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Posts Tagged ‘reading’

The Function of Books

“This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.”

Colum McCann

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Great truth from the movie Good Will Hunting.  A bit of language at the very beginning and end, but from 3:26-3:32 in this clip, there’s a ton of wisdom.

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childhood'sIn June I read Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.  It was excellent; clearly a precursor to the 2001: A Space Odyssey script.

Some stray thoughts as I was reading:

“There were too many brilliant amateurs, and the changed economic conditions had made the old system obsolete.”  ch. 10.  After superior alien saviors come to Earth and create a paradise, humanity uses its free time to get awesome at everything, thus the changed economy.  Are we seeing something similar now with blog reporting and YouTube videos?  I think we are.

I love prescient science fiction predictions, but Clarke says that humanity’s vastly increased leisure has the dystopian result of us starting to watch TV for up to…wait for it…3 hours a day!  This was written in the 50′s.  Isn’t that cute?

“In this galaxy of ours,” murmured Karellen, “there are eighty-seven thousand million suns.  Even that figure gives only a faint idea of the immensity of space.  In challenging it, you would be like ants attempting to label and classify all the grains of sand in all the desserts of the world.”  ch. 14.  This is why I love good sci-fi.  It intelligently inculcates a healthy, humble reverence for the universe.

It was the end of civilization, the end of all that men had striven for since the beginning of time.  In the space of a few days, humanity had lost its future, for the heart of any race is destroyed, and its will to survive is utterly broken, when its children are taken from it.  ch. 19.  Alas, Clarke’s generation never could have imagined that civilization would voluntarily extinguish itself through epidemic demographic decline, and would celebrate it all the way to the collective nursing home.  Like his naive TV watching warning, reality turned out far scarier than he prophesied.  It’s always sad when tragic speculation turns out to be, if anything, too optimistic.

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Much debate among educators these days revolves around the preference in the Common Core State Standards for reading book-length works in excerpts more than in their entirety.

The argument in favor seems to go that there’s too much to cover, and that the skills we need to inculcate can be adequately covered with bits and pieces of text, rather than by slogging through entire works.  Besides, kids today won’t read a whole book, anyway.

Those with such a view are missing out on a huge, obvious fact about reading.

Reading an excerpt isn’t the same thing as reading the whole thing.

I’ve read summaries of and excerpts from long classics plenty of times, and not long afterwards, I’ve forgotten the themes, allusions, stylistic features, and even much of the plot.  Shallow experiences only bring shallow memories.

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A while ago, I found this passage among some notes I jotted in a journal.  I was scribbling some thoughts down about the nature of being a compulsive reader and writer.  Pretty melodramatic stuff, but I like the general sentiment:

You read and write. You have ink in your veins and stardust in your soul. You don’t need to stop and smell the flowers because you’re growing a garden in your heart. Yes, you’re giving up some of the typical twists and turns of life. Don’t care. You have speed. A speed so electric, so immediate and eternal, it’ll pull tears out of your eyes and make an hour feel like being awake for weeks at a time.

This life of outer stillness and inner intoxication will thrill you whenever you think about it and nurture you through the rest. Think about it often. And don’t leave the covers closed for too long.

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Teenage Irony

Tell a class of teens that they need to read a 90 page book, and they’ll relax at how short and easy that is.

Tell them that they need to read a 30 page short story, and they’ll go into shock over how unfairly and infinitely long that is!

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2012 was by far the worst year of my adult life for total number of books read: I only finished 17 books the whole year; my next worst year was 2001, when I finished 19.  Clearly, I need to tackle my problem with distraction.

Or, in terms of quality over quantity, it wasn’t bad at all: I gave five books a perfect ten for enjoyment; my worst year for that was 2008, which only had 2 perfect tens.

Below is the list, with dates finished, my 1-10 score for much I liked reading it, and either a brief comment or link to my review.

 

1. Comstock Lode, Louis L’amour (1/18, Western)–7.  Good, but no different from others of his I’ve read.

2. Cloak, James Goff (2/7, fantasy, young adult)–8.

3.  Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (4/6, literature)–10.  I can’t believe I never finished my review of this!  I made some notes: I jotted down my two favorite quotes:

“I always imagine divine mercy giving us back to ourselves and letting us laugh at what we became, laugh at the preposterous disguises of crouch and squint and limp and lour we all do put on.”

“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”

I also wrote down that I loved her usage of Numbers 6:24-26.

4.  Mozart: His Life and Music, Jeremy Siepmann (4/14, biography)–9.  Innovative biography mixed life story with music appreciation to the benefit of both.

5.  Maphead, Ken Jennings (5/11, memoir, humor)–9.

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For years, I’ve subscribed to a pretty Spartan philosophy about buying books.  A few weeks ago, as part of a larger effort to declutter, I decided to apply these rules to my existing library retrospectively.

