On the other hand…

7 04 2011

Caught this much more optimistic interview in the Atlantic with Marjorie Garber, the author of The Use and Abuse of Literature:

I don’t believe there’s a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it’s also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I’m very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I’m far from despairing and I don’t actually feel that there’s a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.

It’s nice to read something more up-beat and positive and focused on the act of reading of itself, as opposed to the publishing side of the discussion, which is sometimes so drenched with Kool-Aid on either side, one would think Congress has better chances of working together smoothly. Also, I think the last couple posts I’ve made have put me in the position of being a little snobby, but that’s not a position I really want or mean to take. I like to read for entertainment. I will buy every novel George R. R. Martin writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series without question (even though the 4th book just left me a little disappointed). I’m not saying that pleasure is all bad.

I do think, however, that truly meaningful works do more than just entertain. I think we can find those experiences in everything, but I do worry that left to just a mass-market, works with meaning and depth will be seen as “too hard” and will suffer diminished value to an even greater degree than they presently do. It’s the path of least resistance. In other news, people also don’t really go to see many independent and foreign films, they seldom go to art exhibits, and water is also wet. I find that a shame.

Garber’s focus on teaching “the power of reading” is what provides the ultimate glimmer of hope. That is, if it’s not neglected. It seems really important.

Aftershock: Not the most uplifting first read of the year

5 01 2011

I’m sure that Robert Reich, in the third and final section of Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future meant for his suggestions on how America must move to come out of the Great Recession and back into a period of prosperity to sound uplifting and utterly possible. Would that it were so, but it’s hard to see an upside in the current climate. It’s really a depressing scenario overall and this is the type of book that linger and gnaws at you while you try to sleep the night after reading it.

The good part is that Reich’s a very solid and skilled writer. I find his voice on the radio (he’s a regular on APM’s Marketplace) both charming and grating at the same time and I could hear his voice in my head as I read. This made for a fast read as I was simultaneously carried by the pace of his voice but also by a desire to have it over. Sort of a weird little thing I have. But it is a good read, not nearly as dry as you might expect and very thought-provoking and approachable.

The basic premise and the central assumption that Reich’s operating with is income inequality, which is what he blames for the long-term effect that this recession hopefully won’t, but probably will have. It’s the reason that middle/lower class Americans accumulated so much debt, it’s the reason they lost their homes, and it’s the reason that we’re looking at a jobless recovery. He summarizes it all in one short and succinct paragraph:

The fundamental problem is that Americans no longer have the purchasing power to buy what the U.S. economy is capable of producing. The reason is that a larger and larger portion of total income has been going to the top. What’s broken is the basic bargain linking pay to production. The solution is to remake the bargain. (p. 75)

He makes note that after WWII, economic growth resulted in higher wages and living standards for everyone, including those at the top and he’s drawing off the well-established fact that in the last 30 years or so, only the upper 5% or so of earners has shared in the economic growth of the country. Everyone else’s wages and salaries, adjusting for inflation and what have you, have remained more or less flat. This results in all sorts of problems which he outlines thoroughly.

On the whole, the book is cleanly organized into three sections: an examination of the problem, what will happen if we don’t fix it (spooky), and how we can fix it in his view. Nothing to it, plenty of stuff there to agree with. Plenty of stuff there to disagree with. Ain’t life grand?

For the most part, he makes his assumptions very clearly known and only once or twice does he make a blatantly spurious connection between facts. Maybe nitpicky on my part, but he skirts the edge between correlation and causality a couple times. This is, I might add, something that just about every book I’ve ever seen on the subject does and his are pretty rare and pretty minor. For instance, and I draw this one out just because it stuck out in my mind, he links the dramatic increase in the sales of sleep aids, special mattresses and all sorts of sleeping medications to economic worries of  the middle class. That market, he reports, has increased some 25% or so (I’m not looking up the exact number he quoted, but it’s about there). He qualifies it as saying that that must be due, at least in some part, to economics, which is pretty flimsy. I mean, it must also be due, at least in some part, to the fact that someone convinced Snooki to write a goddamn novel and Simon and Schuster published it (and no, I can’t let it go).

