January Book Log

January 31, 2011

This was a good reading month. I started the year off with a bunch of good books (and one dud). I always seem to start the year off strong and tail off at the end. I’ll have to try and avoid that this year. We’ll see, I guess. Anyway, on we go…

1. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson (5/5) – Bryson’s writing is always so charming. This is even more the case when he is talking about something for which he has genuine affection. His affection for the UK is apparent throughout the book in both his loving descriptions of his favorite bits and his acerbic criticism of the parts he finds lacking. It is a wonderful portrait of the nation. Everything is captured just right.

2. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (5/5) – Hardy is another from the long list of people I needed to get to eventually. I was bowled over by this book. I could imagine something like this causing controversy today (though it would have to be a movie or something), much less 120 years ago when it was first published. I have to think that the feminism in this book is enormously ahead of its time, especially given that it was written by man. Of course, it’s a wonderful story without the various political implications (unlike a book I’ll get to in a minute), which is why I gave it a 5 in the first place.

3. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow (4/5) – Good, but not great. The authors incorrectly believe this book disproves the existence of god. It doesn’t do that so much as it shows that god is unnecessary for our universe to exist. Still, there is some good reasoning in here, and it’s always good to see science writers unafraid to venture into hostile waters.

4. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (5/5) – Probably my favorite book of the month. The most impressive thing about it is that Patchett thought to write it at all. It seems like such a hackneyed premise (a bunch of well-to-do people taken hostage in a poorly run South American country), but she doesn’t take any of the obvious paths and, correspondingly, this book rises above expectations in the most remarkable way. The humanity she draws out of her characters (even the terrorists) is remarkable and reminds me of William Maxwell.

5. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire (5/5) – This was a play Cate had been suggesting to me forever. I finally read it because I was looking for something to show my writing classes. It is fantastic. What’s best about it is that it doesn’t try to resolve anything. Literature often misses the lack of resolution in life.

6. Snow by Orhan Pamuk (3/5) – I wanted to love this book. I didn’t. it gets a 3 because I get that he was really trying to say something. I don’t think he said it very well, though. The characters were utterly unbelievable (they weren’t characters so much as philosophies) and the way women were presented was awful. Their only value is looks/virginity and they aren’t shown to have much will of their own. Rather, they are beholden by their feelings toward the men around them. It’s ridiculous.

7. Why Does E=mc2 and Why Should We Care? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (4.5/5) – Very well done. There are other books that cover the same material, but this is the best and most careful explanation of relativity that I (a certifiable layman) have read. It did change how I think about certain things, which is always wonderful.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

Snow by Orhan Pamuk
The Chateau by William Maxwell
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A Gesture Life by Chang Rae Lee
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Zoli by Colum McCann
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien
Daugther of Fortune by Isabelle Allende
Libra by Don DeLillo

A Parenting Philosophy

January 24, 2011

Lately, there has been a lot written about the “tiger mother” and whether or not  it is possible to force your children to greatness without also doing them irrevocable harm. The presented alternative seems to be that we should make kids feel good about themselves and that this will transform them into productive adults. I would encourage people to read this article to serve as background for what I am about to say.

I think both of these philosophies are bullshit.

I don’t think it’s hard to see the problems in Chua’s parenting techniques. Neither do I think it’s hard to see the benefits in a hyper-tolerant approach. I am not going to spend time on either of those things. Instead, I will talk about the other side of each coin.

First, let’s de-bunk the touchy-feely nonsense. I spend most of my day around kids who feel really good about themselves. They believe, and I mean really believe, that they are exceptional people. No one has ever seen fit to point out to them that not everyone can be exceptional and that being exceptional really takes an enormous amount of work most of the time. Most of my students come to me lacking basic skills that they should, by this point, have mastered, but if you ask them, they will nearly all tell you that they are at or ahead of where they should be on the educational spectrum. This is because they have been told that they crap gold. They do not. But if you want everyone to think she or he is special, that’s what you get. A bunch of extreme mediocrity.