Thus, I showed up to work one morning with a few cardboard boxes filled with about 150 books, which I gave away to my students.  (God bless the little bookworms where I work; every last book was gone by the end of the day.)

I only buy a book if it meets one of these conditions: (more…)

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It breaks every rule of modern teaching, but…

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I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  (more…)

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I only read 26 books in 2011, but on the plus side, this year had the highest overall quality of any year yet–by far the most perfect tens.  And in my own defense, some of these were pretty long.  Mostly, this makes me realize how little I’ve blogged about my reading this year–I used to write more reviews.  I’ll try to do better. 

This year I read in entirety some books I’d only picked away at in part before (Bleak House, Zen), and some that have been on my to-do list for years (Flatland, Neverwhere, Speaker).  Before this year, I’d read Shakespeare’s Henry V, so I wanted to read the rest of the Henriad tetralogy–Richard II, and Henry IV, I and II.  Time well spent. 

As with the movies, there was a sharp drop off at the end of August, when school started.  The last four months have really been quite demanding.  Hopefully this Spring semester will be a little easier. 

1. Richard II, William Shakespeare (2/5, drama, literature)–10  As good as any of the tragedies, a study in self-magnified flaws leading to ruin. 

2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens (3/9, literature)–10  A tour de force of detective mystery, atmosphere and style, four dimensional characters, and withering social commentary (every law school student should be required to read chapter 1, at least).  Also, spontaneous human combution.  Seriously.  I’ve wanted to read this since PBS first aired the Masterpiece Theater serial in 2005 which, now that I’ve finally finished reading the book, I really need to see. 

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Homer’s Iliad is great for the Halloween season.  I’ve been reading it, and I’m trying to finish so I can start on some easy, stress-relieving scary stories as summer ends, but I’m realizing now just how appropriate this ancient epic poem is for the new season.

I’m in Book 15 out of 24, and several recent passages have struck me with their grim, vivid obsession with the morbid. 

As Book 12 ends, the Trojans are invading the Greek headquarters, Hector urging them on:

They rushed to obey him,

Some swarming over the top at once, others streaming in

Through the sturdy gateways—Argives scattering back in terror,

Back by the hollow hulls, the uproar rising, no way out, no end—

To me, that conjures the kind of claustrophobic panic in the air felt in the Mines of Moria episode in The Fellowship of the Ring

But far more graphic horrors appear in the battles that follow.  Lines 655-666 of Book 13 describe the painful, gruesome death of Adamus at the hand of Meriones:

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From Sol Stern’s “A Solution for Gotham’s Reading Woes,” City Journal, Summer 2011:

Noting that SAT reading scores nose-dived in the 1960s and have remained flat ever since, Hirsch blames the nation’s education schools. “Our teachers and administrators are taught brilliant slogans like ‘rote regurgitation of mere facts’ which make factual knowledge sound objectionable,” Hirsch writes, “and they are told that a deeper, better approach is the ‘how-to’ scheme of education. Don’t give students a fish; teach them how to fish. Don’t tell them what to think, teach them critical thinking skills. Don’t teach them factoids, teach them comprehension strategies.” To the contrary, it is precisely the accumulation of facts—whether in history, science, the arts, or civics—that enables young readers to move from the foundational skill of decoding the written words of the English language (that is, phonics) to a deeper comprehension of complex texts.

From Alan Jacobs’ “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 31, 2011:

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I mentioned this book a few weeks ago, with only mild enthusiasm.  The further I got into it, though, the faster I read through it.  No, it isn’t as ambitious as A.J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All; Jacobs drew funny and poignant parallels between his reading and some stresses and changes in his life, while Ammon Sheaonly goes as far as the occasional observational nugget in that vein. 

The great pleasure of Shea’s book, however, is its pervasive, unabashed, gloriously valedictory nerdiness.  Imagine someone making an exaggerated parody of word lovers.  Shea’s actual nerdiness is still deeper than that.  In fact, in a contemplative review section at the end, which compared to the pacing in the rest of the book is drawn out not unlike the similarly loving tribute that is the end of the third Lord of the Rings movie, he resists the temptation to brag about the tedious rigor of poring over every word of the twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and instead revels in the joy of it, calling it his favorite book, and carefully explaining his plan to read it again right away, savoring each page with the delicate attention of an enraptured lover. 

Heck.  Yeah. 

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During Spring Break, I was reading A Game of Thrones while standing in line with my family for a ride at Disneyland.  A young couple stood next to me, as the line wound back and forth.  They smiled at each other and then at me.

“Is this your first time?” the woman asked me.  I looked up. 

“First time what?”

“Reading Game of Thrones.” 

“Oh.  Yes,” I replied. 

“You’re lucky.  You’ve got an awesome story ahead of you.”  The man with her nodded in agreement, and continued to smile. 

**********

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