IF YOU GO
Who: Audience Appreciation Program for 20 Years of Critic’s Choice; this lecture is open to anyone who has bought a season ticket or a single ticket to Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice lectures this season
Where: Philharmonic Center for the Arts, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
When: 10 a.m. Saturday
Price: No charge for tickets but only a few hundred left
Elaine Newton is the professor literature lovers never knew existed. If they did, there would be even more pages of people waitlisted to hear her. It’s been happening at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts for nearly 20 years.
“The attendance is huge. It doesn’t fade. It grows. Everybody wants tickets to her lectures,” says Jeanette Montgomery Evert, who’s been attending Newton’s “Critic’s Choice” book discussions for 18 years.
A petite-framed, smiling Newton approaches the podium gracefully in a skirt ensemble, books and notes in hand. She’s been teaching people of all ages all over the globe since the late 1960s.
One year after the Philharmonic opened, Newton remembers, she held her first lecture with the hopes of getting 20 or 30 people to turn out. Sixty-five came.
By the fourth lecture she had to move to a new room, and when she filled Daniels Hall, the Philharmonic Center began adding more performances. Now, there are also Saturday lectures. Regular lectures have been sold out for years.
Down the line, Newton began a film lecture series as well.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, the Phil will celebrate 20 years of Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice with a special lecture encompassing the most favorite titles throughout the years.
“The Phil is wonderful. They never censor the book I choose,” Newton says during an interview at — where else? — a bookstore, Barnes and Noble. “My favorite memory is the last audience and next week it will be that audience. It just is.”
Each year, Newton reads dozens and dozens of novels, she confesses. She takes referrals from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the London Guardian, the Toronto Globe and Mail, national award winner lists and even bookstore employees.
“When I really like a book it goes in a pile. Right now there’s about 18 books in the pile,” she says. Those books will grace her 2010 summer reading list. From that pile she all ready has two or three favorites she’ll definitely lecture on. She’ll soon choose two or three more, which she says is a difficult task, because she knows from the remaining books in the pile, she can only choose a couple more to become part of next year’s lecture series.
When she does come up with a final list of books for the next year, she’ll read the books a second time, and usually a third. The second time she reads, Newton begins marking pages and notes in the margins.
“It’s a long process. It takes me a long time to unpackage each book. I just write, and write and write. “
Newton guesses it might take an entire month to prepare a lecture, but she’s never counted her hours. She writes them all out by hand.
“I don’t use computers. I don’t use a typewriter,” she says.
Most of the research for lectures centers around the time and place of the novel or the events the novel alludes to. A lifetime of literature, psychology, philosophy and political theory is second nature to the professor, so most of the research centers around time and place or the events the novel alludes to.
“What emerges is the argument of the lecture,” Newton adds.
Each lecture is leading to something. It might be an interesting writing style, a bright young author, or an established writer often gone unnoticed, even a whole new thinking on societal problems.
“The overall arching goal of everything is to make people more potent readers because I believe in the incredible value of what reading is about — it enriches our lives,” Newton says.
Would she ever write her own novel?
“I’ve written critical stuff … but my admiration and respect for fiction … I would never ever write a book just to cut it up. I’m not a writer. I can’t do what they do. I’m a teacher. I’m a professor. I’m an academic to my bones,” Newton says.
Avid audience member Jim Fleck didn’t meet Newton until about 15 years ago, although they had mutual friends back at York University where he also taught in the Sixties.
“I have a particular admiration for her ability to sensitize and put together these reviews and movies,” Fleck says. “She’s able to make the whole subject come alive. She obviously does a lot of work, but it seems effortless. … She’s also understated and humble. She doesn’t make a great noise about it.”
Fleck and his wife Margaret have become close friends with Newton and her husband, and they all traveled together to South Africa. They also get together for parties for New Year’s Eve or even the Oscars. Flecks says everyone gets a small homemade salad upon arrival for most parties.??
Newton’s love affair with reading started a young age. Her father was an artist, and when she was about 8 she cut out a thousand words from a newspaper because she thought it was better than any picture she could look at. “It lets me make my own pictures,” she explains now.
“I like offbeat things. “Half of a Yellow Sun” — I thought it was gorgeous,” she continues.
She loves “The English Patient,” both book and movie. She can’t name her favorite book over the course of the 20 years, but she begins checking off titles on a list of more than 100 she’s lectured on at the Phil: “Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon; “The Ash Garden,” by Dennis Bock; “Atonement,” by Ian McEwan; “Billy Bathgate” by E.L. Doctorow; and more than a dozen others including one titled “The Book of Saints,” written by a former student of hers named Nino Ricci.
When she first began the series, Newton says, her husband would pick her up from work at York University on a Thursday and they’d fly to Naples, get in at 11 at night. Then she would lecture Friday and Saturday at the Phil, play tennis Sunday morning, and fly out in the evening to start another work week back in Toronto, where she was a professor in literature, humanities and psychology.
Newton retired completely from the university about three years ago, but she’s always taught adult education. At the university level, her students were required to be there, Newton explains. At the adult level, her class included well-read and traveled adults who wanted to be there.
“I love teaching grown-ups,” she says.
In the ticket line at the Phil on March 11, Carol Friedman waits to pick up tickets to Elaine Newton’s Critic’s Choice lecture. She has been going for 15 years. “She’s a powerful lady,” she says.
Linda Heisler, who has only missed one lecture since she found the lecture series, pipes in, “She transforms a book that I’ve read from black and white to color.”
Newton begins a March lecture by pricking attendees’ consciences with some revelations of history about global devastation throughout the ages, and digs deeper when she takes them to Africa, closer in to Nigeria, to a tale of global inhumanity probed in Chris Cleave’s novel “Little Bee.” An effortless speaker, she emphasizes certain words in a way that is a powerful tool she uses without even knowing it.
“’Little Bee’ grips us — it sucks us in — it draws us to the book’s central characters,” Newton says. “This book ambushed me. I was not prepared for its power.”
She dissects the book’s human spirit and symbolism with the same precision as its closeness to the facts that surround its setting.
Nina Wright started attending both Critic’s Choice and Thursday at the Movies with her husband Norman about six years ago.
“I’m a huge admirer because she takes what I think might seem obvious and she takes it to a whole new level,” Wright says.
She especially enjoyed the lecture on the novel “The Help” and the movie lecture on “Precious.”
“Once you’ve been to one, you never want to miss one,” she asserts.
The same goes for the annual April release of Elaine Newton’s summer reading list, which the local Barnes and Noble publishes. Sometimes, says Felicia Santiago, a community relations assistant at Barnes and Noble, the store receives calls from out-of-state bookstores asking about the list because a customer brought it in.
“She is seriously revered here. Naples is an incredibly literary town. They like good literature. Literature with meat,” Santiago adds. “She’s just a magnet for igniting passion for reading literature in other people. You’re waiting for the next book. The next lecture. … She’s an incredible gift to Naples and the Philharmonic.”