Sharing The Big Read with Students

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This blog post was originally posted on May 28, 2020.

Maybe you remember the first Big Read from 2012: Moby Dick, 135 chapters in 135 days, a radio extravaganza dreamed up by Philip Hoare and Angela Cockayne; read by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, Mary Oliver, and many others; and illustrated during the streaming by contemporary artists who created images for each chapter. (It’s still available online here.) Years ago, I read Moby once every year, so the chance to hear it read, brilliantly, over a span of months was an unforgettable experience.

Well, it’s now 2020 and Hoare and Cockayne are at it again, this time delivering Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which Hoare, in an article for The Guardian, calls “a founding fable for our time.” In Coleridge’s nightmare, he says,

The slain albatross hangs around the fated sailor’s neck like a broken cross, an emblem of his sin against nature. It is all too relevant today, as a statement of isolation and despair: “Alone, alone, all, all alone, / Alone on a wide, wide sea!"

The poem presents a story within a story, as a wedding guest approaches the church where a wedding will take place but is held back from entering by an ancient man whose skinny hand seizes him and demands that he hear his story. The wedding guest succumbs, takes a seat on a stone, and the long, sad, harrowing story begins.

Hoare says that this project, hosted by the University of Plymouth’s Art Institute as a free-access digital event, has been in the works for over three years and that he and his collaborators could not have imagined that they would complete this project in the midst of a world-wide pandemic. But they have, and listening to this poem from 1798 seems not just right at this particular moment but perfectly right.

I’ve listened to the first three (of forty) parts, mesmerized by the reading of Jeremy Irons, Jeannette Winterson, and Hilary Mantel. Still to come are Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, Willem Dafoe, and a great, great, great, great, great nephew of the poet himself.

As I’ve been listening and revisiting this true horror story/poem, I’ve also done a bit of writing: what is a story that I badly need to sit still and listen to, even if it comes from someone I don’t know or don’t like? What crimes against nature have I committed—ones I wish I could undo? What is the albatross that I can’t seem to rid myself of? And why? What loneliness do I find deep inside and where does it come from? Am I surrounded by metaphorical water and yet “not a drop to drink”? And who is the Mariner today who is telling us his story, over and over again?

These are questions that seem particularly relevant today as we struggle against the coronavirus and as we seek to be together while staying apart. I would guess that not many of our students have read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” or know its story. Perhaps this is another online resource we can provide to students during these strange times and they might listen to the poem as it comes to life in these free online readings. They can analyze the techniques each narrator uses when reading the poem, or perhaps they might write about the questions the poem raises for them. Perhaps some might write their own poems, tell their own stories, and share them with you.

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 384385 by Hans, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.