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Telling my pals about what I'm reading lately ...

Updated: 2018-03-07T18:09:54.887-05:00


spoonreader evolves ...


It's been a great run here at spoonreader, but all good things must come to an end. Or at any rate, what with graduating from library school and all, I'm feeling like it's time to close down spoonreader and start a fresh blogging endeavor.

After today, you'll find me on my new blog. Here is the address:

Thank you for all the reads, comments, etc.! Please join me at the new space ...

A long overdue update


I have finally graduated from library school! Yes, the long hiatus from this blog was as I finally finished my program.
I have some plans for a new blog experience, stay tuned!

Olive Kitteridge and The Housekeeper and the Professor


I read two excellent books recently, a collection of short stories and a novel.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This is very close to being a novel, it's related short stories about life in small-town Maine, most in the present day, and all connected by the irascible old woman Olive Kitteridge. The writing is wonderful, and Olive is a fascinating character: a school teacher and a mother, not quite likable, but admirable in her own way. Aspects of this book reminded me of my beloved Spoon River Anthology, because I couldn't help but start looking for all the little clues of connections between characters and stories. This book won the Pulitzer Prize earlier this year.
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa. In this novel, translated from the Japanese, a young housekeeper goes to work for a retired math professor with a strange brain injury. Due to a car accident, his memory stopped and now he only retains memories for 80 minutes. So every 80 minutes, he meets the housekeeper for the first time. In spite of this limitation, the e housekeeper comes to understand the professor's deep love of math.
There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he’d taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.
When the professor learns that the housekeeper has a young son, he insists that she bring him with her to work -- he writes a note to himself so he won't forget. The relationship between the three is charming and touching, developing slowly through small outings and events. It's a sweet novel, and I'm going to check out Ogawa's other translated work, a collection of short stories called The Diving Pool.

A poem for the changes of history


The spouse and I talk a lot about newspapers, the economy, old and new business models, and the tide of history. In that vein, he recently sent me this poem, by Carl Sandburg.


COME you, cartoonists,
Hang on a strap with me here
At seven o'clock in the morning
On a Halsted street car.

Take your pencils
And draw these faces.

Try with your pencils for these crooked faces,
That pig-sticker in one corner--his mouth--
That overall factory girl--her loose cheeks.

Find for your pencils
A way to mark your memory
Of tired empty faces.

After their night's sleep,
In the moist dawn
And cool daybreak,
Tired of wishes,
Empty of dreams.


American death rituals


My story of the week is about American death rituals, or lack thereof. Thomas G. Long, a professor at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, writing an op-ed in The New York Times, begins with the latest fads in mortuary services,
"new baubles and gewgaws of the funeral business — coffins emblazoned with sports logos; cremation urns in the shape of bowling pins, golf bags and motorcycle gas tanks; 'virtual cemeteries' with video clips and eerie recorded messages from the dead; pendants, bracelets, lamps and table sculptures into which ashes of the deceased can be swirled and molded."

Long suggests that our phobia of dead bodies and our love of consumer culture have robbed our death rituals of their meaning:
"At upbeat, open-mike 'celebrations of life,' former coaches, neighbors and relatives amuse us with stories and naïvely declare that the dead, who are usually nowhere to be seen and have nowhere to go, will nevertheless live always in our memories. Funerals, which once made confident public pilgrimage through town to the graveyard, now tread lightly across the tiny tableau of our psyches."

After reading this story in full -- which I encourage you to do -- I turned to the spouse and said "Promise me that you will never, ever turn my cremated remains into a key chain or any other tacky knickknack." He promised me he wouldn't, and I promised the same.
One thing that bothered me: The story appeared on All Saints' Day, sometimes known as Dia de los Muertos ("day of the dead") in Hispanic cultures. There was no explicit mention of that in the paper, that I could see. I wonder how many people got that connection.

In honor of Halloween, a Yeats poem


In honor of Halloween, here is a poem from William Butler Yeats, my favorite poet:

The Cat and the Moon

THE CAT went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon
The creeping cat looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For wander and wail as he would
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass,
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

Toni Morrison's A Mercy and T.R. Reid's Healing of America


I read two really good books lately that have nothing in common.

