Adonal Foyle, the former basketball standout at Colgate who has had a long career with the Golden State Warriors, has an impressive Web site that includes his very own book club. The club’s current pick, The Da Vinci Code isn’t terribly inspired, but I’m nonetheless impressed that an NBA star is broadcasting his love of reading. Note as well Foyle’s “Top 10 Books” which includes an ample mix of basketball books and political non-fiction with a leftward-leaning bent.
As a fun little tie in with the opening of his presidential library in Little Rock, Bill Clinton released a list of his 21 favorite books. First off, I wonder if he would have gotten in trouble if he hadn’t put Hillary’s book on the list. And I suspect he included Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because they are friends. Other interesting picks: He includes a presidential biography, Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, perhaps hoping that he, too, will someday be the subject of such a biography. Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics by Reinhold Niebuhr seems like a pretty bold choice considering certain of Clinton’s own, shall we say, indiscretions. But, alas, the book is about social justice more than anything else. Right up Clinton’s alley. For the most part, though, it’s a pretty good batch of books, and I must commend him for including one of my favorite books of all time, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Here’s the full article and list.
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
Eagle-eyed readers looking at the cover of the soon-to-be-released paperback edition of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may have noticed the words “With Four Previously Unpublished Scenes.” While we haven’t seen all of the new scenes, from the example below, which we obtained from publisher Little, Brown, it appears that this extra material did not neatly correspond with the finished book but nonetheless may offer some additional context. The scenes will apparently be packaged as part of a “Reading Guide” in the new edition of the book. The first paragraph below is an explanation provided by the publisher, followed by one of the four new scenes, in full.
This scene with Claude Sylvanshine and Charles Lehrl together as roommates does not align with details of the character Merrill Errol Lehrl elsewhere in the book. But its evocation of a childhood in semirural Peoria adds to the picture of that place assembled elsewhere.
Charles Lehrl grew up not in Peoria but in nearby Decatur, home of Archer Dentists Midland and Lehrl said a city of such relentless uninteresting squalor and poverty that Peorians point with genuine pride at their city’s failure to be as bad as Decatur, whose air stank either of hog processing or burnt corn depending on the wind, whose patrician class distinguished itself by chewing gum with their front teeth. Lehrl’s narrative was that he had grown up in a mobile home the color of rotten fruit across a drainage culvert from Self-Storage Parkway, an interstate spur once built for an A. E. Staley subsidiary that had closed down when the bottom had fallen out of the pork belly market and now home to mosquitoes, conferva, shattercane, and an abundance of volunteer weeds gone hypertrophic in the outwash of nitrogen fertilizers that summertime pets disappeared in. What had kept his father from being an actual alcoholic was that being an actual alcoholic would have taken too much effort. Mr. and Mrs. Lehrl had not just allowed but encouraged the children to play in the road. The neighborhood’s only going concerns were 3.4 acres of U-Lock It self-storage units and a small rendering-plant owned by a large family of albinos that seemed constantly to grow without any sort of non-albino genetic refreshment and between all eighty-seven of them could not handle more than one animal at a time. Mr. Lehrl spent the bulk of Charles’s childhood lying on the couch with his arm over his eyes. Lehrl spoke of Decatur in the summer as if he’d grown up aloft: the flannel plains and alphabets of irrigation pipes laid down in the bean fields — Peoria and Lake James and Pekin were corn, Decatur and Springfield soybeans for the Japanese — fields simmering shrilly, blind and creamy blue skies untouched by the ADM stacks whose output was invisible but redolent and, according to rumor, flammable, mosquitoes rising as one body from the system of ditches at dusk — and detailed the highlight of those summer days, which consisted of Lehrl, his brother, and his tiny sister negotiating the ditches and fences and crossing Self-Storage Parkway to climb a Big Boy restaurant’s billboard’s support and peer through the hole that was the Big Boy icon’s (a big smiling boy in a fast food cup bearing a tray’s) left incisor to watch the rendering plant’s lone cow or swine, standing chained in the crabgrass