Monthly Archives: March 2019

For the Love of Books

I have also been a reader, you know, that kid on the bus curled up with a book. I once missed my bus stop because I was tucked behind the seat reading so intently I missed the stop, and the bus driver didn’t see me. In the days before cell phones, I remember it being pretty traumatic. Someone called someone who called my mom to let her know I would be very late as the driver had to do the whole rest of the route.

The last two books I’ve read have both been a celebration of books and reading and I felt like I spent a week with people who understood that little girl behind the bus seat.

In Well-Read Black Girl, Glory Edim has collected heartbreaking, joyful essays by women of color about the books they loved, particularly the ones that seemed to draw from their lives, honoring those stories and inspiring these women to tell their own.

Books for Living is Will Schwalbe’s second books about books. (I have not read The End of Your Life Book Club…yet.) These are the books that have made a difference to his life, his beliefs, the way he lives. I had already started moving away from constant connectivity before reading this book and was rediscovering my love of reading, curled up with a book for an hour, being away to lose myself in a different world:

Books are uniquely suited to helping us change our relationship to the rhythms and habits of daily life in this world of endless connectivity. We can’t interrupt them; we can only interrupt ourselves while reading them. They are the expression of an individual or a group of individuals, not of a hive mind or collective consciousness. They speak to us, thoughtfully, one at a time. They demand our attention. And they demand that we briefly put aside our own beliefs and prejudices and listen to someone else’s. (p. 14)

Schwalbe suggests we should each construct a list of the books that have been important to us. It may change but those changes will be of interest, too.

I’ve been thinking about that list but am not ready to share it yet. I would love to hear what might be on your own list. Meanwhile, I have another book to read.

 

Collecting Powerful Prose

The Last Witchfinder defies description a little bit:  maybe historical fantasy? Author James Morrow follows the horrific history of witch finding in the early to mid 1700s from England to America through the character of Jennet Stearne. The daughter and sister of witchfinders and niece of an accused witch, she spends her life trying to come up with a grand argument that would legally undermine the witch laws, using Newton for her guide.

Along the way, she is abducted by Algonquin Indians, shipwrecked with Ben Franklin, and accused of witchcraft herself. And, in an oddly fascinating twist, the narrator is Newton’s Principia Mathematica, the text that Jennet used for her argument, and in the interludes, the book describes its battle against the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunting handbook. Here’s where fantasy really takes over.

What I really loved, however, was the rich, evocative  writing, often ironic, and sometimes just fun.

A couple timely samples:

“She [Jennet} wanted only to sit in the shadowed library, let the darkness seep into her bones, and ponder her suspicion that the world contained things of which neither monks nor mathematicians could give a sensible account.” (p. 62)

“I am well aware that the average member of your species will not abandon a pleasurable opinion simply because the evidence argues against it. Self-doubt is a suit of clothes that few of you ever acquire and fewer still wear comfortably.” (p. 113)

And, from the narrator, an anachronistic insight into the contemporary world that is, I think, bleaker than it seems but uncomfortably close to the truth. I would like to think we would take a selfie with the wildflowers:

“True, thanks to all those exquisite quantum equations, you humans now have television (though in my opinion the whole thing went downhill after The Avengers), mobile phones (allowing you to walk through a field of stunningly gorgeous wild flowers without actually being there), and personal computers (hour after hour you stare at the screen, a life of cybernetic desperation.”

I heard Thoreau echoing in that last bit: “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” he write in the opening of Walden. Perhaps cybernetic desperation is not so quiet: living our lives within view of everyone, seemingly all the time.

Short Bits: What kind of birder are you?

Ornithologist Scott Weidensaul’s book Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, is a loving portrait of American birding, including the fathers AND mothers of birding. Weidensaul also describes two types of people who chase birds: listers and birders. Listers chase birds, spending money and time to find the most unusual and exotic to add to their life lists. They are encouraged by annual competitions to see who can get the most birds in their Big Year. Weidensaul describes their enthusiasm when they see a new bird, but they quickly lose interest in the birds the moment they have made the check mark on the list. They are immediately on to the next bird.

Weidensaul suggests that the second type of people who chase birds are really the birders: those who care less about the list and more about the birds themselves. They are excited by the unusual but also intrigued with the familiar. The author seems to come down on the side of this second type, those who genuinely enjoy birds rather than aggressively pursuing the list. The blurb from The Washington Post on the cover calls the book gossipy and scholarly and that’s just about right as the author has hung out with the contemporary folks and likes telling tales about the characters from the past.

I think this brief history–there is just enough detail–will be interest to anyone who has paged through a field guide. And, if you a bird nerd, I can highly recommend Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman. As a teenager, he embarked on his big year–the year when serious birders try to see more birds than anyone else–with little more than a backpack and a map. Even an extreme lister like Kaufman, who almost won the annual competition, has since lost interest in the list. Weidensaul quotes him, “As for me, my own passion for list-chasing was dwindling fast, while my interests in the birds themselves was becoming ever stronger. So the contest was coming to matter least of all to the contestants.”

Challenges can be positive ways to change habits and push limits. But, when the challenge itself becomes the focus, it can lead to superficial successes.

Short Bits: Nuance

For now, in order to get in the habit of blogging, I’m going with pieces I am calling “short bits.” Basically, what I am thinking about it. Sheri Edwards, the blogging mentor to us all, calls them blog shorts and has a wonderful introduction here.  So, my short bits are blog shorts.

This one is simply about the seeming lack of nuance in all sorts of places, due I think, in large part to our continued distraction with media. We want quick answers and memes to share, diving into the ever flowing stream of stuff, generating quick comments but never really digging deeper than the surface. We label things good and bad, and certainly there are examples of both of those in the world, but there are also nuances of good and bad. Events are often more complicated than they seem. Zero tolerance policies almost never work. And, teachers and students and content and pedagogy overlap in complex ways that do not always lend themselves to easy charts or frameworks or continuums or, for that matter, 280 characters on Twitter.  Whenever someone says you should ALWAYS or NEVER, I want to shout, “It depends!”

But, in the interest of seeing nuances myself,  there ARE good conversations going on within communities, including Twitter. The #clmooc has made long term use of the web to connect around creativity and collaboration. I am sorry I missed the #clmooc book discussion about affinity communities online. Participation in these kinds of groups allows users to access  the power behind the tools when wielded with a mission of authentic connection.