First, Toni Morrison's A Mercy. She's Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize winner, author of the harrowing and well-respected Beloved. She's also very intimidating, because her recent novels have struck me as long, difficult and dense. So I found her recent novel, A Mercy, tempting, because it was fairly short -- 176 pages -- and the first few pages were intriguing. Read the excerpt; it begins:
Don't be afraid. My telling can't hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark--weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more--but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog's profile plays in the steam of a kettle.
The setting is 1682, and the narrator above is Florens, a young enslaved woman, who tells her own story, interweaved with stories of others who live on a Maryland homestead. There are two other enslaved woman, a Dutch trader, his "mail order" wife (probably they didn't call it that back then), two indentured servants, and a free African blacksmith. I don't want to tell too much here, but I'll just emphasize I thought this was a fascinating, poignant gem of a novel, very thought-provoking and beautifully written. And it inspires me to go back and and read Beloved.

The other book I liked was The Healing of America, by T.R. Reid. This is nonfiction, a look at health care systems in other countries and what lessons they might hold for the U.S. Reid was in the unique position of working abroad for many years, and having a stiff, sore shoulder. So he took his shoulder to all the doctors and health systems of the world and wrote about it. (OK, maybe not all the health systems of the world, but the United States, France, England, Germany, Japan and India.) What he finds is pretty interesting. According to Reid's telling, the French seem to have the most hassle-free system for records and billing. In Japan, you don't really need an appointment, you just walk in and get seen. In England, you don't get whatever treatment you want, but whatever you do get is free. India's traditional medicine yielded surprisingly good results. And the United States loves its high-tech surgeries.
Another interesting point Reid makes is that in other countries, doctors get their med school tuition paid for by the state, and then they make more middle-class salaries. This is different from the States. Little insights like these made for a fascinating book, very thought-provoking.
One thing that made me chuckle mordantly is that Reid felt the need to put a brief justification in the book about why he was writing about the medical systems of other countries. Some Americans may feel that we shouldn't consider any information from other countries, because ... why? Because we're better than them? Because they couldn't possibly have anything to teach us? He rejects those ideas, and so do I. I just don't get not being curious about new ideas and ways of doing things. It's kind of an anti-learning mentality, and I can't stand that, as you well know.

Reader Advisory: New Jersey Politics


I'm instituting a new feature here at spoonreader: Reader advisory for news stories and features. I hope to highlight something interesting I read every week, with an emphasis on the periodical literature (librarian-speak for newspapers and magazines). My goal will be to post something on a Monday or Tuesday, or possibly as late as Wednesday.
This week's story is one I found very, very funny; it's about New Jersey politics; it's from the New York Times Magazine; and it's by Matt Bai.
It's told from the point of view of Jon Corzine, the incumbent Democratic governor of N.J., and it's about, well, why the state is so screwed up and Corzine's political fortunes are so troubled.. I'm picking this one because I love the writing, and because I think it has important insights into local government and why it can seem so dysfunctional.
Sample lines:
  • "Even in the best of times, New Jersey’s highly taxed voters are a chronically cantankerous lot, and no one’s likely to confuse these with the best of times."
  • "If California collapsed of its own weight and drifted off into the Pacific, New Jersey would instantly become the most dysfunctional state in the country."
  • "New Jersey could raise up its own army and invade Pennsylvania, and all the state’s voters would want to talk about, still, would be their property taxes."
  • "The question of why property taxes keep rising could keep a symposium of budget experts arguing for a week, but at its core, the property-tax problem hints at a deeper, structural flaw in the state, a defect that’s more cultural than it is fiscal. Basically, New Jersey is sliced into so many local fiefs — 21 counties, 566 municipalities, more than 600 school districts — that it’s just about falling apart."
I should say I don't know much about New Jersey. I don't have a reason to be interested in New Jersey. But I read this article from start to finish and was fascinated. That's a mark of a well-told story. So please do enjoy this little gem of political reporting and read the whole thing for yourself.

