Tag Archives: reading

Saying Goodbye to Fictional Friends

Book Cover for Killer CharactersToday, I reached the end of a mystery series  by Ellery Adams called the Books by the Bay mysteriesKiller Characters is the eighth and final book in the series. I don’t think I have ever read all the books in a cozy mystery series so wasn’t sure how an author would finish it up.

The series focuses on a group of friends in a small coastal North Carolina town. Olivia Limoges, the main character, was born in Oyster Bay but after her mother dies and her father disappears, she spends many years living with a wealthy aunt and traveling the world. She has returned to the town as a business owner and a member of the Bayside Writers Book Group. The group includes the town’s police chief, and they work together to solve the mysteries, each bringing different strengths to the problem. Olivia’s smart and obedient standard poodle Captain Haviland often plays a role as well.

I really enjoyed the series. I often vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina so love the setting and have been to many of the locations. Adams uses the setting to form the basis of many of the stories with plots revolving around Native American, seafaring, and Appalachian communities.

Adams has created characters that grow and change with each book. She explores their relationships within the group and with others outside the group. In Oyster Bay, she has created a rich community with few of the sometimes flat characters that can populate mysteries. Even peripheral characters have a bit of a back story.

And while I will miss it, I think Ellery Adams made the right decision. We had grown with this group of writers in Oyster Bay, NC, as far as we all could go together. It was time to let them all go. And, as she had with the whole series, Adams didn’t provide the perfect happy ending you might expect.

This was the first book in the series that I read rather than listed to as I accidentally ordered the Kindle version. I read it in a day and cried at the end and then even re-read the first chapter of the first book that was included with the digital version. Adams had created a wonderfully rich character in Olivia Limoges, and I will miss her.

Finding Middle Ground in the Reading Debate

It seems I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.  A recent article in the Chronicle has prompted several bloggers to consider what reading means in the 21st century.   Will Richardson reflected on his own reading practices and what educators should be doing to foster online literacy.   Sean Sharp thought about what online reading practices mean for online writing practices.

Mark Bauerline, the author of the Chronicle article, is not fan of the digital age.  He is the author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).  I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure I will since at this point in my learning I am looking for arguments from the center.  Plus, I think we can get a good sense of what he believes from his article in the Chronicle.

Here’s the crux of his argument in one sentence: “We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning.”  Bauerline sees himself and others as the “stewards of literacy” who must protect students from themselves by providing them with rigorous reading experiences.  (Even as I write that sentence, I’m picturing the student in one of Michael Wesch’s videos holding up a sign indicating that students simply don’t do the assigned reading.)

I have not found such a conspiracy in my own life.  Web-based reading has expanded my practice rather than changing it.  I continue to read books, both fiction and nonfiction, while like Richardson, I have transferred almost all my more temporal reading such as news and correspondence to the web.  My “books” have changed a bit since I purchased my Kindle.  But my practice is similar whether I’m reading an online text, a Kindle text, or an old-fashioned book. Particularly in terms of non-fiction, I always have a pencil in my hand.  The Kindle and Diigo come with a digital pencil in the form of their highlighting and annotation tools.   And, for Daniel Schon’s book that I just started reading last night, I’ve got a Ticonderoga along with a pack of sticky notes tucked into the front cover.  I do find a growing preference for digital reading as it is easier to search my highlights and annotations.  But there is something worthwhile in paging through an analog book, reviewing what I underlined or annotated.  In the hunt for a particular quote, I often find other useful comments.

The pragmatist in me is looking for common ground in this conversation.  Bauerlein points to it in his article when he quotes Jakob Neilsen, a Web researcher who has written extensively on web-based reading habits.  Nielsen says,

I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern-day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector. We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.

There is a place for multiple kinds of reading in multiple kind of formats and our job as educators is to help students practice with all those different types.

I Need the Stupid Things

Just read this essay from Luc Sante in The Wall Street Journal about his book collection. If you read my blog, you’ll understand why it resonated with me. Here’s a taste:

Many books are screwy, a great many are dull, some are irredeemable, and there are way too many of them, probably, in the world. I hate all the fetishistic twaddle about books promoted by the chain stores and the book clubs, which make books seem as cozy and unthreatening as teacups, instead of the often disputatious and sometimes frightening things they are. I recognize that we now have many ways to convey, store, and reproduce the sorts of matter that formerly were monopolized by books. I like to think that I’m no bookworm, egghead, four-eyed paleface library rat. I often engage in activities that have no reference to the printed words. I realize that books are not the entire world, even if they sometimes seem to contain it. But I need the stupid things.

I keep telling my husband I’m not buying any more books. Well, except for a few from Island Bookstore, a great independent bookstore at the Outer Banks (it is a moral imperative to support indie booksellers) and then some from the Book Exchange, which I didn’t really buy since I have credit there.

Thinking More About Books and Reading

I think I may be one of the book-loving technophiles that John Hendron wrote about in this post. In fact, I spent most of yesterday morning culling and organizing my books. There are two boxes of hard backs to go to the library and two boxes of paperbacks to go to my exchange store. I’ve been thinking about some of the issues that John brings up as I’ve begun integrating my Kindle into my reading habits.

