Wednesday, January 16, 2019

I wrote this some time ago for my newsletter. Actually, it was one of the first things I wrote about kids and reading:


Books you need jump off shelves to you. That’s how I wound up with four books by Mary Leonhardt. Why I needed them I didn’t know at the time the first one jumped. My kids were beyond the age where they needed my help in reading, if they ever did. They were in college or had already graduated. I was no longer a teacher. But something had me hanging around the education books in a store somewhere, and there was Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t. It had a boring, all-type cover and I hadn’t heard of it or Mary. But I bought it, magically, like those things happen … devoured it, like those books make you … and it became a fast friend to me, a companion like Walt Whitman’s books had once become a friend to me. In her writing I found the truth. That’s what we all look for when we cross a bookstore threshold.

When I was planning this blog, this newsletter, I took a bus to Massachusetts to meet her. She lives in Concord, retired from teaching. The first thing she said to me after hello was that she had to read to me the opening sentences of a paperback book she was reading. She was just who I hoped she would be.

A week ago she e-mailed me answers to questions I had sent her.

It appears that all cities have trouble teaching so many of their kids to read well, even though the 12 years they have them seem way more than enough time. Do you have any insight into why it's such a difficult thing to do? Or is it not so difficult and is there just something the public schools are missing?

This is what most educators don’t understand:

In reading, as in life, practice is everything. Excellent readers are kids who, somewhere along the line, fell in love with books and so spend a great deal of time reading. Schools don’t make falling in love with books a priority. Or even a goal!

Schools think kids become excellent readers by answering comprehension questions and memorizing vocabulary. Not only are they wrong about this (just ask an excellent, avid reader if he spends a lot of time filling out worksheets or memorizing vocabulary), but this belief necessitates that everyone read the same book—so the teachers can make up questions on it.

The result is that kids hate reading because they are forced to read stories and books they don’t like and then answer questions they think are stupid.

Poor kids usually don't have books at home, maybe weren't read to enough. Can school make up for that? Again, 12 years seems plenty of time to do that. Why doesn't it get done?

Sure. All educators have to do is flood every school with interesting reading material (books, comics, magazines, newspapers) and then let the kids spend at least an hour or two a day just reading. No worksheets. No memorizing vocabulary. No required reading—just free choice. And everyone needs to be reading during this time—the principal, teachers, secretaries, the nurse, coaches—everyone!

If this were done in elementary and junior high, high school kids could then be assigned more challenging titles and have fun discussing them. But our high schools are now filled with students who read poorly and see reading as only a boring chore to avoid at all costs.

If you were chosen the Schools Chancellor, what would you do the first hour in office to change things?

Oh, what a tempting question! How about this: an edict mandating that school districts spend as much on librarians and reading material for the kids as they spend on administrators and their staff.

I see great-looking young adult books in the bookstores. They look edgy. Do school libraries get those? Do they get them while they're fresh?

I have really liked almost every school librarian I’ve ever met. They are often the only adult in the school who really values reading.

That said, school libraries are very underfunded, and the money they do get is being directed to computers and other technology. New young adult fiction is usually at the bottom of the funding list.

The other point is that often the books that really turn kids into readers are series, like Goosebumps or Vampire Academy; or category fiction, like mysteries or science fiction. These are really low status books, and librarians are often afraid to order them.

The title of one of your books is ‘How to Teach a Love of Reading Without Getting Fired’. What's the deal? How could there be resistance to teaching a love of reading? How did you have to be careful when you weren't being careful?

Would you believe schools are still teaching Ethan Frome? And Great Expectations? From about sixth grade through high school, teachers are presented with a curriculum that requires them to teach books that most kids will hate.

I coach teachers on ways to avoid a poisonous, required curriculum, to get their students reading books they can love, and not get fired in the process. The critical element is that students need to be given the ability to choose most or all of their reading.

TVs, computers, cell phones, all that. Good or bad for reading?

TV: bad. Computers are better; at least they are reading a bit, and often writing, too. All of the texting that goes on with cell phones is probably good IF they are also avidly reading, since then they will acquire good grammatical structures they can use when they want to.

What reluctance did even English teachers evidence when you'd talk to them about your way of doing things?

English teachers tend to teach the way they were taught, with a required curriculum that mandates the teaching of certain books. The difficulty they have getting their whole class to read these books pales before the difficulty they envision managing a class where students can choose most of their reading.

