April Book Log

April 30, 2011

I did a lot of reading this month, though I still have some moderately hefty stuff to get through if I’m going to finish my book queue by the end of May.

1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (5/5) – I first read this book as an assignment when I was a freshman in high school. I remembered really loving it, but it had been a long time. I was not disappointed (not that I expected it to be). Unlike some Dickens, this doesn’t feel stretched at all. Everything in here feels totally essential. The edition I had featured both endings and I am absolutely in the camp of those who prefer the ending Dickens originally wrote to the revised one (though the revised one does have the better ending sentence). Anyway, this book is an absolute masterpiece.

2. The Physics of Baseball by Robert Adair (3.5/5) – I had been meaning to read this for years. I actually bought it the summer before Cate and I got together. It was fine. Much of it was really interesting, but it was not very accessible to the layman. I had to really take my time with it. Additionally, he occasionally takes a long time to say something that could be said much more succinctly. Interesting, just not great writing.

3. Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien (4.5/5) – A bunch of Tolkien stories, that, for some reason, I’d never read (except for Leaf by Niggle, which I wrote about in an earlier blog post). The fairy tale aspect of these stories is much more closely tied to the “real” world than his more famous books and it works very well. They are almost universally wonderful and perfect stories for children. I can’t wait to read some of these to my kids. My only complaint is an almost total lack of female characters.

4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (5/5) – This book is depressing. Really depressing. It was also brilliant. I suppose that’s obvious because of this book’s status as modern classic and all. What I found most striking was the honesty of it. Morrison isn’t pulling any punches. The entire book is an exploration of things that most people would rather not talk about.

5. The Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner (4/5) – This book was a disappointing 4. It’s very good, but her research is less than thorough (if I catch mistakes you’ve made in writing about physics, you have done something wrong). The characters were very interesting, though and I enjoyed the constantly alternating narratives. They made the presentation just right and kept everything flowing nicely.

6. Skydog: The Duane Allman Story (3.5/5) – I’ve been in a Layla place lately and I’ve been going back exploring the people who were involved in that album. Much of this book was good, though it was balanced terribly. He cuts through Duane’s entire childhood in something like 30 pages, but that’s not the worst bit. The worst bit are the 40 pages (out of 250) that take place after Duane dies, but before the end of the book. If someone wants to know what’s happened to Allman Brothers since Duane died, they can go to the Wikipedia page and get something about as interesting. Really jarring and a terrible choice for the ending of the book. That said, the middle 150 pages or so are very well done as they neither indict nor excuse Allman’s choices. Rather, they are laid out plainly so that we come to our own conclusions.

7. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (5/5) – Jhumpa Lahiri has only written three books. I’ve read two of them now. She needs to write more because she’s one of the best writer’s I’ve ever read. There is nothing unnecessary in her stories. She writes without gimmick or sensationalism. These stories are beautifully, beautifully real. I feel as strongly about her writing as I did when I discovered William Maxwell. You need to go read her and you need to do it right now.

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

Why I Teach Literature

April 26, 2011

Recently, Joe Posnanski had a nice post up here about reading. It’s about his struggles with reading as a kid and how he had the perception that he did not like reading even though he read many things for enjoyment. I commented that I run into this all the time with my students, but I can usually find something they’ll like (I require them to read a book of their own choosing). A commenter replied to me questioning whether or not we should teach things like Shakespeare in schools when we could teach something more contemporary (he gives examples of Grisham and King) in an attempt to teach them that reading is fun. It’s an interesting debate, and rather than post my response (which is going to be pretty long), I decided to turn it into a blog post, so here we go…

I do fully believe that kids should be encouraged to read whatever they want to read. As mentioned above, I require my students to read a book independently as the class works its way through various things. However, I also still teach most of the typical high school classics, and frankly, I would balk at teaching something like Grisham or a lot King.

So What’s wrong with Grisham? Well, to start, it isn’t literature. (King is sometimes, he kind of straddles the line.) Literature, at least by my definition, is that which has value to it beyond entertainment. Maybe it has something to say about society, maybe it asks questions, but there is something to it beyond being suspenseful or whatever. At the very least, literature has to be beautifully written.

But let me leave that for a moment. Even if you want to dismiss my definition and argue (I think, very wrongly) that all books are more or less equal, there will still be problems. Extremely rare is the book that can please everyone in a room full of high school students. That means whether you’re teaching Caesar or The Client, some of your students are going to hate it. But we still teach books to an entire class because it allows for a kind of discussion you just can’t get when everyone is reading something different. It also helps that I’ve read the books and I can help make sure the students don’t miss anything.

