Children’s Literature Reading List Update

In the last two days, I have read/reread:

  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler
  • Then Again, Maybe I Won’t
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events Book 1: A Bad Beginning
  • The Phantom Tollbooth

I have also spent several lovely hours wandering through the stacks of three different children’s libraries.  The nostalgia is permeating everything.  I’d forgotten what it’s like to haul home a stack of 15 new delicious-looking books and devour 2 or more of them before the day is over.

I have spent most of my adult life searching for that blinkered bliss that accompanies childhood reading.  I almost never find it.  If this continues, I’m in for a really  good winter vacation.

This is my JOB.  Are you kidding me?

Thank you all so much for your book suggestions! I will post a full 45-book reading list for my Child Studies course for your enjoyment once it is finalized.

“Well, I would like to make another trip…but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time.  There’s just so much to do right here.”

-The Phantom Tollbooth

Image by Jules Feiffer

42 Books for Kids

I am putting together a list of 42 excellent children’s books (one for each student) for my Child Studies course next semester.

I am looking for books suitable for children between the ages of 8 and 12 – “chapter books” rather than picture books.  I’d also like them to be less contemporary books, books that my students are not likely to have encountered on their own – so no Harry Potter or Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

I’m particularly interested in books that will appeal to boys.  Most books that spontaneously come to my mind are ones that I enjoyed, and my interests were not boyish.  (Don’t get all up in my grill about gender stereotypes, please; anyone who teaches teenagers knows that these things matter.)

Here’s my list so far:

  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (possible candidate for the whole-class reading)
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • Little House on the Prairie
  • A Wrinkle in Time
  • The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
  • Bridge to Terebithia
  • Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing
  • Harriet the Spy
  • From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
  • Swallows and Amazons
  • The Railway Children
  • The Secret Garden

Do you have suggestions for great kids’ books, especially books that my (mostly non-reading) students are unlikely to have encountered by themselves or through elementary-school reading assignments?  What books did/do you feel kids really must read?

Image by brainloc

Willing to Read and Write: Reprise

Last week, this post – first published in September of last year – spiked in my blog stats.  It seemed a whole pile of people were reading it, but I couldn’t figure out who or why, although the search term “effort” had a corresponding spike.  Maybe now, at midterm, teachers and students are being hard hit by the reality of the reading and writing demands of college.  Or maybe it’s bots.  Regardless, I like this post, and am still asking myself these questions: is college the best place for students who find reading and writing a chore?  Is it a place where they can learn to love these activities, or at least see their value?

*

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion - here’s one post that takes it on - but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

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Go to Siobhan’s Facebook page and hit “Like”!  Follow Siobhan on Twitter!  And if you’d like to know more about Siobhan’s life and thoughts outside the classroom, follow her Tumblr blog.

Image by Peter Galbraith

How Literature Will Save the World: Reprise

Why should we keep reading?  Why should my students learn to love reading?  I began asking myself this question in 2010, and I keep asking it, of myself and others.  Below, some of my initial thoughts on the matter.

*

Lately, I’ve been thinking about reading.

Last summer I published a post in which I mourned the decline of reading, not just among my students and the population in general, but in my own life.  The upshot of the post is that I’m too vulnerable to easy distractions.  At the end of a long day, if I have the choice to pick up a book or waste hours on Facebook, I fall prey to the latter without even making a conscious decision.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked my IB students  whether the two novels we’ve read so far have any sort of social or political purpose.  The discussion was interesting to begin with, but it took a turn into the even more profound when someone asked whether literature, in and of itself, has a social or political purpose.

There was a pause after this question.  Then I asked, “Why do we read?  What are books for?  If the novel goes the way of live theater – a medium appealing to only a small, relatively rarefied segment of the population – what, if anything, will be lost?  What can a novel do for us that other art forms can’t?”

I have my own pet answer to this question.  I believe that reading literature is the best, and perhaps the only, way to understand what it is like to be someone other than myself.  As we hashed the question around a bit, I proposed this answer to my students, and most of them seemed to find it convincing.