And anyway, they have already read the books they are assigning. They have folders full of discussion questions, and tests, and vocabulary exercises on these books. Why on earth would they want to open their curriculum to books that kids choose—that maybe the teacher hasn’t read. How can she give them a test on it?

The fact that most students read little of these required books, or any other books with a required book hanging over their heads, simply doesn’t impact them. I think the reason is because most teachers don’t understand how important avid reading is for developing reading skills. So it doesn’t matter too much if students are not reading.

Are schools arranged correctly for reading?

No. Most schools are pretty sterile places. I would love to see schools with magazines in the cafeteria, comics in the nurse’s office, overflowing bookshelves lining the halls. I want to see piles of Soccer World and Sports Illustrated for Kids in the gym. I want the school buses to be awash with interesting reading material.

Why aren't kids breezing through books and reading assignments after 12 years?

This is really the heart of the issue. Kids don’t breeze through reading assignments because they don’t read well enough to do so. But since reading is a hidden skill—unlike, say, playing soccer—few people realize how poorly many children read. And they read poorly because they read so little.

Follow a child of any age throughout a school day, and see how much time this child spends in sustained, concentrated reading. Everything else in a school day is considered more important than just having a child sit and read for a block of time. Kids listen to lectures, discuss issues, answer questions, fill out worksheets, write essays . . . but just sit and read? No time for that. It’s so sad.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Among the things the teachers are asking for are professionally-staffed school libraries. The city's public school libraries are outdated. The vast majority of the system's kids are poor. Wealthier districts can raise money to keep their libraries modern. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

'The South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent.'
― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Saturday, January 12, 2019

It's the best magazine. Week after week. Its daily emailed stories are better than most magazines do in a month. Its weekly podcast is excellent. The magazine's design and feel are perfection. You live in it while you read it.

A New Leaf Painting by Anna Parini

Friday, January 11, 2019

A book that changed my life? No. But TM did. I've been doing it for 44 years. I did it this morning. I think the book came out just after I started. I read it of course. It cost me $55 to be initiated into the practice. I got a teacher's discount. Now it's 20-30 times that. Even at that price, it's worth it. I'll do it again late this afternoon.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

'Barack intrigued me. He was not like anyone I’d dated before, mainly because he seemed so secure. He was openly affectionate. He told me I was beautiful. He made me feel good. To me, he was sort of like a unicorn—unusual to the point of seeming almost unreal. He never talked about material things, like buying a house or a car or even new shoes. His money went largely toward books, which to him were like sacred objects, providing ballast for his mind. He read late into the night, often long after I’d fallen asleep, plowing through history and biographies and Toni Morrison, too. He read several newspapers daily, cover to cover. He kept tabs on the latest book reviews, the American League standings, and what the South Side aldermen were up to. He could speak with equal passion about the Polish elections and which movies Roger Ebert had panned and why.' 
                ― Michelle Obama, Becoming

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

It was cold again today holding the sign. I thought of the same-every-day warm breakfast I'd make when I got back to my apartment. But mostly the cold was on my mind. Among the cold things that came to mind standing there I thought of Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, a book that means so much to me --I've read it three times--that one of the passwords I use incorporates the title. 

When I walk from the subway to my building after I've held the sign, I stop at the bodega to get a New York Times and a banana and an orange. I do it every day. The young woman with a wide face and an easy humorous smile who often works behind the counter and takes my money, $4.75, is from Tibet. She was there today.

Monday, January 7, 2019

'I'm not saying that you have to be a reader to save your soul in the modern world. I'm saying it helps.'
Walter Mosely 

Saturday, January 5, 2019


 'Reading is not optional.' 
                   ― Walter Dean Myers

Friday, January 4, 2019
'Books are, let's face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time.'
Nick Hornby

Thursday, January 3, 2019

I felt old last night. Not physically old. Just older than the mass culture. I'm not the target audience anymore. Haven't been for sometime. The hot things on Netflix aren't hot to me. I might like one or two of them, but I don't need to see them like I once needed to see or listen to or at least know about so many of-the-moment things. I almost never recognize a face on GQ or Esquire or Rolling Stone on the newsstand anymore. I felt like going two blocks up the street to the neighborhood library. Libraries fit me no matter my age. But it was 6:45 and the library closes at 7:00 on Wednesday. Other nights it closes at 6:00. Those of you who don't live here probably don't believe that. Your library is open till 9:00. It's where high school kids do homework or look at magazines or hang with their friends away from home and parents. It's shocking, the library hours here. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

