Literary Matchmaking: Nonfiction & Fiction

A recent study conducted at the New School for Social Research claims that reading literary fiction can help develop empathy. Other studies have had similar results, finding that while literary novels enhance readers’ ability to connect with others, popular fiction and nonfiction don’t have the same effect. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal last week (“Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior”):

We’ve long known about the collateral benefits of habitual reading—a richer vocabulary, for example. But that’s only part of the picture. Mounting evidence over the past decade suggests that the mental calisthenics required to live inside a fictional character’s skin foster empathy for the people you meet day-to-day . . .

Nonfiction—along with horror, sci-fi or romance novels—had little effect on the capacity to detect others’ feelings and thoughts. Only literary fiction, which requires readers to work at guessing characters’ motivations from subtle cues, fostered empathy.

In these studies, the reading of nonfiction not only failed to spur empathy but also predicted loneliness and social isolation, specially among men. Of course, nonfiction reading has its virtues. Other research suggests that various kinds of nonfiction can prompt empathetic feelings—as long as the narrative is moving and transformative.

The “other research” the article refers to makes a lot more sense to me. Some of the most “moving and transformative” books I’ve read are nonfiction: The Boys in the Boat, Unbroken, Angela’s Ashes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,When Breath Becomes Air . . . perhaps the psychologists who found that nonfiction doesn’t spur empathy didn’t include powerful books like these in their studies. I also wonder which comes first, the chicken or the egg; perhaps people who are naturally empathetic are drawn to literary fiction because they are interested in the feelings of other people?

E.L. Doctorow said, “There is really no fiction or nonfiction; there is only narrative. One mode of perception has no greater claim on the truth than the other.” Here are five pairs of books, nonfiction and fiction, that offer terrific narratives and characters (real and imagined) with whom you can empathize:

Want to go behind the scenes at a restaurant?

9781583335802Nonfiction: Generation Chef: Risking It All for a New American Dream by Karen Stabiner
Stabiner, a journalist and cookbook author, follows ambitious young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his own restaurant in New York. The risks and stress are overwhelming, and readers will find themselves emotionally invested in Jonah’s venture.

Fiction: Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
While Generation Chef focuses on the pressures facing the chef/owner of a trendy restaurant, Danler’s roman à clef takes us into the heart of restaurant culture from the viewpoint of an employee. It’s a fictionalized version of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.

In love with Paris?

Nonfiction: Pancakes in Paris by Craig Carlson
Francophile Carlson had the crazy idea of opening an American-style diner in Paris. After many years of trials and tribulations, his restaurant (Breakfast in America) succeeded — in 9781910477304-228x360spite of the  challenges presented by the legal and economic system in France.

Fiction: French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain
French Rhapsody, like Laurain’s earlier novels, is clever and charming without being lightweight. It’s the perfect book to tuck into your bag for a flight — not only is it delightful, but it’s short, with an attractive cover. A middle-aged Parisian doctor receives a letter, lost in the French postal system for 33 years, that has the potential to change his life.

Interested in understanding the 2008 financial crisis?

Nonfiction: The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
Published in 2010, this book remains the most readable and entertaining book about the United States housing bubble. The 2015 movie version was very good as well.

9780812998481Michael Lewis has a new book coming out in December, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, about two Israeli psychologists who did groundbreaking research on decision-making and judgment.

Fiction: Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Just before the collapse of 2008, Jende Jonga, an immigrant from Cameroon who hopes for a better life for his family in the United States, begins working for a top Lehman Brothers executive, Clark Edwards. One of my favorites of 2016, this is an insightful story about immigration and the American Dream, and also about marriage.

Want to read an uplifting book about hospice and end-of-life decisions?

9781594634819-1Nonfiction: On Living by Kerry Egan
Hospice chaplain Egan has written a beautiful and inspiring book about her experiences working with dying patients. According to Publishers Weekly, “As the title suggests, this is not just a book about dying. It’s one that will inspire readers to make the most of every day.”

Fiction: The Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kiernan
One of my favorite novels of 2015, The Hummingbird deserves to be widely read. The story of a hospice nurse, her terminally ill patient (a history professor specializing in World War II history), and her war veteran husband, this novel is beautiful, suspenseful, and inspiring. I loved the multiple story lines (including a book within a book) and it’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

Interested in learning more about rural and Rust Belt poverty?

162224Nonfiction: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
Hillbilly Elegy has been receiving a lot of praise and publicity since it was published in June. It’s two books in one — a very personal story of growing up poor in southern Ohio (reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’) and an exploration of the economic and social problems facing “hillbilly culture” .The New Yorker calls it “one of this campaign season’s saddest and most fascinating books” and the New York Times says that “Vance doesn’t have all the answers. But he’s advancing the conversation.”

Fiction: Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
Although Sweetgirl is set in northern Michigan, it reminded me of Daniel Woodrell’s crime novels set in the Missouri Ozarks. Woodrell refers to his work as “country noir”, and that seems like a good term for Sweetgirl as well. (These kinds of novels are often called “gritty”.)  A teenage girl ventures into a blizzard to find her drug-addicted mother, and finds a neglected infant instead. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next.

I just finished reading The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, about a young girl in 19th century Ireland who claims not to have eaten for four months. Is she a saint, or a hoax? The author says that the book was inspired by almost fifty cases of “Fasting Girls” between the 16th and 20th centuries. I can’t find a good nonfiction book about these girls — so I guess, in spite of what my grandmother used to say, not every pot has a lid!

