.  My classics journey takes place in the land of illegible scribbles, rushed chapters, half-written ideas, misspellings and forgotten deadlines.

For instance, I read late at night.  I need the quiet silence.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that it goes against SWB’s recommendation.  But I do try to follow some of her other suggestions.

I keep a character list.

Character List

Although this is an example from back in the day when I took notes about each person.  Prior to that I used to put the page of their first appearance here as well.  Oh, the glory days.

I summarize every chapter, if by “every” you mean the ones at the beginning of the novel thoroughly, the middle ones in sloppy scrawl, and the last two to twelve not at all.  I try to write the factual summary in cursive, and then print out my reactions, questions, analysis, foreshadowing and the like below.

Chapter Summaries

The printed part is the equivalent of talking to myself.

Confused Note

Which I also sometimes do.  By reading aloud, that is.  This is my go-to strategy for dealing with a particularly difficult section of a book or a dreary, weary brain.  And then there are the times that I just turn the whole shebang over to the professionals:  audiobooks.

I also picked up a helpful hint from John Bunyan.  You remember how throughout Pilgrim’s Progress he gave us those clever little side notes told you what was happening?

Pilgrim's Progress Margin Notes

I try to pencil in little things like that if 1) the action is hard to follow 2) I think something pivotal has just occurred, or 3) I have reread the same paragraph four times.

I also jot other notes in the margins next to a plethora of underlined text.  In college wind symphony our conductor once gave a helpful bit of advice that I’ve carried into my classic book marking.  He said that we shouldn’t just circle a note or dynamic marking; doing so wouldn’t help us fix the mistake.  Instead we needed to write something that explains the problem to be addressed; name the note, draw eyeglasses to remind you to watch the director, write the words “slow down.”  Deceivingly simple, astoundingly effective.

Margin Notes

So when I highlight a passage I try to take the time to scribble a few words to myself that explains the significance of the section.

Recently I implemented a new technique in my WEM journaling.  For past novels I’ve simply added pages to the end of each section to answer SWB’s questions.  For the reading of POAL I put those questions in my journal first, and as I came across portions of the book that seemed to specifically address those things I had a preorganized location to drop the page numbers for safe keeping.  It’s hard to tell how well it worked because I did a really lousy, half-baked job of answering the questions on James’ snoozer novel.

Rhetoric Answers

Because we blog about the books I also have an additional note-taking method.  I keep a small piece of lined paper (I’m definitely with Christine about the importance of lines) as a bookmark.  On one side I list words and pages for future Classic Word of the Day posts, and the other I brainstorm ideas for other posts.

Bookmark List

So, now you know what I’ll be up to in about an hour.  Sooner or later I’ll quit cleaning/grading/planning/chilling-with-my-husband, don my pajamas, and crawl into bed.  I’ll crack open the Huck Finn, read a chapter, stop to chat with my beloved about it, journal a little, remember something I should have told him earlier, jot down some more, complain about how he turns over as many times as a puppy when he gets into bed thereby messing up my handwriting, start another chapter, finally decide my eyes will stay open no longer, flip off the reading light and snore away the hours.

See you in the morning.


Posted by on February 19, 2013 in The Blog


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Remember the other day when Christine brought up that odd seed cake from Jane Eyre that showed up again in Uncle Tom’s Cabin?  Well, as appealing as that was, for our wrap-up I decided to try something new, yet thematic.  I found a recipe for Mississippi Mud Cake from a Taste of Kentucky’s website.  Despite the pound of butter, copious pecans, and a healthy share of cocoa, it was, well, uh, let’s just say there’s a reason I didn’t provide the link.

As we choked down our cake for our final wrap-up and answered SWB’s questions some of them seemed to be complete gimmees, for example:

Chronicle or Fable?  Chronicle, HBS only reminds us that she knew of actual situations like the ones she wrote about two or three hundred times.