From Tablet magazine:

Did Salinger Go Awry?
A box set for the writer’s upcoming centenary confirms him as the master of possibility  

by Adam Kirsch

The first literary anniversary of 2019 will be one of the biggest: Jan. 1 marks the centenary of J.D. Salinger. (To mark the occasion, his four books are being reissued in a boxed set by Little Brown.) A hundred years seems like it ought to be a long time in literary history—Salinger is as distant from a child born in 2019 as he himself was from Herman Melville. Yet somehow he doesn’t feel as far removed from us as the other writers of his generation—figures like Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, or John Updike, who also became famous in the post-World War II years. Our readerly accounts with those famous names are basically settled, but Salinger’s remains open; his achievement feels unsettled, incomplete.
One reason for this, of course, is that he never completed the ordinary life cycle of a writer. His first book, The Catcher in the Rye, appeared in 1951 and was an immediate sensation. It was followed two years later by Nine Stories, a collection of short stories that Salinger had published in magazines, including classics like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “For Esme, With Love and Squalor.”
But there was no second novel to follow Catcher, and as the years passed Salinger’s stories grew rarer, longer, and much odder. He produced only two more books, each of which collected two of these long stories: Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963. His last published fiction, the story “Hapworth 16, 1924,” appeared in The New Yorker, his longtime literary home, in 1965. All of these stories dealt with various members of the fictional Glass family—seven siblings whose precocity, wit, and spiritual depth made them beloved by some readers, and seriously annoying to others.
Then the great silence began. Already in 1953, Salinger had left New York, the scene of almost all his fiction, and moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, where he did his best to drop off the face of the Earth. By the time he died, in 2010, it had been more than half a century since he had published a story or made a public appearance. What news did emerge about Salinger tended to be unwholesome: Memoirs by his much younger lover, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter Margaret Salinger created the impression of a weird control freak, forever experimenting with fad diets and religions.
Yet Salinger’s withdrawal from the world, whatever its motives, had a remarkable effect on his work. In In Search of Lost Time, Proust theorizes that oblivion is the best form of remembrance. That is because ordinary memories blur and fade as we retell them to ourselves; it is only what we don’t know we remember—like the taste of a madeleine—that retains its ability to conjure up the past, when it suddenly and unpredictably returns to consciousness. Salinger’s disappearance had a similarly preservative effect. Most famous writers—especially in Salinger’s generation, when writers were still celebrities—are perpetually in the public eye, as they produce more books, get profiled and interviewed, win awards and start controversies. By the time Norman Mailer died, in 2007, the public had had so much of him it was all too happy to forget about him.
Not so with Salinger, who like Peter Pan never grew old, at least not in public. And the same holds true of his fiction. Reading him is like opening a time capsule, richly redolent of the behaviors, idioms, and ideas of midcentury New York. To take just one minor example: Anyone reading Salinger today will be struck by how incessantly his characters smoke. Zooey Glass, in Franny and Zooey, smokes in the bath and rests a lit cigarette on the sink while he shaves. Holden Caulfield, in The Catcher in the Rye, smokes several packs over the course of a couple of days, and complains about how easily winded he gets. The shellshocked narrator of “For Esme” “had been chain-smoking for weeks. His gums bled at the slightest pressure of the tip of his tongue.”
Clearly, this is not sophisticated Hollywood smoking. It is a neurotic handicap, a way for troubled characters to make literal the obsessive fire always burning in their minds. And Salinger’s interest in neurosis—along with its philosophical cousins, alienation, and ennui—is another sign of his times. His characters live in an atmosphere of psychoanalysis and existentialism; they are obsessed with the problem of authenticity and how to resist the seductions of mass culture. Another thing that Zooey and Holden have in common is their contempt for the movies, which doesn’t preclude fascination with them; Zooey is even a film actor, yet he makes fun of the scripts producers send him.
Today, these can feel like period concerns: Who in the 21st century bothers looking down on the movies, or worries about “selling out,” the way Holden thinks his older brother D.B. has done by going to write screenplays in Hollywood? Yet the continued popularity of Salinger’s work—above all, of The Catcher in the Rye, which still sells 250,000 copies a year—suggests that authenticity matters to us more than we are willing to admit in our virtual and performative age. There is something morally bracing about a character like Holden, who is not afraid to call phonies phonies. His total honesty, even in the midst of deep spiritual confusion, demands a corresponding honesty from us.
