Saturday, February 27, 2010

Your Lifetime Reading List: Get Started Now!

For the past couple of days, I have been trolling online in search of the ultimate list of Recommended Reading for the Well-Educated Person.

One of my missions in life and in education is to encourage and inspire wide reading, so I thought that posting a great list here might be useful.

Not to sound like a typical, grumpy, middle-aged reactionary, but as a teacher, I am noticing that many students don't have the same reading background that I (or my peers in school) did.

If I mention Jung or Freud, chances are that most people don't know that these men were famous psychoanalysts, or what ideas they each espoused.

Allusions I might make to "Big Brother" or "newspeak" go right over the heads of most students.

On the one hand, it's somewhat understandable given that childrens' lives seem much more packed with scheduled activities, leaving less time for reading (on the other, how about no more excuses? Let's just read more!).  Still, when I was young, there was no "screen time" built into our days, either--and I know firsthand what a time suck that is.

I have no doubt that wide reading, and near-constant reading, makes a world of difference in terms of general education and being able to make connections between ideas and to--ultimately--think for oneself.

It can also virtually guarantee success on the inevitably important (if annoying) standardized tests we all must take at crucial junctures in our lives.

I found many lists of recommended books online,  all titled differently: Top Books, Most Influential Books, Best Books, Books for the Well-Educated, etc.--but in perusing my stack of print-outs, I find that (as is sadly true for much of life), many of the lists seem basically the same. Lists that are broken into chunks of 100 books seem to be leaving out many worthwhile titles; and some lists just seem...odd.

(I also don't understand the numbering of some lists. Are they numbered in order of importance, or in the order  in which the list-compilers thought of them? Numbering books seems to be a problematic exercise.)

I wish I had time to compile the perfect list, but for the sake of time (and because my ideal list would be dauntingly long and, thus, no one would pay any attention to it), here is a short list--conveniently separated into categories--of books I hope everyone will eventually read.

  • I haven't italicized any titles because it would take too long.
  • Poetry is not included here; I will tackle that list separately.
  • Feel free to suggest additions to this initial list, and please don't assume that if one category is markedly shorter than another that it means that is not a worthwhile genre to just means that I have to go to Target now and buy birthday presents for children.

Happy Reading!

Thinking (Philosophy, Psychology, Theories, Spirituality)
I and Thou: Martin Buber
The School and the Child by John Dewey
The Musical Illusionist by Alex Rose
The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by Carl Jung
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori
Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan
Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin
A Theory of Semiotics by Umberto Eco
Principles of Psychology by William James
Thus Spake Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche
The Descent of Man by Charles Darwin
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
I Ching

The Bible (I like the King James version, for study of Biblical history; Old Testament is especially useful for literary study)
The Upanishads
Dhammapada by Gautama Buddha
Tao Te Ching
The Koran
Histories by Herodotus
The Odyssey by Homer
Plato's Dialogues
Aristotle's Politics
The Aeneid, Virgil
Heloise and Abelard by George Moore
The Prince, Machiavelli
Essays, Michel de Montaigne
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
The Plays of William Shakespeare
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Letters and Speeches, Abraham Lincoln

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
The Autobiography of Malcom X by Malcolm X
Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
The Liars' Club by Mark Karr
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov
Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
What I Saw at The Revolution by Peggy Noonan
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Stranger by Albert Camus
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Unbearable  Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
Howard's End by E.M. Forster
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
Deliverance by James Dickey
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
The Godfather by Mario Puzo

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Point of Thinking about Dystopia

One thing I am planning to do very soon with my Creative Writing class is to discuss Dystopian themes in stories and novels.

Teenagers, I've noticed, get a creepy kick out of Dystopian tales. Why is this?

I will venture a guess: the concept of dystopia, of kids needing to fend for themselves in a catastrophically re-ordered world (and this is true for all sorts of hero films and stories, as well--think Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, even Sky High) helps children regain a sense of power and control, of being able to right the wrongs around them.

Every allegorical story gives readers, listeners, viewers that feeling, too, I think.

In the great battle between Good and Evil--a battle which sometimes feels pointless and impossible--how can the good side win?

Sometimes, heroes come from unexpected places (and indeed may be under 18). This also relates the idea of the Underdog. (I've always loved underdogs, and in fact, I used to be very into the old cartoon of Underdog when I was little. It was one of the only cartoons I watched, or got excited about it when I found it on TV--usually, very early in the morning.)

Anyway, back to Dystopia: adults can appreciate this style, too, though it is scary for us, more of a dire warning. Think Cormac McCarthy's The Road--a grisly, frightening novel set in post-apocalyptic America that nonetheless raises many important ideas about love, hope, faith and the purpose of life. Also, more superficially, think about Mad Max or I am Legend.

I actually started thinking about dystopia four years ago when I read an incredible dystopian YA novel: How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. This book dealt with a group of kids (related) fending for themselves in a world where some vague political tragedy had thrown Europe into utter disarray.

Could such bad things happen? I don't like to think about it, but seriously--why not? Of course they could.