I think it’s a very quick and approachable read. I’m no economist, but I’ll admit before that I’m also not a Wall Street banker and don’t have to be. I’d think if you are a Wall Street banker, you might not like it very much. You might not like it at all, depending on your politics, but he deliberately tries not to make this work into a partisan, finger-pointing debate. He’s keeping it on the real economic philosophy level and I really have to praise it for that. I would say, however, that it was probably not the best read to start off the New Year. New Year’s is supposed to be about hope and frankly, the reality is a bit more daunting even if Reich’s ending is on a very positive note extolling all Americans for being a reasonable people. We’ll have to see, but I do think it’s an interesting and, at least on that level, helpful perspective to have.


30 12 2010

Came across this in the L.A. Times this morning: Quirk books is going to be publishing the Meowmorphosis, a mashup where Gregor Samsa is turned not into a cockroach, but into an adorable kitten.

I found the first several mashups coming out of the Quirk to be really inventive and fun ideas. There’s me proving that I’m not a total stick in the mud. But, honestly, it’s getting to the point that it’s just shtick, isn’t it? My wife recently read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I somehow managed to score off the new fiction shelf at the library. She said it was pretty fun, a fast read, and entertaining and all very good things. I, myself, would’ve liked to have read it, but as I’ve mentioned about 43 times in the past few posts, I sort of fell off the reading wagon for a bit.

Anyway, I’m not sure the Meowmorphosis is really speaking to me. It’s clever, but I’m a little tired of clever being enough for a book idea. Clever is really trying to become a substitute for substance. It’s pastiche, but doesn’t create anything good. It’s too much play. Not saying books are all serious bidness, but if it’s all a gag, doesn’t that get old? I’ve got a book idea: War and Peace and Aliens. There. I’ll be looking for my book contract any day now.

This after my sister in law asked me this morning if I had any good book recommendations right now, which I don’t. It’s not the time for new books lately. The bestsellers on the NY Times Book Review are the same bestsellers they have been for weeks. Nothing’s creating a lot of news and hype. This is an opportunity, though, to reach back and read older stuff that might’ve been missed. Discover something new. Something more fun.

Side-note: I’m leaving to visit my parents today for the weekend and looking forward to seeing 2010 come to a close, so I probably won’t be blogging much (but who knows, I do have access to a computer, so it might happen). At any rate, 2010 has been just a real shit and I’m happy that it’s nearly over. So, wishing everyone a wonderfully Happy New Year and a great 2011.

Reading Update

29 12 2010

As I mentioned before, I’ve fallen woefully behind in my reading, but I do think a little update to the Goodreads shelf is in order. My plan is to do a little better with this in the next year and actually set aside time to do the things I want and need to do. It’s not uncommon for me to set a billion goals for myself and often my reach exceeds my grasp. Still, as far as my personal reading goes, I am making a lot of use of the library and I do pick up a few books here and there:

Of particular note, I’m not really reading a lot of fiction right now. I finished Boneshaker by Cherie Priest a few weeks ago, as I had been reading it on my Kindle while at the gym, but other than that, I’ve not really touched anything fictional at all. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed Boneshaker and thought it a fun read, but it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. I did think that Cherie Priest came up with a pretty compelling character in Briar Wilkes (who I kept calling Briar Rose in my mind. I just couldn’t get past it and I’ll admit the constant interrupting fault is more my fault than Priest’s, but it is what it is.), but the rest of the cast of characters did very little for me and, in particular, Zeke (Briar’s son) irked me quite a bit. Of course, I’m not looking forward to having my own headstrong teenager either and I hope when the time does come, that at least mine won’t run off into a zombie-infested plague cloud place. It is interesting, however, that you can really lay out Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero with Priest’s plot and it snaps neatly into place. So, kudos to Priest for telling a really well-formed and well-paced story.

The current Kindle read is still A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 3). I’ve started and stopped this one so many times now, it normally takes me a day or two to figure out what’s going on, but I don’t yet feel like I’ve completely lost the whole story. I will get through it. I will! Like most of the Kindle books, I tend to read it at the gym during rest periods or when I’m on an elliptical, so the reading is slow but does keep me fairly entertained. And I like the book and I want to get through it so I can feel that I’m properly enjoying the show when it starts on HBO. Time’s just always a real factor.