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Why I Love Epistolary Novels – and Real Letters

9781101971390If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T.E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Oliver Wendell Holmes, E.B. White, Vera Nabokov, J.P. Morgan — if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.
Roger Angell, This Old Man: All in Pieces

Dear Fellow Bookworms,

When I was in grade school, I learned to write what was called the Friendly Letter. The Friendly Letter always included the Complimentary Close — “Yours truly”, “Your friend”, “Sincerely”, or “Love”. (Mrs. Pierce, my third grade teacher, warned us only to use “Love” when writing to a family member.) There are dozens of ways to end a letter, from the ubiquitous “Best”, (best what? I always wonder),”Fondly”, “Regards”, to the more elaborate closings of days gone by. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, for example, ends this way: “This salutation by my own hand–Paul. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. Amen.” Thomas Jefferson popularized the closing, “Your most humble and most obedient servant”. Charles Dickens often closed personal letters with the charming phrases “Ever your affectionate friend” or “Yours heartily and affectionately”.

cover-1-jpg-rendition-460-707Mina Harker, one of Dracula’s victims, closes her letters by saying “Your ever-loving Mina Harker.” Frankenstein’s ill-fated fiancée, Elizabeth Lavenza, ends a letter with “Adieu! Take care of yourself, and I entreat you, write!”. What do these two characters have in common? They both appear in epistolary novels, books written either entirely or mostly in letters.

When you read a good epistolary novel, you have a sense of immediacy and realism that’s usually not found in a book narrated in the first or third person. You feel as though you’ve stumbled upon a cache of private letters. I think the first novel of this type I read was Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, published in 1912. It’s the story of a young girl raised in an orphanage who, through the help of a mysterious benefactor with whom she corresponds, is able to attend college. Katherine Reay wrote an absolutely delightful, and award-winning novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, which is a modern version of the Daddy-Long-Legs story.

Over the years, many of my favorite novels have been based on letters:

  • Alice Walker’s modern classic, The Color Purple, tells Celie’s story through her letters to God.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, aunt and niece) is a series of letters from a London writer to the inhabitants of the island of Guernsey.
  • In Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye, a young poet from the remote Isle of Skye receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.
  • Marilyn Robinson’s beautiful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead, is a letter from a dying minister to his young son.
  • Carlene Bauer based Frances and Bernard on letters between poet Robert Lowell and novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor. Like Gilead, this novel is concerned with the characters’ spiritual lives.
  • In Where’d You Go, Bernadette, a brilliant teenager tries to track down her missing mother — and Maria Semple used letters, emails, blog posts, notes, and interview transcripts involving a wacky cast of characters to show just how she does that.
  • Julie Schumacher cleverly assembled a hilarious novel made up solely of recommendation letters that a beleaguered English professor is constantly called upon to write in Dear Committee Members.
  • Code Name Verity, a YA novel by Elizabeth Wein, is the gripping story of two young British women captured in occupied France during World War II, told through the “confessions” they write to their interrogators.
  • A completely different YA novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (by Stephen Chbosky) is a coming-of-age story consisting of letters from a shy and precocious teenager to an unnamed recipient.

51691419-1Of course, sometimes only real letters will do. I treasure several anthologies of letters from both famous and ordinary people.  War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (edited by Andrew Carroll) and Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (edited by Shaun Usher). Volume 2 of Letters of Note just came out last month, and I’m savoring every letter. My all-time favorite epistolary book is Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road (which, surprisingly, was made into a movie that does justice to the book), which chronicles a 20-year correspondence between Hanff, a writer in New York, and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. Another favorite is My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams, which contains just a fraction of the 1,100 letters that the couple wrote to each other during the many separations they endured over the course of their 54-year marriage. Their letters bring the world of this country’s founders alive more than any other surviving documents.

signed-sealed-delivered-9781451687163_hrIn a recent book called Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, Nina Sankovitch describes finding a trunk filled with hundreds of letters in a shed attached to a house her family was renovating in the Upper West Side of New York. The letters belonged to the original owners of the home, the Seligman family, and the vast majority of them were written by James Seligman to his parents (whom he addressed as “Dearest Mamma” or “Darling Parents”) during his years at Princeton, 1908-1912. Nina feels that rereading the letters James left behind “proves all over again, the power of the written, the handwritten, word.” Aside from a listing on an online family tree, James left no other evidence of his life. Nina says:

Paper and ink have created a lasting connection between James and me. The connection has made me a better person, if only for having laughed so much and indulged in so much pleasurable company through his letter. And isn’t that what we say about our friends, that they have enriched our lives and made us better people?

Ever your affectionate friend,

Ann @ Books on the Table

 

What Would Emerson Read This Fall?

9780804172707Several days ago, a reader left a comment on the “In My Stack” page of this blog, urging me to read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I was a little confused, since I read that unforgettable book more than a year ago. Shouldn’t I have removed it from “In My Stack” and included it in “Read in 2015”? Then I looked at the books I’d listed on “In My Stack” and realized that I hadn’t updated the list in years. Oops! (And by the way, I still think A Little Life should have won the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.)

So I wiped the list clean and started a new list of books that are In My Stack, with the intention of updating it every season. It’s hard to face the fact that it’s just not possible to read every book that catches my eye.

The three “practical rules” for reading, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, are:

1. Never read any book that is not a year old.
2. Never read any but famed books.
3. Never read any but what you like; or, in Shakspeare’s phrase,“No profit goes where is no pleasure ta’en: In brief, sir, study what you most affect.”

Emerson’s third rule is easy for me to follow, but the first two pose problems. Whenever I read an “old” book, I feel like I’m missing out on all the exciting new books of the season. And although I read plenty of books that have received publicity, awards, and critical acclaim, I also like to find hidden gems that haven’t received the love they deserve. I do have to acknowledge that Emerson has a point. Books that stand the test of time are worth reading. So I’ve added Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend to my fall list, because so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended it.