How will we act in the midst of chaos? I think we basically all know that we'll act pretty badly. There could be looting and much worse; there could be cannibalism.

The thought makes me shudder.

So what do we do about it?

I think we should read dystopian stories and discuss the possible outcomes. We should discuss how to prepare ourselves without getting carried away by paranoia.

We should also discuss the point of dystopia. Is it, perhaps, to help us face our worst fears and formulate a plan of action for ethical behavior before something bad happens?

Is it to show us that we all, in some way, have the power to act for good?

I do not write dystopian YA or any dystopia for that matter, but while on the one hand it scares me, I also can't stop thinking about it after I (finally) put it down.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Biggest Problem the World Faces... the title of a typical, boring application essay, the kind teenagers have to respond to for academic summer programs.

It's a Catch-22: how does one respond to a boring prompt without being, well, boring?

I had a student call me last night, asking for help on an essay entitled, "The Biggest Problem the World Faces is..."

Her idea, which she ran by me, was to say that Hatred is the biggest problem in the world.

Okay, I said (but I am sure she could hear the lack of enthusiasm in my voice), if you want to write about Hatred, we can certainly think of some examples of that.

What I was thinking was: "Hatred is far too abstract of an answer. 'Hatred' sounds akin to a Miss America stock interview response--one so broad as to be utterly inoffensive, and so vague as to be virtually useless."

It is an ambitious answer, though, and certainly not entirely incorrect--and yet, it is not one that I think can be written well. Maybe Elie Wiesel could write this one well.

My mind going a million miles a minute as always, I told this student about an article I just read in The New Yorker, one that dealt with two men (Dale Andreatta and Peter Scott) whose mission it is to solve the world's biggest problem. ("Hearth Surgery" by Burkhard Bilger, in the December 21 & 29, 2009 edition of The New Yorker.)

What is the world's biggest problem? Apparently, it is lack of affordable, clean-burning stoves.

Yes, stoves.

That sort of blew my mind. But I read on. And then I could see it: the bulk of the world (billions of people) is made up of families in very poor nations who cook with terrible little wood-burning stoves.

Smoky, air-polluting fires for cooking and heating--especially in cramped, mud huts or other tiny structures built without adequate ventilation systems--cause myriad health problems: pneumonia, cancers, deaths in infancy. More than a million and a half people die each year because of their cooking method.

Trees are torn down at alarming rates to help fuel these inefficient cooktops. Lack of trees leads to dust-bowl conditions, leads to starving animals, leads to massive pollution, leads to global warming.

Untold suffering is caused by cooking flatbreads and pots of beans (and I like both of these foods, so this is no ethnic jab or food snobbery).

Health problems (health care) always end up having economic repercussions.

Economics and politics are inextricably intertwined, with economic disparities being one of the causes of terrorism.

And that's why bad stoves may be the world's biggest problem.

Do something like that, I told my student. Surprise your reader. Do you see how easy it is to come up with your points, your body paragraphs, when your answer is something concrete, such as stoves?

If you want to get more abstract (and I could tell that's where her heart was), why not try a subject such as money? Materialism? The Biggest Problem the World Faces Today could very well be our laser-focus on money. Everything comes down to cost.

The stove problem I mentioned before comes down to cost. Even if a well-designed stove costs $8 (hard to fathom for Americans, for sure), who in these poor countries can even afford that?

But how can governments or richer nations afford NOT to help other people? An ounce of prevention (preventing so many diseases, preventing lack of equity when it comes to health care and education) is worth, in the end, a pound of cure (as Mr. Franklin said).

It has been said that much political unrest is caused by the growing chasm between rich and poor.

If the rich help the poor a little bit more--even if it is just in the supplying of stoves--then maybe this will go a long way towards solving the biggest problems in the world.

And that's how, I think, you answer that question.

My main suggestions for writing better essays:

1) Reading.
2) Talking it through.
3) Making connections--what I call "brainstorming in action."
4) Looking for, and using, the unexpected answer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It Smells Like Switzerland in Here

...whatever that means. What does it mean? I imagine, perhaps, that Switzerland (my favorite place in the world, I think) smells most like chocolate, and snow.

But what does snow smell like? We all have an idea of the scent of snow, I think, but can we actually describe it, put it into words?

Consider how Madeleine L'Engle had her character, Meg, in A Wrinkle in Time explain what fire is to a creature who couldn't perceive that element and had never experienced it. L'Engle did the seemingly impossible (I will send candy to the person who finds the precise passage and comments about it).

Could you do the same? Could you try?

In my creative writing class today, we were discussing strange, overheard lines--and "It smells like Switzerland in here" is something I heard in the halls of my school recently. I think a junior schooler said it.

I quickly scribbled the line on a scrap of paper, and I've been thinking about it since.

What interesting sentences have you heard that piqued your imagination? Please share.

Also, consider challenging yourself to put ideas into sentences, to truly explain concepts, using rich sensory details. It's a good writing exercise, I think. It's a meaningful, creative activity.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Bird Came Down the Walk--or, How Poetry Analysis Can Work

Emily Dickinson's poem (see below) is one I recently gave to my AP students to analyze.