Books about the '08 campaign


I consider the 2008 election something of a subject specialty, so I've been trying to be strategic about reading new books about the election. I just read The Battle for America 2008 by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson. Balz is with The Washington Post, so this is a fairly straightforward political account of the election, with a few minor new revelations. Interesting things that jumped out at me: They report that Democrat Ted Kennedy made a condition of his early endorsement that Obama address health care reform in his first year. And, they go into brutal and hilarious detail about Republican candidate Fred Thompson's reluctance to actually campaign for the presidency.
The other book I'm reading now is Renegade: The Making of a President, by Richard Wolfe, who covered the election for Newsweek. I'm just starting this one, but the book's selling point is that Wolfe got the most inside access to the Obama campaign.
Other campaign books I'd like to read:

Eliot's Little Gidding


Yesterday was J. Alfred Prufrock Day, which is the way I think of the birthday of T.S. Eliot. I love that poem so much. Whenever I feel creaky, I say, "I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled ..." And whenever I buy a peach, I say, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" and then, "In a minute there is time, for decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

The spouse just heard me saying, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" He says from the other room: "Go ahead, J. Prufrock."

But lately, I have been much more enamored of Little Gidding. The passage below seems incredibly important and touching.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Reading skills and the 24-hour Day Theory


My friend K., a teacher, posted a note about her students and their difficulties reading Jane Austen. She quipped that Austen appears to be the new Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is the new Chaucer. This really tickled me, because I'm always a sucker for "X is the new Y" formulations. (Brown is the new black. 50 is the new 40. Salsa is the new ketchup. Etc, etc.) Such a succinct way of conveying change in tastes!
It also encapsulates the perceived decline in reading among young people. A book I loved called Reading Matters had a very sophisticated analysis: The idea is that standards for literacy have dramatically increased over the last 100 years or so, so perceived declines are not always actual declines. In other words, our expectations for student reading are high, and remain so.
I have a theory though. I think literacy skills may be in actual decline because of the proliferation of electronic media, especially gaming. There are more different types of media to fill up a day. Yet the 24-hour duration of a day remains stubbornly static. So the time spent on sustained reading declines. That's my theory, anyway.

A good primer on international issues


I recently finished The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power, by David E. Sanger. It was an excellent introduction to today's pressing foreign policy challenges: Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and China. I feel much more comfortable reading daily news stories about these countries now that I've read a good overview of their historical situations and contexts.
In fact, I'm a bit amused by the fact that the book has "Obama," in the title, because the book's content is mostly about how the Bush administration (and to a lesser extent, other previous administrations) handled these areas for the past eight years. There's not much about Obama at all. But it is a clever way to spin older material forward.
In fact, the next time the Visa bill comes due, I'm going to tell the spouse, "That is not a bill for shoes. That is an investment in future opportunities for the display of fashionable feet."

Another crazy dispatch from the school reading front


In fairness, I wouldn't call letting kids pick their own books "crazy." Debatable, but not crazy. But this essay I ran across does seem to deserve the word. This system, called "Accelerated Reader," assigns point values to certain books. Kids rack up enough points, and they get a treat or a prize or whatever.
But look at the howling-sick points assignments, according to the New York Times story:
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling: 44 points
  • Harry Pointer and the Deathly Hallows: 34 points
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 32 points
  • My Antonia, by Willa Cather: 14 points
  • Go Tell it on the Mountain, by James Baldwin: 13 points
  • Hamlet, by Shakespeare: 7 points
I like Harry Potter, but I have a big problem with this points system. The latter three works are much more sophisticated and thematically challenging. That they would be worth fewer points strikes me as bad and wrong, ESPECIALLY when school kids are motivated to read the Potter books anyway. What is the world coming to? The essay author, thankfully, is appalled as well.

For school kids: Pick your own books?


English teachers are starting to let their students pick their own books, according to a Sunday front page story in The New York Times. The story profiles a teacher who is using that method with her seventh and eighth graders. It's a fascinating piece of reporting, you should read it.
I have mixed feelings about it, though. I think the research pretty clearly suggests that readers get better by spending a lot more time reading (duh), and that struggling readers who pick their own materials are significantly more motivated. Still, I think there's so much to be gained from students sharing a common literary experience. (Right, my Romantic Poetry classmates?)
The story did note that some teachers mix methods, allowing students to pick their own books at times while also assigning everyone the same book at least once during the year. I like that.

Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace and suicide


John Wilson reflects on author Michael Chabon's recent essay about suicide and the death of David Foster Wallace. I can't find Chabon's original piece, but Wilson writes that it's part of a new nonfiction book by Chabon to be released in October, titled Manhood for Amateurs.

Interesting point:

Mr. Chabon quotes Mr. Wallace himself saying that fiction gives the reader, who is "marooned in her own skull, . . . imaginative access to other selves." But there's a problem: "that gift of access, for all its marvelous power to console the lonely . . . , is a kind of trick, an act of Houdiniesque illusion."

Put another way, the desire for connection, for imaginative access to other selves, Mr. Chabon believes, is fundamentally a desire for escape. It drives writers and readers alike, he says, "to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it." And when "that window can't be found, or will no longer serve" -- here he returns to the question of suicide -- "small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer means of egress."

Read the whole thing via The Wall Street Journal, it's fascinating. Wilson is editor of Books & Culture: A Christian Review.

The Song is You


I'm always on the look-out for high-quality fiction written about the way we live now. Writing about right now, I imagine, is pretty tough: How can you know what will be tomorrow's important event versus a short-lived trend? A lot of successful fiction is set in the recent past, probably because it's easier for authors to get critical distance.
So I had high hopes for the recent novel The Song is You by Arthur Phillips. Julian, a music-loving an advertising photographer in New York City, is bereft after the collapse of his marriage and the loss of his family life. He's aimless until one night he wanders into a Brooklyn bar and hears a new band with an entrancing lead singer/songwriter. He writes her a series of notes on the back of bar coasters, and she finds his advice penetrating and perceptive for her climb up the rungs to pop-rock stardom. Other communications ensue, and so begins a funny, distant relationship between a fan and his muse.
I liked this novel a good bit, especially the parts where Julian remembers his father's love for the jazz singer Billie Holiday. (A charming setpiece on Billie Holiday opens the novel.) But I wanted to read a lot more about Julian and his relationship with his ex-wife, while the novel was pretty focused on his relationship with the singer. (Is this a guy thing?) Still, The Song is You is an interesting, readable novel of our current moment.
From a librarian perspective, I'd recommend The Song is You as a read-alike for Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which I think is still the definitive contemporary novel on pop music. (Read-alike is librarian jargon for, "If you liked X, you might also like Y.")

Ways of organizing books


I realized recently that I haven't been very good about writing in a tiny brown leather notebook where I keep a list of all the books I've read. In fact, my last entry in the little notebook appears to be September 2007. Gulp! I've read lots of books since then. Now I'm going back and reconstructing my reading history so I can make accurate entries in the little notebook.
Thankfully, I have several other ways of organizing my reading habits to which I can refer.
There's this blog, for one! I don't notate everything I read here, but I do quite a bit, and certainly the high points and most of the fiction. One of the things I enjoy about this blog, after keeping in touch with my old friends, is perusing the books I've read over the years through the archived entries.
Next is my catalog on LibraryThing. I started with LibraryThing back in 2005, and though other online reading sites have entered the fray since then, I still like LibraryThing the best, mostly because of its robust cataloging function. GoodReads is more oriented toward sharing books, but I found its interface a little too cumbersome to be worth switching. This is the benefit to LibraryThing's first entry: For me to switch from LibraryThing, a new service would have to offer a substantially better service. A merely somewhat better service would not be able to overcome my inertia toward changing services.
I also have kind of mixed feelings about these online services for sharing books and thoughts on books. I don't really need new ideas for books to read. I have long, long, long lists of books I want to read but probably won't ever get to, so I don't need to actively search for new ones. And I go back and forth on making my LibraryThing catalog public. Right now, it's private. I can never decide on whether I want the outside world to view my library or not. Sometimes I think it's harmless. Other times I feel like a personal library is a highly, well, personal thing, and I'm not so anxious to share. This is one area where LibraryThing could improve: Making a catalog visible to friends but not the general public. Maybe you can even do that already, but I have not yet discovered how.
Finally, I keep a spreadsheet of every book I've read with my book group. It includes the book title, author, and which member of our group picked it. Yes, I am this organized! (Read: Obsessive-compulsive)
So with these tools I am now updating the little notebook, aka the analog database.