Okay, smartypants, fine, so tell me why Grisham and the like don’t cut the proverbial mustard? Because they aren’t very good. I know that’s an opinion, but it’s an informed one. That kind of thing is the junk food of books and I don’t think it really counts as literature. Teaching good literature does a lot of things. The presence of multiple complex characters teaches empathy. Beautiful writing teaches better, stronger use of language. Good literature, in general, tends to open up thought and discussion of difficult issues. That is, it addresses questions teenagers are starting to ask themselves without providing answers.

The only question really left is why we don’t teach more contemporary literature because there is plenty of good stuff being put out there on a regular basis (see this post on my students’ reaction to the Pulitzer winning play Rabbit Hole). I want to start with Shakespeare, because he is a special case. At this point, for many students, reading Shakespeare is like reading a foreign language. I can absolutely see the case for removing Shakespeare from the basic English curriculum (or maybe expose them to just Romeo and Juliet at some point). More advanced students should still get it for the cultural significance.

Now the question is, why we are teaching things like The Scarlet Letter, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, and The Great Gatsby? The simple answer is because we can. Stands have been taken on all of those books. People have tried and failed to censor most of them. There is also something about how subtle shifts in language over time make certain things more permissible to parents. The Scarlet Letter is about adultery (among other things), To Kill a Mockingbird deals with racism and sexual violence, and the others have their issues as well. Now, you try to teach something like the Booker Prize winning Blind Assassin or even something like Bel Canto. Parents will lose their minds because contemporary authors no longer feel the need to couch sex (and a number of other things) in euphemism. It’s unfortunate, but true. If you work in a tolerant school district, it’s not going to be much of an issue, but at a school in a conservative neighborhood, you don’t have much choice but to stick with the classics. Fortunately, the classics are classics for a reason. Side note: I feel the need to unequivocally state that I despise The  Letter, but it still illustrates my point.

So, in the end, teachers mostly do what we can. Most of us would like to teach more contemporary stuff, but other things get in the way. Still, it is better to teach truly great literature that might be a little out of date than pulp that doesn’t offer the same advantages.

I have, recently, been reconnecting with music. Specifically, with good-sounding music. I am, on my quieter days, something of an audiophile, but parenthood and the requirements of my job had gotten me away from listening to good music on good speakers and whatnot.

Lately, I’ve been having an internal debate about the route I want to take in my music listening going forward. The debate is basically vinyl vs. CD vs. mp3 and the like. I have some thoughts about this and there will be a post coming before too long (I want to run a few more experiments first) about my conclusion. If you’re lucky, it will also feature an extensive discussion of my stereo system (cross your fingers for that one!).

There is one aspect of this debate, however, that I am more than ready to write about. That is, the experience of handling the musical medium. In other words, which feels nicer to own. The clear cut winner here is vinyl, but let me talk about the other two formats first.

Digital – Digital sucks for this. It’s certainly great for travel, but the cover art (if there is any) is an itty-bitty square on your iPod. There are no lyric books. No liner notes. No inside the cover pictures and no disk. There is nothing to hold at all and this does make it much less satisfying on the physical level.

CD – CD is okay. You do get cover art you can actually see (and lyrics and liner notes if they’re available) and you get something to hold. It can be done really well (see the original All Things Must Pass remaster that came out in 2001) and it’s easy enough to throw in neat little extras like video clips or a bonus DVD or whatever. There was an enhanced CD trend a while back that I actually kind of liked, but it’s more or less gone by the wayside as more information has become available from the cloud. Still, CDs aren’t bad, they just don’t hold up to vinyl.

Vinyl, though it lacks some of the options you have with CD (no video clips here) is just better when it comes to physicality. There’s nothing like holding a record and seeing the light glint off it. It feels so delicate and so real and so sacred. Nothing about it feels disposable in the way mp3s pretty much always and CDs often feel.

An Aside: I am, in just second, going to present you with a list of my five favorite album covers. If you are paying attention, you will notice that they all pre-date the CD. There is a reason for that. Album covers are an aspect of the music buying experience that CDs inarguably ruined.

 

1. Born to Run – Look at that picture. I don’t know if anything gets across the feel of rock and roll better than that. Springsteen is dressed to look all cool and we can tell from the beat up guitar that he’s been around the block a few times, but then there’s that half-hidden grin that says, “Shit, I can’t believe I’m getting away with this. I hope nobody finds me out.” Just perfect.

 

2. London Calling – Another great black and white image. More savage than the Springsteen, but, of course, there’s the Elvis reference in the layout smiling at us just like Springsteen.

