Take a trip with Geoff Hilsabeck through "Educated: A Memoir," by Tara Westover, West Virginia University's 2019-2020 Campus Read book. Join Geoff as he talks about the themes of "Educated," and discusses key points with colleagues and experts.

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at West Virginia University and the Community Outreach Fellow at the WVU Humanities Center. He is the author of Riddles, Etc. (The Song CCave, 2017). His poems and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The Believer, Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.

Transcript of the podcast:

Hello, and welcome to the first episode of this brand-new podcast, which I'm calling WVU Reads. Not very creative, I know. And if you can think of a better title for it, please do let me know. My name's Geoff Hilsabeck. I teach in the English department and I work in the WVU Humanities Center.

So, what's this podcast all about? At the center of the show is this year's Campus Read, the fascinating and troubling and rich and beautifully written memoir, “Educated,” by Tara Westover. “Educated” was named best book of the year by the American Booksellers Association. It was chosen as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times. In it, the author Tara Westover tells her story of growing up in the mountains of Idaho in a family of Mormon survivalists. Instead of going to school, Westover stews herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and she salvaged scrap metal in her father's junkyard. She has no birth certificate, no medical history. Since she was forbidden to ever see a doctor or visit a hospital. She grows up in an environment of fierce loyalty and tough love, but also physical and emotional abuse, paranoia, mental illness.

Remarkably, she teaches herself enough math and reading to get a good score on the act, and she enrolls at Brigham Young University. There, she learns about things like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement for the first time. She struggles to find her feet, but their hard work and the support of mentors and friends. She earns a prestigious Gates Cambridge Fellowship, which takes her to the University of Cambridge in England where she earns a master's degree and a phd in history.

The book raises a lot of questions and it gives us a lot to talk about and so on. The podcast to help us think through the many questions the book raises. I've invited a dozen different experts from around campus to come in and talk with me. My hope is that these conversations will be helpful to you. Are you a student struggling like Westover with depression and anxiety? Then you'll want to tune into my conversation with Jessica Johnston York and Brian Quigley from the Cruz Center. Are you an instructor trying to figure out how to incorporate educated into your course? Well, find a few episodes on subjects that you think will speak to your students. Maybe my conversation with the anus or bone, a midwife at Ruby hospital or with Dr Lupo Davidson, the new Woodburn professor of women and Gender Studies, and assign them along with some passages from the book or maybe you're an alumnus and you miss the cultural and intellectual life of campus. Then you might enjoy my conversation with Bob Bridges, the curator of the WVU Art Museum. Over the course of the semester, I'll cover everything from mountains to horses to the history of feminism. We'll talk about what it's like to be a first-generation college student, the problems and possibilities of memoir as a genre and the book as an object with professors, psychologist, curators, publishers, and practitioners of all kinds.

Before I bring anyone into the studio though, I want to talk a little bit about why I'm doing this podcast. Why talk about books at all? After all, reading books, especially novels and memoirs like “Educated,” is a private act wonderfully so. In fact, I think that's one of the best things about reading the privacy. It affords us the sense that we've left the world, stepped outside of our lives for a while. For most of us, books have played an essential role in making us who we are. They've helped us discover what matters to us. Certainly, that was the case for Tara Westover, and I hope, listener, that you will continue to let books do this work by attending closely to them, but this podcast is not about the private lives of readers.

It's about public life. This podcast and the Campus Read more generally is premised on the idea that books have an important role to play in constructing not just our private selves, but the public sphere as well, where we live in community with others and build our shared future. They do that work by inviting conversation among friends of course, but also between strangers. To quote the political theorist, Danielle Allen, James Bryan Conant, professor at Harvard and director of its center for ethics, “Democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers.”

So, for 15 minutes every Friday we'll engage in that kind of talk as we explore “Educated,” Tara Westover’s fascinating account of her journey from rural Idaho to the University of Cambridge. It's a journey both triumphant and not with its gains. Knowledge, security, independence come very real costs. Westover is a estranged for most of her family by the end of the book. And it's hard to see how she'll ever return to her beloved Buck's Peak. She's left home for better and for worse. I think of James Baldwin who said, “you don't have a home until you leave it, and then when you have left it, you never can go back.” Such as the journey we all undergo. Granted, most of us in far less dramatic fashion than Tara Westover. As we make our way in the world, weathering the many changes, the shape our lives.

So here we are, each of us embarked upon our own education, talking, reading, building a shared future. All of us. To quote Danielle Allen, again, “Awash in each other's lives, and for most of us that shared life records it as history will be the only artifact we leave behind.”

Let's end on that. Next week, and now I'm realizing I got so worked up about the private and public lives of books that I forgot to tell you the schedule for this podcast. We'll be putting out a new episode every Friday, available wherever you like to get your podcasts. Next week, Marian Holmes, the director of Adventure West Virginia, will be in the studio to help us think about mountains. Some of the loveliest passages and educated are devoted to the beloved mountains that Tara Westover grew up on and among. We'll talk about what it means to live in and with them, what it means to be mountaineers in body and spirit. I hope you'll join us.

This podcast is a joint production of the WVU Humanities Center and the DA, and produced by Nick Kratsas and SeVohn Hunter. Copyright 2019.

Podcast Contributor

Geoffrey Hilsabeck is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of English at West Virginia University and Community Outreach Fellow at the WVU Humanities Center.