as four or more demented albino children threw rocks and broken glass at it until whatever systems inside were in place and the animal was led into a chutelike pen at whose sides several older albinos stood on cinder blocks with hammers and small-caliber rifles, at which time Lehrl and his brother and sister would climb down and try to get back across the expressway to play in the road outside their mobile home. Often Lehrl, who had grown up not in Decatur but in Chadwick, a comfortable bedroom community outside Springfield where his father had been a finance officer in the Highway and Transit Commission and his mother a five-term Recorder of Deeds, liked to reminisce about his childhood as he and Sylvanshine relaxed with one Dorfmurderer Onion lager each during Lehrl’s half-hour unwinding period (10:40–11:10) before making his preparation to go to sleep, and Sylvanshine liked to listen, interrupting only to ask small questions or express alarm at appropriate places, if only because it aroused a kind of tenderness in him that the something manifest but inexpressible in the hydraulics of Lehrl’s smile made it so paternally clear when what he was saying was not literally true. There were an enormous number of little variables and compensations that evened out their dynamics, a kind of complex mortise-and-tenon congruity to their assets and liabilities as men and ages, and though Sylvanshine had never consciously realized it, this was one reason they had become such great friends and so preferred each other’s company to anyone else’s that they had taken the step in Philadelphia of living together, despite the appearance and consequences of this appearance to which this move subjected them. It was because Lehrl was ambitious but not in a conventional way that he had suggested the arrangement, and Sylvanshine would be forced to admit that the unconventionality of Lehrl’s ambition, and the odd self-destructive quality to many of his career decisions — despite extraordinary administrative talents and uniformly high ratings from DDs in every place he’d been posted, Charles Lehrl was still a G-2 and actually subordinate in grade to many of the people he supervised — was a big leveling — and tenderness — mechanism, since Sylvanshine’s career itself wasn’t exactly on the fast track, though once he passed the CPA exam as he surely would, he would himself be promoted to G-2 and able at least to pay exactly half of their communal expenses, an equity about which Sylvanshine fantasized as he sat alone in his leather slippers and plaid robe waiting for the inevitable third piss that every one lager equaled to assemble itself and be passed so he could go to sleep without worrying that he was just going to have to get up again just as his thoughts got pictorial and loosely associated and often toned with sepia or
even a kind of salmon/yellowy visual filter, which was usually a sign that he was genuinely falling asleep and not merely kidding himself out of a fear of insomnia and the terrible fear of what sleep-deprivation often did to his alertness and concentration the next day. There is very little room in any branch of accounting for fuzziness, sluggishness, or any sort of abstraction in one’s faculties or approach to the problems at hand. It is a pursuit of exacting care and metal-minded clarity and precision. This much Sylvanshine knew for sure.
We got back late last night from Los Angeles (where we had attended the wedding of two great friends), and are now wading through stacks of boxes in our still freshly moved into apartment in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you go on vacation two days after moving, you don’t return to find all of your things miraculously unpacked and where you want them to be.However, after a few days of catch up (and thanks to the resourcefulness of Mrs. Millions) we should eventually approach normalcy. As for the digital realm, I still have many emails to respond to and my Bloglines “unread items” number in the thousands, but regular posting will ramp up again here over the next couple of days.In the meantime, I noticed that Philadelphia announced its 2007 One Book, One City selection this week Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winning memoir. It tells the tale of Eire’s boyhood uprooting from Cuba and the subsequent “rootlessness” of his life in the United States. The selection puts the focus on our country’s immigration issues, though the question of Cuba has been less “hot button” of late. I, for one, prefer to “One Book” programs select fiction as I think there is something more special about a whole city reading a novel together. And anyway (though I read as much non-fiction as fiction), fiction is more in need of support from our public institutions. However, some consolation can be found in the fact that Waiting for Snow in Havana is literary and not just topical.