Marcel, however, had another bone he wanted to pick about this.  “People don’t read, because it takes time,” he said.  “You have to invest more time and work harder to receive a greater, delayed reward.  This is why people don’t read.  They are intellectually lazy.”

This assertion struck me hard, because, in my case at least, he’s right.  I know that an evening spent reading a book, whether it’s Proust or a P. D. James novel, will bring greater rewards than a night reading status updates and watching the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.  If I make the effort, I will be happier, I will feel calmer, I will sleep better, and I will probably even learn something.  But turning on the TV or the computer fills the echoey corners of my brain without my having to invest anything.  Most nights, this is more appealing than actually doing something.

Today, a friend sent me Mark Slouka’s essay “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School”.  Here is another indicator of my laziness: a colleague sent me this article sometime last fall, I printed it up and carried it around with me for almost two months, and then I chucked it out.  When Wanda deposited it in my inbox today, I had stacks of papers to mark, so of course it was the perfect time to read it, and I did.  In her message, Wanda helpfully pulled the most salient quote out for me:

Happily ignoring the fact that the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other, our high schools and colleges labor mightily to provide students with mirrors of their own experience, lest they be made uncomfortable, effectively undercutting diversity in the name of diversity.

This assertion – that “the whole point of reading is to force us into an encounter with the other” – is at the root of my love of literature and of my belief in teaching literature.  It’s also why, at the end of the day, I’m reluctant to sit down with a book.  I am constantly looking for literature that will make me  feel cozy and reaffirmed, in which I will encounter things that are so familiar as to be transparent.  If I can’t have that, I don’t want to read at all.

And I question whether my students need to read literature, because I want them to have that cozy experience too.  I don’t want literature to be hard work for them.  I want them to love the books I give them, love them easily and wholeheartedly, and when they don’t, I wonder why they should read them at all.

Both my students and I need to work harder.  I have no excuse – I’ve been given all the training I need to approach reading with my sleeves rolled up, and I just don’t bother.  My students need that training, and I need to give it to them.  If I sincerely believe that reading helps us to understand what it’s like to be someone else, then I need to hand my students the tools to help them read – to help them read well, widely, attentively, and voraciously.

Because if there’s one thing that will rescue us, it’s our ability to understand one another, and I believe literature can help us find that.

Image by Jim Larranaga

The Uses of Boredom: Reprise

An earlier version of this week’s reprint appeared in July of 2009.  It tells the story of how and why I became a reader.  And it asks: how do we learn to like challenging tasks if we live in a world where boredom is impossible?

*

boredomI became a reader because I was bored.

I learned to read when I was about four years old, but, like many children, I read only picture books until I was about seven. My parents brought me to the library every two weeks, and I filled up on library books at school as well, but picture books didn’t last long; I ended up reading them over and over because we had limited television options and, of course, no computer. (I was also a clumsy child with seasonal allergies who didn’t like to play outside.)

I occasionally glanced at the library shelves full of books for older children, and sometimes took one down to page through it, but I was intimidated. They were so thick, and if there were illustrations at all, they appeared only once a chapter or so. These “chapter books” seemed like too much work.

Every summer, we loaded up the car and drove for what seemed like months, but was probably about five hours, to our summer house to spend two or three weeks. Before leaving town, we took a special trip to the library to take out an extra-large stack of books on extended summer loan.  The summer I was seven, my mother used part of her precious borrowing allotment to take out a few “chapter books” for me. “But I don’t like chapter books,” I said. She ignored me.

I read through all my picture books in the car on the way to the coast, and even dipped into some of my brothers’ horror comics to pass the time. (They both suffered from carsickness, and so most of the reading material was mine for the duration of the trip.)  Then we arrived, and for two weeks, I had to keep myself entertained.  At the summer house, we had no television, and a seven-year-old, even one who likes math, can only play cribbage for so long. We found things to do: there was a tree behind the house full of fascinating fuzzy yellow caterpillars; there was a rusted old bedspring in the next lot that we liked to bounce on (and somehow none of us got tetanus); our parents took us to the beach or the nearby swimming hole every second day; and the blueberries needed picking and eating.