Two books that I didn’t add to my list, because I read advance copies earlier this summer, but that I highly recommend adding to yours are Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (on sale September 13; full review to come) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (on sale September 6). Commonwealth is very good, although my favorite of Patchett’s novels remains State of Wonder.

9780670026197A Gentleman in Moscow is absolutely wonderful — one of the rare books I read slowly towards the end, because I just didn’t want to finish. It’s a hard act to follow, and every book I’ve read since has seemed vaguely second-rate in comparison. The “gentleman’ of the title is Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat born in 1889, who is sentenced  by a Bolshevik tribunal to lifelong house arrest in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel. The Count’s life is spared, unlike so many others of his class, because a poem he wrote struck the revolutionaries as sympathetic to their cause.

In a Publishers Weekly interview, Amor Towles says: “As awful as the crimes of Stalinism were, the vast majority of the Russian population was trying to survive, to love, to have a sense of purpose.” The Count — whose life before the Revolution was spent, in his words,”dining, discussing. Reading, reflecting. The usual rigmarole”, and who is accused by the tribunal of being “a man so obviously without purpose” — is able to live a purposeful, and even sometimes joyful, life as a prisoner at the Metropol.

A Gentleman in Moscow contains all the elements that make me fall in love with a book: a beautifully constructed story connected to historical events, an appealing and multidimensional protagonist, and a sharp and engaging writing style that inspired me to underline dozens of passages. Frequently, Towles addresses the reader directly:

Popular wisdom tells us that when the reel of our concerns interferes with our ability to fall asleep, the best remedy is the counting of sheep in a meadow. But preferring to have his lamb encrusted with herbs and served with a red wine reduction, the Count chose a different methodology altogether.

I’ll leave it to you to find out what his methodology was. If you’ve read Rules of Civility, you already know what a smart and entertaining writer Towles is — perfect for page-turners and page-huggers alike. A Gentleman in Moscow will certainly be on my list of favorites at the end of the year.

What will I read next? The following books are “on deck”, but that could change any time.

9781101947135Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (available now)
Homegoing, which has drawn raves from my coworkers, covers 300 years of African and American history, beginning with two sisters from Ghana, one who is sold into slavery and one who marries a British slave trader.

Shelter by Jung Yun (available now)
I need a good page-turner in the mix, and several bloggers who often share my tastes loved this book, which is rooted in the 2008 housing crisis.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nyugen (available now)
A must-read — it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

cover-mischlingMischling  by Affinity Konar (September 6)
This debut novel, about identical twins at Auschwitz, has been receiving a lot of buzz (including a blurb by Anthony Doerr), and I can never read enough about World War II.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan (September 13)
McEwan is one of my favorite authors, and his new book sounds weird but interesting: it’s a murder mystery, inspired by Hamlet, told by an unborn child.

9780385535731Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, A Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard (September 20)
Millard is one of my favorite nonfiction authors, and I’m fascinated by Winston Churchill, so I’m excited to read Hero of the Empire.

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan (September 20)
I can never resist a book about a bibliophile, and this one packs a double punch: the main character is a librarian who becomes a bookseller.

d28652364b8b57aceef0d93cf2791343Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple (October 4)
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette and can’t wait to read Semple’s new book.

Let me know what you think I should add to (or subtract from!) my fall list.

 

 

 

 

What’s a Page-Turner, Anyway?

I just came across an article by novelist Edan Lepucki, published in the Guardian a couple of years ago, with a catchy title: “Are you a page-turner or a page-hugger?”. Lepucki, recounting her days as a “very persuasive bookseller”, notes that some readers want a fast-paced, exciting story, some “long for a book’s language to give them pause, to slow them down with its rhythms and surprises”, and others (like me!) are “somewhere in the middle”.

I don’t need an action-packed plot, although I always enjoy well-timed, believable twists and turns. I need to feel that I’m learning something, whether it’s factual knowedge or an understanding of human nature. The books I abandon are poorly written (and that includes those that are pretentious, trying too hard to be “literary”), or their characters and situations don’t ring true. It doesn’t matter to me whether a book is fiction or nonfiction, as long as there is a sense of authenticity. And of course, some books just turn out to be boring, even though they push all the right buttons. (Sorry, Wolf Hall.)

Here are a half-dozen books published this summer that kept me turning pages, including a history book, a memoir, murder mysteries, and psychological thrillers.

9780345544803The Perfect Horse: The Daring U.S. Mission to Rescue the Priceless Stallions Kidnapped by the Nazis by Elizabeth Letts
If you’re a fan of narrative nonfiction by Erik Larson and Laura Hillenbrand, you’ll love The Perfect Horse. The suspense is not whether the Lipizzaner stallions will be rescued, but how — and at what cost. The Christian Science Monitor calls the book a “perfect World War II rescue story”, and I agree.

AllIsNotForgotten-WendyWalker-CoverAll is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
Walker, an attorney who specializes in family law, has written a disturbing and thought-provoking psychological thriller about the possible moral and legal implications of PTSD treatments, currently under development, that can erase memories of traumatic events. After fifteen-year-old Jenny Kramer is attacked at a party in her Connecticut suburb, she’s given a drug that obliterates her memory of the crime. I can’t say more without revealing key plot points, but if you like your fiction really dark (think Herman Koch), this is the book for you. Jenny’s psychiatrist, who narrates the book, reminded me of Koch’s vaguely sinister narrators.

0eb9d787dee2a96bd84e58dd82b1e459You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
When I read an article on crime fiction in the Wall Street Journal that said Abbott’s “books are driven as much by intricate character development and rhythmic sentences as they are by plot”, I immediately brought home a copy of You Will Know Me. Set in the world of competitive gymnastics, Abbott’s eighth novel is a page-turner by anyone’s definition. Sixteen-year-old Devon Knox — and her parents — have their hearts set on the Olympics when a crime in their tight-knit community of gymnasts, parents, and coaches threatens to destroy their dream. I’d never read anything by Megan Abbott before, but now I’m hooked.

