Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The right incentive

In his memoir about his struggle learning to read, A Comedy & a Tragedy, Travis Hugh Culley tells how the breakthrough came when he became interested in acting in school productions. That meant memorizing lines in plays, which meant being able to read those lines. That gave him the incentive he needed. Before that, literacy just didn't seem important enough for him to make the effort.

I can recall a time in the third grade when my teacher asked me to tutor Mickey, a boy in the class who was far behind his classmates. I sat with Mickey at his desk, which was one of those with a top that opened up. When Mickey opened his desk, I saw it was filled with automotive magazines. Cars apparently were already his passion, but apparently he just looked at the pictures in those magazines because he struggled to read even the simplest Dick and Jane reader. Even as a third-grader I wondered if Mickey would have more success learning to read if those magazines were used as teaching aids.

Wouldn't the words in those magazines have been too difficult for a beginning reader? Maybe not. In her book It's All in a Word, Vivian Cook writes that by the time children begin learning to read, they are already using multi-syllable words in their speech. So including such words in their readers should not be unreasonable, providing the children are reading something that's interesting to them.

"The important thing is getting the child to see that reading and writing are communicating things like speech," Cook writes. "The words have to relate to interesting things to read about, not to sterile reading book sentences such as Look Spot and See Jane Run."

I learned to read using those Dick and Jane books, and I can still recall how bored I was by them. How much better it would have been to read about cowboys or dinosaurs.

Al Feldstein, former editor of Mad magazine, touched on this subject in an interview he did for the July 2000 edition of The Comics Journal. He said, "Well, I know that kids learn to read well with Mad. I used to get letters from English teachers, that they were using it in remedial reading classes, and in their own regular classes, because it was an easy way to get kids interested in learning syntax and construction. I think we did pretty good in that regard. In terms of writing fairly well."

It's a bit like Field of Dreams and that "if you build it, he will come" line. If you give children something they actually want to read, they will read.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Calvin and Culley

I happened to read Tavis Hugh Culley's book A Comedy & a Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write at the same time I was reading Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes collection Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons. Sometimes it seemed they were one and the same book.

What these two books, one a memoir and the other a collection of comic strips, have in common, other than their long titles, is that they are both about a boy who defiantly refuses to learn anything in school, even to the point of  developing a detailed fantasy life to insulate himself from anything his teacher might be trying to teach.

Here's what Calvin says to his teacher in one panel: "Sorry! I'm here against my will. I refuse to cooperate. They can transport my body to school, but they can't chain my spirit! My spirit roams free! Walls can't confine it! Authority has no power over it!"

"Calvin," replies his teacher, "if you'd put half the energy of your protests into your school work ..."

The boy goes on, "You can try to leave a message, but my spirit screens its calls."

And here is a passage from Culley's book: "In the coming weeks, I found that I could say I did not know the answer to a question, even when I did. I didn't want my teacher to sense what I had become aware of. I didn't want her to know what was on my mind. I wouldn't think. Why think? Instead, I stepped aside and imagined other possibilities. I refused any attempt at reading or writing -- and my rejection was final and radical ..."

Of course, Culley did eventually learn to read and write. He wrote this book, after all. Unlike the comic-strip Calvin, Culley had a dysfunctional family, including a bullying older brother and a mother who pushed drugs on him and kicked him out of the house while he was still in high school. There's so much tragedy in A Comedy & a Tragedy that it's a little hard to see the comedy. Yet there is a happy ending. A bright boy, he essentially taught himself to read, and by keeping a detailed daily journal, to write, and write well.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Can people change?

Fiction teaches you that people change. History, experience, and poetry all teach you this is a lie.
Mark Winegardner, "The Visiting Poet," That's True of Everybody

I tend to sit up a little straighter whenever a writer of fiction inserts some broad statement or generalization into a story. Often these aside comments are very good, and I sometimes take note of them, but they can leave me wondering. Whose opinions are they? The story's narrator? A character's? Or the author's? And are they, in fact, true?

Here are a handful I have come across over the years:

"It's like marriage. The race there is between total knowledge of each other and death. If death comes first, it's considered a successful marriage." - Peter S. Beagle, A Fine and Private Place

"Feelings so powerful they could have come only from God lead some to those acts most strongly condemned by His word. It is useless to tell others that the commandments are simple only for those who fail to see why they had to be set down." - Judith Rossner, Emmeline

"There are certain modes of unhappiness with far more style than happiness." - Joyce Carol Oates, Marya: A Life

"It's odd ... how sharing a sense of doubt can bring men together perhaps even more than sharing a faith. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference; the doubter fights only with himself." - Graham Greene, Monsignor Quixote

"All men are moral. Only their neighbors are not." - John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

And so we come to those lines by Mark Winegardner in his short story "The Visiting Poet." The story is about a poet who teaches at one college after another, on each campus starting affairs with his most beautiful students. Will he, the story asks, ever change and become a man worthy of the love of any woman, including his own daughter? The point the author makes in his aside is that in fiction, people do change. Stories, in fact, are about change. If characters didn't change, stories wouldn't be very interesting. But do people change in real life?

