Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And They Call This Book Country?

New York City has a rich, alluring literary tradition, but way too many of its kids don’t know how to read.

This issue makes it two years since I started a cityReader. I’ve decided to re-run the first issue. It best describes why I’m doing what I’m doing. Here it is:

Before you move here, you have this image of New York City as a bookish place. The photograph of the famous writers gathered at the Gotham Book Mart. The New Yorker. Random House. Esquire. The Strand. Susan Sontag. The Reading Room at the big library. Simon & Schuster. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Columbia. NYU. Tom Wolfe. The New School. Woody Allen. The New York Times Book Review. Vintage paperbacks. John Cheever. The New York Review of Books. J.D. Salinger. The Paris Review. The Algonquin. The Partisan Review. Delmore Schwartz. You even see it call itself Book Country in ads for some kind of book fest. It would be your kind of place, you believe.

Then, about the time you’re moving here a dozen years ago, you see a photo on the front page of the Times as you’re skimming the headlines before you sit down to read the the whole paper, and you think, oh, that must be a picture from some place like Harlan County, Kentucky about some hardscrabble issue, one of those features the Times does now and then about some place remote from New York and its refinement (see above). But when you’re in your seat on the couch and you look closer you’re shocked to see that it’s not Kentucky at all but a picture of one of the ball fields in New York City where the public high school teams play their games. There are other pictures inside of other sorry-looking fields. You’re not so naïve to think the public school fields would be like a suburban school’s fields, but you can’t believe that they’re that bad and you feel like a fool for being so unaware and you get angry at New York for not being a good person if that’s how it’s let its playing fields for its kids go. You hope your friends don’t see the article.

You move to Manhattan as planned and the condition of playing fields doesn’t come up much. Anyone you knew from college who lived here has moved to the suburbs, for reasons like playing fields for their kids. You do read, maybe prompted by that article, that some mogul(s) is fixing up some of the fields. That makes you feel better. You wanted more outrage from the citizenry maybe, but at least some progress is being made. What you really wish is that the Mayor would declare eminent domain and seize all sorts of parking lots and raze under-used buildings and put in rich, green, playing fields throughout the city. He could even take too-exclusive and over-blown Gramercy Park up the street from where you live and turn it into a hockey rink. You very much wish for spaces for kids here. You’re surprised no one else brings it up ever.

But that’s not really about the New York bookishness that drew you here. That’s only a first instance of how you are disabused of some of your New York illusions. Those nasty playing fields would be as nothing compared to what really starts bugging you, and what bugs you still about the city. But maybe those playing fields will come in handy as a metaphor. You’ve come to see too many of the public schools in this bookish city as just as hardscrabble and under-watered and un-tended-to as those awful-looking fields. You aren’t talking about the physical plants of the schools, though they usually look pretty uninviting. No, you are talking about the reading life of the kids in so many of those big schools.

In the neighborhood you live in now, you can stand, on a holiday, when traffic is light, in the center of the intersection in front of your apartment building, and you can see five bodegas of varying quality, two of them selling flowers. Three dry cleaners, one with washers and dryers. A newsstand with a busy lottery machine, an internet café. There’s an off-brand grocery store, a couple nail salons, two liquor stores, a CVS, a Starbucks, a Dunkin’ Donuts, two good bagel places, one pizza place (you refuse to count the one that sells a-shot-and-a-slice). Maybe a dozen restaurants, and almost that many popular bars. It’s a great neighborhood, with, hey, that exclusive park-with-a key just a short block away. It has all you wanted when you moved here. Except it doesn’t have a bookstore. The newsstand will sell you fashion magazines from Milan, muscle magazines, college hoops mags. But there’s no bookstore in sight. You can walk to Union Square to the vibrant, four-floored Barnes & Noble and you do that. And Strand is not far beyond that. But you wanted your neighborhood to have its own bookstore, a small one like where one of the bodegas is. Didn’t they say this town was Book Country?

You know you have no real reason to complain about what your immediate neighborhood lacks when you compare it to the parts of the city where those ball fields are. There aren’t really any bookstores out there. You think of that promo that said New York is Book Country. Just parts of it, they must have meant.

There’s another metaphor you use when you’re having a pint with friends and you steer the conversation your way and you start going on about kids and reading and the poor results poor kids get in reading tests. You say that in a small island culture where everyone lives near the shore, swimming is the most important skill that to needs be taught to kids so they survive, so they don’t drown. They don’t teach soccer or traditional dance steps until every child knows how to swim. When you see that your friends accept that as obvious, you bring up New York City’s schools. You say that in order to survive in this culture you have to know how to read, more than you need to know how to sing or shoot hoops or play volleyball or know who dug the Erie Canal. You have to know how to read before anything else. In order to survive really. In order not to drown.

The Mayor, in his treasure chest campaign, so touted the success he claims he’s achieved in the schools since he took them over, you thought he was maybe going to buy an aircraft carrier and fly onto it and claim the learning war was over. You get mad thinking that he would have been cheered.

Don’t they see, kids are drowning still. A third of them can’t read well enough to pass their swimming test. And you know that many of the kids who pass are really only dog-paddling. Why does the Mayor who fastidiously saw to it that 100% of the bars complied with his no-smoking edict, why does he not demand that 100% of the city’s kids know how to read? In Cleveland, where you came from 12 years ago, there’s a plaque on the front of the big library that says: Kids Who Read Succeed. Hell, maybe Cleveland is Book Country.

You wonder if anyone really cares. It isn’t talked about much. The Times and other publications talk about numbers and unions and rubber rooms. You can’t even name the Times’ education editor. Do they have one? You wonder why mothers of kids in the schools don’t take to the street with pots and pans and march down to Chambers Street to demand that their kids be taught to read. They know what it means for their kids not to know how to read, if only from seeing the neighborhoods filled with the bodies of kids who’ve drowned.

If the Mayor can up-end centuries of tradition and outlaw tobacco from public houses, why can’t he buck Albany and the Board of Regents and turn the city’s schools into reading academies where kids will immerse themselves in books and magazines, and the state syllabus be damned. It isn’t longer hours at school the kids need, it is focused hours. It is reading time. Time to make up for what they lacked in their earliest years. The city has them for 12 years. You think about that sometimes when you remember that that’s how long ago you came here. That’s a long time.

So you decide to start ‘a cityReader’. You’re not sure what you’ll do with it. But you’re tired of talking about it. Tired of your own metaphors. You want to go around and see what the deal is…why in 12 years the schools aren’t teaching the kids to read well enough to succeed.

The Voice of America
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

When you read Walt Whitman you wish he’d been the one chosen when some cities were all reading the same book. Remember that? We need to be reading him. He wouldn’t be wearing a Fox or an MSNBC T shirt if he were here. Not a hat that said Brooks or Krugman on it either. He transcended that kind of smallness. He was big. So big you feel small when you read him. Where did he get his expansiveness? Where did he get his confidence? Where did he get his love?

I’m reading him on the subway in the morning now. It’s quite a scene to raise your eyes from the book’s pages and see the American faces on their way to work.

