Faced with a stark choice – where to buy books in New York congressional district 8 – I have decided to endorse my new employer, the Housing Works Used Bookstore & Cafe. As any American who’s attended a reading or browsed the shelves at HWUBC’s SoHo location knows, the store is a home away from home for bibliophiles. Better still, all of the store’s profits go to Housing Works, a nonprofit that supports homeless New Yorkers living with HIV. Recently, Housing Works has entered the online book business. So this election season, if you want a candidate who will protect your pocketbook while working for social change, look no further than the Housing Works page at half.com. I’m Garth Risk Hallberg, and I approved this message.
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
The depth of Ignatius' wisdom gave me an urge to read history, and I started with Napoleon: A Political Life, by Steven Englund. Englund is a notable scholar and the book was released to wide acclaim. Napoleon is a personal, political and military approach to one of the most influential leaders of history. I picked the book especially because I did not know much about Napoleon and sought enlightenment, which I got thanks to the book's thorough historical content, the presentation of Napoleon's personal background, and a very scholarly - yet novelistic - narrative. It is for certain that Englund is extremely passionate regarding Napoleonic studies and the controversies that surround it. His determination to relate to the reader both the specifics of Napoleon himself (character quirks, political ideas, practical implementations, the myth) and the historical evolution of the time (the French Revolution, Continental power struggles, trade issues) without any high opinions leads the reader to ask questions and wonder about different interpretations of the Napoleons life and actions.I was so moved by the joy of reading on historical matters that I picked up on Ryszard Kapuscinski - a foreign correspondent for the Polish press during the communist era who was recommended to me by the very C. Max Magee of The Millions and Cem Ozturk, great friend and emissary to Japan. I started with The Shadow of the Sun and realized once again how ignorant I was with regards to Africa. Since reading The Shadow of the Sun I feel ashamed to refer generally to Africa, as if it were one country, and it's inhabitants as strictly African. Kapuscinski's accounts are a mix of personal adventures that make James Bond stunts lame, coup d'etats surrounding the liberation of African colonies, and detailed descriptions of various cultures and peoples of Africa. Of course, immediately after finishing The Shadow of the Sun I picked up Imperium, Kapuscinski's account of his visits to the USSR. Kapuscinki's visit to the world behind the iron curtain, the different cultures that the USSR housed and worked diligently to eradicate and replace with communism, and the succinct description of the big brother situation is full of wonders. Imperium is a great read that is thrilling and unnerving at the same time. I still long to read The Soccer War, Kapuscinki's accounts of the revolutions he witnessed in Latin America but rein myself not to finish all his works in one breath.See also: Part 1
It is of passing interest to me when a site like Gawker gets bookish. So they did on Saturday in a typically hard -to-peg post about Ben Kunkel's piece in this weekend's NY Times Book Review in which the "it-novelist" discussed the new Nirvana biography, Nirvana: The Biography, by Everett True. I often have no idea what is being said on Gawker. Are their writers simply sarcastic, or are they being cleverly sarcastic about their use of sarcasm?My best guess is that the gawkers generally dug the review. To the extent that this assessment is accurate, I concur. The new Nirvana book sounds a little lackluster. How many biographies of Nirvana can we as a culture absorb? I myself have read two, Michael Azerrad's Come As You Are, and Christopher Sandford's Kurt Cobain. What I have taken away from these books, and what Kunkel articulates in his review, is that Nirvana is a tough nut to crack: "What does 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' sound like when you're in your 30s, as Kurt Cobain, dead at 27, of course will never be?" It sounds to me like the epitome of artistic-commercial conflict, but I'm only 29. To wit, Nirvana, the ferocious guitar-pulverizing punk band, sounded best on an unplugged album. Not surprisingly Ben Kunkel, who cut his literary teeth chewing on twenty-something angst, sounds pretty good discussing the band.
The boy wizard isn't gay, but apparently his beloved professor is. J.K. Rowling "outed" Dumbledore at a Carnegie Hall reading, inspiring "gasps and applause" as well as wire stories. Over the years, Rowling hasn't been particularly aggressive about being a self-promoter; she hasn't had to as the Harry Potter books have made her rich and famous without her having to occupy too much of the spotlight. Still, this seems like an all too easy way to gin up a little controversy and keep Harry Potter in the headlines now that the series is over.Now I won't deny that it makes plenty of sense for writers to flesh out the lives of their characters in their minds. Many writers take this a step further and put these fictional biographies on paper. And it's quite probable that in writing Dumbledore over the years, Rowling decided that he was gay.As the creator of perhaps the most beloved set of characters in literary history, Rowling has a tremendous amount of power. This sort of power can be easily abused. Knowing they will get no more books from Rowling, fans will take each new tidbit about Harry and the gang like the starving might savor a crumb. Meanwhile, each of these out-of-thin-air details will be folded neatly into the growing pantheon of Potter companion literature.To me, though, there's something terribly spare and arbitrary about these post-publication revelations. What are we as readers supposed to do with these out of context details? Can we ignore them? Should we?As a side note, have there been other examples of similar, post-publication, extra-textual revelations related to famous books? I tried to think of some, but came up empty.