I like to use this particular poem because, on its surface, it doesn't appear to be about all that much.

As a teacher, you can imagine the sighs of a student: "Great, a poem about a bird and ew, a worm. And more about the bird. And a weird final stanza. Wait--what does that even mean?"

A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,--
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home

Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, plashless, as they swim.

So we go through it. (I like to use the TP-CASTT system for poetry analysis. It works wonders):
  • T--Title (which doesn't really work here, however, as there is no actual title);
  • P--Paraphrase (which is just to help students process the poem in their minds. I don't want to see paraphrase in an essay);
  • C--Connotation (this is what it's all about, in my opinion. Students need to focus on diction, consider the images evoked by certain words and think, further, about what else is connoted. The bulk of the poem's meaning may be derived this way, I find);
  • A--Attitude, or Tone (I have students first determine if a poem's tone is positive or negative and then find apt adjectives that may be used to describe the tone--e.g., capricious, whimsical, brooding, funereal, philosophical);
  • S--Shift (does the poem shift in tone, content, style? This can change the entire meaning of a poem);
  • T--Theme (the messages or main points of the poem. Students can start with simple words such as Death, Loss, Love and then revise their ideas to reflect more complex thoughts and formulate theses that sum up, with insight, the entire point of a poem);
  • and finally, T for Title again (in case the meaning of the title has morphed in the student's mind, after all the analysis work.
I won't get into all the details of my students' analysis, but I will say that they typically (as do all students, I am sure) struggle with Connotation (which is where the motherlode of ideas lies, I think).

With "A Bird Came Down the Walk," I showed the students how certain words--particularly the diction that deals with watery or nautical images, in the final stanzas, "oars, rowed, ocean, banks, plashless, swim"--tie together the ideas of the bird flying and the thoughts the speaker has of being in or on the water.

We discussed how humans long to fly, how swimming/sailing is peaceful and freeing, and yet--how flying and being in the water are both exhilarating and frightening. Both are joyous and yet also connected with dying and death, particularly rather violent ends.

This idea, suggested by the final lines of Dickinson's poem seems to indicate--to me, at least--that the speaker is fascinated by the simple life and beauty of the bird, and yet s/he doesn't, or shouldn't, long for its life, because it is one of danger and hardship. (Note the bird's "rapid eyes," described as "frightened beads." Wild animals always have to worry that they will be hunted, don't they?)

There is more to say, of course, but I'll leave it there. Poems are for discovery--but the point is that students shouldn't feel afraid, as wild animals do. They don't have to fear for their lives when it comes to analyzing a poem. It's not quite that difficult.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Films to Make You Think and Help You to Remember

I am very into films--always have been. One of the best courses I took in college was a film class (not filmmaking).

I sort of hated some of the films we viewed--one, I recall, was shaky, hour-long footage of a fluorescent-lit institutional hallway. Watching it made me ill--but I was very glad for the experience of seeing so many great films, and for learning more about film.

I have long been meaning to put together a list of films that I think students should see before they graduate or emerge into the Big, Wide World, and lately, I am noticing that allusions I make to films are not being recognized. Even more alarmingly, many of my juniors didn't know who Woody Allen was.

That must change.

So, for what it's worth (feel free to tell me what I forgot), here is a preliminary list of films that teachers can and probably should use to supplement curricula and provide their students with even fuller, more enriching experiences in school.

For Understanding American History or just things that happened in America or to Americans

  • The Untouchables (the 1920s)
  • Cinderella Man (except I think this is too depressing)
  • Apocalypse Now
  • A Civil Action
  • Good Morning, Vietnam
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Citizen Kane
  • Scarface
  • The Deer Hunter
  • Roger & Me
  • Black Hawk Down

For Understanding Pop Culture (and various Allusions)

  • The Godfather (1 &2)
  • Annie Hall
  • Manhattan
  • Casablanca
  • Harold and Maude
  • A League of their Own
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Deliverance
  • Terminator (perhaps not the sort of film to show IN school, but one that probably ought to be seen)
  • The Exorcist (see above)
  • Jaws
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • The Breakfast Club
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • Psycho
  • Raising Arizona
  • The Pink Panther
  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Princess Bride
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • The Sixth Sense

Foreign Films

  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Europa, Europa
  • Wings of Desire
  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Akira

For Stimulating Intellectual Curiosity and Metafiction (or, films about writing)

  • Educating Rita
  • Dead Poets’ Society
  • The World According to Garp (excellent book, not-so-hot film)
  • Finding Forrester
  • Wonder Boys
  • The Door in the Floor (again, excellent novel upon which it was based, "A Widow for One Year'; film is much different and is based on one part of novel)
  • Capote
  • A River Runs Through It
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Movies that Made Me Think (and that I can watch over and over, for various reasons)

  • The Motorcycle Diaries
  • Secrets and Lies
  • The Usual Suspects
  • The Green Mile
  • Goodfellas
  • The Shawshank Redemption
  • Witness (husband's favorite)