The Best Book I Read in 2011
The Art of Fielding

If I’d kept a log of the books I read during the year, I might recall a title I liked more than The Art of Fielding. But I didn’t, so this is the book that comes to mind as my best book of the year. It’s a novel and I’m not that big on novels any more, and I wouldn’t have read it maybe if the woman who works at the bookstore I go to hadn’t sensed it was the right book for me that day. Isn’t that reason enough to go to a real store? Make that a resolution.

Two other books come to mind. Hemingway’s Boat. A biography of his post-Paris years. And then there’s a small paperback book called you are here by a Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He has lots of books out. This is the first one of his for me. I think it changed me, though nobody’s noticed, or commented at all.

Morning subway station. Man with his Kindle.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The New School

An idea that came to the cityReader when he was thinking about St. Mark’s Bookshop staying alive.

St. Mark’s Bookshop got a new life. Another chance. A rent deal was worked out. Did you know that? So all those fiercely smart books that they always have there get to stay on their shelves. It’s almost like the end of Fahrenheit 451, in this day when bookstores are closing, when books are being squeezed into little gizmos not much bigger than the Sgt. Preston ore detector I ordered from Shredded Wheat when I was a kid. In this day when we genuflect at Steve Jobs’ grave for including a futuristic voice app on the new iPhone that you can talk to like something we’d have been grossed out by in ominous futuristic movies years ago. It’d have been something we’d Occupy… over, wouldn’t it? Now we’re gushing about it. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t the idea weird? Talking to a non-person and asking her if our social calendar is full on Wednesday at 6:00? Isn’t it weird that we think that’s cool while bookstores are closing.

So it’s good that a real bookstore is staying open. And it’s good that the smart people who work there will still have jobs. Some of them have already been let go of course the past few months as austerity had to rule in these times of Amazon and iPads. And Nooks. Maybe we’ll turn back some day. A CD collector friend who goes to flea markets and record fairs says the every CD that comes out now also comes out in vinyl. He says Letterman (I don’t stay up that late anymore) holds up the big vinyl album now, not the little CD anymore, when some singer or group comes on. That’s cool. Maybe after books die, they’ll come back to life again. I love the stuff of books. I think the biography of Jobs with the photo and the white dust jacket is better looking than any of his products. That doesn’t mean that I don’t get some kind of stimulation from my iPhone, but not like I do from a cool-looking, cool-feeling book.

Anyway, St. Mark’s’ difficulties made me think of good bookstores and the very bright staffs they have. You know them. They seem like they all went to Oberlin. And that they’ve read Thomas Pynchon and you haven’t. Because they have a look that says that. That look that makes you not ask for a bag even if it’s raining out. That look that makes you want to say when you’re buying the Patti Smith book as a Christmas gift that you read it a year ago. You zip up your coat lest they see the dukes-up leprechaun on your Notre Dame T shirt. You love ‘em being there though. It makes the store seem a step up from the street. They make you bring your A game.

So here’s what I’m thinking. These bright Pynchon-reading bookstore sales clerks love to be around books. They’ll work for cheap and live in parts of Brooklyn that look like car impound lots so they can live in New York City and be around books. There must be thousands of such types all around the country who’d love to live in New York City and be around books. If they could find such jobs they’d leave Portland in a New York minute. But with bookstores closing here and scaling back where would all those book types work? Who needs thousands of English majors from Skidmore and Middlebury and Spelman and Kenyon and Wisconsin and Georgetown?

You know who? I know who. The New York City schools. First graders need ‘em. Twelfth graders need ‘em. The schools here need thousands of English majors. They need their bookishness. They need their style or self-styled lack of it. They need truckloads of ‘em. They’d come by the truckloads too, if…

If the schools decided they needed to change themselves into places where language and literature were honored above all else. If the schools decided that they could no longer ignore the obvious: poor kids aren’t learning how to read or write in the city’s schools. It just wasn’t working. Almost not working at all. It wasn’t working anywhere, actually. Not in Louisville. Not in Green Bay. Not in Houston, Dallas, or Galveston. Not in Portland.

But only New York could attract the bright young reading and writing types that would love to live here and spend their days with books and lined paper. They’d love to read aloud to kids. They’d love to learn about new young adult novels. They’d rather do that than stand behind cash registers . And they’d make more money. It’d get their parents off their ass, too.

You couldn’t find a better match. This would be better than Teach for America. This would be a book nerd’s wet dream. With summers off and long holidays to go to Burning Man and the World Cup. They’d enliven the faculty room. No more talk about ‘The Good Wife’ and Groupon dominating lunch time. There’d be talk of Bushwick concerts and Alexander McQueen. There’d be 'Playbills' from The Book of Mormon. Energy. Happiness. A job. An English major with a job with books. You could almost cry, couldn’t you?

Now, they won’t have had all the education courses. Maybe none, if you’re lucky. You want them to have had courses in Beckett. You want them to remember Shel Silverstein poems from when they were kids. You don’t care what they wear. I don’t know what you’d have to tell them. Tell ‘em to read when the kids do. Tell them to make sure every kid has a book they like, all the time. Show ‘em where the school library is. They’ll want the library to be a good one. Tell them you’ll take care of noise in the halls. And that you’ll make sure parents know that these teachers weren’t hired to be disciplinarians. Tell them this has to work. For the kids and for them. This is a dream match-up. Life-long readers and would-be’s. It has to work. And it will work, if no one gets scared, and reverts to the old ways. To The Old School.

The Old School is where it is now. It can’t stay there. I see it in the faces of the people who pass me with my sign. They all know. They’re not going to Occupy Wall Street about it. Neither am I. But they know it has to change. When they read about this old man’s New School idea, they’ll wish they’d had such a place when they were young. So do I. So do you. Let’s make these new schools for the kids.

50 Years Later, It’s Me and Ishmael Again

I’m reading Moby Dick

In the middle of reading the new novel , The Art of Fielding, I felt compelled to go get a copy of Moby Dick. You’ll see why when you read The Art of Fielding.

I had never finished Moby Dick. I wrote a poem once about not finishing it one high school summer because I kept being drawn to the basketball hoop in my driveway that I could see from my bedroom window. I hated summer reading lists anyway.

Now I’m a hundred pages into it, and it’s all you’ve heard. If you read it in high school, you haven’t read it yet. Go get the paperback and read it now. Ishmael’s voice is quite a voice.

Ground Ball to Short…

The Art of Fielding makes all the plays

Why would a 500-page first-novel about a baseball team at a small college in Wisconsin get over-the-top rave reviews? Why would one of my daughters who’s no big sports fan have read it, saying she hated to have her train from Brooklyn get to its Manhattan stop when she was in the last chapters? Why did my West Village bookseller almost hand it to me? Why did a guy I didn’t know in that store two weeks later when I was looking for my next book point out the The Art of Fielding to me? I don’t know why it’s all that to them.

But the team in the Midwest is nicknamed the Harpooners and the college has a statue of Herman Melville on the grounds. And they’ve got a shortstop named Henry that you’ll remember the rest of your life.

One of the great windows at Three Lives bookstore in the West Village.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What If You Couldn’t Read Well?

11 ways to see to it that our city’s school kids can.

