July Book Log

July 31, 2011

This has been a good reading month. I was happy with all the reading choices I’ve made, and I got through the second of the three mammoth books I set out to read at the beginning of the summer. Soon, it will be back to school and time for a new book queue.

1. Collected Stories by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (4/5) – I love the language and places of Garcia-Marquez fiction. Everything about his writing enchants me. These stories were no different. The only issue I can take with them is that, often, they were very similar thematically (to the point of being repetitive in a few instances), but overall, the language made up for it nicely. I think he’ll always be one of my favorite writers.

2. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (5/5) – This was my second huge book of the summer. It clocked in at almost 900 pages, and every single one of them was wonderful. Byatt tells a wonderfully complex story set in early-20th century England. It is centered around the Wellwood family, whose matriarch, Olive, is a well-known writer of children’s stories. Nearly all the characters are extremely interesting, believable, and sympathetic train wrecks. There are fully a dozen well-developed characters who jump from the pages. The historical background is wonderful (rarely have I learned so much from a novel). And the language is flawless. This is in the running for my favorite book of the year. There is not one bad thing to say about this book.

3. Now and Then: Poems 1976-1978 by Robert Penn Warren (4.5/5) – All the King’s Men is one of my favorite novels, but I hadn’t read any of Warren’s poetry in a long time. It was nice to be reminded of the beauty of his prose. Unfettered from a story, his images become even more striking. I think he goes on a bit too long in a few poems, but it’s a minor quibble.

4. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (5/5) – This is one of the Hot New Books out there right now. I get why. Obreht tells a wonderful adult fairy tale that meditates on the meaning and significance of death with the Balkan wars as an appropriate backdrop. Her language is married to the text so perfectly you can’t imagine anyone else telling the story. This is, I think, a perfect combination of author and story. The hard thing is going to be having this as the first book she put out. How do you follow something so wonderful?

5. The Simple Truth by Phillip Levine (4/5) – I read Levine on Cate’s suggestion and I would say I adore half of the stuff in this volume. I think another third of it is excellent, but there are a few places where my personal taste would require a places for a mental pause. These are long, unbroken poems and when I was unable to give them my total concentration (something that happens often when Simone is running around), I found myself quickly lost. Still, I will be using him in my writing classes and reading more myself.

6. The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling (3.5/5) – Read this on Cate’s recommendation as well, and found it to be a nice break from the fairly intense reading I’d been going most of the month. Five really nice fairy tales. Excellent for children. I wish she’d write a whole volume of these as they’d make great bedtime stories.

7. The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene (5/5) – Speaking of dense reading… I love Brian Greene’s books. He is one of the very best writers for explaining absurdly complicated things to people who don’t have fancy science and math degrees. This book is no exception. He does a great job going over the various kinds of multiverses we might (or might not) be a part of, including several I’d not yet read about. He is always very clear about potential faults in each line of reasoning (none of these are really proven), but that doesn’t make any less fascinating to read about.

Summer Book Queue Update:

  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Unselfconscious Love

July 26, 2011

This is a small followup to the Harry Potter post I wrote last week. In that post, I mentioned that to be truly great at anything you have to love it unconditionally and unselfconsciously. Earlier this week, Cate sent me a link discussing whether or not it is conceivable that Bruce Springsteen could become the governor of New Jersey if he chose to enter politics. At the bottom of the article was a link to a Time cover article on him from 1975. There was an interesting piece of information in that article.

At the time it was written, Springsteen was big and getting bigger. Born to Run was the album that made him known to the world. It was in the top ten and would peak at number three. At the moment of the article, he was living in a standard apartment and making $350 a week. If you inflation adjust that, you will find that he was making teacher money (his pay matches my own almost exactly). This is unselfconscious, unconditional love. What better evidence could there be? He didn’t care about getting rich. He didn’t care about being famous. He had enough to eat and pay his rent and he got to play music. What more do you need?

Very soon, Scott Rolen will not be a major league baseball player. He recently went on the disabled list with a bum shoulder. It’s the same shoulder that’s been giving him trouble since 2005. He misses games because of it every year, but this year has been different. Even when he’s on the field, he hasn’t been playing at the same level.  In his own words, “I was beating my head against the wall, scratching and clawing to try to stay above .240,” he said. “You try not to be result-oriented, but at the same time, you want to be productive and help the club.”