9780385540599We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley
When Catherine West, the veteran of two broken engagements, meets William Stockton, the handsome son of old family friends, she thinks he’s the answer to her prayers. But is he? He seemed pretty creepy to me right off the bat, but Catherine ignores the warning signs — some subtle, some not so subtle. This debut novel — a very entertaining “beach read” —  is fun to read not so much because of its plot (which veers between predictability and ludicrousness), but because of Catherine’s voice, which is singularly funny.

9781101947012Dog Gone: A Lost Pet’s Extraordinary Journey and the Family Who Brought Him Home by Pauls Toutonghi
The title makes this book sound awful, I know — sort of like a hokey Reader’s Digest article. But trust me — it’s a lovely book, about much more than a lost dog. Virginia Marshall, brought up in an abusive home, wants to be the kind of mother she never had. After her adult son, Fielding, loses his dog Gonker on the Appalachian Trail, Ginny and her husband, John, devote every waking minute to helping Fielding find his beloved dog. I couldn’t stop reading this book, even though I knew from the title that Gonker would be found.  The author, who’s also written two novels, is the brother-in-law of Fielding Marshall.

y6481The Lost Girls by Heather Young
In 1935, six-year-old Emily Evans disappears from her family’s lake house in northern Minnesota, and the mystery is never solved. Two generations later, Justine inherits the decrepit house from her great-aunt Lucy, Emily’s older sister, and brings her two daughters there to escape her controlling boyfriend. Young does a masterful job connecting the present-day story and the story of the summer of 1935, building suspense that kept me reading late into the night. The New York Times says: “For all the beauty of Young’s writing, her novel is a dark one, full of pain and loss. And the murder mystery that drives it is as shocking as anything you’re likely to read for a good long while.”

What page-turners have you read this summer?

 

 

Read a Little Poetry

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As I sat staring at my screen, trying to decide which books to include in my list of summer reading recommendations, it occurred to me that I’ve never said much in Books on the Table about my love of poetry. I’ve begged readers to give short stories a try (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), pointing out that they are perfect for anyone who needs what novelist Amber Dermont calls a “single serving” of literature. Expanding on her metaphor, I’d like to suggest that if you need a shot (espresso or liquor, take your pick!) of literature, read a poem.

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie
E.B. White

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer . . . He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poem utterly clear is a trifle glaring.
E.B. White

E.B. White, known for the lucid and concise prose advocated in The Elements of Style, also celebrated the mysterious nature of poetry. If you know White only through his classic children’s books, I encourage you to read his essay collections, which are spectacular. You’ll never read better writing. In Here is New York, White says: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.” White wrote several books of poetry, all now out of print, although you can find some of his poems online.

I treasure my poetry books more than any others I own, but I also enjoy reading poetry on my phone or computer screen. Before watching or reading the news in the morning, I like to read a poem. It puts me in a much better frame of mind, and if I’m lucky, certain lines will resonate with me and stick with me for the rest of the day. Rereading old favorites is always a pleasure, but it’s a special treat to discover new poems. You can subscribe to Poem-a-Day, Your Daily Poem, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, or other websites that will deliver poems to your inbox every day. The Poetry Foundation has a free app with thousands of poems. If you’re stuck waiting in line for a few minutes, what better way to spend your time than reading a poem?

9780142003442Garrison Keillor has collected his favorite selections from The Writer’s Almanac public radio show in anthologies — Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Two other anthologies I recommend are Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them. The editors of these books (father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden) asked notable men and women this question: “What poem moves you to tears?” Please don’t be put off by the word “cry” in the titles; the poems are emotionally powerful, not depressing.

In grade school, I was forced to memorize poems, which was not so bad, and then to recite them to the class, which was dreadful. I don’t think that’s part of today’s curriculum, unfortunately. I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I think rote memorization is good mental exercise, and being made to do something that makes you uncomfortable builds character. Anyway, when you can’t sleep, it’s helpful to have a little treasure trove of memorized poetry in your brain. Strangely, I’m often comforted by Macbeth’s soliloquy, delivered as he struggles with guilt and possible insanity: “Is this a dagger which I see before me/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee . . .”

This morning’s poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”, by Wallace Stevens, is everything a poem should be: lovely, evocative, and a little puzzling. Please read it, let it soak in, and be glad you don’t have to analyze it for English class.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Note: I just discovered a wonderful blog called Read a Little Poetry — check it out!

 

 

 

 

Are You a Bibliomaniac?

Bibliomania: a mild form of insanity which is obtaining wide prevalence. A bibliomaniac must be carefully distinguished from a bibliophile. The latter has not yet freed himself from the idea that books are meant to be read.
Thomas Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892)

tumblr_m3ebpdtrdx1qd9a66o1_500
“There’s no such thing as too many books. However, there is such a thing as not enough room.”

Last week, I went to the book industry’s annual trade show, BookExpo America (BEA) at McCormick Place in Chicago. The stated purpose of this event is for booksellers, librarians, educators, and publishing professionals  to “discover new titles and authors, conduct business and network, and learn the latest trends”. What it is for many attendees is the opportunity to grab as many free books as they can carry. There’s a reason the show prohibits “carts, luggage on wheels, and empty strollers”. Publishers distribute canvas tote bags emblazoned with their logos or the cover of one of their hottest titles, and bibliophiles (or are they bibliomaniacs?) rush to fill those bags.

lat_fool050116b_17111237_8colMore than 500 authors are on hand to sign their books, and attendees queue up — sometimes for hours — to meet their favorite authors and receive personally inscribed books. I don’t have the patience to stand in line for much of anything, unless I’m forced to wait in a TSA line at the airport, so I didn’t get any signed books. If I were less antsy, I would have enjoyed meeting Candice Millard (signing Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill, coming in September), Jonathan Safran Foer (signing  Here I Am, due in September and his first novel since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2005), Emma Cline (signing The Girls, her debut novel, which is the #1 Indie Pick for June), Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility (signing A Gentleman in Moscow, out in September), Richard Russo (signing Everybody’s Fool, his follow-up to Nobody’s Fool), and dozens of others.