'Like any other part of yoga, only practice will increase your aptitude.’ I read that sentence in a magazine last week. It didn’t surprise me. You either. Of course that would be the case. In every thing we try, even spiritual, graceful yoga, we don’t get good at it without practice.

When you watch a TV football game and the holder on a field goal takes the long-snapped ball and turns the laces away from the kicker’s on-rushing foot while straightening the ball and angling it just so, you wonder how he can do that in such pressure-filled, tight time and space. If he got injured, could just any guy off the bench come out and do it? No, he could not. The any-guy wouldn’t have practiced it enough. Wouldn’t have taken enough reps to do it well, if at all.

Reps are what I believe many of our city school kids don’t get enough of when it comes to reading. Without reps they have no shot of reading well. Here are some things I’d do about that:

1.) I’d look at the syllabus and see if enough time was available for kids to get the reading reps they needed. If there wasn’t enough time, I’d alter the syllabus. Or ignore it. School is the only quiet time most of the poor readers have to get up to snuff. Everything has to take second place to their getting to read well. Everything. All chancellors, principals, teachers must believe that. Because school is where it has to happen. Only place.

2.) The kids’ home environment could no longer be used as an excuse for the kids not learning to read well. Factor in the kids’ upbringing, and go from there. Maybe even more reps are needed for some kids. If so, then those reps must be gotten. There’s no option. For a kid not to learn to read well is not acceptable. It’s hard for me to accept that the old excuse of the kids’ home environment is still being trotted out. It’s a messy world we all live in. It always has been. When it comes to poor kids and their environment and their reading abilities, we luckily have a place to make a difference for them. It’s a classroom where the child has to come every school day. It should make a difference. If a fat guy had to go to Canyon Ranch every day for 10 years, that’d be a gift to him that would make a difference. School is that gift for kids who need to have a sturdy environment to come to every day to learn to read well. It must be made as pleasant and purposeful as the Canyon Ranch is made for the big guy.

3.) For homework, I’d have the kids read 10 pages from the book they’re reading. A book they chose. One they like. Or it could be Sports Illustrated or People magazine. Anything that lets them know that heat rises off a page. That’s the key to liking to read. Feeling that heat. They might think it only comes off a screen or through headphones. Throw a reader a good mag while they’re watching TV, they’ll go to the mag every time.

4.) Kids must see teachers reading. While the kids are reading, the teachers can not be grading papers. They should have a book and be reading it. If the kids aren’t seeing reading at home, how great it is that they can come to a place every day with a desk of their own and something to read they like, and a teacher who likes to read, too. Teachers shouldn’t try to ingratiate themselves by talking about TV very much, if at all. Teachers who don’t read shouldn’t be teachers.

5.) The school should have a good library. If I were a teacher I’d demand it. If I were a parent I would demand it. The librarian would have to be a real reader who would enthuse, not too much though, about the things she has. Kids should want to go to the library. If I were a teacher, I’d suggest to the parents that they take their kids at least once a week to the neighborhood library. (Of course, in all of this, I’m talking about poor kids and poor parents. They’re the ones who the system everywhere is failing.)

6.) If I were a teacher, I’d demand that the school be kept orderly and quiet. If reading was the emphasis of the school day, keeping the halls quiet would be done for that good reason, an understandable one, rather than be quiet because I said so. Big noise can not be tolerated. It ruins everything. (It drives me nuts when people talk in movies or libraries. I got punched in my neighborhood library here for telling a hyper-talkative drug addict to please be quiet. It mostly bent my glasses.)

7.) There should be magazines in the room for the kids to read when they’ve finished other work. There’s heat in the right magazine.

8.) I’d try to find a philanthropy that would underwrite a subscription for each kid to get a magazine of their choice. Sent to their home. It’s nice to get a magazine in the mail. New York publishes so many magazines, someone ought to be able to get them involved in this.

9.) I’d think of the schools as reading academies. What’s a ‘school’ anyway? All of us at one time or another during our school years thought why couldn’t we just go to the big library downtown every day and let our interests take us where they will. That might have been logistically unrealistic, but each school could be an academy of reading. Filled with good books and the time to read them. No more underlining adverbs. Or weekly vocabulary tests. I was good at all that stuff. Because I was a reader. That’s the only way. The rest is time-filler, time-killer.

10.) I’d do this all until each kid who wasn’t disabled in some way could read well. It might take a year for some. It might take 10 for some others. But they wouldn’t leave my system until they could read well. Not haltingly. Well.

11.) At their high school graduation you should be able to toss any book on the New York Times Best Seller list to any kid up on the stage and say read page 201. They should be able to read it as well as you or I. That would make it a commencement. In New York City.

A Great Writer’s Great Eye

Eudora Welty’s camera told some stories

I could look at photo books for hours. And I do. I’m a guy who’ll sit on the floor or on a windowsill in a bookstore till my butt hurts staring at pages of photographs. That’s how I came upon Eudora Welty’s book a few years ago. I didn’t even know she took pictures.

Her shots are of common Southern themes. Poor farmers. Black people. But there’s something special about them. You can tell she was trying to find out something. Not just show something. She gets you to linger with her while she tries to figure out how people are. She likely stared at the faces and scenes she captured later on when they’d become pictures. They’re worth staring at.

de Kooning Early And Often

If you join MoMA you can get in ahead of the crowd

I joined MoMA recently for 75 bucks. For a whole year. That’s less than 10 pints of Guinness when you figure in tips. You not only get to go anytime you want, you get to enter an hour earlier than non-members to see de Kooning. I’ve often wondered if there aren’t some people who go every day to MoMA. I’ll bet there are. Or who go to some particular museum every day like some people go to the gym every day, or out to their same spot for a Guinness every night .

The biography of de Kooning is 100% rewarding. You learn everything about modern art. All the characters. Great New York stuff too. The physical book, by Knopf, is a masterpiece of design itself. With your membership you can get it at a discount. You should join.

Six times a year it comes out. With very good writers and a good look.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

‘Stick To Your Guns!’ the guy said to me

The message really matters to some people, so I stand tall with it.

I can tell by some of the comments people make when they see my sign that they feel like I do. I can also see it in their eyes. I can also now see it in the faces of some of the people who pass me on their way into work at the Dept. of Ed. building I stand in front of with the sign. At first none of those people going in the building knew how to react to me. They didn’t know me. They still don’t really, though I’ve given a few of them a copy of this newsletter. I may have looked like an opponent of some kind. Somebody trashing the work they do. Now they smile more; give me a look that says they agree with the sign.

I liked it when the guy blurted out as he walked by, ‘Stick To Your Guns!’. He was an older guy. That’s an old-guy expression. It was good to hear. Like it was coming from my late-father who I sometimes conjure to reinforce my determination. You wonder as you stand there sometimes what you’re doing, what you hope to accomplish. What can one guy do. Frequently when there’s a lull in the stream of people walking by, I turn the sign toward me and read it. The simplicity of it comforts me and charges me up. I turn it back toward the street, and make sure to stand tall. I know how to stand tall, because I’m imitating someone who stood tall in my eyes.