I’ve always been a little attached to Scott Rolen. He and I grew up in more or less the same place. His high school played my high school, that kind of thing. He’s a bit older than me, but we all heard about him in school. It’s a small place. Southern Indiana doesn’t produce much beyond corn, soybeans, and limestone. So when someone like Rolen comes along, people pay attention.

I have, I think, a good perspective on what Rolen must be feeling right now. For a large chunk of my life (13 years), I was heavily involved in Tae Kwon Do. For a while, I was really good. I won my share of tournaments and traveled a good chunk of the country (there were three or four of us who traded off wins depending on who was having the better day). Then, my shoulder went bad. Rolen can’t lift his arm above his shoulder right now, and let’s just say that would represent a big improvement for me. I still competed from time to time, and I could still take care of most of my competition, but I couldn’t keep up with the three other guys. Inevitably, I lost to the first one of them I faced. I could still place – I managed some seconds and thirds – but winning was pretty much out of the question.

The most frustrating part was that I knew what I needed to do. I still had the muscle memory. I was still in good shape. It was just that my shoulder wouldn’t do what I told it to. As a result, I had no inside game. If you were bigger than me with any kind of speed, I wasn’t going to beat you.

I would imagine that’s where Rolen is right now. He still knows exactly what he needs to do, but his body won’t respond like he needs it to. That’s incredibly difficult to deal with. Amazingly, he’s still batting .240. Think about that. One of his arms is incapable of functioning normally, and he’s still able to scrap enough to hit .240 in the major leagues. But he isn’t truly elite anymore and he never will be.

And, as I said, soon, he won’t be a major leaguer at all. I don’t think we always appreciate what something like that means. Rolen has been a professional baseball player for almost 20 years. I would imagine that he has though of himself as a baseball player at least since high school, maybe longer. Fans are going to gripe about the money he’s owed and how he’ll be getting paid more than he’s worth, but I think that’s mostly jealousy. We’d all love to make millions of dollars. Few would walk away from that kind of money. And Rolen, I’m sure, still has days when he feels like a major leaguer. When nothing hurts and everything moves like it should and he believes, “Yes, I cant still do this. I can still earn my money.” But never mind the money. As human-being, it’s incredibly hard to leave something like that behind.

I can’t really throw a baseball anymore. It’s my right shoulder that betrayed me and I’m right handed. I can manage a kind of high-arcing toss as a lefty and that’s about it, but I have dreams sometimes. In the dreams, I start to lift my arm. It’s tight and I struggle, but I find away to get it to shoulder level. I keep pushing higher and higher. Suddenly, there’s a loud pop and my shoulder works just like it did when I was seventeen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rolen has dreams like that.

As everyone in the world is aware, the last Harry Potter movie came out a week ago. I came to Harry Potter late. I was a senior in high school when the first book came out and for a very long time was not interested in “kids’ books.” Cate is just the right age and followed Harry through her youth. It took her a while, but eventually, she convinced me to give the books a shot. I don’t think that the early books in the series even approach great writing, but it is a hell of a story (good storytelling should be considered at least as vital as perfect sentences. Sadly, it often isn’t) and the last several books are quite strong on all fronts.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who is a bit of a hipster and highly aggravated about all the Harry Potter stuff. His initial argument was that these were silly kids’ books and he didn’t understand why an adult would bother with them. There are, I think, lots of reasons why this is a problematic idea, but mostly I will say I have come to believe one of the best ways to get a sense of what a society (or part of a society) thinks of the world and wants for its children is to read its best children’s literature (and Harry Potter is excellent children’s literature. It’s part of the canon now, whether you like it or not).

In any case, he abandoned that argument fairly quickly and admitted that: 1. He is skeptical of anything that gets a lot of hype and 2. He doesn’t like fantasy. His second point is what it is. I think it’s dangerous to ever totally dismiss an entire genre as not worth the attention of anyone serious, but I’m not going to dwell on it. What I am going to dwell on is the first point which, I think, goes to the root of the problem with the hipster aesthetic.

Hipsters do not make quality judgments. They make quantity judgments. If too many people like something, they can’t. Period. How ridiculous. My friend’s refusal to have anything to do with the Harry Potter series is mostly grounded in his distaste for things that are popular. It is a classic argument from ignorance. He has no idea what Harry Potter is like. He has gone out of his way to have no knowledge of that world, yet he still feels qualified to pass judgment because it is too popular.