If you are like me, you are probably getting tired of politics. Politicians, political news, television ads from concerned citizens for this or that, conventions finally almost past, and debates still to come, I’m tired of all of it. Thank god someone decided that it was ok for people to make up big, long stories (or collect little, short ones) and for other people to read those stories. A diversion, if you like. So, what will divert us this month? T. C. Boyle, who has over the years become a bigger and bigger name in American fiction, has a new novel coming out called The Inner Circle. Set in 1940, the book is about a young man who works as an assistant for the sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey (a real historical figure), and quickly becomes embroiled in the sort of bizarreness one might expect from a novel by T. C. Boyle. I hope to read that one soon. If you’re the type of person who likes to know about the next big thing, have a look at Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel. You’ll be hearing about this book a lot for the next few months, so you might as well read it. Touted as, what else, Harry Potter for grown ups, this debut novel by Susanna Clarke is set to release simultaneously in the US, Britain, and Germany with a first run of 250,000 copies (astronomical for a debut by an unknown writer). Part of the buzz stems from the subject matter; it’s about magic, magicians, and mysticism, and with the success of Potter and Da Vinci Code these topics seem like a sure bet. But, according to many accounts, the book is not just timely, it’s a great read. Those looking to avoid the buzz may want to try another debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Esi Edugyan. Tyne is an African immigrant who has raised his family in Canada. Circumstances and yearning for a better life lead him to relocate to Aster, a small town with a utopic history. He finds there a different set of struggles. For readers in the mood for something a little lighter and with a quicker pulse try The Little White Car a speedy little novel from Britain that sounds as energetic as Run, Lola, Run. The book was supposedly written by a new French talent, a young woman named Danuta de Rhodes, but skeptical British critics were quick to announce that de Rhodes is merely the alter ego of Dan Rhodes, known trickster and acclaimed author of Timoleon Vieta Come Home. Finally, those with a hankering for short stories might consider When The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff who previously wrote the novel The 25th Hour (which later was made into a movie by Spike Lee), and also The Secret Goldfish by David Means. Sounds a lot better than politics to me.The Inner Circle by T.C. Boyle — Boyle’s blogJonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke — previewThe Second Life of Samuel Tyne by Edi Edugyan — excerptThe Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes — the scoop, reviewWhen The Nines Roll Over And Other Stories by David Benioff — excerptThe Secret Goldfish by David Means — excerpt, review
An article in the Wall Street Journal talks up some of the drawbacks of the 8 DVD-ROM Complete New Yorker set:Web-savvy users accustomed to navigating easily through online content find The Complete New Yorker a bit of an anachronism. Each page of content is literally a picture of a magazine page. Readers can’t copy text from a story and paste it elsewhere. They can’t search for keywords within the text of articles, only within titles and abstracts. If they want to jump from issue to issue, or article to article, they first have to go back to the index and sometimes change DVDs.The problem obviously isn’t the technology, it’s the 1976 law that requires publishers to get permission from free-lancers before republishing their work in another medium. The lawyers have determined that anything before 1976 is fair game to be converted into a new format. And while most publishers negotiated away the rights of free-lancers in this realm in the mid-1990s, there still remains a legal limbo for material published in between the two dates. Based on case arising from a similar set put out by National Geographic in 1997, by simply creating digital versions of the magazine pages, publishers are in the clear, and this is the route that the New Yorker has taken. The article linked above also looks at how this issue is affecting similar archiving efforts by other venerable magazines like Harper’s Magazine and the Atlantic Monthly.(via and via)
In light of the epidemic of violence and political repression in Zimbabwe – and South Africa’s African National Congress’s insistence (until much of the damage had been done) that interference from “outsiders” was not welcome – avid fiction readers may want to revisit a sub-Saharan perspective on political misrule: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Writing here a couple years back, I gave the book a mixed review, finding some fault with the breadth of the satire. But, much as magical realism is said to just be called “realism” in Columbia, broad satire starts to seem awfully pointed the more one learns about the tactics of strongmen like Robert Mugabe. Which is to say, Mugabe’s decision to proceed with the election runoff in Zimbabwe borders on farce. As Ngugi shows, these antics can make for rich fiction. In life, of course, they are merely infuriating.The latest: Mugabe declared winner in Zimbabwe’s one-man election