What do the characters want and what stands in their way?  Uh . . . let’s see . . . this seems a bit like answering “Jesus” to every single Sunday School question, but “Freedom” and “Slavery” seem the obvious responses.  Even if you take the wants some of the white characters and boil them down long enough you get the same answers.  Maybe you could throw in “family” for Tom, but even that is tied up in his freedom.

Point of View?  Omnicient Royal We.  We’ve been over this, but we did add that we think that Harriet uses “we” to make us feel part of a greater community joining the battle against slavery.

Setting?  The deeper south the worse it gets, the farther north, the better.

Style?  Nothin’ fancy to see here folks, just a nice, plain, story designed to get your emotions in motion.

Beginnings and Endings?  See the answer to wants and obstacles and reverse the order.

Do we Sympathize with the characters?  Yup.

What techniques does the author use?  As the seventh of thirteen children, Harriet put on her Middlest Child hat and approached the argument against slavery from every possible angle.  There are stories with happy ending, stories with sad ending, good slave owners, bad slave owners, historical arguments, emotional arguments.  It seems she covered her bases.

Is the novel self-reflective?  We spent a good time talking about what this question even means (If you have great insight please help us out, we talked about it with Ruth and Adriana in the comments over here.  We think for this book the presence of the Word of God is important to the answer, as is the importance of slaves being able to read, and Mrs. Stowe’s appeal to educate the freed slaves as they came north.

Did her time affect her?  Oh yeah, just a little.

Is there an argument?   Undoubtedly

Do we agree?  How could we not.

See what I mean?  We did talk in great depth about some of them, but really, the surface answer was the bulk of our substance.  There were some nice answers to metaphors and images, but those will have to wait until tomorrow.  Today, it’s just the basics.  And they’re pretty basic.

Now, we don’t want you to get the wrong opinion, we loved this novel, and yet we found it difficult to discuss in depth.  We had a similar experience with Jane Eyre.  So we spent some time trying to identify a cause and effect relationship there, but I’m not sure we came up with anything more than dense, dry cakes.  What do you think?  The more we like a book the less we can analyze it?  True or false?  And if true, why?

You chew on that for awhile, you might need a swig or two of lemonade.



Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Uncle Tom's Cabin


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Concerning Chapter Titles

In the WEM‘s section titled “How to Read A Novel,” readers are asked to pay attention to the table of contents of each book.  Susan Wise Bauer explains that it makes a difference whether a novel has chapter titles or not.

Don Quixote has many short chapters; the chapter titles (“The prophesying ape,” “The puppet show,” “The braying adventure,” “Concerning a squire’s wages”) tell you that the story will unfold as a series of separate, brief events.  The chapter titles of The Scarlet Letter (“Hester and the Physician,” “Hester and Pearl,” “The Minister in a Maze”) introduce you to the story’s main characters.  In both cases the chapter titles tell you how to approach the book.  Don Quixote is an episodic adventure; The Scarlet Letter is an examination of character.

My copy of The Scarlet Letter does not have a table of contents, but the chapters do have titles.  Chapter three is called “Recognition.”  Hester stands on the scaffold, holding infant Pearl.  She notices a stranger.  Hawthorne paints a description of the character without revealing his name.  Hester does not need the narrator to name this man she immediately (as the chapter aptly says) recognizes.  It is such as shock to her that she “presses her infant to her bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain.”

The other instance of recognition in this chapter comes toward the end when the man shouts out from the crowd, “Speak; and give you child a father!”  Here, Hawthorne tells us Hester recognized the man’s voice.

Tell me, first-time-readers, who did you suspect this man was when you reached chapter three?


Posted by on March 6, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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Nothing but the Truth!

I’m beginning to think that Jane snuck a look at my WEM book.  Remember the homework that I must complete at the end of each novel?  In the Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading section of the WEM book there are two little question at the very bottom of the page. 

Is this book an accurate portrayal of life? Is it true?”

Now back to Jane…

In chapter 12 she seems to have a thing for truth-telling. She goes so far to use the word “truth” twice in two pages.  The first time she’s discussing Adele.  It seems Adele is making noted progress but that she does not posses “great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste, which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood.”  A few phrases later Jane says it.