Enough of that, though. Right now I’m slugging through Michael Kimmel’s very interesting historical analysis of American masculinity in Manhood in America: A Cultural History. I’m only about 1/3 of the way in because it’s not very light reading and is one of those things I simply haven’t set aside enough time for during the day/early morning. I’m not very good at reading in bed anyway, but my attempts with this one have led to me peacefully snoozing after about 2 pages. Time being set aside for this gets put on the calendar asap. What I have read so far has been utterly fascinating. Kimmel is one of, if not the leading scholar on masculinity studies in America and I’m trying to make my way through his work during the coming year. Best quote so far: “The great whale is both the more powerful man against which masculinity is measured and, simultaneously, the archetypal woman – carnal, sexually insatiable, other. What are we to make, after all, of the fact that Ahab, who had lost his ‘leg’ trying to plunge his ‘six inch blade’ into the whale, in now engaged in a ‘crazed flight to prove his manhood’ Moby Dick is ‘the most extravagant projection of male penis envy’ in American literature” (Kimmel 69). Nothing like a little Freudian analysis of Melville to get the motor running. Good damn stuff.

I also checked out/am checking out Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert Reich. I’ve had this one on hold from the Nashville Library since it was released and my turn in the queue came up early in December. I feel like a total schlub for not just plowing through it like I should. It’s not a difficult read, but with everything else, I’ve just not found the time and I feel guilty holding it since so many people were waiting on it. That’s just the fate of the hold queue in Nashville, though. As for why, I’m not real interested in delving too deeply into politics here, but I enjoy hearing Robert Reich’s perspective on Marketplace and I’m interested in the economy. I also think he’s a very good writer.

A final couple notes. I scored both the Hunger Games Trilogy Boxset and the 2011 Writer’s Market Deluxe Edition for Christmas. The former is something I’ve been meaning to read for a while and this just seals the deal. The case looks very nice on my desk and is also helping to keep the few books and papers I have there upright. My wife steamed straight through the entire trilogy in about 4 days and wouldn’t stop talking about it, so that encourages me to hop to it.

The latter book is also on my desk and is just a must-have. Beats going to the library to research markets. Now I can do it right from home. Glad I got it for Christmas, too, because I’m far too cheap to buy it on my own.

So, that’s where I am in my personal reading and I’m going to try, again, to make a better practice of reading more, reading more regularly, updating Goodreads more and writing more reviews here.

Banned Books Week

27 09 2010

Banned Books Week started yesterday and I’m grateful to Eli Ross’s blog for having reminded me of the fact and for having made this very interesting comment in one of his posts where he linked to my post on getting boys to read. He writes:

So perhaps — and I know this is a stretch — perhaps we can entice reluctant readers with banned books. A Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five, Native Son — each of these could appeal to boys who find no connections to the stories in most books handed to them, with the added fillip of being considered “dangerous” by some groups.

I think it’s a great idea and my plans to celebrate Banned Books week include trying to introduce the kids to a banned book and read one or two myself. For reluctant readers, I can completely see being able to have access to the forbidden fruit as something appealing. My daughter, in particular, would jump at the chance to no only be allowed, but to have Mom and Dad’s blessing to do something “bad” like reading a banned book – in fact, when I mentioned it to her this morning, a slightly wicked grin grew across her face. So, for other kids, perhaps not only will it entice them to read but to also think about what they’re reading in a different way, not as a simple consumer, but to consider why it is that books are sometimes seen as dangerous. Going to be a fun talk with the kid as we go over it, I’m sure of that.

Now I just need to decide on the book. For myself, I’m going to kill two birds with one stone (ha!) and finally get around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird. “You’ve never read that?!?!” says my wife. No, and it’s tremendously embarrassing to me, but I’m going to just go ahead and cop to it now: I’ve had opportunity after opportunity to do so, but have always managed to get distracted, most recently during the 50th anniversary of the book which landed dead square in the middle of our relocation across the country. So, I’ll read a banned book and I’ll also fill in a huge, glaring, ugly gap in my reading history. How’s that for efficiency?

