Archive for August 2012
- Meno, by Plato
What can I say? Now that I’m back in school, I don’t get to read two books a day any more. But I’m in the middle of Better Worlds than These, the new anthology of alternate-worlds stories, and it’s pretty good.
I’m going to quit my job, and sell my apartment, and live simply and cheaply. That’s what I tell myself sometimes. I’m going to use my savings to buy a plot of land and a trailer. I’ll garden, and keep some chickens. I’ll be mostly self-sufficient. If I need a little money, I’ll temp until I have it, then quit. I’ll get rid of my car and ride my bike instead. I’ll live by myself, in the woods. I’ll have books from the library, but no TV and no computer. I’ll disconnect myself from the whole messed-up society, and be a happy hermit.
I don’t suppose I’m the only person who has that thought. I am not going to do it. I’m going to keep my job, and do it as competently as I can, until I can retire. Live on my garden? Who am I kidding – I don’t even like vegetables. But I do enjoy living reasonably simply, being frugal, enjoying simple pleasures. And since I’m not going to do it myself, I indulge my escapist dreams by reading books by people who have done it.
I had never heard of Possum Living, although it was first published in 1978. Dolly Freed, the author, is an 18-year-old woman, living with her father on virtually no money, and in this book, she explains how they do it. She describes how to find a cheap foreclosed house to live on, how to garden and forage, how to stay healthy and happy. Also, how to make moonshine, and how to deal with the law. Some of what she describes is not strictly legal or ethical. Some of it would still work today.
Part of what’s appealing about this book is Dolly’s voice. She’s a self-educated teenager with strong, self-assured, occasionally obnoxious opinions, and I swear I can almost hear her through her writing. Here, have a sample:
Let me re-emphasize that we aren’t living this way for ideological reasons, as people sometimes suppose. We aren’t a couple of Thoreaus mooning about on Walden Pond here. (Incidentally, the reason Thoreau quit Walden Pond was that he was lonely – I don’t care what he said. You need the support of a loved one.) No, if some Wishing Fairy were to come along and offer to play Alexander to my Diogenes, I’d pretty quickly strain that Wishing Fairy’s financial reserves. We live this way for a very simple reason: It’s easier to learn to do without some of the things that money can buy than to earn the money to buy them.
By the time I got to the end of the book, I was wild with curiosity about Dolly Freed. Who was she? Was she real, or some other writer’s assumed voice? What kind of woman did she grow up to be? Did she continue ‘possum living,’ or did she get a job and join the rest of us in the economic system? I happened to be reading the 2010 reprint, and I was absolutely delighted to discover an afterward from Dolly, writing about what happened next, how she lives now, and what she thinks now about the book she wrote as a teenager. I found an article by Paige Williams about Dolly Freed that filled in some of the biographical details, and, best of all, a link to a documentary that shows 20-year-old Dolly and the life she describes in the book.
For me, the fantasy of living super-frugally and dropping out of work is just a fantasy. Not only am I not going to do it, I think I’d probably regret it. But I love that there are people out there living the dream, and I think it’s important for me to know how to live on basement rabbits and road-kill, just in case I change my mind.
- The South Pole; An account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in “The Fram,” by Roald Amundsen. Because you can never have too many first-person stories of Antarctic adventure, now, can you?
- A General History of the Pyrates, by Daniel Defoe. Speaking of things you can never have too much of: Pirates!
- Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, by Plutarch. Volume 2. Stories to inspire and model yourself upon: or to serve as examples of how not to live.
- The Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Also volume 2. This collection includes all your high-school favorites – ‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ ‘The Purloined Letter’ – plus some fantastic stories you probably didn’t read in high school. If you haven’t read ‘The Premature Burial,’ you really should. Ideally, at night, in an enclosed space.
- Psmith in the City, by P. G. Wodehouse. There’s lots of good Wodehouse updated at Project Gutenberg this week. I picked this one because I like Psmith. Leave it to Psmith was the first Wodehouse book I read, and it changed my life, as they say. Though not by making me better or kinder or wiser. Just by making me laugh.
