March Book Log

March 31, 2012

After falling off the pace a bit in February, I managed a very solid month of reading in March. Additionally, I submitted the novel to several places, sent out some short stories, and wrote a 17 page story. This is pretty much how I want every month to go.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (3.5/5) – With all the genuflecting done at Franzen, I though I’d tackle his most recent work. I was disappointed. Oh, it’s fine. I wouldn’t call this a bad book by any stretch, but there was a lot I just didn’t buy. Like, for instance, the way characters who aren’t really good people miraculously transform into decent human beings for the sake of a tidy ending. And don’t even get me started on the treatment of women. I don’t understand how someone who is often called the Best Living American Writer can have that title when he does such a poor job representing half the population. Give me Chang-Rae Lee, Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison, or Ann Patchett any day.

2. The Thinking Life by P.M. Forni (3.5/5) – This book had tons of potential. It started as a very nice little philosophical text about the importance of thinking and finding time in your life for contemplation. Both solid topics. However, it ended up feeling like a book that should have been an essay. He pads it out with too many lists and overly-specific examples.

3. Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg (5/5) – Boy, this just depressed the hell out of me. I read it because I was curious about what, exactly, the Fins do differently than the US in their schools. The answer, apparently, is everything. I might have suspected that, but it’s amazing to see that what many teachers would tell you is the right way to do things works beautifully in Finland and produces great results. This is definitely going to re-frame how I tackle my job next year.

4. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt (5/5) – I love A.S. Byatt. This book is a collection of five, very adult, fairy tales. Nothing to read to your kids, but really good, compelling stories that are sometimes gruesome and sometimes sad but always wonderful. I found the story of a woman turning to stone especially moving. I’ve read three of her books now, and loved each one. Time to start reading everything else she’s written, I guess.

5. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (4/5) – A book from Cate’s list for me. McCourt’s writing is very much in the Irish tradition and I found is prose quite lovely. However, I had the same problem with this book that I have with many memoirs. So much of this book is woe-is-me and McCourt doesn’t really become a character until the last quarter (maybe not even that) of the book. So yes, there is a lot to like about this book, but it didn’t resonate with me as I wanted it to.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann*
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee*
Run by Ann Patchett*
The Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt*
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood*
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

One of the central tenants of my life is that I want to get as much rigorous mental activity as I can. I came to this organically the summer before I got my first teaching job. I had just finished graduate school and was living off what remained of my student loans. I had a lot of time on my hands and I started reading like I hadn’t read since I was an undergraduate (I am fond of quoting the following numbers: during my last semester at Washington University, I averaged about 1000 pages of reading and 10 pages of writing per week). In the evenings, I was working on the first draft of what would eventually become Lonely Human Atoms.

As the summer passed, I started to notice something. Nights I spent watching TV or sloughing around on the computer, I felt lethargic. When I spent my time reading and writing, I had energy. I was much happier. Slowly, TV subsided from my life. Aside from baseball, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey, I don’t watch TV at all. Instead, I read and I write.

This post is mostly about what I read. As you know, if you are a regular reader of this blog, I don’t read crap. I read mostly literary fiction, some fairly weighty nonfiction, and a smattering of poetry, plays, memoir, etc. In fact, I disdain that which does not aspire to be literary in some sense because I don’t believe there is much use in things that do not challenge us.

More and more I am being proven right. For sometime, there have been studies showing that reading fiction teaches a person empathy, but they include all fiction. Twilight gets lumped in with Great Expectations. That never felt right to me.

Recently, there has been new research showing that reading about something is not – as far as your brain is concerned – appreciably different from experiencing it. This is where the literary triumphs. Literary writing is that which is most vivid, which most pulls at our intellect and our emotions. It is that which provides us with the most memorable experience.

And more people need to get on board.

There are people – my mom, sadly is one of them – who do not like to think. Or who insist that they think plenty during the day. (“I don’t want to think after work,” was always my mom’s answer when dad and I tried to get her to not watch mindless TV in the evenings.) I think there is something wrong with this.

I can, perhaps speak with more authority now that I am a teacher. Not because I have special knowledge of learning, but because I have a job that taxes me mentally all day. There is no down time (or very little) and when I get home, I still push myself. I still read good books. I still try to write good posts and beautiful fiction. I do not let myself checkout. I keep my brain on.

I force this rigor on myself because I know that I am better for it. I am happier. I am more thoughtful. I am, frankly, smarter when I spend my free time challenging myself instead of checking out.

But there is another level. You might even call it a moral level. Einstein said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” Learning is a form of action. Reading – and gaining experience through reading – is a form of action. One of the primary problems in American society is the uneducated electorate. Certainly, many people have never been given the chance at a decent education, but many more have simply chosen to check out when they get home from work. Why? Because it is easy. Because it takes effort to get going on a book when you spent all day doing whatever it is you happen to do all day.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mental time off. Everyone needs that. I’m saying it is a mistake to have your extracurricular life be about nothing other than leisure. Leisure is great, but it doesn’t fulfill you. I’ve known several people who spent their lives doing not-very-much engaging outside of work and then retired to find themselves with nothing to do and no outlet for mental stimulation.

An article in The Atlantic recently has caused a bit of a stir. The writer asserts that everyone needs to start reading literary fiction at least 30 minutes a day because it will make you a better person. She’s right. It will. Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

(First, an irrelevant side note: I am now on the Twitter if you care. I tweet about what I write about here and baseball and sometimes music. I am @jasonlinden.)

