Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Alice Munro and the Know-It-All

I've been in a reading slowdown. I won't call it a slump; slumps are for aging first basemen. I know exactly what has caused my slowdown: slow moving or long books.

And I've been enjoying every turtle-paced moment of it.

Right around the beginning of April, I began reading Alice Munro's collection of stories Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Each of these stories is exquisitely paced and developed; every character has depth and meaning. I could read it again three times and discover new traits in everyone at each passing. This Munro dame knows how to scribble. A book like that should not be consumed with a deadline in mind (Must read a book a week. Must read a book a weeek...) No, if I were to teach a course on writing, I'd want to invest lots of time in the works of Munro exploring how she animates these characters so well.

Perhaps it's because it was the last story, but "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" is especially memorable, and I say that not to be ironic; it involves a woman who becomes demented. (I don't think they specifically say it's Alzheimer's disease, but it sounds like it.) And "Floating Bridge" provides some fairly obvious symbolism, but remains a poignant story of a woman dealing with cancer.

Once I completed that book, I dove into A.J. Jacobs' The Know-It-All, and have been pleasantly suprised. This is essentially a memoir by a journalist who fears he's begun to lose the mental sharpness he had when he was younger, so he decides to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. His quest, he claims, is to become the "smartest" person on earth. Of course, within the first twenty-five pages there begins the inevitable discussion of the difference between knowledge and intelligence. Indeed, it is a theme that continues throughout the book.

That was one of the most surprising aspects of this book, actually: there are themes. It is as much a description of a middle-aged man who desperately wants to become a father and to pass along a legacy of a love for knowledge -- which he received from his father -- as it is a recitation of what he's learned. And the book is quite amusing at times. I've had several instances where I've chuckled loudly on the train. You don't get too many of those moments with Alice Munro.

I expect I'll finish The Know-It-All this week, and I've not decided what's next. I may return to John Connelly or pick up something else. I have a Peter Carey novel waiting to be cracked. But Munro and Jacobs have reminded me why I love reading in the first place: Books take me away from the mundane and can make me laugh. I don't need an iPod.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Celebrate World Book Day

Got a book? Good. I hope you're reading regularly. To a certain extent, it doesn't really matter what you're reading, as long as you read. Because not everyone can.

Today is World Book Day. [Author's note: Apparently I'm wrong; World Book Day was on March 6 -- though I've seen it posted as 4/23 also. Regardless, I'd forgotten about it until after seeing a Google blog link and writing about it. But I still believe in the importance of writing.] Unlike some Hallmark Holidays, World Book Day can actually do something more valuable than sell cards. It's designed to promote literacy. The Google blog page that I linked to above contains a link to its Literacy Project, where it promotes a few smaller projects.

That's all well and good. For those who can already read, however, I want to say, "Keep reading." It's good for you. Allow your mind to expand in ways that illicit drugs never will touch. Develop your imagination.

How's this as a way to promote literacy: literacy leads to exploration, exploration leads to imagination. Imagination leads to having a mind that can comprehend wondrous pleasures. ... Literacy leads to better sex. QED.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Good Tool for Writers

Over the past few months, I've begun connecting to some of those Web 2.0-style social networking sites for writers. If you don't count the NaNoWriMo, which I joined last November, the first I joined is Writers Cafe, (Feel free to visit: I'm the ElephantGuy). The site had a bit of a disaster when some adminstrator accidentally wiped out just about everyone's writing, which upset a lot of the members. Fortunately for me, I hadn't been too active there and only lost one item.

Today, after poking around in the latest issue of Writers' Digest, I learned about a site called Agent Query. My first impression is this is the type of site I'd been hoping to find for a while now. While my hope is to connect with agents, I get the impression that the caliber of writers in this community is stronger than what I've seen at Writers Cafe (though it's possible I haven't dug deep enough there.)

Already, I've found one agency that sounds fitting for what I'm looking to accomplish. If anyone out there has any experience (good or bad) with either of those sites or if you want to recommend something else, I'm open to them. I'm ready.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Death of the Sentence

Is the sentence dead? Can Johnny learn to spell? Or is it "too" spell? Sigh.

I can still write sentences. Subject. Verb. Whoops, maybe it's not as easy as I thought.

The New York Times is trying to scare us. The problem is, they don't go far enough. According to the Times, kids can't write sentences well any more, in part because they don't write them often; instead they write text messages and grammatically disgusting items in their MySpace profile and their IM conversations. Be that as it may, the problem isn't just teens. I know many adults who are God awful writers. What's worse, many of them don't realize it because they don't know what it means to read either.

Sure, they can tumble over the collections of consonants and vowels and grunt or utter seemingly coherent thoughts, and they can recite the words that appear on the screen before them. Just don't ask them what it means.

According to this article, in Mississippi only 15 percent of eighth graders can write proficiently. Fifteen percent! For the innumerate among you, that means 85 percent of 14 or 15 year old kids in Mississippi can't write. Methinks there be a literacy problem in this country. For tis not only Mississippi where there be problems.

I don't buy the Times' whitewashing of the statistics. For example:

While 33 percent of eighth graders writing with proficiency may not sound like a lot, it is the best performance by eighth graders on any subject matter tested in the national assessment program in the last three years. Smaller percentages of eighth-grade students have performed at the proficiency level in reading, math, science, civics or history tests. Only 17 percent of eighth graders managed a proficient score on the nationwide history exam in 2006, for example.

Bullshit. Thirty-three percent is terrible. No ifs ands or buts about it. If it's better than three years ago, that's good, but the performance is still terrible. How can we allow any of these kids to run for elected office thirty-forty years from now? Are we going to become a society that is more split between educated and uneducated than we already are? That's just asking for trouble.

Certainly, a couple comments on the cusp of diatribe from yours truly are not going to spur a shift in national education. Neither will a few million donated by Bill Gates, though it's a better option than my blather on this itty bitty blog. But I can't help wondering why this isn't a larger issue in the presidential campaigns.

I'm curious, could this be a national security issue? If our soldiers can't read their orders proficiently enough, might they do something improper? To be honest, I have much more faith in our forces than that. I've met a few active soldiers over the past few years, and not one of them has struck me as an aw-shucks idiot or wide-eyed fool. I don't know what it's like in the trenches, but in airports and on sidewalks, they say the right things. I'm proud of them. We all should be.

But I'm still concerned about the kids over here. Harry Potter is done. Can our kids read anything else? And how many of the kids actually read those books and how many waited for the next movie? When peace returns, will our soldiers be able to understand their union rules?

I'm off on a rant here, but my point is this: How can we be a great country if a large number of our kids can't read? I'm not stupid, but I can't find an answer to that.