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If you love Calvin and Hobbes - and I know you do - this treasure trove of Calvin and Hobbes classics (yes, that's all of them) will seem like manna from heaven. If you feel bad that some Internet cowboy has posted all of Bill Waterson's creations online, then you can assuage your guilt by preordering The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, arriving just in time for holidays 2005 and brought to you by Andrews-McNeel, whose The Complete Far Side was the big ticket book gift of holidays 2003.via waxy.Related: Calvin and Hobbes returns, but not the way we wish it would.
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In September, I posted that Michael Chabon's next book, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, his first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, was to be released on April 11, 2006. Alas, the book has been delayed. Chabon's done with the manuscript, but there were scheduling problems with his publisher, HarperCollins. Chabon announced the delay on his Web site:HarperCollins had been sort of rushing the thing along, over a steady but polite murmur from the author that perhaps they were moving too quickly. The manuscript was complete. It was not impossible to make the April 11 pub date. But we didn't even have a finished jacket. Many people who were selling and marketing the book hadn't had the opportunity to read it. Everything just felt too rushed and when that sense of undue haste finally caught on at the publishing house, I was able to persuade them to see reason, and wait.The new date is now "Winter 2007."
I'm back and I'm fully married now (call us Mr. and Mrs. Millions). It was great. We're off to the honeymoon shortly, and have a pretty full traveling schedule for the remainder of the summer, so, as I mentioned in my last post, expect to hear from me only every ten days or so until we reach Chicago. (If any of you eager readers wants to write in with book news, though, I will happily post it when I can.) But while I've got this free moment, let me mention a couple of book related things that have crossed my desk.I finally, finally, finally finished Edith Grossman's wonderful translation of the Miguel de Cervantes classic, Don Quixote. To any younger readers or any older readers who might one day return to school to study literature, if you ever have the opportunity to read this book in a classroom setting, jump at it. There is so much to unlock in this book, in the techniques of Cervantes, in the tribulations of his characters, and in the historical backdrop of 17th century Spain. When I wrote, months ago, of my frustration at the character of Don Quixote, his brashness, his willful refusal of reality, I still had many hundreds of pages to go. Over the course of those pages, my feelings about Quixote mellowed. The more he interacted with people, the more it became evident that their mockery of him was more foolish than his futile quests. Still, even at the end, Quixote is a character who inspires frustration. I came to realize that there are Quixotes all around us. Those who reject simple explanations for their problems in favor convoluted excuses, conspiracies, and narratives, in which their mundane lives take on a aura of excitement, today's compulsive liars and humble neighbors with delusions of grandeur, these are modern-day Don Quixotes. And Sancho Panza is just as foolish as the rest of us who humor those who are touched with this special madness. As a work of literature the book is quite astounding, wrenching you out of the mistaken frame of mind that before James Joyce, before the "modern day," literature was uncomplicated and linear. Especially in Part 2 when Part 1, itself, becomes a sort of character in the book, one realizes that today's writers are not innovators so much as the great great grandchildren of Cervantes, and in fact Cervantes was the progenitor, the ur-novelist (and Don Quixote the ur-novel), from whom all novelists must necessarily borrow. The book is essential to all who wish to understand "the novel" as a literary form.PoliticsImperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror, anonymously penned by a longtime CIA agent, will make waves this week, as the New York Times attests. Also in the Times, Daniel Okrent addresses what was and wasn't appropriate about Michiko Kakutani's front page slam of the Clinton book.
An article by Warren St. John, to appear in the New York Times tomorrow, declares that the person who appears in public as JT Leroy is, in fact, Savannah Knoop the half-sister of Geoffrey Knoop, who, with Laura Albert, is suspected of creating the Leroy persona, as well as the backstory and novels that have been underground successes. With this latest revelation, it seems that we may finally be close to a mea culpa that puts JT Leroy to rest once and for all. St. John also suggests, and I would tend to agree, that these folks have done Leroy fans a great disservice: It is unclear what effect the unmasking of Ms. Knoop will have on JT Leroy's readers, who are now faced with the question of whether they have been responding to the books published under that name, or to the story behind them.The Savannah Knoop revelation also helps explain the odd experience I had when I met Leroy several years ago. The Leroy I met was so furtive and inscrutable that it was impossible to get any sense of who he was. Now it looks like there was no Leroy at all.