Sit with me on my couch in 1972 in Lakewood, Ohio. I lived there because I moved to Cleveland after college three years earlier to teach in an inner-city Catholic grade school. I needed a teaching job as a deferment from the draft which would have sent me to Vietnam where I didn’t want to go, especially since when I graduated in 1969 in South Bend, Indiana, I was married with a week-old daughter. So I jumped at the teaching opportunity. A lot of guys jumped at teaching jobs then. Anyway I’m on my couch. I can see myself sitting there looking at the college alumni magazine in front of a big window on the second-floor half of a double house we were renting.

There’s a small article up front in the magazine with a picture of a student. There’s something about the guy I’m drawn to. The way he’s standing, I guess. The way he looks. The solitariness of him. He looks like a guy with a sincere purpose. So I fold the magazine back, probably light a cigarette, and read about this guy. His name is Al. He is a student. He’s quiet-looking. Like maybe he’s a swimmer. Thinning blonde hair. White t shirt. White levis, as we called them then. He’s holding a large juice can in front of his chest. The article says he holds this can every day in front of both dining halls during the lunch and dinner hour. There may have been a sign on the can; I can’t recall. But what he’s got the can for is to collect money for Bangladesh, which at the time was going through political and environmental disasters. It was famous then like Haiti or Sudan are now. This guy Al was moved to find a can and use it to help people who 40 years ago seemed much further away than they seem now.

You wouldn’t think that effort of his would seem so important to me. The ‘60s had just ended. Bolder gestures had been made over all sorts of issues of war and peace and poverty. Students had danced, and worn war paint and flowers in their hair, and burned draft cards and hung images of national leaders. Music was involved, drugs were too. Cops got involved. Tear gas sometimes. After all that, what was it about Al that grabbed me as being so radical?

Probably the simplicity of it. The persistence of it. The obviousness of it. The Quaker look of it on a Catholic campus. The way he stood there. By himself. Who knows why we’re drawn to things? All I know is that for 40 years Al has seemed like the way to be. Like Pat Tillman might seem the way to a younger generation.

So I’m there with my sign last week and a guy maybe in his 50s, a white guy in a tie, slows down and says something like, Ain’t that the truth! I look at him and smile. Al probably would have been more stoic. But I smile, and the guy starts telling me he was once in prison, and he was amazed how many of the other prisoners came to him to have him write letters for them. Oh my, I thought, there’s one more example of how not teaching people to read affects their lives. Think about that. Guys in jail came to this guy to have him write letters for them. Not term papers. Not letters to their lawyer. But just plain letters home. By law a young person has to stay in school until they’re 16. So, these guys in jail had been in school from kindergarten or first grade through 10th grade, at least; and could not write well enough to write a letter home. Of course, this is not news, prisoners asking someone else to pen a letter for them. We’ve seen it in movies, and it’s a good scene usually. But I think it’s a scenario that a college professor teaching elementary education prospects could put up on the blackboard at the beginning of the semester and it could be analyzed the whole marking period. How could someone go to public school for 10 years and not know how to read well enough to be able to write well enough to write a basic letter?

If the topic were discussed long enough, some student might say, I wonder if the fact that these men couldn’t read well contributed to the life that landed them in jail. Eureka moment! There you are. That is of course a contributing factor. Imagine being an adult without the skill to write a letter home. That means no emailing either. That means no participating in the common world. How can schools not see that to pass these students on before they can read as well as they should at that grade level is doing a terrible disservice to the kids and their neighborhood and the family they might start some day.

The sign doesn’t say all that. But it implies it. And sometimes people who have to squint and stare a long time to read it, sometimes they’ll say, That’s right, or they’ll just smile sadly as they walk on by.

Message In A Bottle

A woman’s distant family problems wash ashore

Of course I’m excited about this book. Martha Southgate and I worked together 25 years ago on a weekly paper I started in Cleveland. She was interested so much in writing and the arts, she was destined to move here. She’s been here quite a while now. This is her fourth novel. The first three got good praise. The first one won the Coretta Scott King award.

This one’s got Cleveland in it, and it’s got Woods Hole in it, a world away from Lake Erie’s shores. It’s about a woman from a black family with classic books on the shelves. It’s about alcohol and the distance it imposes. it’s about other ways we distance ourselves, too. It’s about the reasons. We read books to see what the reasons might be for how we are. Here’s a graceful, fearless attempt to show us some reasons.

Less Cool By Degrees

A mixed-race young man’s personal culture wars

Thomas Chatterton Williams grew up in the white part of town. In New Jersey. You understand how he is drawn to the black culture he sees in the hip-hop images on the TV in the black barbershop he is driven to every couple weeks. You’re stirred along with him when he finds that new, proud part of his life to identify with. You recognize why he wants to. Part of you wants to too. That’s part of why you’re reading the book.

But he’s not all that. And it doesn’t accommodate all of him. He’s his parents’ kid. Intellectual aspirations are as much a part of him as his basketball and his music. Just hearing that, you can tell it’s a good story. And it’s told well. Williams is lean and truthful. Just like he looks.
Adults and high-school kids will like it. Nothing not to like.

This beautiful six-times-a-year magazine talks about the best photographs in New York’s galleries and museums. Its site is photographmag.com. But get the hard copy.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Soul on Ice

The Water Guy’s poem and other things that came my way on the court house steps.

The idea came to me in the night. The sign idea. I’d get a sign made. I’d put a line on it about kids and reading and I’d take it downtown in front of the Tweed Court House where the Department of Education does its business. I’d been there before to a few of their evening public meetings. So I knew the lay of the land. Sidewalk and big steps. I’d go to Kinko’s and get a sign made. I was ready to get out of my apartment with this obsession I had about the schools not teaching poor kids to read.

And so, there I was one morning at 8:00 on Chambers Street, three or four steps up the big rung of stairs in front of the building, holding my sign up, aiming it out toward the passers-by, most of them on their way to work in other buildings. The Dept. of Ed workers I thought I’d see passing me on their way up the stairs, didn’t come that way. They go in side doors underneath the steps. That was not how I imagined it. But I eventually learned to pick them out of the crowd coming in either direction from their subway stations and I made sure they could see my sign.

I wasn’t there to be a jerk, shoving my sign in people’s faces. I just wanted it to be seen. I wanted the people to read the words and think about them. ‘Why Not Teach Every School Kid To Read Well.’ I felt good holding the sign with that message.

No one knew who I was. Some didn’t even know the building was the Dept. of Ed’s. It doesn’t say so. For all they knew I could have been working for some charter school or Hooked-on-Phonics. Or maybe I was running for office. Or maybe I was a nut. But most of the people walking by learned to trust that I was well-intentioned, and as the days went on they’d smile at me. One said she’d missed me the day before. Some folks would nod at me and my sign and say, Right On. Others would say, Amen. A couple older women said emphatically, Absolutely. One guy said his wife teaches science in the city schools. He said she said that when they have to write something, it’s illiterate. How could it nor be if they can’t read well, I thought. You can only learn to write by reading. So I knew I was right to come there with my sign. I was finding out things. People wanted kids to read well. They were telling me. One guy, a young guy, said there ought to be a thousand people there with you with signs.

I hadn’t thought about a thousand people being there. I had imagined a march some day. I had imagined Spike Lee standing there with me. Caroline Kennedy maybe. Justin Tuck. Melo. Sapphire. They could stand by me with my one sign or I’d get others made at Kinko’s for them. I’d do whatever it took to get the message out strongly. I have a feeling something good is going to come of it.