The new Dave Eggers book


I got a new book in the mail today. It's "Zeitoun," by Dave Eggers, and it's about a Syrian-American family that survived Katrina. I'm very excited to read it because I so loved his last book, What is the What. I'm also excited because I ordered it directly from McSweeney's, Mr. Eggers' book company. It will probably be published jointly with a major publishing house, but the editions from McSweeney's are always a little unique or special with their binding or their art work. I still love those kinds of details.

I feel like a bit of a slacker on blog posts recently. I'm still slowly reading Brothers Karamazov. I'm also trying to not spend so much time mindlessly clicking around the computer, surfing the Internet, so that leads to fewer blog posts. It's not a snooty intellectual thing; it's just a time management issue. I've been trying to go to bed early, slow down and de-stress, etc etc etc.
Still, I don't want to stop this blog for the (mainly) friends and family who read it. One day in the golden future I will post more regularly, with perfectly search-engine-optimized headlines, and make a name for spoonreader throughout the land. But not today.

Summer reading round-up


I've been trying to slow down and not get over-busy, so that slows my reading down a little. Mainly, right now I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov. I've always wanted to read it because so many writers I love -- Dorothy Day, David Foster Wallace -- love it. I'm about a third of the way through.
It's fascinating reading, for sure, especially Dostoyevsky's outlook on religion, which he clearly takes very seriously. Also I like his characterization the dissolute father, Fyodor Pavlovich, who reminds me of a few people I know. These are all superficial impressions, I should do some more rigorous thinking on the novel, but right now I'm just enjoying all the great characters and dialogue and not thinking too terribly deeply.
I think I've also found the perfect use for SparkNotes (online Cliff's Notes for you oldsters like me). I read the plot summaries on SparkNotes to help me remember which character is which, and keep track of all the nicknames, some of which are not obvious at all, e.g. Mitya=Dmitri. So you see, there is a use for SparkNotes besides shirking your college reading!
As a lark, I finished the Michael Lewis memoir on fatherhood, Home Game. I still like him a lot but this book was too light and flip for my taste. In the last section, he gets a vasectomy, which he plays for laughs, and which I really did not need to know about. Hey, but that's OK, nobody's perfect. He's still one of my favorite authors. I think this is definitely a book for guys and only certain guys.
While I'm being kind of trivial here, guess what I found! Another volume of Jane Austen paraliterature, this time yet another book masquerading as Mr. Darcy's diary. But the new twist here is that Mr. Darcy was friends with LORD BYRON. For those of you who don't know, I was obsessed with Lord Byron is high school. I checked the dates, it's not totally implausible, though I think Darcy would have been a little bit older than Byron, but it depends on when you date the events of Pride and Prejudice. After I finish Karamazov, I will get my own copy of this book and read it and give you a detailed critique. I read the first chapter at the book store: Mr. Darcy is not so upstanding as P&P would have you think, but he's also not fully embracing of all of Lord Byron's mad, bad and dangerous-to-know ways. This is really hilarious to me -- Mr. Darcy and Lord Byron!

Books I bought at Faulkner House in New Orleans


I was in New Orleans last weekend for a wedding and went to the wonderful book store Faulkner House. K. and J. introduced me to this place a long time ago, but I hadn't been back in years. I was delighted to find it still stuffed with new fiction and old classics -- most in lovely hardcover editions -- and of course an extensive selection on books about New Orleans and Louisiana.
I selected two books. The first was the new Michael Lewis book, Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood. Lewis is best known for writing about business and baseball, but he's also a native New Orleanian. (He attended the prep school Isidore Newman.) His new book is about navigating the rocky shoals of contemporary fatherhood. This normally would not be my cup of tea, but Lewis is one of the few living writers who makes me laugh out loud, so I picked it up. Gen Xers will appreciate that his wife is Tabitha Soren, formerly of MTV News. So far, it's a funny, light, sweet book. We'll see if it gets deeper as I approach the finish.
The other book was a bit more meaty: A lovely, small hardcover of Walt Whitman poetry from Everyman's Library. I picked it because it included the poem "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing." Here is the full text for your reading enjoyment. I think he really captures the majestic beauty of the trees, which have a meditative effect on me as well:
I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there
without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it and
twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
solitary in a wide in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Three excellent books about reading


