catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 3 :: 2012.02.03 — 2012.02.16


Time well spent

In December I sent in the final approved version of my dissertation.  In January, I had no teaching commitments.  This meant that for the first time in seven years, I would be able to read what I wanted to read — not selected chapters that related to my dissertation topic, not books I had to read for a class I was teaching, not articles to support an argument I was reading for a paper, not adolescent novels to preview for my education students: in short, nothing with strings attached.  I have about five shelves worth of books I have been meaning to get to, so I decided to tackle the pile (along with books checked out from the library) and I decided to keep a log of what I read as I went along.

As I write this piece, there are two days left in my reading month, but so far I have read 40 books.  15 of those were graphic novels (my dissertation was on using graphic novels in the high school history classroom — of the 15 graphic novels I read this month, none of them were about history.)  I read two adolescent non-fiction books and four adolescent novels (I teach children’s literature and a course that partly deals with using novels to teach high school).  I read eight books about education theory and practice, one book about children’s literature criticism and three picture books.  And I read six books that were of general interest: two novels, one memoir, a collection of essays, a book of interviews and a non-fiction book.  I didn’t pay much attention to how many of each sort of book I was reading until I looked at the list today for the first time.

Although I own a Kindle, all of the books I read were in regular paper form.  I didn’t set out consciously to do this — I actually had already purchased three e-books that were on my Kindle, waiting to be read.  Somehow, though, the Kindle never left my desk.  Besides the now cliché idea that there is something visceral about reading a real book with real pages, I think the larger motivation for me is that I like to not have to worry.  When I carry a Kindle around with me, I am aware that it represents a significant investment of money that I don’t want to misplace.  If I somehow leave a paperback that I bought for $4 (or even a hardcover I bought for $18) somewhere, it will not cause me much distress (partly because I figure someone else can read it, and that makes me happy).  Also, I never have to recharge a regular book.

So here are three lists containing some of the books I read this month.

List #1:  Six books that were the most engaging to read.

It is interesting to me that what engages me isn’t always what engages other readers.  That is one of the things I like most about reading, the way it sets up resonances with aspects of each reader’s life and experiences — but that also means it is terrifically difficult to figure out whether what connects with me will connect with you (or even whether what connected with me fifteen years ago will still connect with me today). 

When I think of books that are engaging, I specifically think of books that I can fall into and become so lost in that I lose track of time.  People I love might call to me, the clouds might begin to thunderclap and the house might begin to fall down around me, but I would pay it no mind, because I am completely absorbed in what I am reading.  That is another thing I love about books. 

1. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (2006).

This is a memoir about growing up in the late 50s and early 60s.   Bryson describes it as an almost surreal time of naiveté and contentment.  His vivid descriptions often made me laugh out loud.  Here’s a representative passage:

No wonder people were happy.  Suddenly they were able to have things they had never dreamed of having, and they couldn’t believe their luck.  There was, too, a wonderful simplicity of desire.  It was the last time that people would be thrilled to own a toaster or a waffle iron.  If you bought a major appliance, you invited the neighbors around to have a look at it.  When I was about four my parents bought an Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator and for about six months it was like an honored guest in our kitchen.  I’m sure they would have drawn it up to the table at dinner if it hadn’t been so heavy.  When visitors dropped by unexpectedly, my father would say, “Oh, Mary, is there any iced tea in the Amana?”  Then to the guests he would add significantly, “There usually is.  It’s a Stor-Mor.”  “Oh, a Stor-Mor,” the male visitor would say and elevate his eyebrows in the manner of someone who appreciates quality cooling…then they’d sit around drinking iced tea and talking appliances for an hour or so.  No human beings have ever been quite this happy before.

Bryson also talks about nuclear bomb defense, Lincoln Logs, Iowa, Maidenform bras, the state fair, apple pie, stealing candy, cottage cheese, x-ray goggles, Disney World, Ernie Banks and mimeograph paper.  It was a fun book to read, even for someone who was born at the tail end of the 60s.

2.  Eventide by Kent Haruf (2004).

Haruf is the author of Plainsong which is a wonderful novel of two brothers who are old crotchety cattle ranchers, who end up taking in and caring for a pregnant teenager.  Eventide is a sort of sequel to that book.  It isn’t as neat of a novel as the first one.  Not all the the subplots come together nicely and not every problem is resolved in the end – but that said, it was a great novel about people who live within a community and those who don’t.  It left me feeling exalted about the grace that exists throughout our world, and at the same time, saddened at the brokenness that exists thoughout our world as well.

