If you never browse the used book racks at this excellent library, you’re missing out on high quality, discount summer reading. Here’s just some of what I noticed a few days ago:
Pity the poor English teacher condemned to wander around a world where he must be assaulted by typographical errors in everything from signs at a Six Flags theme park to his children’s medical forms…
These things were both presented to the public as communication from professionals…
Amit Majmudar’s new translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is the third one I’ve read, and the second one I’ve loved. Overall, it’s the best of the three. It strikes the perfect balance between the first two: it has the strain of clear pragmatism with the idioms and images of the source culture (which I really liked in the first one), along with a direct, point-blank Western style that doesn’t try to impress with mysticism but which still retains the originally foreign flavor (unlike the second version I read, which just watered it down in trying to make it sound too American).
Majmudar’s poetry sometimes does go a bit too far into prosaic territory, I felt, such as when he liberally peppers a stanza with the prefix “meta” to describe cosmic concepts. There, his Millennial-ness shines through.
But not only are his lines generally clear, gripping, and clever, but his short personal notes on each chapter are genuinely insightful and enjoyable. It’s not too often that one reads an old classic and finds translator’s notes that equal the beauty and power of the work itself. I think the last time that happened was when I read Anthony Esolen’s version of the Divine Comedy of Dante.
This new Bhagavad-Gita complements the literature and religion of the West both when it’s similar and when it’s different–either way, it’s so thoughtful that it makes you think., too. The magic of Majmudar’s work is that it can’t be clear if that’s mostly due to the translator’s subconscious or the text’s original ethos…probably some of both.
I’ve finished eleven books so far in 2018. Here they are:
1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A. One of my goals for the year is to read this whole series–to the constant consternation of my students and my own children, I never have. This first entry was enjoyable and solid.
2. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C. This is a Roman item from the Great Works of the Western World, and it was so-so. Some interesting procedures in its progress, but ultimately I just didn’t care about most of what it had to say.
3. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A. A fantastic, important, inspiring story. A student (who happens to be a female athlete) saw it on my desk, so I summarized it and she seemed interested. I hope a movie gets made of this one, so more people will get exposed to Chrissie’s awesome story.
4. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+. The best of the three I’ve read so far–several plot strains weave together at the end quite organically. The suspense builds in increasing episodes throughout the book.
5. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B. This bit of cheeky caricaturing of life and society’s foibles was surprisingly accessible, for a satire written 500 years ago.
6. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C. Ugh. What a predictable, stale bore. I’ve liked some of his books, and this is highly rated by fans, but I rolled my eyes several times, the writing was so bad.
7. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+. An amazing life story! The method here is not hagiographic, but quite plainly presents Eyring’s life as a series of growth experiences, where he humbly learned and tried to improve. The narratives rooted in his journal entries are gripping. A great read.
8. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+. Thoughts and notes here.
9. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A. Meh. The writing and characters, etc., are all fine and good, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that not much was at stake here. Much ado about nothing. Plot wise, Rowling also seems in a bit of a rut, with a third book that follows a template that’s pretty familiar by now. Fans I’ve mentioned this to say that she really shakes up the series with book four, so I’m looking forward to that.
10. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A. Notes here.
11. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B. Never read anything like this before–Bly writes prose poems. I enjoyed his subjects, style, and approach…mostly. He loves wildly juxtaposed comparisons, and often they work, but sometimes they really don’t. The final section was much weaker, to me, than the rest of the book. Still, I plan to read another of his collections soon.
I’ve seen a lot lately about using YA (Young Adult) literature to help get students more interested in reading. I have mixed feelings about that–I primarily teach juniors, and my mindset is that I should be preparing them to be adults, not preparing them to be children. After all (as I often remind them when they’re being immature), in less than two years, they’ll actually be adults. Why not guide students to read things that will introduce them to the world they’ll soon be entering and living in for the rest of their life, instead of pandering to what is currently comfortable but which will be obsolete in a matter of months?
I’ve tried many different strategies for engaging young people with worthwhile literature over the years. While most of the stuff I offer fails big time (Alas, I’m looking at you, Stranger In A Strange Land, Catch-22, and A Farewell To Arms), some titles tend to make solid connections year after year. Here are twelve perennial winners:
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I’m continually surprised by how many high schoolers haven’t even heard of this. It always scores a new fan, though.
- Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Even before the Hulu series, this one was a big hit, especially with feminist students. Two years ago, when one student was researching things about the book for a presentation after finishing it, and she learned that a trailer for the upcoming series has just been released, she made us all watch it. She smiled from ear to ear. That’s an extreme example, but still, kids who read this tend to dig it.
- Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes. This dark nostalgia-fest is easier going for those who struggle with reading. The details and the themes tend to resonate.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night. Everyone reads Gatsby in class and everyone loves it, but time and again, when students pick this one for other reading projects, they universally tell me how much they enjoyed it.