But then it rained. We were stuck in the house, lying on the creaky couch in the living room. We groaned and rolled our eyes at the tedium. We pressed our noses against the glass to make interesting smudges or write in the steam from our breath.

And then I saw, on the endtable, the little stack of “chapter books” my mother had brought for me.

I picked one up and leafed through it. I don’t remember what book it was, but there was a full-page woodcut at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest of the pages seemed dense and busy with text. The first woodcut was of two boys and a girl, maybe brothers and a sister just like my brothers and me. And there was a duck, I think. The duck caught my interest.

It was still raining. I started to read.

I read that entire book that afternoon, and started another after dinner. When bedtime came, I hid in the bathroom with that book until my parents threatened to shut down the power if I didn’t turn out the lights and go to bed.

The experience of being entirely transported into another world was one that would shape the rest of my childhood and adolescence. Until I pursued an English degree at university and ruined it all, reading became the most important activity in my life.  I might never have found it if we’d had cable TV, video games, or Internet access at that summer house.

These days, I marvel at those of my students who read for pleasure. These kids have no memory of a world without computers or cell phones. There are myriad forms of instant gratification available at their fingertips at all times. Even so, some of them still love reading. My IB students and I had a discussion last term about the future of the novel, and they rhapsodized about books; Anny told us that her bookshelf is near her bed and sometimes she’ll pull the books out and smell the pages because they make her so happy.

Most of my students, however, have no interest in reading, and I have to say that I don’t blame them. Even I don’t read for pleasure much any more, especially fiction – I watch television and films, read blogs online, and listen to nonfiction as podcasts and audiofiles.  I’m a writer and English teacher, and was a voracious reader from the age of seven. If I’m not reading, what chance do my overstimulated students have, especially if they’ve never been bored long enough to reach out to a book they might normally not be bothered with?

A colleague and I were discussing his children one day, and he said that he and his wife had been debating the restrictions they should place on computer use and television viewing. He said that during their conversation, he’d had a revelation. “I want my kids to have the chance to be bored,” he said.  How much creative discovery has taken place because a child or an adult was trapped inside on a rainy day and all the picture books had been read, all the video games had been won, or the cable had gone out? How much more would teenagers learn about themselves if they put their cell phones away for a few days at a time?

We could argue that kids go to school, so they know plenty about boredom. But would they be able to make more use of the “boring” hours they spend sitting at a desk if they had more chances, on their own time, to lie on the couch, look around the room, and find something new to read? If they spent more time wandering through the woods, picking up sticks to use as toys, or examining the insides of flowers?  Some of my most stimulating memories of my childhood are of doing these kinds of things, and some of the most interesting people I know, young and old, grew up in environments where there was no, or limited, access to televisions, computers, game consoles, etc. They got bored, and they had to do something about it.

Most importantly, someone was there to hand them a book, a chemistry set, or a basketball, and say, “See what you can do with this.” Is this what’s missing from many of our kids’ lives? Is this what Anny’s parents did – turned off the television, handed her a book, and said, “Try this on”?

My greatest fear is not that many young people will never learn to enjoy books, although I do think that’s a shame. My greatest fear is that many will never discover things they could really love, things that could make them better, happier people, because they’re filling their time with easy distractions.

I love easy distractions as much as the next person, and you are as likely to find me checking Facebook and playing Plants vs. Zombies as reading a novel these days. But at least I had a chance. What chance do some of these kids have?

Too Many Books

The Husband and I are moving soon.  The other night, we invited a mover over to give us a quote.  He looked around and said, “It’s going to cost you a fortune.  You have too many books.”