My movie discussion group tackled this very question two weeks ago tonight. The movie was Groundhog Day, that now classic film about a shallow TV weatherman, Phil Connors, who relives the same day hundreds, probably thousands of times, until he finally gets it right, acting not out of self-interest but because he sincerely loves and respects every person he meets. The fact that it takes Phil three days just to avoid stepping into the pothole filled with icy water shows he is a slow learner, but eventually he does become a better person. But is he really changed, we wondered, or may he eventually go back to being the kind of man he was on that first Groundhog Day?

Yet whatever Winegardner or his narrator thinks, people do seem to change in real life. Often this is simply because of maturity or advancing age. There is usually a point in the criminal justice system where repeat offenders become just mostly harmless old people. Youthful playboys sometimes become faithful spouses. From what we know of the Apostle Paul and former Watergate villain Charles Colson, religious conversion can also change people.

Even so, for many of us to change dramatically, it would take more than a few thousand Groundhog Days.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Enjoy the journey

A strange competitiveness has emerged among some readers in the past few years. I have known book-bloggers boast of getting through twenty books plus, a week, as if they were trying for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Why has reading turned into a form of speed dating?
Susan Hill, Howards End is on the Landing

I took a speed-reading class at the YMCA back in the Seventies. No grades were given, but had there been, it would have been the only course I ever flunked. The idea was to, without moving one's eyes, take in entire paragraphs or even entire pages at one time. I once got through an entire book, albeit a short book, in a matter of minutes. Afterward I didn't feel like I had actually read the book, however. I couldn't have told you much about what it was about.

And so I remained, as I remain to this day, a plodder. I still read books one word at a time, instead of one page at a time. I am on course to read more than 100 books this year, the most I have ever read in one year. Some years I barely reach 50. My record is 90, but I am already at 86 as September draws to a close. This has nothing to do with reading faster, or reading short books (I have read several under 200 pages, but also several long books, including one I'm currently reading that's nearly 800 pages long.) No, if I am to read more books, I just have to spend more time reading.

I know of people who read a book every night before they go to sleep, and I do envy them. It would be great to be able to read 365 books a years instead of, in a good year, one-fourth of that number. Yet I feel better after reading what Susan Hill has to say in her book Howards End is on the Landing.  She writes, "The best books deserve better. Everything I am reading ... has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading it slowly. Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot. It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings. It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers." She goes on in that vein, and I recommend you locate the book and read the rest of what she has to say on the subject. But you get get the idea. Slow reading offers pleasures that speed reading cannot.

After reading a particularly good passage in a book, I like to go back and reread it, sometimes three or four times. I make notes, and sometimes copy a good line in a journal I keep for that purpose. I like to stop and think about what I have just read. If I were racing for the finish line, there would be no time for such things.

Reading a book is like walking the Appalachian Trail (I recently watched A Walk in the Woods) or driving to Florida (something I will be doing again in a few weeks). It's not just about reaching the destination. It's also about enjoying the journey.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Staying put

Vivian Swift's 2008 book When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put must be a difficult book for librarians to shelve.

Is it a travel book? Well, yes, even though Swift writes about spending a year at home in a small town on Long Island Sound. She may be staying home, but she nevertheless can't help recalling her travels to France, Africa and elsewhere. These reflections may cause readers to want to go places as much as the rest of her book may make them want to stay home and pay closer attention to what's going on in their own communities.

Is it a memoir? Well, yes. The author, now middle-aged and single, recalls ex-husbands and other romances, incidents from childhood and other memories from her past.

It it a journal.? Again, yes. She goes month by month, sometimes day by day, through the year, describing what she observes around her.

Is it an art book? Yes, indeed. Almost every page contains her drawings and watercolor paintings illustrating whatever she is writing about, anything from ball gowns to stone walls to cats to thunderstorms.

You could also make the case that this is a book about natural history, sociology or fashion, among other things.

Swift gives each month a theme, but not necessarily the theme you might expect. She avoids focusing on holidays, for example. March makes her think about tea. In May she ponders gardens. November gives her the blues, so she writes about the color blue.