Here’s one thing that’s come already. A couple weeks ago passing below me on the sidewalk was a young black guy pushing a cart of some kind, a big heavy-looking cart , with Styrofoam tubs on it filled with ice and many bottles of water. He was gonna’ sell them to tourists I assumed. Brooklyn Bridge is nearby. Lots of things. Compared to the rest of us on the block, he looked like a farmer tilling rocky soil on a hot day. And he stopped his plow and got my attention. He wondered if I’d read something he wrote. I said sure. He said he’d stop by again and give it to me. A week went by before he got it to me. Here it is.




The Art of Sending Postcards

Making an old thing new again

I’ve got two young granddaughters in Wyoming. A couple months ago it hit me that I should send them a postcard every week or two. So I’ve been doing that. What a wonderful connective thing it is to do. For the sender anyway. I have no idea how big a deal it is for them. They’d rather get stickers, I’m sure. But it’s fun to pick out the cards. It gets you to museum stores. And that’s a good thing. You get to swim around all the great stuff there. And then to leave with a bag so thin, it could be 1965 and you’ve got the new Beatles 45. It’s all cool.

Back home on the couch, a photo book beneath you for a lap desk, you think what you want to say. 15-20 words are all you’ve got room for. The pen moves nicely in the little space. It makes a mark. It’s your mark.

These times still demand the Times

Read it with your English muffin in the morning

I haven’t signed-up for the online edition of the Times. I buy it every morning around 6:00. I like to go out to get it. It looks great in a stack under a light outside the magazine store a block up the street. I get a cup of coffee while I’m out, and an orange and a banana to go with my peanut butter-slathered English muffin. I love getting back to my apartment, putting my fixins on a plate, and then taking it to the couch with the paper. It’s quiet. The computer is still dark in the other room. No TV, no radio. Just the Times and me. By lamplight.

Knowing I don’t have unlimited access to the online edition makes me read the paper version more thoroughly. I spend over an hour with it. I probably save time that way though. If I had online access still, I’d waste who knows how much time during the day. This way is better. I recommend it. On all levels.

If I were suddenly limited to getting three periodicals mailed to me, this would be one of them.

Monday, June 27, 2011

School Is Out for Summer

Another year of failing to teach the kids to read has come and gone.

Here are some recent things that keep me thinking about this obsession of mine with the poor kids in the public schools in this city and how they’re being sinfully short-changed when it comes to reading, how they’re being allowed to graduate from local high schools without really knowing how to read. Every day I notice something that makes me think about this.

Usually I see an article in the paper or hear something on public radio, or something I see on the street brings it to mind. What I see in the paper or hear on the radio is almost never about reading, of course; it’s usually about teachers or charter schools or budgets or buildings. But that lack of media attention to my obsession grabs me too.

Last week I went out of town, and thought about it even there. I’m obsessed, like I said; so it goes wherever I go.

And where I went to was New Canaan, Connecticut for a college roommate’s kid’s high school graduation. That’s a world-and-a-half away from the schools and kids I’m usually thinking about. It’s a movie-set of Range Rovers and skis in the garage. Leafy, rolling streets and million dollar homes. A wooden train station where commuters leave for Manhattan. I looked at the high school yearbook supplement in my friend’s living room. It told where the 300-and-some seniors would be going to college next year. Exeter’s seniors couldn’t be going to better schools. And this was a public school list I was looking at.

Here some numbers came out this month from the State Education Department that showed that only 21% of the city’s high school graduates were prepared to do college-level work. 21%. Hell, major league pitchers hit that well. That’s beneath unacceptable. That’s a sin is what it is. And it’s the poor kids who bring the average down. Black and Hispanic kids. They’re the ones who are getting left behind, getting lost. I’m sure you’ve noticed. You’ve noticed it for years. Then why is the discussion always about almost everything but them and how they can’t read well enough to go to even the CUNY colleges without taking remedial courses? Why is the discussion dominated by worries about teachers and charters and buildings? Why isn’t it dominated by talk of why another year has passed and another class of kids has not learned to read well enough to make something stimulating of their lives? Isn’t that what the teachers and the charters and the buildings are there for?

The kids in New Canaan can probably ski and they likely have an iPad at home. They’ve been to Beaver Creek and St. Croix. And the mailbox at the end of the driveway groans with glossy catalogs six days a week. In some essential way this stems from the adults in their house or in some ancestral house having learned how to read well. You can’t get there any other way. And by reading I don’t necessarily mean that the whole town now, or all the great-grandparents then, read the best literature. That’s just one kind of reading. Law books require a great reading facility too. So do medical books, and books on economics. The Times, the Wall Street Journal. That’s reading too. It comes with the territory, and a territory like New Canaan doesn’t come without it.

This morning I grabbed a collection of Hemingway’s short stories off the beyond-cluttered table in front of my couch and started reading ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’ for maybe the 20th time in my life. I’ve read it more than I’ve read any other piece of writing. The first paragraph of course sets the scene, and as I read it, I thought how wonderful it was to be able to read, and how sad it was that some people in this city would not be able to read it and enjoy it. Here’s the first paragraph:

It was late and everyone had left the cafe except an old man
who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the
electric light. In the daytime the street was dusty, but at
night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit
late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he
felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that
the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good
client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave
without paying, so they kept watch on him.

I don’t show that to imply that if only the kids could read that they’d be on their way. They wouldn’t care a bit for it maybe. But there are wonderfully-written things for their age that they could be enjoying. Think how empty and restless your life would be if you couldn’t read well. Don’t we owe it to all our kids to give them a chance to be more than empty, more than restless.

I turned 64 in June. I have four grandchildren, a fifth due to show up next month. Their mothers, two of my daughters, and their fathers read to them three or four books a day. Every day. (Which is more than reading-obsessed me did when my three kids were little. I’ll excuse myself, by saying I was very young.) One granddaughter who lives way out west was two a few weeks ago. I sent books. An iPhone photo of her and her presents showed that others sent her books too. That’s great. Even if she never reads that Hemingway story, she’s likely to grow up to be a good reader.

The poorer-than-my-grandchildren city public school kids almost surely don’t have the number of books my granddaughter has. And you hear that used as an excuse for why the schools can’t seem to get their reading scores up to par. Are they saying these kids are destined by fate to not be capable readers? Can that be? The schools are making excuses? In 10 or 12 years they can’t teach a kid to read? Well then I’m glad they don’t run AA or Weight Watchers or camps for overweight kids. It’s very cynical to run a system in which only 21% of the graduates are college-ready and then to be resistant to any kind of structural change to that system. Come on. If Derek Jeter were hitting .210, he’d be on the bench.

I’m surprised New York City isn’t outraged. But it isn’t. In the casual listening I do to local radio, there’s more talk about how we’re falling behind other nation’s schools in science. Huh? I say to myself,You think those kids who can barely read have a chance to be scientists? You think the schools should teach those kids more science, not more reading?

21%. That’s a crazy, sad number. You wouldn’t think New York City would accept that of itself, would you.