On social media, BEA attendees post photos of their book “hauls” and brag about how many books they snagged. It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon, with several factors influencing the rush to accumulate books. They’re free; there’s the perception of scarcity, since publishers can only bring a limited number of each title; and many of the books have a lot of marketing hype behind them. I think almost everyone ends up bringing home a “pity book” or two. I know I did.  A hopeful-looking author sat on a stool at a podium in a small press’s  booth, with a pile of books beside him and only his publisher for company. I stopped, feigned interest in his collection of “prose poems”, and added a signed copy to my bag. (I was not so polite to the friendly salespeople at two combined booths — Bridge Publications and Galaxy Press, both publishers of L. Ron Hubbard’s works on Scientology.)

I promised myself I would only gather a few carefully chosen books that I knew I would read, because I am a bibliophile, not a bibliomaniac. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, told the Wall Street Journal that she owns 2,000 books but only displays 500 at a time:

The key to a healthy book collection, Ms. Wyden says, is constant editing. When she adds a book, she tries to take something out. “If it keeps getting tweaked, what you have is more meaningful,” she says. “It keeps your library fresh, and you feel more engaged with what’s in there.”

I ended up lugging home 20 books from BEA that I just couldn’t resist. Now, in order to keep my library “fresh”, I guess I’ll have to get rid of 20 books — some of which are probably  unread books I brought home from book conferences in years past, with honorable intentions.

I googled the term “book hoarder” and learned that it is considered offensive. Jessie Sholl, author of a memoir about growing up as the daughter of a compulsive hoarder, writes in Psychology Today:

You might have packed bookcases and, yes, too many books, but that doesn’t mean you’re a book hoarder. If I skipped lunch one day, or two, or three, would that suddenly make me anorexic? If I labeled myself as such, I’d surely be accused of being insensitive to those who truly have a mental illness — and rightly so.

9781455564224OK, point taken. I’m not a book hoarder or a bibliomaniac — but I do have a hard time culling my bookshelves. (For more on my difficulties in this area, see Why My Books Are Not Clutter.)  I’ll need to make room for The Wonder (Emma Donoghue), The Book That Matters Most (Ann Hood), The Excellent Lombards (Jane Hamilton), Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Beth Macy) . . . or I could just get some new bookshelves!

 

 

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare!

Shakespeare on aging:
With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come
And let my liver rather heat with wine,
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.
The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1

26006301576_219ac0ac69_oApril 23, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Historians believe that Shakespeare, in a bit of poetic serendipity, was also born on April 23. The Guardian lists some of the celebrations taking place worldwide:

It’s 400 years since the bard’s death this weekend and it’s also his 452nd birthday – as, legend has it, his birth and death were on the same day of the year. Hundreds of events to mark the occasion will be taking place in the UK and around the world – from Shakespeare’s Globe projecting 37 short films across London, to walks in “Shakespeare suburb” Shoreditch, to Shakespeare-inspired baking workshops, via late-night karaokes, promising-sounding “human sonnet jukeboxes” and hip-hop at the British Library, a Shakespeare parade in Stratford-upon-Avon and a fireworks display in Chicago.

Chicago’s fireworks display tomorrow is only one of 850 events the city is planning this year to commemorate Shakespeare’s “vibrancy, relevance, and reach”. Shakespeare 400 Chicago, spearheaded by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, hopes to be “the world’s largest and most comprehensive celebration of Shakespeare’s enduring legacy”. Chicagoans and visitors can enjoy many unofficial Shakespeare events as well — how about heading to the Fizz Bar and Grill for “Fifty Shades of Shakespeare”?: “Be prepared to question everything you thought you knew about sexuality and Shakespeare as we tease out the Bard’s most provocative scenes. 23 roles, 12 scenes, 3 actors, and 1 DJ dance party to follow.”

In Chicago and around the world, April 23 is also “Talk Like Shakespeare Day”. Here are a few suggestions from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

Instead of cursing, call your tormentors jackanapes or canker-blossoms or poisonous bunch-back’d toads.
When wooing ladies, try comparing her to a summer’s day. If that fails, say “Get thee to a nunnery!”
To add weight to your opinions, try starting them with methinks, mayhaps, in sooth or wherefore.

the-childrens-shakespeare-e-nesbitWhen I was eight or nine, someone gave me a book called The Children’s Shakespeare, by E. Nesbit (author of The Railway Children and many other classic children’s books) which summarizes each play in “words that little ones can understand”. In the introduction, Nesbit describes trying to read a A Midsummer NIght’s Dream to her young daughters, and having them complain they couldn’t understand the language:

“You said it was so beautiful,” Rosamund said reproachfully. “What does it all mean?”

“Yes,” Iris went on, “You said it was a fairy tale, and we’ve read three pages, and there’s nothing about fairies, not even a dwarf, or a fairy godmother.”

“And what does ‘misgraffed’ mean?”

“Stop, stop, ” I cried. “I will tell you the story . . . You will understand when you grow up that the stories are the least part of Shakespeare.”