For kids, finding one is made much easier by consulting this list maintained by the University Library of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

If anyone out there is looking for ideas or feels like joining in on a reading challenge, two good places to start would be to check out the 10 most challenged books in the U.S. for 2010 (courtesy of the Guardian) and/or this book blogger reading challenge for the month over at Steph Su Reads.

Also, last year, the American Library Association released the following cute PSA about banned books. Be neat if they did another one, but this is pretty funny:

Boys Reading

24 09 2010

There is an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this morning about getting boys to read, which is an important issue because in most cases, boys are lagging seriously behind girls by their teenage years. The only way, of course, to improve reading skills is to actually do it and the author of this article, Thomas Spence, tries to make a connection between bribery with video games and reluctant readers. I think it’s a very valid point, overall, but misses the mark in a few rather significant ways. I do agree with the general premise, however, that if you want a kid to read, then bribing him with a video game is at best merely a distraction and at worst completely counterproductive.

About a month ago there was an article that came across the Associated Press in which librarians maintained that parents should worry first that kids are reading at all and worry about what they’re reading later. Hence, you have Captain Underpants and Sir Fartsalot. I’ve got to admit, I’m with Mr. Spence on this for three reasons: First, I think they’re gross myself and I don’t want to see them; Second, I don’t think every boy is really intrigued by boogers and farts that much anyway-at least not enough to read books about it; Third, I think the idea simply throws all boys into the same mold without any sense of individuality.

My daughter has only recently really caught on to reading and what did it was not the American Girl series. It was Zombiekins. She found a couple semi-scary books that catered to her interest. She also read the first couple Diary of a Wimpy Kid books. She now says she loves reading and reads everything in sight. So, it may be pandering to their interests, but I’m not sure that’s ultimately a bad thing. What isn’t usual is that you can’t assume that all girls will read X and all boys will read Y. That equation just doesn’t work out and reinforces stupid stereotypes (which is one of the things we’re trying to overcome anyway, right?) Let’s instead treat boys and girls as individuals, shall we?

I’d agree with the author that video games need to be kept under watch, but there’s no need to be a prude, either. Video games were no more and no less available to my daughter once reading caught on with her. What happened was she just matured to a point where reading was attractive, available, interesting and always encouraged. I think the key is not to go all crazy on TV and video games. Think, after all, of all the things you might’ve been denied in your life. Have you ever wanted anything more than the forbidden fruit? Yeah, me neither, so let’s not create an artificial lack thinking we’ll change kids’ ideas about games. This is the part of the argument where I think Mr. Spence gets off track. If you create a video game free environment, you don’t need Captain Underpants anymore. Your 13 year old son will read Robinson Crusoe instead, just like magic. I don’t think that’s surprising. I’m pretty sure I could get a 7 year old to take Sartre out for a spin if I locked him in a room with no other stimulation. We could withhold food and get them to dive into Wittgenstein even, maybe. I can guarantee one thing by that approach: You might get them reading, but they’re going to resent it. And, despite what Mr. Spense says, I’m not sure anyone could devise an adequate torture device to get a pre-teen boy to read Jane Austen. It won’t be happening.

I’d argue if boys aren’t reading as much as girls, it’s because they’re encouraged more to engage in different pursuits than girls that exclude reading (and sitting still for that matter). Before we had my son, I thought my daughter was active. They’re not even close. So, yes, I can understand that most boys are very different than most girls and getting them to stop moving long enough to look at a book is a challenge unto itself, not to mention that we parents want them to burn some of that excess energy off. That’s just something we have to overcome.

Instead, here’s what I’d propose: Throw books at your kids every chance you get. Not literally, but if it works, go for it. Take them to the library once a week. Talk about books. Read in front of them. Read to them. Buy them books. Let them pick out books they want and if they judge it just by the cover, so be it. Don’t judge too harshly what they choose. Try to expose them to other things, but don’t take it too hard when they balk at it. Just keep trying until something sticks. Insist on at least 20 minutes of reading a day as soon as they can manage it and scale that up as they improve and age.