The New Yorker pays tribute to Leonard Michaels this week by printing a story of his… a terriffic story called “Cryptology.” The weird timing of all this Michaels stuff has got me thinking that I really ought to read some more of his work. I will have to look around for some of his books. Scroll down a few entries to see more on Michaels. Also in the New Yorker James Wood reviews God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. This is a book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is not the sort of subject matter that I am necessarily drawn to, but it has been incredibly well reviewed by some rather prestegious publications and reviewers: Jonathan Yardley and Christopher Hitchens to name a couple. If any of that looks interesting check out the first chapter.
I was chided by my buddy Brian for devoting most of my previous post to the "mean book review" and not going into the dumbing down of the book review. To elaborate, along with ratcheting up the level of controversy, the New York Times Book Review is going to shift its focus away from more esoteric and literary fiction. In its place expect to see more non-fiction and more popular fiction reviewed. Also, the reviews themselves may become more bite-sized: "why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do?" Now, I happen to think that the New York Times Book Review isn't a terribly engaging read in its current incarnation. Typically, I pick it up to see which new books are being mentioned and read reviews of any books that I might have already read or that I am particularly interested in for some reason. All the reviews are essentially the same length and I find that they usually don't keep me engaged if I'm not already interested in the book that's being reviewed. I agree that there's a problem, but I don't think that the solution is capsule reviews full rancorous banter. Once you start down that road it's only a matter of time before you start issuing Entertainment Weekly-style report card grades so that we can skip the reviews entirely. I would suggest that they devote at least a few of their pages for longer format reviews where, sure, the book is being reviewed, but it's really just a jumping off point for a broader discussion of the topic at hand. The New Yorker and the Atlantic do this and they are among the most consistently readable and interesting reviews that I come across. John Updike's review in the New Yorker of The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll is an example of this. Believe it or not, the review wasn't altogether positive, but Updike managed to convey, nonetheless, the essence of the book, and I was able to tell from the first few paragraphs of his review that I wanted to read the book. Another New Yorker book review moment: I can't even remember the name of the book that Louis Menand reviewed when I realized that I was far more enamored by the writing and breadth of knowledge of the reviewer than by the book being reviewed (which I can't remember anymore anyway). Menand's book The Metaphysical Club came out soon after and proved to be even more engaging than that first review that had turned me on to his writing. Those are good "book review experiences," and if the New York Times Book Review could manage to provide one or two of those a week, they might find the positive change that they were looking for.An update at Poynter Online has Times executive editor Bill Keller saying, "We're not turning the Book Review into Mad magazine." And here's the article that got me started on all this in the first place.
Do you remember your last English teacher? Did he use colored chalk to diagram William Faulkner’s periodic sentences? Did she stand in the back of the room and read a poem from Denise Levertov, most of the words pushing past your ears, but a few, like “Aren’t there annunciations / of one sort or another / in most lives?” remaining like a refrain? Or was he forgettable, distributing misspelled study guides for The Merchant of Venice before playing a tired cassette recording? Think about your last year in a high school English classroom. The uneven rows. The loud radiator. The re-used posters, corners double-taped. You were 17, 18. Your mind and your heart were elsewhere. That tension between distraction and focus is healthy. If we do not wish that we were somewhere else, doing something else, the collective, focused breath on a single line of a poem would not be so sweet. Back then, you were full of cynicism and hope. What a mixture: your wounds and joys felt so sharp. I tell my seniors that I will likely be their last English teacher. They are enrolled in AP Literature and Composition, a difficult course that builds toward a three-hour exam. When I began teaching the course a decade ago, my classes were nearly half the size. Most students were hoping to major in English or philosophy. Now, out of two class sections of 55 students, it is a surprise to have three future English majors. I am lucky that they are no less talented and driven. They are ready to work. I realize that my situation is unique. My students often attend the most competitive colleges in the country. In order to do so, their high school schedules are strained. They are expected to perform highly in several intellectual disciplines a day, with only six minutes to move between classrooms within an enormous outdoor campus, and 40 minutes to be teenagers at lunch. Still, they are very fortunate. They have the support of the community and district. They are good kids. Curious kids, who stay with me when we examine the difference between mimetic and textual voice in Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, or parse Wallace Stevens’s “A Comment on Meaning in Poetry.” I tell them that I am their last English teacher because many of these students will place out of composition or literature in college. They will spend the next four to eight years busy studying, and will go on to successful careers in medicine, law, and business. No one else will ever read them a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. You may think this is melodramatic talk. I admit that teachers were born to perform. We are actors without stages. In a recent interview, poet Paul Muldoon said that most students struggle with poetry because of how it is taught in high school: "What's usually happening is that the instructor, the teacher, is at pains to show what an extraordinary instructor or teacher he or she is, and the message I think that far too many of us get in high school is that poetry may only be read if you’ve got that instructor or teacher to show you what it’s really about.” I have heard this lament before, and it is not only about poetry. High school English teachers are responsible for flattening literature. We kill books. These constant, unfounded digs are what cause teachers to be defensive. Teaching in an American public school is an idealistic act. Politicians will have you believe we are an insufferable bunch, our chests full of blind union pride, tenure our ticket to stasis. English teachers, less than perhaps only editors, live their days surrounded with the hopes, fears, eccentricities, and failures of generations of writers. Those words, classic and contemporary, seep into our souls. Why teach Beloved if you do not close your eyes and feel 124 shaking; if you do not feel your own heart shaking? That sensitivity bleeds out of the classroom. In the latest round of testing frenzy, English teachers are unique targets. We teach the essential skill of communication -- the ability to turn students’ feelings into spoken and written words -- yet English is considered a light discipline compared to the rigor of sciences. I am not sure what an English teacher is supposed to be now. (I say that out of one side of my mouth; I strive to exceed the expectations of my district and state curriculum.) I mean in terms of my identity as an English teacher. I used to be considered a mentor. During my first few years as a teacher, I kept the prayer of St. Francis in my pocket: “grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” I was only years removed from almost entering a seminary to become a priest. You never lose that call; it simply takes another shape. My shape was a room with 28 desks and a chalkboard. I teach every class like it is my last. It could be. When I started teaching, I thought my purpose was to create a legion of English majors. I have learned that my purpose is to pause the lives of my students for long enough that a line of poetry is the loudest sound they encounter during the day. I am uninterested in studies that assess the cognitive worth of reading poetry for future engineers. I don’t teach engineers. I teach people. My master is not a test; it is the belief that minutes reading beautiful language will stir souls. I want my students to see that words are sacraments, in the same way that Andre Dubus said each sandwich he made for his daughters was a sacrament: “physical, nutritious and pleasurable, and within it is love.” It is possible to be cold-hearted and teach, but why do so? Students experience enough private pain some days to fill a lifetime. Literature can be the salve for a weary heart. I do not mean directly; I do not think literature is a form of therapy. I mean that books enable students to experience an extraordinary range of emotions in 180 days. Most literature we read will pass from their memory. Some works will stick. One poem might change them. It is a beautiful possibility that such an epiphany can occur in as mundane a place as a classroom. That same hope keeps me from burning out in a profession that is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. I hate how teachers are portrayed by politicians and education reformers; I hate how we are reduced to caricatures. But I keep that frustration from my students. After all, it is for them that I am here. I believe in them, and I believe in words; I better believe in both, because I might be somebody’s last English teacher. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
There's a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the "staff recommendations" shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn't long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended -- The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two -- climbed the store's bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow's Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
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