I loved that book and read it until the pages were falling out. I still have it, and I’m embarrassed to admit that whenever I go to a Shakespeare play, I read the story first in The Children’s Shakespeare. That way, I can focus on the language and not on the plot — which, as we know, can be awfully confusing. Here’s how Nesbit introduces Romeo and Juliet:

Once upon a time there lived in Verona two great families named Montagu and Capulet. They were both rich, and I suppose they were as sensible, in most things, as other rich people. But in one thing they were extremely silly. There was an old, old quarrel between the two families, and instead of making it up like reasonable folks, they made a sort of pet of their quarrel, and would not let it die out.

thomas_keene_in_macbeth_1884_wikipedia_cropI can’t remember which Shakespeare play was the first one I ever saw, but I can tell you the first one in which I appeared — Macbeth. This is also the last Shakespeare play (or actually, any play) in which I’ve performed. My sixth grade teacher at Peck Elementary School, Mr. Baxter, assigned Macbeth to our class. He correctly guessed that sixth graders would love the violence, insanity, treachery, and witchcraft in the play. (E. Nesbit did not include Macbeth in The Children’s Shakespeare. She had a hard enough time with Romeo and Juliet’s suicides, failing to mention that Juliet stabs herself.) I recall a classroom discussion about why Macbeth killed Macduff’s innocent wife and young children:

All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?

Thinking back on it now, I’m surprised there was no parental outrage. Mr. Baxter directed our class in a shortened production of Macbeth. For the auditions, we had to memorize a soliloquy; I chose Macbeth’s final speech: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage . . .”. I had hoped for the part of Lady Macbeth, or at least one of the witches, but my audition must not have gone too well, because I was cast as Fleance. I had only one line to learn, and I felt I delivered it perfectly: “The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.” When my son played Oberon in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I went to all three performances. I was very impressed he had more than one line.

Aimagelthough I’m not much of a performer, I am an excellent audience member. Along with several dear friends, I’ve been a loyal subscriber to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater for many years. It’s a beautiful theater, built to evoke the design of the Globe Theater in London. No one throws rotten fruit at the stage as they supposedly did in Shakespeare’s time, although I once had the misfortune of being seated next to a heckler. (He didn’t care for Barbara Gaines’s modern interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew.

Next month, Chicago Shakespeare will present what it’s calling the “ultimate game of thrones”: Tug of War: Foreign Fire, which is a six-hour adaptation of Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part I. (The drama continues in the fall, with Tug of War: Civil Strife.) Thank goodness the marathon production includes a meal break and several intermissions!

My friend (and fellow Shakespeare buddy) Madonna gave me a little Shakespeare birthday book, with quotes for every day of the year. I love the quote for my birthday, which is from Henry V: “A good heart is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes.” I’m looking forward to hearing those beautiful words.

Annoying Things People Do on Airplanes

I know from experience that traveling with small children is no picnic. I sympathize with parents trapped with children at airports and on planes, remembering very well how difficult it is to entertain squirmy, fussy, tired children in an enclosed space. In the pre-iPad era, we relied on books, travel games, and snacks to keep the kids happy.

At an airport gate recently, I made the mistake of sitting near a parent who had a  different, but highly creative, solution to her children’s boredom. When they started to whine, she reached into her big Mary Poppins bag and voila! She pulled out two harmonicas, and the little cherubs’ pouts turned into smiles as they competed to see who could play his harmonica more loudly.

Untitled-5Since I was at the gate, not strapped into an airplane seat, I was able to move out of earshot of the impromptu concert, crossing my fingers that the young musicians would not be seated near me on the plane. I was really looking forward to finishing my book, Carly Simon’s memoir, Boys in the Trees.

If you like to read, a plane trip can be a little piece of heaven. Several hours of peaceful, uninterrupted reading time, out of touch with the world below. I know many planes offer wifi now, but why pay for that? The best thing about flying — besides getting to your destination — is the sense of being disconnected from the world, immersed in a book.

Sometimes, though, it seems that my fellow passengers have conspired to make sure that doesn’t happen. I can deal with crying babies — it’s not their fault their ears hurt, and almost always, their poor parents are trying hard to soothe them. It’s the adult behavior that drives me nuts.

I’m a sociable person, but  don’t want to talk to anyone on a plane, and that includes family members. My husband’s solution is headphones — he immediately puts them on, whether he is listening to something or not, assuming that most people will not strike up a conversation with someone wearing headphones. The last time I tried this, Chatty Cathy in the next seat wanted to know what I was listening to. Nothing, I wanted to say. They’re just a prop to keep nice people like you from talking to me. I think one reason people leave my husband alone on planes is because he’s male. Women are sitting ducks; we’re supposed to be friendly and accommodating. I’d like to go on about men taking up more than more share of the space and hogging the armrests, but I don’t want to alienate my male readers, so I’ll stop.

“What are you reading? What’s that about?” I dread those questions.I love talking with people about books, but not on planes. Disturbing a reader on a plane is like approaching a marathon runner in the middle of a race — “How’s it going? How much longer? Where did you get those sneakers? How much did they cost?”  Sometimes I just hold up the book, showing the cover, and smile. A couple of years ago, I was reading a book about World War II on a four-hour flight, and I made the mistake of being overly polite to the man next to me when he asked me about the book. I was treated to a monologue about his father’s experience in the war, which involved working on a farm in Nebraska because he was unfit for service.

leave-me-alone-i-m-reading-t-shirts
You can order this T-shirt from spreadshirt.com.

I am always interested in what other people are reading, and one of the worst things about e-readers is that snoopy people like me can’t tell if someone is reading Fifty Shades of Gray or Anna Karenina. I once broke my own rule about talking to people on planes when I noticed my male seatmate was reading Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. I asked him how he liked it, and he told me it was his wife’s book club selection, so he thought he’d give it a try, even though it was a “chick book”.  I asked him why a book about a woman is a “chick book”, while a book about a man is just a book. That was the end of our conversation.

