This week is turning out to be a mini-family reunion for me. My parents and two of my brothers are in town as are some aunts and uncles and cousins. Yesterday evening at a family barbecue near Venice Beach I fell into a conversation with my aunt and uncle about the reading habits of my young cousin, Tim, who is 10. He’s a very precocious reader and has finished off nearly all of the highly recommended children’s series that are out there right now: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, and Brian Jacques’ Redwall Series (I recommended Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy since he hasn’t gotten to that yet.) The thing is, there’s a limited amount of high quality young adult fiction out there, so what do you do if your kid has read it all? Since I started working at the bookstore I have occasionally been posed this question by parents. It’s actually a crucial moment in the life of a young a reader, the point where they could very easily lose some interest reading because they have read all the kids’ books and aren’t allowed to read adult books. What folks sometimes forget is that there are quite a few books that, though they are shelved in the adult fiction section, are perfect books to help segue strong, young readers into the wider world that lies beyond the young adult section. Some people call these books classics, but they are perfect for challenging kids and keeping them interested in reading: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth, to name just a few. I would also recommend that these children read the books in their original forms, not the abridged versions. I remember reading abridged versions of various classics when I was younger, and I think lots of other folks do as well, but looking back it just doesn’t seem necessary. In fact, as an eleven or twelve year old, I learned a lot of complex things about the world around me from the books I read, and these important details, the harsh language in Huck Finn, for example, seem to be just the things that are excised in order to create the kid friendly versions. We challenge kids in many aspects of their lives, why not challenge them to explore the big questions that arise from reading the classics. I hope that the children’s book industry continues to move in this direction, and a lot of the intelligent and challenging kids’ books that are out there indicate that it will. On the other hand, my friend Edan pointed out to me the other day the upcoming release of a “Student Edition” of Yann Martel’s international bestseller Life of Pi, from which, one can assume, the editors have removed anything that might distress, and therefore challenge, a young reader. Here’s hoping that this doesn’t kick off a new trend.
[Ed. Note: Emre is back with another multi-part reading journal. Here’s the first installment. Enjoy.]Hello everyone, it has been a long time since I sent a post, but I go in spurts, so here it is. When I last left off, I had just finished reading Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, after which I was thirsty for a piece of non-fiction. What better, then, to turn to Ryzsard Kapuscinski’s The Soccer War, which I had knowingly put off in an effort to not finish all his works at once. Upon reading The Soccer War, I understood better why Cem Ozturk, ambassador to Japan, refused to lend me his copy. The Soccer War is Kapuscinski’s most romantic work, especially with regards to the unbelievable stories he narrates and the naked truth and language with which it is related to the reader. The straightforward and brief history of the actual Soccer War is so interesting that I ended up going online and researching the event further out of sheer curiosity. Despite the title, Kapuscinski’s main focus is, again, Africa, but he also touches on life in Poland and there is a brief chapter on Cyprus after the Turkish invasion. The stories are, as usual, very humane and Kapuscinski’s tone and approach to his subjects is awe inspiring. I got the usual urge to go forth with the rest of Kapuscinski’s works, but am – probably for the last time – putting that urge aside for later pleasures.Next I turned to Karen Heuler’s Journey to Bom Goody. Forbes, the main character, is an ordinary man living in peace and harmony until one day he loses his family. As a result, he takes on a project long contemplated but never dared. When the reader meets Forbes, he is already in Latin America, traveling up the Amazon River to perform his tests. Forbes, however, is an aspiring scientist who lacks the training, and therefore makes rather ignorant and arrogant moves in the name of bold experimenting. Switching to a guide, Ping, who believes to be the love child of his mother and a dolphin and does not speak a word of English, is the first big move Forbes makes. Along the way, Forbes loses his guide and meets a white woman, supposedly doing medicinal research. While the Tina abhors the chummy, helpless white man, Forbes is both loving, and contemptuous of Tina for being comfortable and fluent in such foreign lands. One day, Forbes realizes that his experiments have long been out of control and starts observing the outcomes which weave together him, Tina, local tribes, Ping and the Amazons. Journey to Bom Goody takes a rather trite idea (what if Latin American natives examined us, instead of the opposite) and creates an interesting story around it. The novel is a mix of ordinary characters in unusual circumstances, usual ego wars in unlikely settings, and fresh viewpoints of the society that we live in.See also: Part 2, 3, 4
Dave Eggers, as you may have heard, was tapped to write a new introduction to the 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The piece glows with praise for the gigantic novel, as one might expect (since such intros are, in many cases, packaging to sell the novel.) However, as The Rake has discovered, this isn’t the only time that Eggers has written about Infinite Jest. He was, in a 1996 review, very disparaging of the book. Perhaps Eggers has changed his mind about Infinite Jest, or perhaps the offer to write the intro was simply too tempting to turn down. As ever, I’m willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this smacks of opportunism.
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
I started 2004 with Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn. It surprised me greatly as I had finished Tropic of Cancer only about a month prior and expected more of what I imagined to be crazy real life accounts – starvation, the artists’ world in 1930s Paris, heavy boozing, sex, sex, and more sex. There’s a glimpse of this, but instead of more scandalous stories, I found in Tropic of Capricorn Miller’s inspiration for Tropic of Cancer. In this heavy, philosophical work, Miller puts forth his disgust for New York and everything it represents, draws a great picture of Brooklyn during the 1920s, and shows the first signs of his status as a misfit. Tropic of Capricorn is greatly revealing as the source of Miller’s genius, and it is by no means the easy going, fun, weird read that Tropic of Cancer is.Next came two Turkish novels by Tuna Kiremitci, both of which moved me deeply. Both Git Kendini Cok Sevdirmeden and Bu Iste Bir Yanlizlik Var are pop culture page turners that also managed in depth character studies. Unfortunately, the novels are not available in English, hence I shall cut the description short.A Confederacy of Dunces was the second English language novel I read in 2005, and a mighty one at that. The genius of this novel is even quoted in the coolest movie of late, Sideways. It is rather unfortunate that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and left us with only one piece, because after reading about the funny, and brilliantly lazy Ignatius, I am left to wonder what else Toole was capable of. Ignatius’ addiction to hot dogs, the costumes, the literary efforts, the complicated love affair, a disgruntled mother, and finally, the closing of the valves make for an amazing, laugh-out-loud read.
I’m a map person. There are random maps all over the walls of my house, mostly freebies that my coworkers at the book store, knowing my interest, have passed along to me. Looking around right now I can see a “Rail Map of Europe,” “World Terrorism: a Reference Map,” and this odd, black and white, line drawing map of Illinois, among several others. When I live somewhere with enough room, I intend to have several atlases. Thus, I was excited to find today a book called You Are Here by Katharine Harmon. It’s sort of a popular history of maps with heavy focus on amateur maps, folk art maps, and maps that are related to popular culture. She is especially interested in what maps can tell us about the way we see the world. I’m looking forward to getting this one.