I know what some of you are thinking.  Never!  Sacrilege!  No such thing!  These were not my responses.  I nodded, resignedly, and said, “I know.  I know.”

We do indeed have too many books.  How do I know this?  Because for days – nay, weeks – now, I have been ruthlessly culling books.  I’ve been pulling books off shelves and staring at them and saying things like, “Where did this come from?” and “Why did I buy this?” and “When will I ever, conceivably, read this again?”  The Husband has been doing the same, and we now have a pile of what looks like hundreds of books in the middle of the living room floor, waiting for the second-hand bookstore man to come and sort them and judge them and, we hope, pay us for some of them.

Purging books is a painful business.  Why?  Why is it so much harder to let go of a book, even a book we don’t particularly like or a book whose purpose has been served, than it is to dispose of most other things, even more expensive things – an article of clothing, a tchotchke, an electronic gadget?

A friend recently told me that she regularly tries to winnow down her book collection and can’t do it, because even the books she doesn’t like or has never read symbolize something: her independent intellectual life, which is so different from the life lived by everyone else in her working-class immigrant family.  She described pulling a collection of Joyce Carol Oates stories from a shelf – a collection she’s never read – putting it on the “discard” pile, and then pulling it back out and returning it to the shelf.  “I bought it when I began university,” she said.  “It was a book that signified the person I was becoming, a person who read contemporary American literary authors.  I can’t stand Joyce Carol Oates!  But I still have that damn book.”

I find myself feeling exactly the same thing as I stand before my shelves staring once again at that copy of Swann’s Way that I have tried to read four times.  On my last attempt, I trudged 300 pages into it before giving up.  Every time I do a book purge, I consider getting rid of it.  This time I was successful!  Why?  Because I have bought myself the newish Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way, and so I can still be the sort of person who has Proust on my bookshelf, and who can firmly believe that I will one day be the sort of person who has actually read Proust.

(Repeat for: Ulysses, The Voyage Out, about twenty back issues of Granta, Barack Obama’s memoir, and so forth.)

Other reasons I struggle when giving up a book?

  • It has a personal inscription in it, even if a) I’ve never read the book, or b) I didn’t like the book, or c) I no longer like the person who gave it to me.
  • It was given to me by The Husband, mostly because I know he will be peeved when he finds it in the “discard” pile.
  • It might, possibly, contain an article, short story or chapter that I might, possibly, use in a course that I might, possibly, design one day.
  • I loved it once, even though I will certainly never read it again.

One of the biggest problems is my collection of children’s and young adult books.  I keep some of them because I still love them  and can imagine re-reading them from time to time.  Others have sentimental resonance.  But I have far too many, including some I’ve never read all the way through.  I sometimes consider paring the collection down, but I have a fantasy that I will one day propose, and have approved, a project for a reading zone at my college.  This reading zone would be a quiet room full of books appealing to teenagers, and I would re-design my Preparation for College English course around it.  I would bring my struggling second-language readers to the reading zone and present them with shelves and shelves full of books that would instantly grab their attention because they are made to do so, unlike the dusty dun-coloured hardbacks in the library.  How can I get rid of these books when it’s possible that I can someday bring this project to fruition?  Never mind that it will never be approved, for a thousand reasons.  I need to cling to these books just in case.

I know: some of you will say, “Why on earth would you want to get rid of any of your books?  Who cares what the movers say or how much it will cost to move them?  Books are sacred!  Hold on to your books!”  (This is more or less what my father said to me on the phone this afternoon.)

But here’s the thing: I love books, and I find them beautiful, and I become very attached to some of them.  But they aren’t sacred.  They’re  things.

This seems to be a great point of contention for some people.  For example, I’ve been reading a lot of home decor magazines and blogs lately, and a lot of attention is paid to books as decorative objects.  This upsets some readers.  A lot.  Check out this post on my favourite design blog, Apartment Therapy, in which the writer argues for the practice of organizing books by colour, and some commenters respond with rage verging on apoplexy.