I am pretentious as hell. Everyone who knows me will tell you this. I am also wary of things that are very popular, but I try, at least, to have some knowledge of the source before I condemn it. Have I read a Twilight book? God no. But I have read enough passages to know that Ms. Meyer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her in the ass.

My generation is the hipster generation, and it bugs the hell out of me. The incorrect use of irony, the posing, the pretending not to care. Most people abandon that when they grow up, but here we are, carrying it into our thirties. I think it’s a bit pathetic that so many grown ups have to think about their reputations before deciding if they like something.

One thing I firmly believe, and have told my students once or twice, is that nearly all truly accomplished people are nerds. It can be Steve Jobs or your favorite musician. In order to get really good at something – the kind of good that makes people sit up and take notice – you have to have a nerd level obsession. You have to get up early every day to shoot free throws or stay home on the weekends to play the guitar. No matter how much natural talent you have, it takes an enormous amount of work to be truly special. It also takes an enormous amount of unselfconscious love. Hipster culture is the antithesis of that.

On Tuesday, Cate and I went to see the last Harry Potter movie. I will tell you now that I don’t love Harry Potter like she does. For me, it was The Lord of the Rings (yes, I could read Elvish once). Still, when I was a certain age, I wanted nothing more than for there to be real magic in the world, and I will always be sad when the story of a world as magical and beautiful and flawed and interesting as the one J.K. Rowling created comes to an end, and it does not matter to me how many other people are sad.

How to Treat Children

July 5, 2011

The children mingled with the adults, and spoke and were spoken to. Children in these families, at the end of the nineteenth century, were different from children before or after. They were neither dolls nor miniature adults. They were not hidden away in nurseries, but present at family meals, where their developing characters were taken seriously and rationally discussed, over supper or during long country walks. And yet, at the same time, the children in this world had their own, largely independent lives, as children. They roamed the woods and fields, built hiding-places and climbed trees, hunted, fished, rode ponies and bicycles, with no company other than that of other children.

          – A.S. Byatt in The Children’s Book

I am currently at the beginning of the – so far – breathtaking novel from which the quote above is taken. The quote is taken from the beginning of chapter 3 and struck me because of how right it seems. One of the things about parenting that constantly concerns me is the, I believe, totally misguided way American society has of treating children.

To begin with, they really are treated like miniature adults, almost from the instant they are born. The whole cry-it-out mentality is based around the idea that infants have agendas. That they are manipulating their parents into giving them something they don’t really need. These babies must be taught, we are told, to comfort themselves or else they will never be truly independent. Never mind that if we take a step back, we hopefully realize that an infant is not an adult and isn’t capable of the kind of manipulation implied. Indeed, they are still trying to make some kind of sense of the world around them. Interestingly and unfortunately, there are starting to be studies that have found a correlation between cry-it-out and adult anxiety disorders.

It gets worse as they get older. I am certainly not the first to bemoan the over-scheduling of children. Why on earth children should be shoved into all manner of lessons whether they show any interest or not is utterly beyond me. I can’t imagine this does anything more than encourage a dislike for the activities and discourage creativity. Why? Well, take a look at the second half of the quote above, where the children are basically allowed to run freely. I am a member of more or less the last generation that was allowed to run free and unsupervised a great deal of the time. When I was a child, we were at our most inventive when left alone by adults. I’m sure we occasionally did things adults wouldn’t have approved of, but they were never truly harmful activities.

Indeed, I am reminded of the Michael Chabon essay “The Wilderness of Childhood”. In it, he bemoans the loss of unsupervised playtime for children, which has happened largely because we are afraid of what might happen to our kids. Interestingly, all of our precautions have changed the child abduction rate not a wit. Simply put, abduction by total strangers (the kind of abduction the elimination of unsupervised play tries to prevent) is an extremely rare event. Rare enough that your child has no practical risk from it whether they are supervised or not. But because the threat of abduction feels so much more tangible than the loss of the imaginative growth that takes place when we try to protect our children, our alarmist culture tells us we are better safe than sorry while ignoring the damage we are almost certainly causing.

And there’s nothing you can do about it now. This is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of current adult-child culture. The adults have won. In most places, kids aren’t left outside to play in any appreciable numbers. What that means is that you can’t send your kids out to play even if you want to because there is no one to play with.

And so, I  come back to the quote at the start of this post. It articulates perfectly what I want for my children. I want them to run free, explore, and get bored. I want to guide them without controlling their every moment. I want to listen to them and believe them when they tell me they need something. That, I believe, is how children are most likely to become happy, creative, productive adults.