I should have kept my thoughts to myself the way I do when I see the following:

• People who fidget restlessly throughout the flight, flipping through the in-flight magazine.  They are wasting a golden opportunity; why didn’t they just bring a book?

• People who allow loud music to escape from their headphones.

• People who send their young children on a plane as “unaccompanied minors” and provide them with no form of amusement. I was once seated next to a seven-year-old boy who came aboard with nothing but a jacket and a pack of gum. Guess who entertained him for two hours?

• People who travel with small, yapping dogs. One time, my son and I sat across from a woman with a dog who yelped during the entire flight. She kept telling the dog that if he would be quiet, he’d get a treat when we landed.

• People who bring hot food on the plane — well, food that was once hot. I’ve seen people sit at the gate for an hour or more, clutching a bag of greasy McDonald’s food or a pizza box, and then decide, when the plane is airborne, that the time is right to treat everyone nearby to the aroma of fast food.

rosie-project-9781476729091_lgI did not have to sit near the harmonica-playing duo on the plane. Instead, I sat across from a young mother who had an infant in a front carrier and a two-year-old in the seat beside her. Both children fell asleep within 20 minutes of takeoff. (This never once happened to me, I want you know.) She ordered a Bloody Mary, settled back in her seat, opened her book (The Rosie Project, I couldn’t help but notice) and smiled at me. “Pure bliss, right?” I said to her.

My Reading Life with Pat Conroy

I was saddened to learn that Pat Conroy died yesterday (March 4, 2016), at the age of 70. In his obituary, the New York Times says that Conroy’s “legion of admirers . . . hung on his every word, entranced by the naked emotionalism of his male characters, the Lowcountry atmosphere and the page-turning Southern yarns.” Two years ago, I wrote about Conroy’s last book, The Death of Santini (published in 2013) and my long nearly 30-year membership in the Pat Conroy fan club.

15537-1How many aspiring writers have been told to “write what you know”? If Pat Conroy was given that timeworn advice, he’s certainly taken it to heart. Both his novels and his memoirs are about what he knows — growing up as the son of an abusive Marine Corps fighter pilot, attending the Citadel as a basketball player and budding writer, losing a brother to suicide, coping with a sister’s mental illness. In his latest memoir, The Death of Santini, Conroy says, ” My books have always been disguised voyages into that archipelago of souls known as the Conroy family.”

I discovered Pat Conroy in 1987, with a paperback copy of The Prince of Tides. My first baby was born that year, and when he was asleep, I was reading Pat Conroy. As tired as I was, I stayed up late, immersed in the drama of the Wingo family — a violent and cruel father . . . a suicidal poet sister . . . escaped convicts on the loose . . . and a ferocious pet tiger. When I finished all 664 pages, I couldn’t wait to read more of Conroy’s writing. I quickly went through The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, and The Lords of Discipline — and then I was finished. The books went on the shelf, and my love affair with big, fat books continued when Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities grabbed my attention.

51sqjyeth2l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Conroy disappeared for years, and finally published Beach Music in 1995. I wanted to love the book, but found I couldn’t get past the flowery prose and stilted dialogue. So it was with trepidation that I picked up My Losing Season several years later. On the surface, this memoir recounts Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at the Citadel, but it’s really about his relationship with his father, his coach, and his teammates, and finding his voice as a writer.

Do you think that Hemingway knew he was a writer at twenty years old? No, he did not. Or Fitzgerald, or Wolfe. This is a difficult concept to grasp. Hemingway didn’t know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn’t know he was William Faulkner. But they had to take the first step. They had to call themselves writers. That is the first revolutionary act a writer has to make. It takes courage. But it’s necessary.

Even though I’m not interested in college basketball, I was captivated by Conroy’s story of failure and how it shaped him into the person and writer he became. It remains one of my favorite memoirs . . . along with My Reading Life, which Conroy published in 2010. (I wasn’t enamored with South of Broad, Conroy’s 2009 novel.) My Reading Life isn’t exactly a memoir; it’s a collection of essays about the powerful role of reading in Conroy’s difficult life. A person can’t be a writer without first being a reader, and Conroy tells us how he became a reader:

My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always. She wanted me to read everything of value, and she taught me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers. . . I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.

Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.

17857644The Death of Santini covers some familiar ground — the relationship between Conroy and his terrifyingly abusive father, Don Conroy (a.k.a. “The Great Santini”). But this is a story of redemption — Don Conroy has transformed himself from a monster into a loving father and grandfather. At the end of The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo (Pat Conroy’s alter ego), says, “I learned that I needed to love my mother and father in all their flawed, outrageous humanity. And in families there are no crimes beyond forgiveness. But it is the mystery of life that sustains me now.” Fact reflects fiction in The Death of Santini, for Conroy shows us how he is able to forgive Don Conroy for his vicious cruelty towards his family. The writing of the book was a necessary part of Conroy’s healing; he says in the prologue:

Mom and Dad, I need to go back there once again. I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time . . . Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.

Don Conroy was, according to his son, far more cruel and abusive than Bull Meecham, the”Great Santini” of the novel. When Conroy sent his editor a first draft of the novel, she told him she was troubled by his potrayal of the Colonel — “no reader could expect to believe that such an unsavory man could exist without a single virtue to recommend him. To make him credible, I had to include scenes that displayed a softer and kinder man.” This softer and kinder man eventually came to life, in the person of the elderly Don Conroy. Throughout his life, he enjoyed attending his son’s book signings; in fact, father and son made a pact that no customer would ever leave without a book signed by them both. (Of course, he often bragged that his line for autographs was longer.) He was enormously proud of Conroy’s success, and, in fact, wrote a letter to his entire extended family defending The Great Santini:

Pat is a very clever storyteller and I was totally absorbed and encountered every emotion, as reading very slowly, life with father unfolded in this work of fiction. It was as though I knew some of the characters personally . . . Pat did a superb job in developing the character Mary Ann . . . with all modesty, fell far short on Santini — which is quite understandable with such a dashing and complex character.