I love reading books on my Kindle because I can easily navigate and annotate. In addition, it slides right into whatever bag I am carrying and holds not just books but my subscriptions to The Washington Post and The Atlantic. For me, rather than books, the paper-based publications that could go away without my missing them would be the newspaper and most print-based magazines. I never got into the habit of reading the print paper and I have reduced my magazine subscriptions to just a few because I hate all that paper laying around demanding that I either store or recycle. In addition, other than ripping out articles, the print-based publications are nearly impossible to archive productively. Why tear out all those recipes from Southern Living when I can just log into the site and locate a recipe when I’m ready for it?

I wonder, though, if John’s colleague who was concerned about the loss of books was really referring to reading? Are we confusing the technology (the book) with the practice (reading)? I love books–the way they look on the shelf, the way they beckon me into new worlds, the way they encourage me to dialog with the author’s argument. But if a suitable alternative came along–and the Kindle is close–I believe I could make the move from print to digital without too much of a sense of loss.

My love affair with books is really a love affair with reading. And, I think I mean more than news articles or blog entries here, both of which I read exclusively in digital format. When I use the word “book,” it refers to something more substantial: a lengthy, researched treatise that goes beyond a more cursory look at something. It’s the difference between reading Tom Friedman’s columns and his books. The latter arose from the former but in the book, Friedman has time to tease out arguments. In terms of fiction, I can use the example of the book I just finished, Falls the Shadow, by Sharon Kay Penman. It is essentially a biography of Simon de Montfort, a 13th century noble who fought against Henry III to establish greater civil rights for the English. Certainly, I can learn about de Montfort at Wikipedia and follow the links to expand my general knowledge of that time period. But, when I sink into Penman’s prose, I am moving beyond just learning the fact of English history to get a sense of the people behind the history. Yes, I am aware that Penman has turned historical figures into fictional characters, but she has stuck within the essential historical elements and her books help those of us mired in the 21st century see our connections to them.

Does it matter if I read Penman in a book format, or on my Kindle, or on my laptop? No. It is a matter of determining the affordances and constraints of the technology. For me, trying to read anything of multi-page length is difficult on the computer screen. It is not a suitable substitute for the book. The book and the Kindle, on the other hand, are pretty close: portable and easy to stow. The book doesn’t require electricity so it may trump the Kindle if I’m heading someplace where I can’t easily charge the Kindle battery.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the Kindle has some great affordances that certainly trump the book.

While I cleaned off my bookshelves, I took advantage of another technological approach to books. I listened to an audio book on my iPod. I won’t even start writing about how I could almost jettison the radio and television. I think the important point here is that rather than lament the loss of older technologies, we celebrate the widening choices available to use when we do find the time to read.

Digital Literacy: Reading the Paper Online

This post was supposed to discuss Chester Finn’s editorial about No Child Left Behind, which appeared in The Washington Post on Sunday. He outlines five myths about the law, taking both Republicans and Democrats to task for the way they mischaracterize the law, while providing some insight into the history of national educational reform.

I think the most important one of those myths–that standards will fix the schools–must be addressed at both the federal and the state level if the standards movement will ever have a positive effect on our schools. Finn writes, “For this to work, of course, good standards have to be in place, and NCLB doesn’t address the problem of mediocre or even downright silly standards.” How much of what our students are learning is about snippets of information that can easily be found when needed? Isn’t it more important that our students know how to use those snippets to develop understandings of larger issues? That rather than knowing Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States, they grapple with how someone like Jefferson could write that all men are created equal even while owning other human beings? That even as the country was being put together, the seeds of the Civil War that would threaten to rip it apart were being sewn? (I had this sudden flash to the musical 1776, where Rutledge of South Carolina sings about the link between molasses, rum and slaves. I saw that musical numerous times in the theater where I worked as an usher and sometimes think I learned more about American history that summer than in my high school course.)

While I focused on the content of the article, I was also intrigued with its format. The article is littered with hyperlinks that take the reader to lists of articles, videos and audio related to the link. Here’s an example for President Bush.  What a great example of how online newspapers can take advantage of technology to expand the focus of its readers.

However, one of the links on the Bush page also reminded me of the importance of helping our students become discerning readers.  For instance, I couldn’t help but click on the headline Bush to Phase Out Environment by 2009.  It’s a very funny piece from Andy Borowitz, originally published at Creators Syndicate.   It’s clearly a parody despite its third place ranking in the list of articles related to the President.  It would be a great discussion starter with students about the kernel of truth that makes it funny.  And, it might lead to reading and discussing other famous parodies such as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.

The bottom line for me is that we need to be helping our students navigate this sometimes confusing world of digital publishing.   Susan Jacoby, in her current book The Age of American Unreason, takes on Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You) for suggesting that somehow Internet culture and gaming may be making us smarter.  I think here’s a good example of how Johnson may be right.  It takes a pretty smart reader to move from a serious news piece to a parody and be able to read both intelligently.  What we need to ensure is that they can make that move.