I’m not sure I could bring myself to treat books with quite that degree of objectification.  (Besides, I don’t think it looks all that nice.)  But there have been moments of my purge in which I have given myself pause because I have wondered if my house will look sad and empty because it will be less bursting with books.  If, god forbid, my house will look like less of a READER’S house.

And these moments have confirmed for me what I have suspected all along: books are stuff.  They take up space.  And the more space I devote to the ones I don’t really care about, the less respect I am showing for the ones I really love.  So I have to be ruthless to be kind.  Kind to myself, kind to our budget, kind to my house, kind to my movers, and kind to my favourite books.

Are you able to treat your books with both the love and the firmness they deserve?  When a book has had its day, are you able to let it go?  Or do you love your piles and piles of books as much as you love each book itself?  Do you wish you could liberate yourself from your mountains of books, or do those mountains make you happy?  I always feel lighter, if a little saddened, when a pile of books makes its way out the door.  I rarely miss a book once it’s gone, and in the age of Amazon, I can be pretty sure that if I do, I’ll be able to find it again.  If your home is full of books you don’t love, maybe it’s time to start saying goodbye.

But according to my movers, I’m no one to talk.

Image by Marja Flick-Buijs

My Top 10 Books of 2011

For English teachers, reading for pleasure can be tough.  After grading papers all day, the last thing I want to do is read more.  Also, my personal reading has become subtly oriented toward finding material for my courses; I seem to be approaching every novel and memoir through the (imagined) perspective of a (precocious) seventeen-year-old, and this alters my ability to enjoy things.

(Case in point: 150 pages into Ondaatje’s beautiful The Cat’s Table, I yelled, “Finally, Michael, a hint of a #*&@ing plot!  Gawd!”  I didn’t use to do that kind of thing.)

Nevertheless, I read some books for fun this year, and some of them I flat-out loved.  Here they are.

These books were not necessarily published in 2011, but they were part of my 2011 experience.

1. Carrie by Stephen King

Yes.  Carrie.  I am not a horror fan, nor a Stephen King fan; also, I’ve never seen the film.  However, the morning of my birthday, I watched a video by Professor Adam Crowley in which he lectures undergraduates on the importance of reading, and recommends Carrie as a book everyone should read.  Later that afternoon, my present from The Husband arrived in the mail: a Kindle.  The great thing about a Kindle is that you can download samples; immediately after opening it, I got myself excerpts from eight different books: seven recent critically acclaimed literary masterpieces, and Carrie.  I read through all eight excerpts.  Not one of them did a thing for me except Carrie - the two seconds it took to download the full book were agonizing.  I read the whole thing in one afternoon and evening.  If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favour.  It’s riveting and elegant, although you’ll have to contend with a lot of menstrual blood and screaming.  In this story, King is the kind of writer I aspire to be: transparent, sensitive, and a little bit manipulative, all while making it look so easy.

2. Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson

Again, I feel like some caveats are called for – appropriate, because this book is one long caveat.  I’ve been meaning to read it for years, not only because it has been so acclaimed, but also because I used to know Carl Wilson a little – he lived in Montreal, with a couple of my friends, for a while in the 90s, and he was always good company and a very funny storyteller.  Reading this book is like hanging out with him and listening to him rant, in the most articulate and entertaining way imaginable, about the horror that is Celine Dion and the horror that is his horror of Celine Dion.  In the process, he tells us a lot about art, class, taste, humility, and the pitfalls of being “cool.”  The last two chapters sent me into the open-mouthed paroxysms of intellectual delight that you always hope pop-culture analysis will bring about (and it almost never does.)  It’s a little tiny book.  You have nothing to lose but your pretensions.

3. Room by Emma Donoghue

This book deserves every word of acclaim that it has received.  I had to take two stabs at it, though, because the first time, I was having a bad day, and it is not a book to read when you are having a bad day.  The story of a little boy who is being raised in captivity by his kidnapped and confined mother is totally convincing; Donoghue’s capturing of a very peculiar five-year-old voice will leave you astonished.  (I also read Donoghue’s Slammerkin and The Sealed Letter this year, and they are both also great.)

4. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

This book was a Christmas present from The Husband.  He knows what I like.  I love Tom Perrotta, from Election (yes, the movie was wonderful but the book was an entirely different kind of wonderful) to Little Children (ditto).  Perrotta’s writing is often called “dark comedy,” but I don’t really see it – The Leftovers is funny in spots, but is mostly a finely wrought character drama about the people who have been left behind after an inscrutable Rapture-like event, in which a seemingly random sample of the population up and disappears into thin air.  Apparently an HBO series based on the book is in the works.  CAN’T WAIT.

5. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

It won the Booker.  It deserved it.  This slender story, about a man who can’t let go of a long-defunct love affair, is both puzzling and satisfying.  The “sense” one has at the “ending” is that one wants to go back and read the whole damn thing again to see if one has properly understood.  There’s been some bashing – It’s too simple!  It’s too complex!  It thinks it’s complex but it’s really not! – but isn’t there always when a book wins a big prize?  I used to teach Barnes’ Talking it Over in my International Baccalaureate class, as it was the perfect vehicle for discussing the technique of point of view, and a theme that Barnes seems obsessed with: the unreliability of memory and the fallibility of any single perspective.  What really happened? is a question that any novelist – and anyone who cares about human life and nature – should really be thinking about all the time.

6. Paying For It by Chester Brown

I’m certainly glad I never dated Chester Brown. (I’ve dated men who were something like him.  There were problems.)  That said, I’m also glad I read this book.  The subject wasn’t immediately appealing.  Brown decides that he’s had enough of the responsibility entailed in real “relationships,” but that he’s not willing to forego sex, and so the only rational move is to begin frequenting prostitutes.  This is a graphic – in all senses of the word – chronicle of the years that follow.  The illustrations of his sexual encounters are explicit yet clinical, terms that I expect apply to Brown himself.  One of Brown’s previous works is a lauded comic-strip biography of Louis Riel; it’s one of my favourite books, so I wasn’t altogether surprised by how much I loved this one.

7. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

A student who had made it clear all semester that he had no intention of reading any of the assigned books, or any books at all for that matter, asked me out of the blue one day, “Miss, have you read The Hunger Games?  Would you be surprised if I told you that I read the first two books this weekend?  It’s actually interesting.”  Yes, folks, sometimes books are interesting.  Yes, this one’s great.  It’s just great, so just read it.  I am halfway through the second book now and am not having the same gripping experience, so savour the first one for all it’s worth.

8. Habibi by Craig Thompson

It will probably make you weep uncontrollably.  It’s very fat, but you’ll want to read it slowly, so, as graphic novels go, this one will take you a long time.  I’m not a visually attuned sort of person – when reading comics, I focus on the text and let the images wash over me – but this book won’t allow that sort of reading.  You need to immerse yourself in it entirely and linger over each page, if only to say, “Holy crap, this one frame must have taken him MONTHS.”  Stunning.

9. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I struggled with myself over this one, and it made the list because I didn’t have enough reading time this year, and so couldn’t find a better candidate.  (Okay, belated English teacher’s New Year’s Resolution: less TV, more books.)  It was fine.  I loved The Virgin Suicides - I reread that this year, too, as I was teaching it – so I’ll always have a soft spot for Eugenides, but the story here is very slight, if mostly well told.  I moved along through it easily.  The characters were not loveable, but the brilliant manic-depressive Leonard was skillfully drawn.  I recognized the world Eugenides was capturing: recent college graduates trying to reconcile everything they learned about critical theory with the blood and mud of real life.  If you care about emerging adulthood and Barthes, give it a shot.