Young readers, who are just discovering how much of the adult world is based on playacting and compromise, are particularly attuned to this demand, and Salinger has always been known as a writer for the young. He comes across as a confidant, the rare adult who understands. When Holden Caulfield says, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,” he is of course describing Catcher and Salinger himself.
Salinger, like Peter Pan, never grew old, at least not in public.
The problem, in Salinger’s work after Catcher, was precisely his inability to negotiate the transition to an adulthood he continued to see as fallen. It is no coincidence that Salinger’s Glass stories revolve more and more around Seymour, the oldest brother, whose suicide is narrated in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” By shooting himself at the age of 31, Seymour spares himself the indignities of age—he remains always a “wise child,” as in the title of the radio show the Glass children all appeared on, “It’s a Wise Child.” “Seymour: An Introduction” may be Salinger’s worst story, because it insists on portraying Seymour as so much better than the ordinary run of humanity—smarter, deeper, more innocent, more sincere—that he has nothing in common with other people, and so cannot enter into any kind of plot or situation. He can only be talked about, the way disciples talk about a guru: “Surely he was all real things to us: our blue-striped unicorn, our double-lensed burning glass, our consultant genius, our portable conscience … a mukta, a ringding enlightened man, a God-knower. At any rate, his character lends itself to no legitimate sort of narrative compactness that know of.”
It’s typical of Salinger’s generation of American Jewish writers that when he looked for a spiritual vocabulary, he turned to the East, to Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, rather than to the resources of Jewish tradition. In general, Salinger was far less interested in writing about Jewishness than contemporaries like Mailer and Bellow. His New York is Manhattan, not Brooklyn or the Bronx; his young people go to Ivy League colleges and prep schools, not City College. Yet the Glass family has a Jewish father and an Irish Catholic mother—like Salinger himself—and it’s possible that Holden, too, is half-Jewish. At one point in Catcher, he explains that he got his Irish last name from his father, but that his parents are “different religions.” If so, he’s the best-disguised Jewish character in fiction.
The Glass stories contain some of Salinger’s most vivid dialogue and scene-setting—particularly “Zooey,” which offers a meticulous archaeology of the Glass family’s Manhattan apartment. (A list of the contents of the medicine cabinet fills a page all by itself.) But they also suffer from a kind of Manichaeism: The Glasses have a monopoly on the world’s goodness, while the outside world is full of creeps like Lane Coutell, Franny’s conceited, careerist boyfriend. Finally, Salinger’s message seems to be that moral aristocrats, like the Glasses, must be kind to the common folk, no matter how awful they may be.
This is the burden of the sermon Zooey delivers to Franny at the end of the book, where he reminds her of Seymour’s principle that a performer should always try to do his best “for the Fat Lady.” “This terribly, terribly clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies. … I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer and—I don’t know.” This repellent figure, Zooey goes on to say, is all of us—“there isn’t anyone anywhere who isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady.” More, she is “Christ Himself,” a figure of divinity.
This is meant to be a message of humility, but somehow it doesn’t quite come across that way. There remains a clear division between the Fat Lady out in the audience and the Glasses in the spotlight, and the latter can never do more than condescend to the former. Such spiritual noblesse oblige is not a moral posture from which fiction can be written, as Salinger’s later silence indicates. Having made up his mind about people at large—that they are all phonies and Fat Ladies—he stopped being curious about them, and stopped wanting to write for or about them.
When Salinger died, his obituaries hinted at a trove of manuscripts that were ready for publication; but almost a decade later, nothing has appeared. If Salinger was writing during all those silent years, as he occasionally said he was, it’s unlikely that he produced anything resembling the cleverly crafted tales of Nine Stories or as instinctively perfect as Catcher. He was already moving, in “Seymour: An Introduction,” into a discursive kind of anti-fiction, without plot or character, highly self-conscious and fixated on a few religious ideas—detachment, enlightenment—drawn from Zen Buddhism. If he wrote whole novels in this style, it’s hard to imagine them being very appealing.
Even if there are no more masterpieces by Salinger to come, however, he will remain a writer oriented toward possibility. That is because he wrote so passionately, and compassionately, about youth—so much so that he could not bear to put it behind him as a fictional subject. It’s impossible to imagine Holden Caulfield, or Seymour Glass, or their creator, as tired and old, with nothing more to say. That Salinger actually did end up that way—as we all must, if we live long enough—seems like just one more Salinger rumor, which can be dispelled by opening up one of his books.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019