Yes, Don Conroy is a complex character — and Conroy does an extraordinary job of portraying that complexity in The Death of Santini. In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Conroy describes his father’s grief after his youngest son’s funeral: “Forgiven at last, my father sat in a chair in the living room, not even trying to control his crying. His kids surrounded him, because his love of Tom provided us an understanding of his own love for all of us. It was a day of surreal, uncommon beauty.”

Conroy closes the book with the eulogy he wrote for his father’s funeral. Is this really the last time Conroy will “examine the wreckage” of his tumultuous family? In an interview in BookPage, he claims it is: “I’m going to try to leave the family in peace. There are other things to write about.” We’ll see.

Lit Up — Thoughts on Teenagers and Reading

Together and alone, we need literature as California valleys need rain.
David Denby, Lit Up

9780805095852_LitUp_JK.inddBack in the 1980s, film critic David Denby wondered “how anyone could be hurt by reading a good book”. The controversy at the time, which continues to this day, was how we define a “good book” and whether the traditional Western classics are relevant in our multicultural society.  The 48-year-old Denby returned to his alma mater, Columbia University, and spent a full academic year studying the Western canon. He wrote a book, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Indestructible Writers of the Western World, about how the experience reinvigorated his intellectual life.

Denby describes his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives, as a “prequel” to Great Books. He spent an academic year (2011-12) in sophomore English classrooms at the Beacon School, a  magnet school in Manhattan, and another year (2013-14) in English classrooms at two other public schools — Mamaroneck High School, in a wealthy New York suburb, and James Hillhouse High School, in inner-city New Haven, Connecticut. He wanted to learn:

How do you establish reading pleasure in busy, screen-loving teenagers — and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?

Denby’s time in the classroom with some unusually gifted and devoted teachers — who are passionate readers themselves — shows that it is possible to transform reluctant or even hostile readers into engaged and curious readers. But it’s an uphill battle, and even more difficult for students who lack the context or vocabulary to understand what they’re attempting to read. If students don’t know when or why the Civil War was fought, they’re not going to connect to The Red Badge of Courage. If they don’t know what the Holocaust was, they’re not going to make any sense of Elie Wiesel’s Night.

The teachers Denby introduces in Lit Up have the difficult, nearly impossible job of getting students to read the assigned texts and of helping students find books outside of the required reading that they will enjoy and relate to on a personal level. Both Denby and the teachers acknowledge that the way to get kids to read is to get them first to read anything they like: “Get them started as readers by giving them books they could easily enjoy, including young adult novels; get them caught up in narratives, stories, outcomes.”

As a bookseller, I agree with this philosophy wholeheartedly. As Ann Patchett said, “I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.” I’ve always been a bit mystified by parents who are overly concerned about the content in their children’s reading material. If your third grader who struggles with reading loves Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones, who cares? They’re developing a habit of reading and enjoyment of the written word. And anyway, do you want the reading police ticketing you for reading Us Weekly?

The problem is that these teachers know, just as all avid readers know, that one of the greatest benefits of reading is to develop an understanding of the wider world and the people in it. Reading isn’t just about holding a mirror up to ourselves and validating what we already think and feel. The teachers we come to know and admire in Lit Up work hard, with more success than I would have anticipated, to get kids to read challenging books that open their eyes to people and experiences far beyond the limited scope of their lives.

Jessica Zelinski, who teaches sophomore English at Hillhouse High School, the worst-performing public school in New Haven, regularly organizes a classroom event called a “Read Around”. She chooses several books she thinks will interest her students, and brings multiple copies to class, encouraging every student to sample each book.  One of the students, who initially looked at Ishmael Beah’s devastating memoir of his years as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, and said, “This doesn’t interest me,” ends up reading the book with great interest — and, through the efforts of Miss Zelinski, meeting the author at a nearby college. Miss Zelinski, who feels that the Hillhouse curriculum often condescends to the students by not expecting much from them, says to the author, “Maybe they’ll enjoy life more, if I can get them reading. I would like to nurture in them the idea that there are other worlds.”

I was so fascinated by Denby’s stories about the students and teachers he came to know that I read this book in just one day. It’s a very personal account, not a sociological treatise. Denby says of the students he observed:

I decided not to suppress my feelings about them. I would describe them physically (or they would never come alive on the page) and commit the sin of ‘judging’, always bearing in mind that they were very young. Fifteen-year-olds, through an academic year, develop stems and roots, their cells divide. In particular, I wanted to see if readers could be born — what happens when a non-reader becomes a reader? — which meant necessarily recording the students’ mistakes and awkward moments as well as their insights and breakthroughs as they struggled into life.

americangirlsimageI read this book just after I finished another book about American teenagers, American Girls: The Secret Lives of American Teenagers, by Nancy Jo Sales, which is truly one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. If Sales is to be believed — and I hope with all my heart she’s not — the lives of most teenage girls revolve around taking pictures of themselves and posting them online, hoping for validation. In this book, physical appearance is everything, the search for male approval is paramount, and feminism is completely dead. A recent Wall Street Journal review said: “The secret life of teenagers sometimes seems entirely a response to nude pictures and requests for them—a response, that is, to male adolescent desire, as it shows up digitally. But female vanity is also at play.”

I wish the teenagers (both boys and girls) in American Girls had teachers like Sean Leon, Mary Beth Jordan, Jessica Zelinski, Mary Whittemore, and Daniel Guralnik, who would introduce them to inspiring books that would help them develop into empathetic people.  At the very least, they should consider the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one novel I’m certain every high school student is required to read:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.