Conversely, I can tell you that I was born a quitter. If something was hard or I was not immediately successful, I wanted to give up. This did not fly with my parents. I was often enough required to continue doing something that I did not want to do so I could see how it played out. I think it was good for me, and not just because I really ended up liking some of the stuff they made me do.

Allowing kids to always and only pursue things they are interested in right now denies the realities of the larger world. A huge portion of nearly everyone’s adult time is spent doing things that are not desirable. In a few minutes, I am going to try and fix a leaky drain. I don’t want to do this. I don’t find it particularly interesting, but I’m going to do it because it needs to be done. That’s life. It is a lesson many of my students could stand to learn.

But what good is life we can’t enjoy at least some of it. The old adage “find something you like to do and then figure out how to get paid for it” is a good one, and not one the “tiger mother” would ever light upon. There is value in deciding what you want to try and excel in.

Now, I am about to tell you how I think parenting should go down. Mind you, I’m no kind of expert, but I have been at this for more than a year and half now and I teach. I am, however, totally aware that children are nothing if not inexplicable, this is just my best guess.

I think a middle ground is called for. Certainly, kids should be allowed to be kids, but there are always limits. Barring utterly incompetent instruction, for instance, nothing below a C should happen in school. I know what goes on in schools, and let me tell you something, if your child is making bad grades it is almost certainly the result of laziness on the child’s part. C is the bare minimum that should be acceptable, and only in the case of a subject that a child finds truly challenging. (This assumes, of course, that the parents are doing their jobs. Often they are not, but this isn’t that kind of post.)

Further, I don’t buy the whole everyone wins thing. Telling children they did well because they put out the absolute minimum effort doesn’t get them anywhere. Further, telling a child who has tried hard, but still done poorly that he or she is good at whatever it is isn’t helpful. Effort, certainly should be praised (there’s another place I differ from Chua), but results must be acknowledged. Some people have to work harder than others at certain skills. This is also part of life.

But kids need play time. I firmly believe that every child should be genuinely bored at least some of the time. This is, I think, the root of creativity. Right now, there are two parenting cultures arguing. One wants children who can “do”. This requires strict practice and lots of work. Another wants children who can “make”. This requires freedom from restraint so the mind can develop. I don’t see why, in general, we can’t acknowledge that both skill sets are important (necessary, even) to a functioning society and attempt to strike a middle ground.

A Surprising Thing

January 21, 2011

In my capacity as English teacher, one of the hardest things to do is find things that an entire class (or at least most of one) will read. This is hard on a number of levels. Most of my students aren’t readers to being with and the ones who are often like wildly different things. Add to that my tendency to try and expose them to writing that is at least decent and it becomes nearly impossible to find something that will please more than three or four kids at a time.

This week, I started a play-writing unit in my creative writing class. My writing classes are a real hodgepodge. Many students are dumped in there because they were incompetent at filling out their schedules, but there are still a fair number of kids who read and write a lot on their own. Anyway, I wanted to show them an example of a modern play, so I showed them a few pages of Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire. This is a play about a couple who has lost their son and is having a hard time dealing. It’s not the kind of thing I expected them to get into. It’s very adult, pretty serious, and there’s almost no action, but the the first few pages are funny and it’s all wonderfully written, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

They loved it. The whole class. LOVED IT.

I showed them some more pages. In these, it gets really serious and downright depressing in spots. They still loved it.

Sometimes, I have no idea what is going on, but it’s nice to be vindicated in my belief that students can get interested in good literature. If I have any influence, our English department will get a class set or two of these for next year.

Digitized Music

January 13, 2011

Just a warning, the nerd factor on this post is very high…

Shortly, I will finally – FINALLY – be purchasing a new laptop. I am very excited about this, however I am being caught unawares by a particular development: optical (CD/DVD) drives are starting to be phased out. It’s not widespread yet, but it seems to be coming. This is problematic for me because Cate and I buy nearly all of our music (and books and movies) in hard copy and import it onto our computers.