 

3. Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs – This is poignancy. The painting is known beyond the music word, but on the cover of this album (an album all about a girl) is seems to say here is this music I made for you and here is a picture that makes me think of you to go with it.

4. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye has some things he would like to say. You should pay attention. Also, in saying these things, he will be much cooler- in every way – than you will ever be. Don’t deny it. You know it’s true.

 

5. Eat a Peach – This gets extra credit for what you see when you open the album (something CDs can never quite pull off). What an excellent psychedelic painting.

Other Covers I Love: Music From Big Pink, Blue Train, Greetings from Asbury Park, Abbey Road

So yes, vinyl heads – whatever else I may write, part of my musical soul will always yearn for the feel of vinyl.

Painting Leaves

April 13, 2011

When we are young and just coming into our adult interests, we flail around helplessly and embarrassingly. Many are the teenagers who will openly declare to a parent or friend or teacher that so-and-so is the best writer/band/director ever only to revise that opinion themselves within a few weeks. It’s part of growing up. We read books and listen to music that we believe is good because we are inexperienced. The more we search, the more our experience grows. Taste becomes more refined and many of the loves of adolescence are discarded. But some things stay with us.

Tolkien, as much as any writer, made me a reader. As many do, I found The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in high school. I still revisit those books from time to time. I love them and have been pleased to move into adulthood and realize that they are not just teenager-good, but actually good. However, in high school, I went much farther. I can be a bit of an obsessive at times, and I read everything Tolkien I could get my hands on. A lot of it was highly esoteric writings on Middle Earth and LOTR, but I did trip across an unrelated and decidedly accessible short story: Leaf by Niggle.

It is a simple story, obviously allegorical, about a painter whose ambitions may be bigger than his talents (we are never quite sure and neither is he), but who is primarily derailed by unfortunate circumstances. In the end, he is rewarded in a fairy tale kind of way. I loved the story. I read it then as a story about how perseverance pays off. Keep going and you will get there eventually and all that. For a while, I read it every year, especially at times when I felt rather bad about myself. As time passed, I felt my understanding of the story grow. I felt more and more that I was an artist and that I was struggling and thus, I better understood what was going on here.

For the last several days, I’ve been reading a newish Tolkien volume that consists of previously published stories, nicely illustrated. I hadn’t actually read anything in it, except for one story – Leaf by Niggle. Last night was the first time I’d read it in several years. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without reading it since I first encountered it. I found my understanding changed again.

Niggle fritters away time for a while, but he does get to it eventually. Then there is a storm and he has to help the neighbor. Then he gets sick. That is, things come up. I was reading this story while a dog barked and crawled all over me and while Simone decided to wake up even though she hadn’t been in bed for an hour (mercifully, she went back down quickly). It took longer than it should have much like I feel my writing these days tends to take much longer than it should. I read the story and I understood the reward at the end is not necessarily a given, rather it is that bit in our minds that keeps us going. We may run out of time we might never get finished. Thinks happen. Life is capricious. But we keep the idea in our heads and we try to get as close as we can. We may only manage a few leaves when we were really trying to paint a tree, but that’s how it goes sometimes, and we have to keep at it anyway.

I have had a much needed week off thanks to the wonders of spring break. I have spent a not insignificant portion of this time outside rehabbing a yard that was let go by the people who lived here before us. As I type this I am freshly showered after several hours of pulling overgrown ivy. I feel wonderful.

If you boil down what I am paid to do to its very essence, I am paid to think. The only physical aspect of my job involves sauntering around a classroom to check on my students. Add to that the largely incompatible schedules of my (almost) two-year-old and teaching and I am typically pretty exhausted without doing much of anything physical, so I forget how good it can feel.

I have said before that, in some ways, the most satisfying job I have ever had was mowing lawns for a couple of summers in college. It was satisfying because it offered something on a daily basis that most intellectual jobs – such as the one I currently hold – do not: A sense of accomplishment. That isn’t to say mowing a lawn feels as good as finishing the first draft of a novel, it doesn’t. But, I tend to finish a draft about once every four years, and I’m not getting paid for that. I finished four or five lawns in a day, working part time, and it was nice.

Working in my own yard provides a similar feeling. I’m not getting paid, obviously, but I can look outside the house now and see that all that damn ivy is gone and know that I did it. It is a small accomplishment, but it is an accomplishment. Add to that, the better, deeper sleep I get from working outside all day that doesn’t come from being sleep deprived by my kid and bludgeoned by standardized testing, and you won’t find me complaining when I’m doing a whole lot more of this in the summer.