However one describes Vivian Swift's book, it provides a pleasant way to spend your time while you are staying put.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Wyatt Earp's story

I wonder if the Earps will ever escape the bushels of printed nonsense written about us.
Richard S. Wheeler, Trouble in Tombstone

In his 2004 novel Trouble in Tombstone, Richard S. Wheeler tells the Earp story in Wyatt Earp's own words, much as he did with Bat Masterson in Masterson in 1999. Whether the result is really the truth, or just more printed nonsense, is left to the reader to judge.

To be sure, much nonsense has been written about the Earps, Masterson, Doc Holliday and assorted other western heroes and villains over the years. There remain disagreements about what really happened at OK Corral and whether Wyatt and Virgil Earp were more lawmen or lawbreakers. Wheeler says he "stayed reasonably close to historical events" in his novel, which is probably the best one could hope for given that historians disagree on the subject. Yet I find Wheeler's novel convincing because, rather than painting Wyatt Earp as the nearly flawless hero of the TV legend or the killer the some newspapers of his time called him, he makes him a real human being, with flaws, who means well and does the best he can, even when he doesn't quite follow the letter of the law.

As Earp tells the story of Tombstone, it wasn't Ike Clanton and the rest of that gang of thieves who were the real problem. Rather it was the sheriff, John Behan, who protected more than he pursued the criminals, and the Tombstone newspaper editor, whose front-page fiction blamed the Earp brothers for every robbery and every shooting. "There's nothing worse than a journalist, except maybe a novelist," Wheeler has Earp say, taking a jab at both his own profession and mine. The story shows how Wyatt Earp might have thought that way. He knew how to handle rough men with guns. It was civilized men telling lies who left him helpless.

The main problem I find is that while Earp says again and again how weak he is with words, once asking Doc Holliday to write something for him, this book supposedly written by Earp himself is quite beautifully written. Holliday, being dead for years when Earp in his old age gets around to telling his story, could not have written it for him.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Forbidden fruit

Just as all American publishers hope that if they are good and lead upright lives, their books will be banned in Boston, so do all English publishers pray that theirs will be denounced from the pulpit by a bishop. Full statistics are not to hand, but it is estimated by competent judges that a good bishop, denouncing from the pulpit with the right organ note in his voice, can add between ten and fifteen thousand to the sales.
P.G. Wodehouse, Cocktail Time

Satire works when it strikes close to home, and there is more than a grain of truth in P.G. Wodehouse's comments about the power of bishops to boost the sale of books they denounce from their pulpits. Controversy about a book spurs us to want to read that book, just as controversy about a movie makes us want to see it. We want to judge for ourselves, even if after we read the book or watch the movie we conclude no one else should do so.

This compulsion, as old as the lure of the forbidden fruit, makes fools of many people in a variety of ways.

1. Censorship backfires. Telling people they can't do something or shouldn't do something will always make them want to do that something. Yet those eager to protest and picket and denounce are slow to learn this. The attention they bring to whatever it is they find objectionable only encourages more interest. There are plenty of books, movies, works of art, etc., that, had they just been ignored, would have quickly disappeared from the public scene. Instead they are remembered for decades afterward.

2. Those who yield to the temptation to see what all the fuss is about may be just as foolish.Controversy leads people to spend their money on things that leave them disappointed. How many people read James Joyce's Ulysses after the novel was seized by New York postal authorities in 1922 only to find it incomprehensible and not nearly sexy enough to be worth the trouble of reading it? How many people flocked to certain foreign films back in the 1950s and '60s just to see what all the commotion was about, only to be bored for two hours?

3. Controversy can impair artistic judgment. Ulysses regularly gets ranked as the best or nearly the best novel ever in the English language. Yet how can a book that so few people can read and understand be among the very best? Does its high standing have anything to do with the fact that it was once so controversial? Meanwhile, there are those who think Lady Chatterly's Lover's artistic merit may be overlooked because it is still regarded as a dirty book. In his book Hollywood vs. America, movie critic Michael Medved tells of watching the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ with several other critics. They compared notes after the viewing, he says, and all agreed it was a terrible movie. Yet except for Medved, most of the critics gave it a glowing review. One reviewer who praised the film later told Medved, "If I slammed the picture too hard, then people would associate me with (Jerry) Falwell -- and there's no way I'm ready for that." Such critics are as much fools as anyone else.

4. I think supporters of Banned Books Week are fools, as well. It has been many years in America since any books have been banned or censored by the government. Most of the books listed as banned are just books that parents have objected to on school reading lists or that school board members or educators have removed from or school libraries or curriculum for one reason or another. But isn't it the job of parents to oversee what their children read and of educators and school board members to make judgments about what should and should not be taught in their schools? Should Penthouse by in every school library? Most reasonable people would say no. Is that censorship or simply sound judgment?