Let Kids Read AItalicbout Their Heroes

Summer’s a good time to get them magazines

Maybe it’s Jose Reyes. Maybe it’s Wayne Rooney. Or the US women’s soccer team. Maybe it’s Lady Gaga. Whoever it is, there’s sure to be magazines that obsess about them. Buy some for your kids. They’ll love them. They’ll read every page. They’ll find it fun. They’ll like the way magazines speak to them, to their interest, their fantasy, their identity.

And it will improve their reading. Summer is notoriously the time when kids lose whatever momentum they built-up in reading. Magazines will keep them swimming in the right direction.
Magazine subscriptions are cheap. Buck an issue. Order some. It’s great when they come in the mail. For a kid especially.

It’ll take them away from the TV for an hour here and there.

I Went Down to the Sacred Store

St. Mark’s Bookshop makes some changes

I read in New York Press that St. Mark’s Bookshop has been forced by the economy and New Yorkers’ new reading habits to make do without part-time workers, and has had to cut back some of the regular staff’s hours.
Nothing shocks me anymore about the deteriorating state of real books and the places that sell real books. But this news about St. Mark’s surprised me. I figured it was such a unique store in such a huge town that it would always have enough customers for the intellectually challenging stock on its shelves and the edgy graphics books on its table. The East Village, St. Mark’s Place, NYU, and Cooper Union are all right there, or close.
It’s one of those stores that changes you. You walk in and you’re different than you were seconds ago on the street. It has its own created attitude. It’s like going to the Film Forum. Which itself may be getting hurt by Netflix. This online world has its casualties.
Go to bookstores. Don’t buy books on line. Use that for shoes. And go to the Film Forum too.

On one of the many tables at Strand.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Well, I Finally Read Sapphire’s Push

I saw the movie first. Both got me bothered again about what needs to be done in school.

I don’t use Netflix like you’re supposed to. I don’t have a box or whatever it’s called that you can play DVDs on. So I can’t watch them on the television set in the other room. For a while I was watching them on my laptop. I’d put it right in my lap and watch it like I was reading a magazine. I liked that. But then the tray on my computer stopped working , so all I can catch now on my lap are the ‘instantly watchable’ offerings. That’s where I found ‘Precious’ a few days ago.

I was certainly aware of it since before it came out in the theaters. One of my daughters had read Push, the book it’s based on, and raved about it. Everybody raved about it. And it seemed to everybody I knew that it would be a book and a movie I’d rush to. But you know how that can go. Sometimes you resist the obvious. Sometimes you just have to wait till the time is right.

Well, it was right the other day. I stared at the movie unblinkingly, as they say. When it was over, I went out and got Push. And read it. Here’s what it made me think about:

Good as the movie was, and as faithful to the book as a movie can be, the book was way better. The book is in the first person. You’re not just looking at Precious and thinking all sorts of things about her looks and her acting and how she might feel about being cast as an ugly fat girl (a typical distancing kind of discussion with yourself that keeps movies from being as close to the bone as a book), you’re seeing her and her world through her eyes. You’re hearing what she thinks about being fat and ugly. You're hearing her tell what it feels like to be raped by her father. It’s all complicated and heinous in a way that’s harsher and more revealing than the movie action. And the book is amazingly written in the illiterate, slowly improving, way that Precious wrote and spoke then. It’s a real reading experience, unenhanced by mood-altering music, unencumbered by pronouncements to yourself that this better win an Oscar.

It made me think, of course, about reading, in the Harlem where it takes place. The TV is always going in the apartment she shares with her mother. In the book, she calls her mother’s shows, her ‘stories’. That’s what they’re called in those apartments. Stories. Not book stories like we think of them. No, the soap operas are called stories. You’ve probably seen the movie. The mother, by law, had to have gone to school till she was 16. It doesn’t seem it, does it? You could put her up on the blackboard the first day of a teacher training class and spend the whole semester discussing her. Maybe they should do that in education courses in college; maybe they should dissect Precious’s mother for weeks, and see if they can come up with a way of re-tooling the curriculum in urban public schools that would allow (make sure) that students who spend 10 or 12 years in the system come out with the most essential tool required to live an engaged life in society; the ability to read well. Look what the lack of that ability did to her life, and to her daughter’s life. It was only when Precious began to learn her ABCs, at 16, in an alternative school, that her life began to be her life.

I’d recommend you read Push. I see that Sapphire, who wrote Push, has a book coming out this summer, called The Kid. It’s about Precious’s son, who we only know of as a little baby, fathered by Precious’s father. It’s rough stuff. Poverty and few jobs and racism can breed such normlessness. That’s nothing new. But it’s not going to get any better unless the city, and other cities, determine to do the one thing that for sure will improve it all, and the one thing that the law gives them some control over for at least 10 years, and that’s to teach every kid they have in school to read well enough to live a decent life.

Let’s not get all Woody Guthrie about teachers unions and class size and who should be fired first if staffs are trimmed. If we made a commitment to teach reading above all else until it sunk in, no excuses allowed, sociological or psychological, things would take care of themselves. It has to sink in. Whatever it takes. Exposure to books and magazines that the kids find interesting must be part of every day, every class actually. Time for the kids to swim around in that material is a must.

Let’s use swimming for a minute. It works as a metaphor for all this. Indulge me.

Urban kids can’t swim as well, generally speaking, as suburban kids. They don’t have as many nice summer public pools or health club pools or summer cottages or trips to the shore. Or parents who can swim. Just like reading where the city kids don’t have as many bookstores or nice libraries or shelves at home stocked with books. Or parents who can read as well as suburban parents. Again, I’m speaking generally.

So, let’s say in gym class one semester, swimming is on the agenda in a NYC public school. I don’t even know if any city schools have pools. But let’s imagine it. Because that’s all I’m doing; imagining it. But I’ll bet the first classes are as disorderly and disheartening for all involved as an early reading class might be. Kids would be hesitant, kids would be loud, kids would screw around. Some would find it wonderfully refreshing. Others would mask their insecurity and fear over not knowing how, by being dismissive of it, calling it dumb. Refusing to even try. You can imagine it. You can also relate. We’ve all reacted to some new challenge that way.

The only thing that will make it better is for those kids to go in the pool a lot. They’re way behind the suburban kids. Will they ever catch up? Maybe. If they get a chance to get in the pool a lot. Everyday if necessary. It can’t be done without a lot of ‘reps’. But with those reps, it can be done.

The schools have the kids in class for at least 10 years. That’s more than enough time for enough reps in reading. They have to make sure the kids get those reps. That’s all that’s certain to work. In anything really. Cooking. Dancing. Swimming. Crossword puzzles. There is no substitute for reps.

A personal rep experience. I started being drawn to British soccer on television last year. I’m a passionate sport fan. But like most guys my age, I didn’t know much about soccer beyond Pele' and a few other names. Because we don’t know much about it, we dismiss it as some cricket-like thing that less robust countries play. I was the lone guy among my friends who decided to investigate it. At first I didn’t know the rules, how the standings were kept, what various tournaments were, who was good and who wasn’t. But there were visuals about it, and the wonderful crowd-chanting, that kept me coming back to watch a little bit of it every week. And what do you know, the more time I spent with it, the more reps I got, the more I started to figure it out. My friends who don’t watch hardly any of it, still dismiss it. They never got the reps. So they just don’t know. Sound familiar?