I’ve read several Serious Professional Readers whose opinion I respect talk about the importance to them of taking notes in the margins of books.
I was a dedicated note-taker in college. Once I got over the initial horror of writing in a book, I immediately saw the value in engaging with a book as if I were having a conversation with it. The process of taking notes in a book helps me understand it, helps me remember it, helps me enter it on a deeper level and engage with it.
The problem is that I love to re-read books. And when I re-read books that already have my notes in them, the notes irritate me immensely. The conversation that was, on my previous reading, like having a conversation with the book, is now like having someone else in the room talking while I’m trying to read. Occasionally, the notes are helpful. I was reading a short story from Kessell’s The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, and next to one sentence, I saw that my own handwriting said, ‘from Twain.’ I had completely forgotten the bit of Twain that Kessell was quoting, and I wouldn’t have recognized it this week- I just happened to be reading the Kessel last time not long after the Twain. But often, I’m horrified by how stupid and awkward and inane the comments written in my margins are. What was useful while I was doing it makes me shun that copy of a book as if it had some sort of contagion.
So I’ve pretty well stopped writing in margins.
This week, I’ve been reading the young-adult level books that I assigned for summer reading. As an experiment, while I reread The Graveyard Book and “Mowgli’s Brothers,” two pieces I assigned to be read together, I took copious notes in a composition book. I just wanted to have the notes to refer to during class discussion, and to use the process of note-taking to help my memory a bit. I noted character names and important plot points. Also, I found myself noting allusions, connections, opinions, comments to the characters, quotations I loved… all sorts of things. I enjoyed the process of note-taking away from the margins. I have a composition book now with my reactions and thoughts, but I don’t have to have them right there when I want to re-read the book.
I wonder how this process would work if I applied it to personal reading? What if I used it when I’m reading slowly and thoughtfully? I have a little Sunday morning ritual; I shut myself up in my library with a book of the ‘classic’ or ‘serious’ type, and read for several hours straight. It might be very interesting to add some writing and note-taking to that ritual this Sunday, and see how my reading is affected by it.
Up the Down Staircase
My paperback copy of Up the Down Staircase is 43 years old. Its cover is proudly priced at ninety-five cents. The book itself is actually 48 years old now. And it’s about a subject that is so fast-moving; the experience of teaching in an urban school. After nearly fifty years of school reform, this book ought to be entirely dated, interesting only as a glimpse of what schools were like before school reform.
But no. This book could have been written yesterday. By me.
Sylvia Barrett is a naive English teacher, entering her first year of teaching for a New York City public high school. She loves poetry, and hopes to inspire young people. She knows a lot about Chaucer. She is almost entirely unprepared for the work, for staying on top of bureaucracy, for managing a classroom, for dealing with students’ frighteningly huge problems. This book tells the story of her first semester as a teacher, from September until Christmas.
Aspects of it are dated. Of course. The slang, for example, is all different. Her pile of petty bureaucracy is on paper, delivered as memos, while mine is mostly in the form of e-mail. But other than that, her experience was a very close mirror to my first year of teaching in a large urban school.
I’ve read various books about teaching over the years. Most of them were of the ‘great teacher changes kids’ lives’ model. This one is more of the ‘unprepared teacher battles despair’ plotline, which is a lot more honest. You would think that would be depressing, but there’s so much humor in the book that it isn’t. It’s the kind of gallows humor teachers use to cope on days like the days Sylvia seems always to have. The book shows the hopeless difficulty of making any real difference, and the joy of those rare moments when she makes a little difference despite it all.
There’s one thing all the books I know of about what it’s like to be a teacher have in common: they’re all written by people who taught for a few years, then quit when they got their book check.