“I am merely telling the truth.”

The next section finds Jane describing Grace Poole.  Jane mentions her “eccentric murmurs” and her strange laughter.  Then she goes on to describe how she witnesses how Grace would “go down to the kitchen, and shortly return, generally (oh, romantic reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!) bearing a pot of porter.”

Did you catch it?  “oh, romatinc reader, forgive me for telling the plain truth!”

Jane seems to want us to believe in the accuracy of her descriptions.  Is Jane establishing her trust-worthiness? I think Jane needs us to believe her.  Later will things happen that will make us doubt her?    Hmmmmm

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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Jane’s Turning Point

Remember when I said that part of my “homework” when I finish a novel is to give the book a new title?  The WEM book says that I need to answer two questions before I can rename the story.

1. Who is the central character in this book?
2. What is the book’s most important event?

I am here to proclaim that after reading four chapters of Jane Eyre, I can already answer those two questions.

1.  Jane Eyre  (This one was rather easy!)
2. The moment when Jane stands up to her Aunt Reed in 
    chapter 4.

Do you remember that chapter?  Oh, it’s a good one.  Aunt Reed tells terrible untruths about Jane to Rev. Brocklehurst, the director of the Lowood Institution.  Jane is horrified, and when Brocklehurst leaves, she lets her aunt have it.

… ‘People think you are a good woman, but you are bad, hard-hearted.  You are deceitful!’
     Ere I had finished this reply, my soul began to expand, to exult, with the strangest sense of freedom, of triumph, I ever felt.  It seemed as if an invisible bond had burst, and that I had struggled out into un-hoped-for liberty.

When I finished reading this section, I gleefully wrote in the margins “Turning point!” and drew several stars.

Surely nothing more important than this can happen in the novel.  Right?  

There’s only four hundred more pages to read. 

On second thought maybe I should hold off on crafting a new title until I’ve read a few more chapters.


Posted by on January 26, 2012 in Jane Eyre, Well-Educated Mind


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Renaming Oliver Twist

You’ve finished Oliver Twist?  Great!

But for those of us following the WEM guidelines, we still have an assignment.  Remember when I said that I was required to take notes?  Keep a character list?  Fold down corners?  Look up definitions of words?  All of those things are suggestions by Susan Wise Bauer in her section titled “How to Read a Novel”.  Upon completion of the latest classic, I grab three things: my copy of the novel, my journal, and my copy of WEM.  I then do my best to answer the thoughtful questions Bauer has crafted.  One of the things she asks me to do is to give the novel a new title and subtitle.

“Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main events.” WEM pg. 70

Here’s my attempt at titling Dickens’ sad story:

Oliver Twist: an innocent orphan is abused and manipulated by evil characters and, finally, rescued from his sad life by kind, wealthy people who are related to him.

It’s rather wordy and not very catchy.  But check this out.  According to the WEM synopsis for Oliver Twist, the book “was originally subittled The Parish Boy’s Progress in a satirical play on Bunyan’s title.  Christian is a grown man who can pursue his own destiny, but Oliver Twist is entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers.”

Whoa!  The classic novels are so intertwined!  Remember the Don Quixote references?  And way back when we started Oliver, I felt Dickens was making allusions to  Pilgrim’s Progress .  It makes me wonder what we’ll find in Jane Eyre.

Blog friends, here’s an assignment for you.  I’d love to read your attempts at renaming Oliver Twist in the comments section.


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P&P character web: spiders not included

As a student of the Well-Educated Mind, I am required to keep a list of characters.  Author Susan Wise Bauer suggests that I not only list characters but give a brief description for each one.   I’ve tried a couple different ways of doing this. 

For Don Quixote I listed characters on index cards that I used as a book mark.  This got frustrating since there were so many characters and so few of them ever made a reappearance.  I think by the time I finished the book I had five index cards covered front and back with tiny script.  As an added insult, the cards continually fell out of my book, losing my place.