3.  Town Boy by Lat (1980). 

This is a graphic novel about a boy growing up in Malaysia.  It is a follow-up to Kampung Boy which I haven’t read.  The kid’s name is Mat and near the beginning of the book he meets a Chinese boy named Frankie who goes to the same school.  Frankie has a record collection (Elvis, Cliff Richard, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, the Platters, etc.) and since Mat’s family only owns a radio, he agrees to come over to listen.  They eventually develop a nerdy friendship as they survive phys. ed. together, try to get up the courage to talk to the prettiest girl in school and try to excel in schoolwork.  No astonishing plot twists or secret revelations here, just two kids being friends.  I found this to be a very satisfying book.

4.  Top Ten Book One  by Alan Moore, Gene Ha and Xander Cannon (1999).

The category of this list is books that are engaging.  This book is not particularly intellectual or edifying, but I really found myself drawn into it.  This is a graphic novel, and about superheroes to boot.  If that scares you off, go ahead and skip to the next one.  I have read some superhero comic books from time to time and I really liked this one.  It is by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen, etc.) and is set in Neopolis, a city where pretty much everyone has superpowers.  The focus is on the police department, which is populated by a bipedal bionic dog, a girl who controls tiny robots, a cyber-cowboy and a static discharger.  It is a police procedural murder mystery but what makes it interesting is the characterization and the obscure references to other comic books and graphic novels.  This one isn’t for little kids.

5.  A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (2005).

It is New Year’s Eve, and four people have come to a building in London known to be a good place to jump off of in order to commit suicide (a disgraced and scandalized TV personality, an apparently terminally ill musician, a heartbroken teenager whose sister was kidnapped and a mother whose son is severely handicapped).   They get into an argument/discussion with each other and decide to put it off for a month and then meet together and see if they still want to go through with it. 

This is a very well-written novel and it’s certainly engaging.  I’m not sure I actually liked it very much.  The four suicides develop a community among themselves, but it seems to be a very thin community, and likewise the hope in this book is very thin as well.  I enjoy reading Hornby (author of High Fidelity and About a Boy) and I find him funny, but the book left me feeling empty.

6.  Dawn Land by Joseph Bruchac and Will Davis (2009).

Bruchac and Davis tell a prehistoric Native American legend in this graphic novel.  The plot itself is not particularly remarkable or innovative, but the art is beautiful and the way the story is told is gripping.  I found it very easy to be drawn in to this world, and very easy to care about the main character and the fate of his village.  This is the sort of book I want to put into the hands of friends of mine and demand that they read it so I can talk with them about it.  

List # 2:  Five books I wrote down quotes from.

When I read a non-fiction book, I am not so much looking for facts and information as I am concepts and ideas.  I noticed some time ago, that the books that cause me to write down quotes tend to be ones that are worth coming back to. 

1.  Hunting For HopeA Father’s Journeys by Scott Russell Sanders (1998).

Sanders, a magnificent essayist, writes about a hiking trip he took with his son, precipitated by an argument with his son in which his son accused him of not having any hope for the world anymore.  Representative quote:

The opposite of simplicity, as I understand it is not complexity, but scatter, clutter, weight.  Returning from a journey…I yearn to pare my life down to essentials.  I vow to live more simply, by purchasing nothing that I do not really need, by giving away everything that is excess, by refusing all chores that do not arise from my central concerns.  I make room for silence.  I avoid television with its blaring novelties, and advertising, with its phony bait.  Whenever possible, I go about town on bicycle or on foot.  I resolve to slow down and savor each moment instead of always rushing on into the future.

2.  To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner (2010).

This graphic novel (which is, of course, not a novel) does a nice job of paring teaching down to its essentials and allowing the reader to see past all the high stakes tests, common core standards and union arguments to what really makes teaching wonderful:  caring for students and finding ways for them to explore their worlds.  Representative quote:

The work of a teacher — exhausting, complex, idiosyncratic, never twice the same — is, at heart an intellectual and ethical enterprise. Teaching is the vocation of vocations, a calling that shepherds a multitude of other callings. It is an activity that is intensely practical and yet transcendent, brutally matter-of-fact and yet fundamentally a creative act. The immense journey of a teacher brings in challenge and is never far from mystery.