10. Planting Dandelions by Kyran Pittman

Full disclosure: Kyran Pittman and I grew up in the same small town, and her parents were family acquaintances; her father, the poet Al Pittman, was one of my professors at university.  Much of my pleasure from reading this “memoir” – more of a collection of personal essays – may have come from the sparks of real recognition I felt while reading it, as I encountered people and places familiar to me.  That said, it’s a lovely book.  Pittman details her flight from a little city in Newfoundland and an unhappy marriage, to Arkansas and a man she met on the internet.  Then she tells us about the years that follow, in which she and her new love marry, raise three boys, and build their life in a place as foreign to her as the Middle East might be.  I’ve always wanted to visit the south of the United States, and Pittman’s accounts give me a sense of how I might feel there.  She also helps me understand what it is to be a mother, and how it feels to have your little blog become a big phenomenon and, eventually, a book.  It’s fun and funny and honest, and manages to be cozy, exotic and totally ordinary, all at once.

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Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?  And please, please tell me what to read next.

Life and Death and Anthologies

Anthologies are odd.  They’re compiled of a lot of stuff that someone thinks we should read, and so they have little to do with the real experience of reading.  Being a “reader” is as much about wandering down the aisle of a bookstore looking for attractive covers, or downloading an excerpt on a Kindle based on a friend’s recommendation, as it is about curling up in a chair and getting lost.  Anthologies are meant to educate us; they are not meant to transport us. But sometimes they do both.

On Saturday, a column by Mireille Silcoff,  in the National Post, begins when she goes into early labour, and is rushed off to the maternity ward in such haste that she arrives without reading material.  Her husband, hapless when it comes to books, brings her some duds from home, including her old Norton Anthology of English Literature.  At least, I’d have called it a dud, but she takes a different approach.  She settles in with it, and  discovers a lot of things about herself and, most tellingly, about her undergraduate education.  All those things are interesting, and I will write about them later, but I was first struck by Silcoff’s unexpected affection for her anthology.  It resembles an experience of my own.

When I was twenty-nine and in the middle of my Masters degree, I went off to Ireland for a summer, in order to research the novel I was writing and earn some transfer credits doing a “writer’s course” through, of all things, the University of Arkansas.  I planned to arrive a couple of weeks early, so I could spend some time with a friend in Dublin, and drop in on a postcolonialism conference at the National University of Ireland campus in Galway, where my course would be held.  I was an experienced traveler, and had learned to travel light.  There would be no shortage of bookstores in Ireland, but I needed one good read to get me there, something small but full of stuff  to chew on, so that after my arrival, I could put off buying more books for as long as possible.

My “writer’s course” was going to consist of a creative writing master class and a survey on contemporary Irish fiction.  The survey required an anthology, the Penguin Modern Irish Short Stories.  Perfect, I thought.  Or, at least: adequate.  A book.  Lots of things in it.  I have to read  stuff from it anyway.  It’ll do.

Once I settled into my seat on the airplane, I discovered the first problem: the first fifty pages of the anthology were missing.  There was no table of contents; the collection began in the middle of a story by George Moore.  There was also no index.  The authors and titles of the stories were indicated in headers at the top of each page, but I had to thumb through scores of unfamiliar names to find the names I wanted: Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, and … well, truthfully, those were the only twentieth-century Irish writers I knew anything about.  I sighed.  All right, fine.  What else was I going to do?  I settled in, turned to Beckett’s “Dante and the Lobster,” and started reading.

I carried that anthology everywhere with me for the next two weeks.  I read from it as I lay wrapped in a blanket, at four a.m., ravaged by jet lag, in the lamplit hammock in the yard behind my Dublin friend’s apartment block.   (The hammock was the only place I could read without disturbing anyone.  My friend and I were sleeping on the floor of her one-room; there was a chair next to the communal telephone outside her apartment door, but the light switch beside it illuminated the hallways of the whole building for three minutes, after which it shut off automatically.)  I read that anthology in cafes in central Dublin, in between visits to Nora Barnacle’s house and the National Gallery.  I read it on the four-hour bus ride to Galway, and then during the interminable lonely stretches in the hostel common room as I tried to work up the nerve to make conversation.  (For someone who has spent so much time on my own in foreign countries, I’m a terrible solo traveler.)  I read it between presentations at the postcolonial conference, and even a little bit during Terry Eagleton’s keynote speech (sorry, Mr. Eagleton).  And I kept reading it, marking each story with a dog ear when it was done, until I’d settled into my dorm room at the National University to begin my course.