The most excellent class of Adult Services, a.k.a. Reader Advisory, has come to an end. I loved everything about this class, which taught the art and craft of librarians recommending leisure reading to adults. Besides reading some great books for my book talks -- see my book talks on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Book of Chameleons -- I also read some great books about reading. Here's a recap of three of my favorites.Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading Libraries and Community, by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne (E.F.) McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer. I love the old saying, "In God we trust. All others must bring data." This book brings the data on reading research, providing empirical evidence gleaned from recent studies on why people read, how they become proficient readers, and how they select books. The key point for me is that people who are skilled readers "speed through stretches of text with apparent effortlessness." For children, "well-designed phonics instruction" is best, and being read to aloud is crucial. Adults should be encouraged to engage in sustained long-form reading in whatever genre or style they prefer, because reading begets more reading.The Reader, the Text and the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, by Louise Rosenblatt. If only I had heard of Louise Rosenblatt when I was in college, back in the early 1990s during the heyday of literary theory. Back then, you could read any old book you wanted and then say it was either reifying cultural hegemony or subversively troubling societal norms. In retrospect, these were interesting intellectual exercises, but it also seemed silly to argue that a reader could find any meaning she wanted in a given text. Rosenblatt, on the other hand, acknowledges that readers bring their own assumptions and beliefs to a text that they read, but she also says that the author has a particular meaning she or he is trying to convey. Two human beings are involved in the transaction between author and reader, and you can't theorize away the intentions and motivations of either party. This reminds me of author Zadie Smith's metaphor, that the relationship between author and reader is akin to the relationship between a composer of music and the musician who sits down to play the work.Great Books for High School Students: A Teacher's Guide to Books that can Change Teen's Lives, edited by Rick Ayers and Amy Crawford. These are seven essays written by teachers who describe the particular experiences they've had teaching novels to high school students. The essays are personal and subjective, and fascinating reading. I thought the essay about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, was particularly good, showing why it's such a challenging book. The teacher wrote about how her students had strong but very different reactions to the book's depictions of slavery and race. Then there were the efforts of other adults to stop her from teaching the book. I also thought the teacher revealed that she wasn't quite as emotionally prepared as she thought she was to teach a book that raises all the sensitive issues that Huckleberry raises. It was a good essay, very personal and honest and grounded in real-world circumstances. The other books teachers wrote about include Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison; Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; Oresteia, by Aeschylus; Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya; Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie; and The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.[...]

Reading vs. doing


One of my favorite blogs is Zen Habits. It's about living a simple life, being organized, and getting things done. So it's right up my alley.
The blog's author, Leo (hey, that's my dad's name!), has a great post last week on reading vs. doing. He says reading is great and can teach you things, but you actually have to put whatever it is you're reading about into practice.
So reading countless self-help articles and books are great — I’ve written a few myself — but remember that it’s only the first step.
You have to put the personal development posts away, get away from the computer or book, and start doing it. Today.
Only in doing it will you actually learn.
Read the whole post for yourself.
I think he's onto something really important. Reading is wonderful, but it's not the same as direct experience. Leo is talking about self-help and organizational books here, but I think it applies other emotional contexts as well. Good food for thought.

Dreams of DFW (DFW Memorial Part VI)