It sounds too familiar, if you ask me.

A Great Idea For A Book

Successful folks remember a kid’s book that mattered to them

Whenever I think of my own early books I recall two of them that mattered: a picture book about Abe Lincoln that had one of those gold stickers on it that meant it won an award. In my memory I’m reading it (maybe just looking at it) in bed by myself. I can still feel it in my hands.

The illustrations seem rich to me still. Then I remember one Easter my grandmother gave me a non-illustrated book, my first one. It was a biography of Lou Gehrig. I didn’t even know who he was. I was a little kid. I don’t recall it having a dust jacket. It was orange. I wonder how they pick a book’s hard cover color. That orange seemed odd to me. There were no other orange books in our house.

I can remember climbing up on the back of my father’s reading chair to look at the books on the shelf in the den when no one was around. I had pajamas with feet on them still. My mother would have gasped if she saw me. I recall all the rows of covers looking irresistible to me.

What ‘Teach for America’ Has Taught Us

Its founder shares 20 years worth of lessons.

I saw Wendy Kopp on C-Span a few weeks ago. She was impressively practical and realistic when talking about Teach for America, which she started in 1990. And if she was proud of what she’d done, her nostrils didn’t flare about it. I liked her.

It’s one of those programs you wished you’d been involved with, like the Peace Corps was for my generation. You go teach in a low-income part of the country for two years, right after college. A lot of the teachers stay on. Those who don’t , take the experience they got, which they likely would not have gotten, if such a program didn’t exist, and it informs their lives. It’s a plus, all around.

In the book, Kopp shares what she’s found out about schools, kids, communities. What works, what doesn’t, what ought to be done. It’s more than theory. She’s been at it 20+ years already.

She lives here. I had a hunch she’d get the nod when Cathleen Black stepped aside. Maybe she still will.

Western Hospitality. Little napkin that comes with your coffee, which they let you drink in the library in Jackson, Wyoming.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Draft Dodger’s School Bag

Cathleen Black’s getting canned got me rereading a ’60s classic.

In 1968 James Herndon wrote a book called The Way It Spozed To Be about his first year teaching a segregated junior high school class near San Francisco. Up until then, teaching junior high was mostly a woman’s position. But in the late ‘60s young men started scrambling for those jobs. You could get a deferment from going to Vietnam if you could find a teaching opening. In 1969, I was one of those young men looking for such a job. I had just graduated from college. I had a wife and a month-old daughter, and I found an inner-city school in Cleveland that needed a sixth-grade teacher. James Herndon’s little book became as much a must-read for me then as Soul On Ice.

Here’s an excerpt from it. You’ll see why I picked it out to show it to you:

Well, I told myself, for one thing, 7H was in no shape to learn or do anything. The heart of their problem as a class was the simple skill of reading. There were four kids who couldn't read their own names, three or four who couldn't read anything else, and the rest of the class who could read a little but were always shaky about it. They were unsure if they would be able to avoid derision at any given moment, and so tried to assert their superiority over each other in the very area of their common incompetence. Any time we tried to work on beginning word recognition, letters, sounds, the majority sounded off about "that baby stuff," and as a result the nonreaders had to bound off about it too; they couldn't admit not knowing how to read and so they couldn't ever begin to learn, because in order to learn they'd have to begin, right there in class, with simplicities, easily identified by all as "learning to read," and open themselves up to scorn. Nothing doing. On the other hand, everything we were supposed to be doing in class presupposed that everybody could read.

That was written in 1968. In my first year in Cleveland in 1969, I found the same situation. A half-a-dozen years ago in a New York City parochial high school made up of mostly inner-city boys, I found virtually the same situation, still. I tried to do something about it both times. So did Herndon. We both tried to let kids read on their own in class, privately. Stuff they liked. So they could catch up. So they could find joy in reading. Have a better life. Principals didn’t like us doing that. The kids aren’t learning that way, they’d say.

Now here we are in 2011. In the city, Cathleen Black, the Chancellor for three months, was let go. She wasn’t a fit apparently. Her popularity rating was so low you couldn’t even call it popularity. Her pictures in the paper made her look like Nick Nolte. She lost her cool a couple times in front of protesting parents. Reports I’ve read in the daily papers imply she wasn’t expediting things on Chambers Street. I saw her once on TV talking to a kid in a classroom and she wasn’t very good at it. I saw her at two board meetings and she looked unsure of herself.

So I should be glad she’s gone, you’d think. But I’m not. I championed her when she was chosen to take over, as much as one takes over here when the Mayor is in charge and he appointed you. I think maybe he saw in her what I still see. And I don’t mean her, Cathy Black, necessarily. I mean someone from the outside. Someone who is demanding and restless and impatient with the way things are. That’s how I saw her anyway. I might be wrong. She could be a flake. I don’t know her. I never worked with her. But her obvious uneasiness at the job may have been the appropriate response to it. There was a saying back in the days of Herndon that went something like, madness is the only right response to these insane times.

That might be over-dramatic of me. But I just said it so I must believe it. I do think it’s insane the way the officials in charge of the schools here in sophisticated New York City, a place that is the print media capital of the world, are uncaring about the woeful state of reading among their poor kids. It isn’t like they haven’t seen the test results year after year in the papers and on TV. If they watch the local news, they must have seen poor people hovering around crime scenes or fire scenes who sound like they haven’t been to school at all, not for a day. When by law they were in school in New York City for at least 10 years. How could it seem like they hadn’t been to school at all? Doesn’t that dent the consciousness of Manhattan and Chambers Street?

I’m thinking, against all reports to the contrary I realize, that maybe a Cathleen Black, after more than three months would have said, this is insane. We can’t continue to run things like this. She looked like she could get mad enough to say that. And maybe she’d go Awww! if they complained. That’s what I think maybe could have happened.

I have to pin my hopes on something beyond the standard fare. The standard fare isn’t getting it done. And I don’t think the charter school movement is the answer either. That’s not much beyond the way it’s been done all along here. More than that needs to be done. Something, and this too goes back to 1968, something radical has to be done.

I’d craft a new curriculum for schools in poor districts. Yes, I’m talking mostly about black neighborhoods, but there are other poor kids too that need to learn to read. Kids who need an immersion in reading day after day, class after class, for as long as it takes for them to read well. Odd that should seem radical, isn’t it. But it is, compared to the way it’s being done now. Someone has to take charge of these schools and see to it that no one this city can’t read well. That’s one thing that can be controlled. We may not be able to control the environment the kids come from or the environment they return to at day’s end. But we have control over the kids for at least 10 years in a place where there are desks and lockers and cafeteria seats for everyone. There are teachers and books and computers. The job has to get done.

Cathleen Black did get things done in her other career. I’m sure adjustments were made on the fly. If they didn’t work, other things were tried. The marketplace let her know what worked. Readers determined things. Then readers in her office did what needed to be done. It’s 2011. You have to know how to read. Could anything be more obvious, more basic to functioning in the culture?