I realize, of course, that this makes me a dinosaur, but I have my reasons. For one, I do rather enjoy the idea of owning a physical disc that holds the music. I like album covers and lyric booklets and all of that stuff. It does strike me, however, that this is an historically odd notion. Recorded music that can be readily purchased hasn’t even existed for a hundred years. Before that, you pretty much had to be at the performance to hear music. So, the whole concept of the album (and the cover and the booklet) is relatively recent when compared with the history of music. Further, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t really spend much time with those covers. My music collection sits neatly organized on an enormous shelf with only the spines visible. I probably see the covers more when I’m poking around iTunes.

Of course, the big issue with me has always been the concept of sound quality. I have always maintained that CDs sound better than compressed files. Compression is fine for in the car or mowing the lawn, but sometimes, I want to sit down and listen to music in all its glory and I can’t do that with compressed files. Neither can I store my fairly enormous music collection in uncompressed form on my computer.

So it is time, I think, to solicit advice. If you have an opinion at all, tell me what you think. Am I nostalgic for a time that is quickly passing me by, or is there really value in continuing to hold on to these things?

Additionally, sometime this weekend, I am going to conduct and experiment. I have wondered for a while how much difference I can really hear. I have a couple of good stereos and some pretty excellent speakers and so, I am going to test the different formats in different environments with different musical selections and see what I think. I will of course, write another post about that because I am a nerd.

Sometimes, I feel as though our society is going through an intellectual dark-age. So little value seems to be placed on critical thinking and so much value on a sort of cave-man mentality that “what I think is what I think, facts be damned. Also, I am right because I never change my mind.” Two things have brought this lately to my mind: the creationist amusement park slated for Kentucky and the Baseball Hall of Fame. You may think these things are unrelated, but I’m going to talk about both of them anyway.

First, let us talk about the creationist amusement park. Kentucky already houses a creationism “history” museum which the amusement park will, presumably, augment. What disturbs me about these things is that there is so much money in them. A lot of people go to that museum and a lot of people will likely to go the amusement park and these people take this stuff seriously. This all happens because none of them are willing to question a literal interpretation of the Bible that was never ever merited or intended. Of course, knowing this would require one to question one’s beliefs and that is impossible because I AM RIGHT AND NOTHING IN YOUR BOOKS CAN TELL ME OTHERWISE!!!

Which means, of course, that we end up having arguments about whether or not creationism is science whether or not “liberal” science really tells us anything at all because it contradicts a collection of myths several thousand years old.

Now, for the Hall of Fame, I know most of the people who read this are not baseball nerds in the way that I am. Correspondingly, you may be unaware that the latest election results were announced this week. Two excellent players (Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven) were justly elected. However, several worthy candidates were left off. Baseball scholarship has reached the point where it is possible to tell, more or less objectively, how good a player was. Arguments can still happen (what matters more, career peak or longevity, for instance), but these should be the kind of things discussed only with the most borderline of candidates. Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, and several others like them are definitively not borderline cases. They are, by every objective measure among the very best that have ever played the game of baseball and are also unassailably better than many other players already enshrined. So why have they not been?

Because some voters think these men do not “feel” like Hall of Famers. What does that mean? It means, effectively, that these voters believe in mystical things like “clutch” performance (this is, supposedly, the ability to perform better in pressure situations. Its existence in Major League Baseball has been roundly debunked by numerous studies). It means, more truthfully, that these voters refuse to question prior knowledge. They are unwilling to adapt. We used to think certain things made a player valuable. We have learned that some of these things don’t, actually, say anything about how good a player is and that some of them don’t actually exist. But, the voters still refrain: I HAVE BEEN WATCHING GAMES MY WHOLE LIFE AND I KNOW MORE ABOUT IT THAT YOU!!!

These are just two examples, but there are more. Many of my students are worried about the apocalypse in 2012. Many more of them take horoscopes seriously. It goes on and on and on and it bothers the hell out of me. I do not mind, and I will never mind, people having views that are different than mine. I only wish that more people were willing to question themselves, I mean really question. As in, if you start looking into something and every bit of actual information you find tells you that some of your views are wrong, you have to be willing to adjust your views instead of denying facts because they don’t fit in with your view of the world. Sadly, at the moment, it is those who yell the loudest and not those who have thought the hardest that seem to carry the day. Welcome back to the dark ages.