By February 10, 2009 0 Comments Read More →

A River of Story

Eleven readers gathered at The Kansas City Public Library‘s Central Library on Sunday, February 8 for the KCPL/Kansas City Star co-sponsored book group to discuss Mark Twain’s classic travelogue, Life on the Mississippi and share comments and perceptions as varied as their reading experiences.

Most of the participants had not read Twain’s memoir of his steamboat adventures. Scott said he “begged to read this book and join the discussion” as he hadn’t read the book since his teen years. Curtis wanted to see how the book stood up over time and memory.

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

This comment got the conversational ball rolling immediately. Stephanie was impressed with Twain’s knowledge of history and “felt Twain was as much a historian as a novelist.” Jim felt that “Twain was a social critic and not a moralist. He wrote for the common reader and “if Twain were a moralist, he’d have led a more moral life.” Others drew attention to Twain’s bitter sarcasm, cynicism and “dark side.”

Pat brought up a recent trend in publishing by asking the group if they felt they could believe everything Twain says about the river and his experiences since he’d exaggerated everything else. Jim pointed out a few geographical inconsistencies and the readers all agreed that Twain must have been tweaking certain details to make the stories better. This led to a short discussion of memoirs, perceptions, and readers, with Scott noting that Twain was the “quintessential American author for not only creating a unique writing style that is so easily identifiable as ‘American,’ but also inventing himself. This is a memoir of invented stories and embellished memories told not by the person who experienced it, but the person who invented the person telling the story.” Jim wondered aloud if Twain engaged in so much embellishment because he was “the original stand-up comedian. Wouldn’t Twain exaggerate for the sake of entertainment?”

Elizabeth turned focused on the great storytelling tradition in Life on the Mississippi. “Every profession uses stories to train new people–doctors and medical students, river boat pilots and ‘cubs’.” The group then pondered the use of storytelling in families and communities to pass on values, education, and social history. They concluded that while people may not be engaging in reading as much as they had one hundred years ago, people were still engaging in storytelling as a viable way to interact with others. A reader took this opportunity to compare Life on the Mississippi to The Arabian Nights.

Conversation concluded with some comments on Twain’s adventurous and restless spirit and his experiences with bankruptcy, inventions, and the technology of the time.

Life on the Mississippi is a quick read and a great discussion title for adults and teens. There’s history, humor, tall tales, and tragedy in this short river travelogue. A good choice for groups hoping to attract a few male readers to the discussion.

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About the Author:

Kaite Mediatore Stover refuses to give up her day job as director of readers' services for The Kansas City Public Library to read tarot cards professionally or be the merch girl/roadie for her husband's numerous bands. Follow her on Twitter at @MarianLiberryan.

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