For Pilgrim’s Progress I used the same format with some of the same frustration.  Few characters return in later chapters.  At least in this book, the characters’ names are their descriptions, so that part was easier.

For Gulliver’s Travels I confess that I neglected to keep a list.  I was so wrapped up with end notes that I completely forgot about it.  Again, it wasn’t that big a deal because once Gulliver left a location, he never came back.

For Pride and Prejudice, the first character-based novel on our list, I planned to do a stupendous job.  SWB suggests when there are lots of related characters, one should make a family tree.  This sounded like a great way to maintain the list (and to gather blog post material!).  Sadly, I do not know anything about family trees, and it took me many chapters to figure out who was related to whom and how.  I abandoned that idea and created a list organized by family in my journal (the one I use for chapter summaries).

I finished the novel.  Still I dreamed of a P&P family tree.  Fortunately there’s google and Wikipedia

It’s not a family tree, but isn’t it beautiful?!  It’s more of a family web.  A family and friends web.

I love how it shows the relationships between the characters. 

Oh, what a tangled novel!  What a web!  Though I suppose it is a web without a spider… 


Unless you think of Lady Catherine as the spider, using her silken threads of wealth and power to compel others to do her bidding…

Maybe there was a spider after all.



Posted by on November 16, 2011 in Pride and Prejudice, Well-Educated Mind


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Tell Me What She Wants, What She Really, Really Wants

In The Well-Educated Mind Susan Wise Bauer lists some general questions to consider for each piece of fiction.  These are the questions we make our way through when we gather together at the end of each novel.  SWB doesn’t answer the questions for each of the 30 pieces of fiction on her list, but she does give some examples pulling from random pieces.

She chose P&P as one of her examples for the following Logic Stage Question:

What does the central character want?  What is standing in his (or her) way?  And what strategy does he (or she) pursue in order to overcome this block?

Before I spill the beans and give SWB’s answer to this question I’d like you to give it some thought.  Here’s the reworded question:

What does Elizabeth Bennet want?  What is standing in her way?

Have you got your answers?  Great – give them to us in the comments. Amy has done a little polling on this subject for me as well, so tomorrow I will combine all the results and post them for discussion.  Then I will tell you what SWB thinks.

I will say this much:  So far, no one has answered the same as our revered guide.


Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Pride and Prejudice, Well-Educated Mind


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Bring and Brag

What?  Did your school call it “Show and Tell”? 

Well, class, look what I have to show you today.  In two quick trips to the library last week, I was able to purchase these beauties off the “Friends of the Library” used book shelf. 

Oh, you don’t go to the library twice a week?  Really?  You should.

I got seven titles from our WEM list for the grand total of $6.87.  Yea!  I think that’s a total that would make Jeannette proud.


Posted by on October 8, 2011 in The Blog, Well-Educated Mind


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Reading with Training Wheels

I have a confession to make.  I’m way behind in Pilgrim’s Progress.  I decided that I “needed” to read my edition’s introduction by Roger Sharrock.  Now WEM frowns upon this in most instances, but I thought I’d be like Bunyan and break the rules.  You see, my historical knowledge is minimal and as for the differences between Puritans and Calvinists, I’m still don’t have that totally straight.  So, I slogged my way through the intro, taking a goodly amount of notes.  I needed those notes because I kept forgetting what I had just read.  This drudgery made me hesitate to jump into the novel.  Frankly, I’m a little tired of concentrating so much while I read.  What happened to mindless summer reading?  My brain is still recovering from DQ

Here comes the training wheels part… Look what my edition has…

See those little notes in the margin?  Those are summary side notes!  Explanations!  a few words to clarify what is happening in the plot!  Oh, 1987 Penguin Classics, I am loving you!  Suddenly I’m flying through the text.  I might actually catch up to my reading partners. 

Thanks to my side notes, I’m not falling down quite so often when I read.


Posted by on July 15, 2011 in Pilgrim's Progress


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