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. While some teens are disappointed by the lack of gore, most of them get the creepy psychological vibe here, and it’s a quick, easy read. Never had a kid read this and regret it.
- Cormac McCarthy, No Country For Old Men and/or The Road. Man, kids like Cormac McCarthy. I’ve had several good conversations comparing and contrasting the book and movie versions of these with teens. They don’t always get the deeper ideas he wants to impress, but the violent plots do certainly get them ready to think about them.
- Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye. Probably the easiest of Morrison’s works, this is still timely in regards to race and sex issues.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita. Like other titles here, this one uses its scandalous appeal to communicate wonderfully deep ideas and style. The shocking sensationalism is always a hit; students may not even know that they’ve been educated by a classic!
- Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood. Like McCarthy in that her style brings deeper ideas to pop consciousness, but even more than being violent, kids just find her attractively weird. In a good way.
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. What teen won’t relate to this, in some way, sometime? Bonus: if you’re expecting to see Catcher in the Rye in this list, forget it: you might be surprised by how many teens hate it, seeing Holden himself as a phony. The Bell Jar is where it’s at.
- Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. Generally, this one is favored by young men who want to avoid anything too soft or fancy in their reading–ROTC types always love it. As with every title on this list, I’m happy to connect every type of student to something worthwhile for them to study, enjoy, and be enriched by.
- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five. Ditto from the last entry. The multi-genre weirdness of this one tends to rock readers a bit, but it’s a worthy and rewarding ride!
At the end of major reading units, I often have students do a series of small creative tasks to demonstrate understanding by extending or reinterpreting material in various ways. This pivotal scene from The Scarlet Letter has been combined with a classic TV reference. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Several months ago, the same student who did this drew the courthouse scene in The Crucible with Sesame Street‘s Big Bird sitting in the rafters. Very clever.
I did up this presentation to start off our current unit in American Lit. I started with this Powerpoint I found online, and gussied it up a bit. Students filled in these notes while we discussed the slides:
As always, my pop culture and arts references are meant to spur further connections in the minds of students–I try to draw these out from them while we talk. Each piece we read and analyze in this unit includes a discussion of which elements of Romanticism are present in the text and where: this leads to some very natural compare/contrast exercises.
I’m a big fan of the website Turnitin.com, which assists in grading written work and in checking for plagiarism. If you’re a teacher and your school doesn’t subscribe, bug your admin until they get it for you.
It streamlines the writing process, collects all documents and communication electronically, simplifies feedback, and even reveals nearly any kind of cheating a student writer may have done (it was even once used to demonstrate that a professor at UNLV was a serial plagiarist and got him fired!).
It’s thanks to things like this that I don’t carry around boxes of papers to grade any more–all I need is a computer–and it even goes faster, since I don’t have to laboriously scribble my sorry handwriting on each paper. And everything is automatically documented! (More than once, I’ve had a parent insist that their perfect angel turned in an assignment that I’ve marked missing, and where I used to only have my word to go on, I can now take a screen shot of the empty submission page and send it to the parent.)
Last year I put together this quick illustrated user guide for teachers. In case it might be useful for any of you out there in Internet Land, here it is. I also hope you enjoy looking for the little jokes I worked in.
A family friend recently gave our youngest daughter a board book version of Pride and Prejudice, and it’s crazy adorable. Here it is on Amazon.
I finished 30 books in 2017. It was a good year for reading–nine perfect scores, including three in a row! The biggest development was getting new glasses over the summer–after suffering headaches that slowed me down for far too long, I finally took care of this, and I got much more done after. On the downside, I now see some big holes: no poetry, no science fiction or fantasy, not nearly enough of what I started the year wanting to read. Alas. Still, a great time.
- Eliza, Keith and Ann Terry (1.8, biography)–B
- Where Love Is, There God Is Also, Leo Tolstoy (1.14, literature, Dole trans. / Jordan intro)–A
- Eclogues & Georgics, Virgil (1.21, poetry, Mackail trans.)–C
- The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (2.11, classics, poetry, Neville Coghill trans.)–A+
- To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (3.11, literature)–B
- A Walk Among the Tombstones, Lawrence Block (3.20, mystery)–B
- The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Rod Dreher (3.27, biography)–A+
- The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher (5.29, religion, politics)–A
- The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank (6.23, history)–A
- Born Fighting, James Webb (6.27, history)–A
- Uncle Vanya, Anton Chekhov (7.1, drama)–C
- Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw (7.27, drama)–A
- Everything That Remains, The Minimalists (7.27, memoir)–A+
- Purgatory, Dante (7.29, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A
- The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera (8.22, fiction)–B
- Nightworld, F. Paul Wilson (8.26, horror)–A+
- Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (9.17, satire)–A
- Paradise, Dante (10.17, poetry, classic, Anthony Esolen trans.)–A+
- How Dante Can Save Your Life, Rod Dreher (10.23, literary criticism, memoir)–A+
- Speak To The Earth, Rachel Peden (10.31, nature, memoir)–A+
- Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
- Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
- Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
- Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
- Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
- Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
- It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
- The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
- The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
- Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C
This is the story of an invisible community, where one voice at a time leads us to connect with others, in a chain back in time.