Eventually, I am sure I will stop gushing about my current writing class, but I’ve spent five years waiting for a class that gets it, so you’re just going to have to bear with me for a while.

I have spent a lot of words on this blog reflect on education – both my own and that of my students. One thing I don’t think I have explicitly stated is the importance of caring. Education can’t take place until you are willing to engage with the subject. You have to care. You have to be willing to get worked up.

As a teacher, especially a writing teacher, there is only so much I can do. I’ve written about this before and I won’t go into it now. Instead, I want to talk about what it’s like when things go right.

There are students gathered around in a circle. I wish we had a nice long table, but we don’t, so we make due with desks. they have read the two stories we are supposed to discuss today. They have made notes. They are ready to talk.

I have a list of things I think need to be discussed in each story, but I hold back because I want to see how many of them the class gets to on its own. The answer is nearly all of them. I jump in the middle for a moment and push them in one direction or another. I clarify and emphasize some things at the end. Once or twice, I mention something that hasn’t already been mentioned.

But mostly, I sit and watch. Occasionally, one of the students even cuts me off while I’m talking. This is wonderful because it means she cares. She is worked up about the story and has something to say. And that is great. That is what I want them to do. This is what allows me to be the best teacher I can be.

Because there is nothing special about me. I’ve spent more time working on and thinking about writing than they have, but that’s an artifact of age. My best use to them is as an older, perhaps moderately wiser, set of experiences and mistakes.

All writers have been hobbled or broken down at times. If my students haven’t yet, they will be. My only hope is that, when it comes, my class will have helped them a little. That I will have taught them a little bit about how to take criticism and how not to give up.

We get to the end of workshop and everyone is smiling, even though the stories got it pretty rough. Nothing was personal. We’re all working together. They are all working together. For a few minutes at the end, everyone sits around and continues to talk about writing. They don’t have to, but they do. They believe it is interesting and important. And this is why I wanted to teach.

I recently mentioned the advanced writing class I am teaching for the first time. It is a wonderful class and recently, we had a discussion that gave me an epiphany. The discussion was based around the idea that it is important to learn to write from other perspectives. I was especially focusing on the tendency of men to always write from the male perspective. I mentioned Colum McCann as someone who transcends this limitation.

Unsurprisingly, the girls in my class were very receptive to this discussion. After all, they’ve spent there whole lives watching the majority of stories be told from a perspective that is not theirs. One of them made a wonderful comment. She said, “My boys get in touch with their feelings.” She was referring, of course, to the boys she dates. Good for her.

The writing implications of that statement were immediately clear. You can’t write if you aren’t in touch with your feelings. Creative writing is about emotion. Without emotion, there is no engagement with the audience. This is important stuff to talk about. However, there was another implication that didn’t hit me for several days.

The hard part about parenting James will be teaching him to show emotion.

This is the biggest hangup society lays at the feet of men. You are not to feel. To feel is to be weak. To be weak is to be irrelevant. It’s a depressing thing. I went through most of my adolescence and a portion of early adulthood trying, with varying degrees of success, to suppress my emotions. And I came from a household where my dad was affectionate and open about his love for me.  Yet, somehow, I lived a long time before I realized the idea that men don’t cry ever or men don’t display emotion publicly was a bunch of nonsense.

It was hard for me and I suspect it will be hard for my son. If the hard thing about parenting a girl is avoiding/counteracting the princess culture, with boys it’s the tough-guy culture. What’s worse, the societal consequences for boys are much steeper. That is, a tomboy girl is often looked upon as charmingly different, if flawed. Whereas a sensitive boy is typically seen as unacceptable. Unmanly. A reject. Or worse, someone to be preyed upon.

Still, I will try to raise James to feel and to express his feelings and to not be ashamed of it. If I’m lucky, one day he’ll trip across someone like my student who knows enough to realize that this is a good thing.

Different Versions

March 7, 2012

Over the last year, I have gone from being a non-presence in the online baseball community to playing a moderately prominent role. I write a lot at a Reds-focused blog and I edit for a national baseball site (and write every so often). Since I started becoming more active in that community, I’ve formed online relationships with some really cool people.

And some of them are really conservative.

They are so conservative that if we met each other under any other circumstances, we would probably hate each other. Harsh words would quite possibly fly. But on the baseball sites, we get along well. I think this is a very important thing.

So many people get worked up about the supposed echo chamber of the internet, but that only exists if your interests are very narrow. In many ways, the internet encourages community and community is a good thing because it forces us to consider the impact of our words on people. It forces us to frame our arguments differently. It forces us to realize that though we might disagree on everything else, we can be friends when we’re talking about the glory of watching Barry Larkin turn the double play.

And then there’s my job. I can’t bring my politics to my job. If I taught math, that would be one thing, but teaching English, things come up. Kids want to know what you think. Parents might not. It’s a tough situation. It’s hard, at times, to hold myself back, but if I didn’t, I’d turn some kids off. I’d lose them and then they wouldn’t learn the most valuable things I’m trying to teach them – how to think and how to question authority.

I try to be Atticus Finch and live the same in town (and on the internet) as I am at home, but sometimes, that feels impossible. Some of that is decorum and some of it is the nature of my job, but I am glad, in a way, to have these different versions of myself. If I didn’t hold myself back in some arenas and let myself go in others, I would miss out on some pretty cool experiences and some interesting people and that would be a shame.