Maybe this book is a little too bitter and a little too critical of the school system to be a good read for the last days of summer vacation. I have some anxiety about going back to school. I’m going back to a challenging year, teaching kids who are going to be more difficult to work with than I’ve had for a long time, new administrators, and a girlfriend (which requires me to find new ways of dealing with stress, because all my usual ones involve some variation on ‘hide in a hole alone and distract myself’).
Anyway, it’s still a good book. And it’s still very true. And maybe all the school reform we’ve seen has been window-dressing to make politicians feel like they’re making a difference, while in the classrooms, teaching is pretty much exactly what it has always been, and maybe, just what it always will be.
- The Hundred Year Diet, by Susan Yager
- Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
- The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters, by B. R. Myers
- The Drowning Girl, by Caitlin R. Kiernan.
- Ginger-Snaps, by Fanny Fern
The Psychopath Test
There is no evidence that we’ve been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what leads us to do rather interesting things.
- The Water Ghost and Others, by John Kendrick Bangs. A collection of humorous short stories by a popular 19th century writer, editor, and speaker.
- Mary Louise, by L. Frank Baum. The author is best-known for the Wizard of Oz books- this is the first in a series of books about a girl detective, originally published under a female pseudonym. The first four books in the series are by Baum, but other authors continued the series after that.
- The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Daily life in Elizabethan England, including some of the most important events of the time, and theatre reviews of Shakespeare. This is, notoriously, very very long. After all, it’s nine years of a daily diary. But there’s no rule that says you have to read the whole thing.
- Nerves and Common Sense, by Annie Payson Call. This is a collection of articles originally published in The Ladies’ Home Journal in the nineteenth century, about how to maintain good mental health. This is Call’s best known book, but if you like it, Project Gutenberg added four books by Call this week.
- The Private Life of the Romans, by Harold Whetstone Johnson. Just what it says on the label.
- The Trial, by Franz Kafka. A man is put on trial by a shadowy court, which won’t tell him the crime. We all know how that feels, right?
- The Watcher, and Other Weird Stories, by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. If you like Lovecraft and Poe, give Le Fanu a try.
- How I Found Livingstone, by Henry M. Stanley.
- Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey.
Lions and Tigers and Crocs, Oh My!
I guess newspapers are dying as a technology? For immediate daily news, people turn to radio, television, or internet. By the time the morning paper arrives, we already know the news. The newspapers themselves are no better than the other media for taking political sides or manipulating the news to support their own positions. Where I live, our lone newspaper is the Cincinnati Enquirer. Its Republican editorial position wouldn’t bother me so much, if it didn’t so powerfully affect the way they report the actual news. As it is, if my local newspaper dies, I’ll only be theoretically sad. In theory, it is sad that my city won’t have a newspaper. In practice, it isn’t doing the city the kind of good that a newspaper is supposed to do, and we’ll all just listen to the local NPR news and watch the TV news instead.
No, the TV news isn’t much better. ”Something in your house might kill you in the next 30 minutes! Tune in at 11 to learn what. If you survive.”
It’s a shame about the decline of newspapers, though, because the newspaper comic strip is kind of an awesome art form, isn’t it? Within a frame of specific dimensions, artists develop a story meant to be read at a pace of thirty seconds a day for decades and decades. Some of them are really brilliant. One of my favorites is Pearls Before Swine.
The thing is, I like strips better in their collections. I know that the newspaper version needs to exist, because that’s how the artist earns his living, but I’d much rather read a collection of comic strips at once, so I can follow the continuing stories in a more unified way. Stefan Pastis’s treasury collections of Pearls Before Swine strips are some of my favorites to read, because under many of the strips, he includes little reflections on the strip- what he was thinking when he wrote it, what he regrets or is proud of, how people reacted to it. The notes are as entertaining as the strips are, and add enormously to my reading experience.
I hope the newspapers don’t collapse just yet, because I want Pastis to keep writing this comic strip… so I can read it in the treasury collections, not in the newspaper.