I dreamed of David Foster Wallace a few nights ago. He looked just like his photos, the ones where he has long hair and no bandana. He was smiling, and I was standing next to my spouse, and David was asking me how I was doing, and what was going on in my life. I started to cry. I was trying to tell him that I knew he had been sad and that I hoped he was OK now. In my dream, he had tried to kill himself but failed ...He smiled and said, "I'm doing fine. I'm not sad anymore. But tell me about you. ..."And that was it.I know why I dreamed the dream. That day, I had finally got a look at the new, posthumous book of his.It's a copy of a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College, an essay I dearly love. It didn't have a title when he gave it. Now it's called, "This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life." Of course, the speech wasn't really long enough for a proper book. So the publisher decided to print one sentence per page, creating a book that comes in at 144 pages.In theory, this could be a good idea, forcing the reader to slow down and savor the language.But I thought it made the speech seem disjointed. Kind of like someone reading aloud at too slow a pace.On a more positive note, I love the cover. It's white with a little tiny goldfish at the bottom.The goldfish is part of the opening anecdote:There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"... If you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.The parable of the fish also figured prominently into his novel Infinite Jest, which is a personally totemic novel for me.I will end up buying the book, even though you can read the essay for yourself on the Internet here. Some people might say it's dumb to buy a book of an essay that you can read on the Internet, but this doesn't account for the phenomenon of text-as-beloved-object. I love the permanence and tangibility and symbolism of words written on bound paper. Not the same as the computer, not to me.[...]

Reader, I married him


Here's a selection from the conclusion of the 1847 novel Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte:
I have now been married ten years. I know what it is to live entirely for and with what I love best on earth. I hold myself supremely blest--blest beyond what language can express; because I am my husband's life as fully as he is mine. No woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. I know no weariness of my Edward's society: he knows none of mine, any more than we each do of the pulsation of the heart that beats in our separate bosoms; consequently, we are ever together. To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company. We talk, I believe, all day long: to talk to each other is but a more animated and an audible thinking. All my confidence is bestowed on him, all his confidence is devoted to me; we are precisely suited in character--perfect concord is the result.

Read the novel Jane Eyre via Project Gutenberg.
I identify a lot with bookish Jane, but I can also be the madwoman in the attic. Thanks to the spouse for putting up with both. Happy anniversary.

What I'm reading now


My library school class is coming to a fast close. I'm a little sad, because this has been one my favorite classes of library school. It's called "Adult Services," and it focused on what's known as "Reader Advisory," or recommending voluntary reading material to adults. This could be anything a person wants to read: literary fiction, romance novels, science fiction, whatever. I'm working on my final project now, which is an annotated bibliography on the topic of "great books discussion groups." I'm taking a broad view of "great books": My reading tells me a librarian should ask, "Great for who? Great in what way?" And I definitely don't mean that in a relativistic, throw-away-the-standards, "what anybody wants is fine" sort of way. I mean it in a rigorous, standards-based, "you're not going to stick my patrons with a boring book" sort of way. So I'm reading articles on how to select the best sorts of books for discussion groups, with nods toward the Western canon, multiculturalism and diversity, bestsellers vs. award winners, readability, and how books lend themselves (or don't) toward group discussion. Lots of interesting intersections here.On another front, my book group just finished a very long selection (A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz, 500 plus pages), and now we're going to read two much shorter young adult novels (Stuck in Neutral and Cruise Control by Terry Trueman). So this means I have extra time to read my own choices. Nice. Here's what I'm reading right now:Nothing Right, by Antonya Nelson. This is literary fiction, short stories about upper-middle-class Americans and their nefarious ways. Affairs, deceptions, break-ups, stabs in the back, etc. I'm not sure why it's so interesting to read about the twisted characters in Nelson's stories, but it sure is. Nelson has this fascination-with-the-grotesque thing going, much like Flannery O'Connor. Except Flannery wrote about people living in the (mostly) rural South of the 1950s; Nelson writes about people who listen to NPR. Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the GOP, by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. The conservative authors argue that the Republican Party needs to develop and promote policies that provide economic stability for the working class. Douthat was recently named a columnist to the New York Times, which will certainly amplify his voice on the national stage. I read Douthat's blog occasionally; I like that he puts his intellectual integrity ahead of his loyalty to party. (Actually, I love writers who put intellectual integrity ahead of loyalty to party -- any party. This is a nonpartisan blog.)Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, by Clay Shirky. This book looks at the implications of the Internet for group dynamics and organization. Shirky recently wrote a blog post, "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," on the decline of newspapers that was pretty brilliant. He concluded we're in the grips of systemic, historical change similar to the advent of the printing press. So I'm just starting on his book and interested to see what the implications are for the future of journalism.And after all this, I really, really want to read and stop putting off reading The Brothers Karamazov. It's time![...]