Flipping back and forth through the pages and choosing stories by whim or chance, I discovered several writers that would stay with me long after that, Elizabeth Bowen and John McGahern in particular. (McGahern would show up as a speaker during my survey course, along with Patrick McCabe and Dermot Healy and a number of others, whose names I would probably recognize if I met them now.  Our teachers kept telling us what an honour it was to spend time with these writers, but we knew nothing about them, and the honour was lost on us.)  I don’t remember a whole lot about the anthologized stories themselves.  I couldn’t for the life of me tell you now what “Dante and the Lobster” was about.  But that wasn’t the important thing.

The important thing was partly that I was in Ireland and was learning snippets of what it means to be Irish.  I was learning things I would have known if I had gone to school in Ireland, if I had read literature at an Irish university, even if I had just spent my youth drinking in the pubs of Ireland and watching Irish television.  Lying on the beach on the island of Inisheer, where the novel I was working on would be set, I began reading Mary Lavin’s “Happiness.”  While I was in the midst of it, a young Australian man I’d met on the ferry came to sit next to me on the sand and chat me up, and although he was handsome and friendly and I’d been lonely, I was annoyed.  I’d been caught in a little teacup of Irish life, and he’d sloshed it.  I eventually froze him out, probably rudely, and he went off to find someone less bookish and more grateful, and I returned to Mary Lavin’s world.

I was getting more than a cultural education.  I was captivated by the intensity of each bit of narrative.  Short stories are like  that, but there was something about the book itself, about the incredible density of this small volume.  It was like a chunk of paper dark matter.  Or a chocolate box, except that each bonbon might turn out to be a bite of foie gras, or a marble, or a leaf of mint.

Silcoff describes her experience rereading her Norton Anthology by saying that when one is in the hospital,

Best to read short things about big ideas that can capture the imagination quickly. You are in a place of life and death, after all. It’s only normal to become a little philosophical.

She’s talking about the maternity ward, but she could be talking about Ireland.  Or any new place, really – any place we travel to.  Everything seems both more alive and more mortal when you’re traveling.  The smallest thing leaps out of the landscape like a butterfly, and then, in no time – a moment or a few weeks – it’s gone.  Just like the title of a story might leap out at you from the page in the middle  of a thick little book, and then, within a few moments or an hour, the story has faded and given way to another.

Once I was done with the anthology – every single story – some classmates and I made a pilgrimage to the Galway bookstores.  Ireland is famously in love with its own literature, and Irish writers were always the most prominently displayed.  I was able to buy novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Flann O’Brien with confidence now, having already tasted their wares.  I loved those novels – I should really go back and read them again – but they were heavy, immersive experiences, very different from the delicious flashes of the short stories in that anthology.

It’s in front of me now on my desk.  On its cover, a coachman glares over his shoulder at me, his whip at half mast.  In the midst of all my grading and research and household cares, I don’t have the time or energy I need to return to it right now.  And maybe returning to it is not the point.  I’m an English teacher, and so have shelves of anthologies around me, at home and in my office at school, the detritus of many years of publishers begging me to impose their books on my students.  Maybe I need to choose a random volume – immigrant narratives or  Victorian poetry, gothic tales or African drama – and taste some new mouthfuls.  I’m not in labour, or on the road, but every place, everywhere, is a place of life and death.

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Thanks to Erin M. for the link to the National Post column!  It comments on more than just anthologies – its main thrust is the uses of a college education (anthologies included).  More on that topic soon.

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J

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