It starts with Katrina Kenison, who edited the annual Best American Short Stories series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. I love the essays she’d write as a foreword to each volume–usually loving little slices of the literate life, crisp and juicy together. For example, consider the paragraph from her essay in the 2001 volume, below. Isn’t it perfect?
Actually, her very best such essay was the one that started off the 2004 volume. I’ve used that essay a number of times with students, as a model of style and form–it seamlessly weaves a meditation on books with an illustrative anecdote, written in a way that creates comfort while it also demands engagement and action. I don’t have a copy handy just now, so I can’t provide a quote, nor is it anywhere online that I can find, but this book–along with all the volumes she edited–is worth tracking down just for her essays alone.
(She’s written other books, but I wish she’d compile one just collecting all these essays. What a treat that would be!)
In the 2004 edition essay, however, Kenison mentions several older books that she’d found in a used book shop that was about to close. She tosses off titles with brief reveries about the contents–tiny taglines meant to offer whisps of joy found between those covers–and I’ve long wanted to find some of them myself.
This year I finally did. One in particular stood out to me, Rachel Peden’s Speak to the Earth. As I recall, Kenison called Peden “a naturalist of the first order.” Sounded good to me.
No library in southern Nevada had a copy, so I used the interlibrary loan program available at the university where I work part time to borrow a copy from whomever had one to share. Continue reading
One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.
I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).
Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.
Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.
I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.
A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.
Something I was writing at work today made me think of this quote from Emerson, which I highlighted when I was 17. I dug out the book, which happened to be in my classroom, and looked it up. Classic.
I read this last summer, and while it starts out strongly enough, it gets much better as it goes on–the satire gets far darker and more biting. Maybe that’s why the single part everyone seems to know and like–Gulliver being tied down by the tiny Lilliputians–is from chapter one. Nobody ever talks about the better parts later on.
The second half of the book really ramps ups the social commentary to Voltaire levels of savagery. Consider these observations of a university, from part III:
I saw another at work to calcine Ice into Gunpowder; who likewise shewed me a Treatise he had written concerning the Malleability of Fire, which he intended to publish.
There was a most ingenious Architect who had contrived a new Method for building Houses, by beginning at the Roof, and working downwards to the Foundation; which he justified to me by the like Practice of those two prudent Insects, the Bee and the Spider.
There was a Man born blind, who had several Apprentices in his own Condition: Their Employment was to mix Colours for Painters, which their Master taught them to distinguish by feeling and smelling. It was indeed my Misfortune to find them at that Time not very perfect in their Lessons; and the Professor himself happened to be generally mistaken: This Artist is much encouraged and esteemed by the whole Fraternity.
In another Apartment I was highly pleased with a Projector, who had found a Device of plowing the Ground with Hogs, to save the Charges of Plows, Cattle, and Labour. The Method in this: In an Acre of Ground you bury at six Inches Distance, and eight deep, a Quantity of Acorns, Dates, Chestnuts, and other Maste or Vegetables whereof these Animals are fondest; then you drive six Hundred or more of them into the Field, where in a few Days they will root up the whole Ground in search of their Food, and make it fit for sowing, at the same time manuring it with their Dung. It is true, upon Experiment they found the Charge and Trouble very great, and they had little or no Crop. However, it is not doubted that this Invention may be capable of great Improvement.
And this rather wry bit where the joke about government working purely and productively might seem like a lame cliche today just shows us, yet again, that there’s nothing new under the sun:
In the School of Political Projectors I was but ill entertained, the Professors appearing in my Judgment wholly out of their Senses, which is a Scene that never fails to make me melancholy. These unhappy People were proposing Schemes for persuading Monarchs to chuse Favourites upon the Score of their Wisdom, Capacity, and Virtue; of teaching Ministers to consult the Publick Good; of rewarding Merit, great Abilities, eminent Services; of instructing Princes to know their true Interest by placing it on the same Foundation with that of their People: Of chusing for Employments Persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild impossible Chimaeras, that never entred before into the heart of Man to conceive, and confirmed in me the old Observation, that there is nothing so extravagant and irrational which some Philosophers have not maintained for Truth.
The final section of the book has the darkest humor, such as this almost invisibly veiled swipe at expansive governments spreading their influence:
But I had another Reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s Dominions by my Discovery. To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with Relation to the Distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For instance, A Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither, at length a boy discovers Land from the Top-mast, they go on Shore to Rob and Plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for their King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a couple more by Force for a Sample, return Home, and get their Pardon. Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity, the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust, the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: And this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.
From Troilus and Criseyde (@ 1380)
Translation: THEY HAD SEX