Let’s not relax and act smugly that we knew it all along now that Black is gone, and we’re back to having things in the hands of someone with experience. All those people with experience have been running things for years. Since 1968, and before.

Come on.

You’ll Be Smarter For It

Twice a month it arrives almost intimidatingly

Take this issue for example. Here are some of the topics. They’re more than reviews: Mahatma Gandhi biography. The letters of Saul Bellow. The implications of the royal wedding. Egypt. Charles Baxter’s new book of short stories. Mexican cooking. William Shawn’s twins. Google and its digital library ambitions. Zadie Smith on Orson Welles. Wall Street. Chinese art. The rivalry between Edwin and John Wilkes Booth. Ronald Dworkin. ‘When London was the Capital of America.’ Russia’s gulag. Hungary. Crime novelist James Ellroy. Our economic recovery. A murder trial in Queens.

These are all written by experts. They’re longer than you’re used to. You won’t read them all. I don’t anyway. When you finish a review, you feel you’ve done something. You have done something; it’s not TV.

To Me, The Year’s Most Important Book

It’s now in paperback. Grab one.

I’ve hyped this here before. I’ll let names you might know better have a say:

Reality Hunger is more than thought-provoking, it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time.’---Jonathan Safran Foer

‘I’ve just finished reading Reality Hunger and I’m lit up by it—astonished, intoxicated, ecstatic, overwhelmed…it really is an urgent book: a piece of art-making itself, a sublime, exciting, outrageous, visionary volume,’---Jonathan Lethem

‘Raw and gorgeous…It’s about time someone said something this honest in print.’---Susan Salter Reynolds, LA Times

‘Might be the most intense, thought-accelerating book of the last ten years.’---Chuck Klosterman

Every home should get it. Kids will love it. You’ll wonder (like me) why you lived without it. $15 for 12 issues.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I’m Going Crazy Over Reading

The city’s failure to teach its students to read well is beyond madness.

Let me start with this. It’s the opening of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters:

One night some twenty years ago, during a siege of mumps, in our enormous family, my younger sister, Franny, was moved, crib and all, into the ostensibly germ-free room I shared with my eldest brother, Seymour. I was fifteen, Seymour was seventeen. Along about two in the morning, the new roommate’s crying wakened me. I lay in a still, neutral position for a few minutes, listening to the racket, till I heard, or felt, Seymour stir in the bed next to mine. In those days we kept a flashlight on the night table between us, for emergencies that, as far as I remember, never arose. Seymour turned it on and got out of bed. ‘The bottle’s on the stove, Mother said,’ I told him. ‘I gave it to her a little while ago,’ Seymour said. ‘She isn’t hungry.’ He went over in the dark to the bookcase and beamed the flashlight slowly back and forth along the stacks. I sat up in bed. ‘What are you going to do?’ I said. ‘I thought maybe I’d read something to her,’ Seymour said, and took down a book. ‘She’s ten months old, for God’s sake,’ I said. ‘I know,’ Seymour said. ‘They have ears. They can hear.’

The story Seymour read to Franny that night, by flashlight, was a favorite of his, a Taoist tale. To this day, Franny swears that she remembers Seymour reading it to her.

I copied that out because I wanted you to hear it. Because it’s beautiful. Because I believe in the ‘craziness’ of it. And because it feels to me like it matters today. Of course it does.

I’ve become as crazy as Seymour about reading. Everything I see in the paper or hear on the radio about schools and kids, I see through the prism of reading. When I read a couple weeks ago that an overwhelming amount of New York City’s public school grads need major remedial work when they go into the city university system, all I could think was, of course that’s true. If they can’t read easily, they couldn’t possibly be ready for college-level studying. It makes me cynical. Cynical that it wasn’t a page one, above the fold, story. What could be more important? What could be more telling about how cities and schools work, than showing the natural outgrowth of our grade schools and high schools not teaching their kids to read well? In 12 years. The papers and radio (and TV probably, too; I don’t watch local TV news.) gave more space to discussions about which teachers will get laid-off in budget cutbacks. Everyone wants to be Woody Guthrie and sing a song about injustice. Well, it’s a way bigger injustice to let kids graduate, those who haven’t dropped out already, without knowing how to read. We’d rather crucify the parents that let their competent teen-age daughter try to sail around the world, than crucify the system that sends its charges out into the choppy waters of society without knowing how to read. Talk about drowning. There are kids drowning all the time in our city, because they don’t know how to read. It’s irresponsible. It’s sinful.

On WNYC, the local NPR station, they’ve had a segment recently where they ask listeners to try to answer the questions the grade school kids are asked on the big all-important science test. I’ve heard a couple installments of it. Part way through each segment I turn my radio to sports talk. I do that to keep from getting mad. Of course the kids can’t answer those questions. The adults hardly can. But the adults weren’t just in science class, like the kids were. The kids couldn’t possibly answer them, because they couldn’t possibly read them well enough to answer them. But that isn’t said. It isn’t said that the kids who need remedial work in college with 12 years of school under their belt, couldn’t answer them. It’s crazy. Even the brilliant, thoughtful hosts on the show, don’t get it. Where’s Seymour when you need him? He knew that the bottle was not what Franny needed in the dark that night, but some other kind of nourishment.

All of the city is outraged now at Mubarak and Gadhafi and the governor of Wisconsin. Of course, who wouldn’t be. But we weren’t outraged even as late as a month ago. Until the citizens took to the streets. What will it take to get us outraged about the schools and their failure to teach poor kids to read? Mothers here are going to have to take to the streets. Will you march with them if they do?

Look how angry we got at No Child Left Behind. Look how we screamed about the Patriot Act. Why don’t we get as riled about the fact that our kids get passed from grade to grade, in smugly enlightened New York City, without knowing how to really read? Why did we worry more about the Patriot Act than we do about the fact that most of our kids can’t read well enough to go into those libraries? Would we all rather be armchair Woody Guthries than Seymour?

Am I crazy to think that if the kids learned to read, a whole lot would change? Colleges would really be colleges and not just places where so many kids are at an 8th grade level, if that. Police and firefighters tests would not be accused of being racially biased, when really they’re only unfair because some of those taking the tests can’t read well enough to answer enough of the questions correctly. Schools could teach challenging content. Teachers could be more enthused about their classes. Imagine what it’s like to teach literature or history to kids who read grades below the level it says on the door. What does class size or school size or teachers salary matter if the kids aren’t being taught read? What do charter schools matter if they aren’t primarily focused on teaching kids to read? From everything you hear, it seems the charters are just better, if they are that, at teaching kids to do well on the big tests. Or they’re better at knowing how to get kids into colleges that have slots available for city high school graduates, even if those colleges know major remedial work will be required. What does that mean? Is that education?

The picture I attached to this is of kids entering the school board meeting in Brooklyn. You’ve heard about those meetings. The parents hissed and booed the Chancellor. It was all about school closings and using space in some schools for charter schools. The signs the kids are carrying say, Bolder Faster Change. I don’t know what they meant by it. They probably meant, make the schools work for us now. Yeah, let’s do that. Let’s think about what would be the essential ingredient that would do that. Can crazy me be the only one who believes reading is the answer?

Franny swears that she remembers Seymour reading it to her.