3. Keeping School:  Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools by Deborah Meier, Theodor R. Sizer and Nacy Faust Sizer (2004).

The Sizers and Meier are principals at alternative schools that sound like they are finding ways to teach in the kind of way Ayers advocates in his book (see above.)  Keeping School consists of the letters these principals have written to try to explain their vision for the school to the parents of their students.  It makes for very interesting reading.  Representative quote: “Competition and shame usually don’t improve learning, therefore they are not useful school tools.”

4.  Shifts in Curricular Theory for Christian Education by Peter P. DeBoer (1983).

Okay, I know I am a dork, but I really enjoyed reading this.  It is little more than a pamphlet, but it traces about five different major ideas behind attempts to build Christian curricula.  And there were some pretty cool quotes in there.  Here’s one from W.H. Jellema: “All education seeks the same end, by and through the subject matter to mature the people as a citizen of some kingdom, if not the kingdom of God, then some other.”

5.  The Reader, the Text, the Poem:  The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work by Louise Rosenblatt (1978).

Rosenblatt developed the transactional theory of reading, which says that the act of reading a book is particular to that one reader in that one time, as the reader brings all of his or her experiences and understandings to bear on what the writer wrote, and constructs meaning from that.  Here, Rosenblatt is quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution, but by a pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself.

List #3: Six books I learned the most from.

1.  Mississippi Challenge by Mildred Pitts Walter (1992).

I thought I knew quite a lot about the civil rights struggle.  This book (which is actually written, I think, at a high school level) told the surprisingly violent and difficult struggle for civil rights in Mississippi.  Here is entrenched, unified and systemic racism.  At points in the book I felt despair that African-Americans would ever get to vote in Mississippi (even though I knew that day had eventually come).  A well-written and well-supported book.

2.  Fear:  Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner (1999).

I already knew about the fear-mongering that permeates politics, media, advertising and religion, but what is great about this book is that it looks at the way all these fears are supported by those who want to invoke that fear in us, then exposes how flaws in reasoning (and most often, in statistics) either distort the severity of the fear, or its cause.  Glassner looks at fears about airplanes, disease, terrorism, crime, bad food and water, climate change and other issues.  Even though the book is over a decade old, I found almost nothing in it that was not relevant to today.

3.-5. Zeus: King of the Gods, Hera: The Goddess in her Glory and Athena: Grey-eyed Goddess by George O’Connor  (2010-2011).

These three graphic novels do an amazing job of presenting the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses in a way that is absolutely fresh and absolutely faithful to the original mythos. The first one presents the battle between the gods and the titans.  In it we see Zeus not as the overconfident and overly randy jerk that he becomes later in the stories, but as an untested young god trying to save his family from certain death. 

The second book starts to show Zeus’s true colors as he tricks his lover Metis in order to get rid of her so he can woo you young and beautiful Hera.  From that betrayal springs Athena who somehow remains loyal to Zeus despite additional betrayals.  This one is told by the Fates and includes the stories of Medusa, Perseus, and Arachne. 

Likewise, the third book presents Hera not as the jealous and crabby wronged wife of Zeus, but as a beautiful and confident young goddess who sees Zeus for all of his flaws and has to be talked into being his queen.  We also see how she uses the labors of Heracles to get Zeus to see what he has done to her. 

All three books feature dramatic and well-rendered art and a storyline that is both interesting and easy to follow.  If you have never quite been able to keep the Greek gods and goddesses straight, pick up O’Connor’s work.  It is wonderful.

6.  Voices of Redemption by Monica Ruth Brands and Bethany Eizenga (2011).

Taking a page from Studs Terkel, Brands and Eizenga interview eight residents of the Chicago neighborhood of Roseland whose lives have been affected by the work of Roseland Christian ministries.  These are, in some ways, remarkably ordinary stories of triumph and despair, addiction and recovery, mistakes and time spent trying to put things right.  I say these stories are ordinary because it is likely you know someone, or perhaps you yourself have been someone who has gone through similar struggles.  The stories here at their best illuminate those moments in the way the best writing does.  This book may be hard to find, but the stories within it are well worth reading. 

Final Comments

If this past month has reminded me of anything, it is that the wonder of reading cannot be found anywhere else.  It is easy for me to get distracted by less worthy activities (Facebook comes to mind).  When I take the time to read, like taking the time to bicycle or hike or make art, it is time well spent.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus