Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I Read The News Today. Oh Boy.

More depressing numbers about how we’re failing in our duty to our kids.

Some mornings I buy a Daily News, along with the Times which I get every day and can’t imagine why everybody doesn’t. Tuesday’s News had a two-page spread with a strong headline that said: CAN’T HACK COLLEGE. There was a large stock photo of high school kids in class. It was a bogus photo. They looked more like suburban kids than New York kids. Under the big headline it read: 71% of city kids not campus-ready.

You’re not shocked to read that. Are you? You should be, of course. But you just know by now that that’s the way it is here. You’ve seen such numbers before. It’s like reading again about cars running red lights here. As if you didn’t know. It’s an outrage you’re somehow supposed to accept.

I’ve seen so many articles like this over the years, here and when I lived in Cleveland. Seen so many bad numbers about city kids, that I’d be shocked if I read something different. That’s crazy that we’ve come to expect such failure. If your kids are in the system, you must be concerned, and angry. I’m concerned, and angry too. That’s why I hold my sign. That less than 30% of the city’s high school graduates are ready for the next grade is a cynical reality you’re supposed to accept here. But how can you accept that?

Are they saying that city kids can’t learn? Is that what they’re really saying? Year after year. Without really saying it? Are they saying they’ve tried everything, and nothing they’ve tried can make it better? What else could they be telling us in 2012 when it’s a given that college is more important than ever? Are we supposed to accept it that 71% of the city’s kids aren’t being prepared well enough in 12 years for the next grade? That means they couldn’t really do their high school work.

The city’s kids, of course, must not know how to read well enough. You’ve seen the depressing numbers about reading too. They’re just as bad. How could they not be? Those are the real numbers the school officials need to concern themselves with. It’s why the students are not college-ready. Too many are not even 8th grade-ready. Yes, we all know that there are sociological, and therefore psychological, reasons why reading is not easy for so many of the kids. We’ve known that at least as long as I’ve been reading about it, which is a long time. When are they going to get at that? When are they going to re-fashion the curriculum to focus on reading above everything else? It’s the key to all of it. Without the ability to read well, school is a waste of time. Why waste the kids’ time that way? Why not teach every school kid to read well?

There’s a resistance here to doing that, to focusing on reading above everything else. The ‘system’ doesn’t want to do that. Even New York-style do-gooders resist accepting that as the only real solution. I wonder why. I think about that a lot. The only reason I’ve come up with to explain their resistance is that for them to admit that the reading scores are that bad and to say we have to basically start from scratch for many of these kids, your kids, is something they don’t want to say. Any more than the Mets owner wants to say that the Mets have to essentially start over.

But, like the Mets, the numbers don’t lie. 71% failure. That sounds like something you think you’d read about happening in Borat’s muddy village. Not in New York City.

I say, they have to admit their failure. I say, they can’t go on like they’ve been going on. That would be a start. These kids have to learn to read. There’s nothing more important for the schools to do. They have to get English majors to teach these kids. They have to recruit top-rate English majors from good colleges. In this economy especially, such graduates could be convinced to do it. They’ve all probably thought about teaching. They might love to do it in New York City. It might even be a dream job, if the curriculum were re-tooled to honor reading, above everything.

I get mad thinking about the bad numbers. Last night I was re-reading the first few pages of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. I’ve read those pages countless times over forty years. I go to them when I feel like I’m crazy for worrying so much about things, crazy maybe for holding my sign. Here’s the first page:

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.

Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong. He had fallen under a spell and was writing letters to everyone under the sun. He was so stirred by these letters that from the end of June he moved from place to place with a valise full of papers. He carried this valise from New York to Martha’s Vineyard, but returned from the Vineyard immediately; two days later he flew to Chicago, and from Chicago he went to a village in western Massachusetts. Hidden in the country, he wrote endlessly, fanatically, to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.

It was the peak of summer in the Berkshires. Herzog was alone in the big old house. Normally particular about food, he now ate Silvercup bread from the paper package, beans from the can, and American cheese. Now and then he picked raspberries in the overgrown garden, lifting up the thorny canes with absent-minded caution. As for sleep, he slept on a mattress without sheets—it was his abandoned marriage bed—or in the hammock covered by his coat. Tall bearded grass and locust and maple seedlings surrounded him in the yard. When he opened his eyes in the night, the stars were near like spiritual bodies. Fires, of course; gases—minerals, heat, atoms, but eloquent at five in the morning to a man lying in a hammock, wrapped in his overcoat.

That Was Some Year

Out of necessity came a quick fix

The year I taught here a dozen years ago, I sucked at discipline. It was a Catholic high school for mostly poor boys from all over town. I was between editing jobs and I said yeah I’ll do it when the head of the English department asked me to take over for a guy who couldn’t control the class. This was October.

I loved the kids. They loved me. I knew as much about basketball as they did. But they still took advantage of me. They’d sleep, screw around. I have no instincts for discipline. They knew.

I tried to get their attention by finding good stuff for them to read. Most of them needed to learn to read a lot better than they did. I brought in stacks of paperbacks and magazines and loaded mail bins with them. It was the classroom I’d have wanted when I was their age. It worked, I think. Sometimes.

A Room Of One’s Own

An independent bookstore is
a place you should have in your life

I’ve said to someone that the reason I moved to New York was that you could walk to Irish bars and independent bookstores. It’s true. I’m not just saying that for affect. I didn’t move here for the people. I always knew where to find people.

The bookstore in the photo is Three Lives in the West Village. I go there mostly. It’s important to have a bookstore where you’re a regular. Why Amazon? You don’t really need that. You could go to a store and get the book, or order it there. They’ll call you when it’s in or email you. That’s a connection. Like going to your local to have a pint.

Go to your local bookstore for gifts this year.

There’s not a better magazine. Photos, writing, ads. It’s all good.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Wilder West Village

Thoughts I had last week way out in Jackson, Wyoming

In Jackson Hole one morning last week, walking from the Chevy Tahoe in the driveway to the side door of my youngest daughter’s house, I was with the oldest (she’s five) of three granddaughters who live out there, when she pointed out a scattering of animal droppings on the lawn that most of us here would have no idea what creature they’d come from. She pointed at them and said, without me asking, that they were either from a deer or a moose that must have walked through there during the night. And she said that, wearing the same kind of pants and top that a little girl here would have on for kindergarten. Deer and moose though are in her world out there. It’s a different place. Formed/ringed by big challenging mountains. Yellowstone is close by. Right behind the back fence at her elementary school is an elk refuge. The motel I stayed at was The Painted Buffalo. I drank local beers at the Snake River Brewery.

But I thought a lot about New York City and the school kids here while I was out there for the week. I missed holding my sign for an hour every weekday morning in front of the Dept. of Education building. Felt guilty in my way for not being there, even if it was only for a week. When I’m not there with it, the sign sits in my cluttered, dimly-lit apartment (you definitely notice the beauty of clean light coming through all sorts of windows out west) , against a wall. No one gets to see its plea: WHY NOT TEACH EVERY SCHOOL KID TO READ WELL.

I still like looking at the sign that wrote itself. I like that it has no question mark. I like holding it. I still think, even more so now after I’ve seen so many reactions to it, that if the schools here adjusted their thinking and their curriculum, and decided to fully commit to teaching every kid to read well, above everything else, the school administrators and the teachers would know they were doing the right thing. Their jobs would all make sense to them in a way that they can’t make sense to them now. Classrooms containing poor kids who can’t read well enough to keep up; they can’t want that. You never see in the Times that the schools are committing 100% to teaching every school kid to read well by the time they graduate. You read more about how so many graduates need remedial work when they get into local colleges. The city school system can’t say to themselves that that’s OK, that’s good enough, that’s the best we can do. They must be trapped in a system themselves, some system that allows poor kids to get passed along without knowing how to read well enough to really be passed to the next level.

Someone needs to bust a move. Something transforming, something radical. It can’t keep going like it’s going on here and in the cities around the country. Kids’ lives hang in the balance. If they can’t read well, they have no shot at a stimulating life. They rely on the schools to teach them to read. If the schools don’t do that in the 10-12 years they have them, something is wrong. And kids’ lives go wrong.

People have made many comments about the message of the sign as they pass by it and me on the sidewalk in front of the big building. There’s one comment I like the best, and it’s one I’ve gotten many times, and it’s always from bright-looking people with energy in their stride. They’ll say with a telling, ironic grin, ‘That’s a novel idea.’

New York for all its stuff is not naturally beautiful like Jackson, Wyoming is. But if this city puts its mind to something, it can create some wonderful spaces. Central Park is the most obvious example. It might not elicit the same kind of wow that seeing the Teton mountains does, but it’s a very impressive cultural and physical achievement, and is continually appreciated by every New Yorker. In the Times this morning I read about a mogul giving $100 million dollars to the park. Lots of work and discussion and planning I’m sure went into that gift. The same kind of planning has brought in all kinds of world-class philanthropy to burnish the city’s many attributes and institutions. When it decides to go forward on a big project the city pulls off some amazing successes.

Why can’t it do that with its public schools? Why can’t it be better than other cities at teaching its poor kids to read well? Wouldn’t that be a bigger deal than the High Line?

On the plane to Wyoming I read some of the new biography of the legendary writer Jack Kerouac. He grew up in industrial Lowell, Massachusetts where he and his family lived in a ghetto of French-Canadians. They spoke a mongrel version of French, and were looked upon as second-class citizens. But Jack would learn to read and write English well, and would go on to become such a powerful writer that there were a couple bookstores in the city when I moved here 15 years ago that had to keep his books behind the counter because so many students were stealing them from the shelves. As I read about him, I thought about kids here who come from non-literate backgrounds like he did. Will they be given what they need in school to read and write well enough to express themselves in articulate ways?

The moose-or-deer-identifying five-year-old granddaughter who recently started kindergarten likes to ride the yellow school bus home. The school is only a five-minute drive from her house and her mom could easily make the trip as she does in the morning. But she likes to take the bus in the afternoon. A few of the days I was there I walked to the bus stop to pick her up and I watched as the kids descended the bus steps to meet their moms who were there waiting for them. If It were Manhattan those moms would look like nannies waiting. They were almost all Mexicans waiting for their kids. My granddaughter was maybe one of two or three non-Mexicans out of a dozen kids being let out at that stop. I thought about those Mexican kids and wondered if they would be taught to read well in the wealthy Teton County schools. My granddaughter I didn’t worry about. She was starting to learn to read. One day she got home from school all excited to show us that her books had arrived that she’d ordered at school from the Scholastic book club. How many Mexican kids could afford to order books the way she could? How many of them had dozens of books in their bedroom like she did? How many kids got read to every night like she did?

It’s not just a New York problem, poor kids and reading. But here in New York there’s such a literary tradition. So many books and newspapers and magazines have been published here. So many writers have lived and still live in all the boroughs. Some very good bookstores are still here. The time we spend on buses and subways lends itself to good reading time. It’s a bookish place among big cities. Jack Kerouac lived here for years. Surely, those traditions should guide our efforts. This is New York City. The golden destination for readers and writers. To not teach our kids to read well here is a violation of that heritage. And of a lot more. We better cowboy up.

Do You Go To Your Library Much?

You’re lucky if you have a good one near you.

The library in my neighborhood is not a good one. It’s as bad as New York’s airports are. You don’t really want to be there. It doesn’t stimulate you. It doesn’t feel smart . I got punched in the face in there a few years ago for telling a methadone addict to keep it down. Now I walk almost 25 minutes to another library in the West Village that I like because it feels like you’re in college when you’re in it. That’s what you want from a library. You want to feel even a little intimidated by a library. Like it knows more than you do. You don’t want one where they’re mostly dispensing movies, and non-reader-types are riffling through plastic-encased DVDs non-stop all day, asking their buddies, Have we seen this one? You don’t want that.

A good one is a thing to cherish. I feel that way about the one I’m sitting in now.

Weekly Reader

New York Magazine keeps shining

Reading about the dying of the print version of Newsweek, you might think any weekly magazine would be on its last legs. I’m a magazine junkie and the only weeklies I still get are New York, The New Yorker, and Sports Illustrated. I could live without most issues of the last two. I may soon just get New York.

The New Yorker has wonderful writing, but I’ve always got books next to me that have all the wonderful writing I need. The magazine takes time away from those books. As for Sports Illustrated, I think I’m about full up to my chin strap with writerly sports writing. I’ve been reading sports for 55 years. I know more about it than I need to.

New York is what a magazine ought to be. It’s of the moment. Its design keeps your eyes in the game. Its writers are superb. I love when it arrives.

From Walker Evans’ Many Are Called. Photos he took surreptitiously in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s of New York subway riders.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What’s Killing School Reform?
Guess what. It has something to do with reading.

The only writer I came across who thought about kids and reading like I did was Mary Leonhardt. I read her books. You can still get them: Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don’t. 99 Ways To Get Kids To Love Reading. How To Teach A Love Of Reading Without Getting Fired. There are others. Look for them all.

She has a new book, an e-book: The 7 Toxic Myths That Are Killing School Reform. I asked her to share some of it with us. Here’s some:

I've had a ringside seat at K-12 education for most of the last sixty years. From 1950 until 1962 as a student, and from 1971 until 2008 as a high school English teacher. In between I spent much of the time in university classrooms. I didn't learn much, in these university settings, about teaching.

I learned a lot in my own classrooms. I learned why verbal S.A.T. scores have actually gone down a little over the last forty years, and why the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores have stayed basically the same over the last twenty.

It’s not that no one is interested in school reform. Since 1983, when A Nation at Risk was published, school reform has been at the top of the agenda of every educator and every politician. There have been a lot of proposals, a lot of good ideas—smaller schools, local control, school choice, collaborative teaching, less leveling, higher standards, business alliances, more training for teachers, a greater use of technology—to mention a few. And yet, in spite of the massive amounts of money and creativity and energy devoted to school reform, our country is sinking under the weight of our semi-literate young people.

And so the burning question of the hour is why isn’t all of the school reform effort making a difference? Specifically, why are reading scores staying so stubbornly low? Because if reading scores are low, education isn’t working. Kids who can barely read are not educable. The heart of the educational crisis is that kids can’t read. The educational crisis is a reading crisis.

Why are reading scores so low? The answer is surprisingly simple: Because so few kids develop into avid readers. That’s why reading scores stay so stubbornly low. Kids who hate reading, who hate books—kids who never willingly linger over a page of print—are almost uneducable in any real sense.

Avid readers are fundamentally different. They read better, write better, concentrate better, have wider frames of reference, and do better in all of their subjects, across the board. They are curious and always engaged in learning. They are a joy to teach.

The question is why schools are not producing more avid readers. It’s taken me thirty-five years in high school classrooms, and a number of years traveling around talking to education and parent groups, to figure it out. But I’ve done it, and here’s why

There are, both in school culture, and in the larger culture of our society, tenaciously embedded myths that work against kids developing a love of reading. These myths come up again and again in my discussions with teachers, with parents, and with journalists. I see them again and again in the media. They’re omnipresent, far-reaching, and sacred. The myths seem to be literally immune from criticism or analysis. And they form the real background of the educational picture, ensuring that no matter what reforms we put in place, no matter how much money we spend, our children are still going to leave school semi-literate, thinking that reading is a deadly chore to be avoided at all costs.

And here’s the heartbreaker: it’s easy to turn kids into avid readers, but schools simply aren’t doing it. Why? Because these educational myths are so pervasive, so ingrained, and so powerful that the simple notion that kids need to be avid readers doesn’t stand a chance against them.

What are they? Here’s the short version.

1. Reading for fun is a waster of time. I have had elementary school principals tell me in all seriousness that they would like to have some free reading time for their children but, what with state standards and everything else, there’s just no time. It’s like being in a desert and believing there is no time to unscrew the top of your thermos of water.

2. Kids should only read good books. Mediocre or poor readers simply don’t read well enough to enjoy the kinds of books adults think they should read. When they are told they have to read a Newberry award book for school—and they can’t read a Captain Underpants book—they decide reading is an unpleasant chore.

3. Great readers are born, not made. The belief is that poor readers are just dumb. There’s not much we can do about it. Let’s put them in a low group, and give them little paragraphs to read. The reality is that poor readers can develop into excellent readers once they develop a love and habit of reading. And then—what do you know—they’re smart! Poof!

4. Teaching difficult books is how to teach reading skills. This is the myth that is used to justify assigning class books in middle school and high school, requiring everyone to read books like Great Expectations or Ethan Frome. The idea is that not only will students gain cultural literacy, they will become better readers. The reality is that, first of all, they learn to hate the classics—so much for cultural literacy—and secondly, so few students actually do the reading that their reading skills don’t even improve. Even worse, with an assigned book hanging over their heads, kids won’t read anything else, even thought they are not reading the assigned book.

5. There are plenty of books lying around for kids to read. People who believe this (which is most of the educational establishment) don’t understand that turning children into avid readers requires giving them a huge choice in books. When children start reading, they will only like books in a narrow range—such as the books in a series, or in a certain genre, like magic. Funding for libraries is often one of the first cuts made in an education budget.

6. Technology is the answer to the education crisis. Of course children need to learn how to use computers, but it is the avid readers who most easily learn these computer skills. If avid reading comes first, children can use computers for a variety of things. Kids who hate reading mostly use computers for games.

7. Grades and assessment tests will motivate kids to read. Because the educational establishment doesn’t see the relationship between avid reading behavior, and good test scores, these assessment tests are just turning kids off to reading even faster than before. Test preparation is taking up valuable school time that could be given over to reading. Not only is the test preparation usually boring and tedious, it’s useless for developing reading skills. As Stephen Krashen points out in his book, The Power of Reading, teaching skills is just testing skills. Children develop skills through wide reading.

I go into much more detail in my new book The 7 Toxic Reading Myths That Are Killing School Reform. It’s available as an e-book for only $2.99.

Reps Matter Everywhere

A young Notre Dame QB will get better with more reps

Last night I camped out in front of my TV to watch my old school play Michigan State. The kid I was most interested in watching was the quarterback Everett Golson. It was only his third game as a starter. He’s full of promise. He’s quick in ways you want a QB to be. He can pass, he can run. He has poise. He was a good enough high school basketball player to get a scholarship offer from North Carolina. He’s a polished piano player, too.

The ABC announcers were effusive in their praise of him. And they said he’ll only get better the more reps he gets. I thought, of course, it’s that way with everything. It’s what the school kids in the city need to get to learn to read well. Just like Golson will practice every day during the season, and in the off-season, too, to get better, kids need that same kind of practice to work on their reading skills. If the athletic departments know what’s needed for success, why don’t the academic departments?

Don’t Think Twice

Get the new Rolling Stone

Along with the Four Tops and the Beach Boys albums and the other must-have records of those days in the early ‘60s, when I was tucked away in a Catholic boarding school, I had the first two albums of Bob Dylan. His voice was an acquired taste back then. I was not on the cutting edge of music. There were guys at school with more sophisticated albums than I had. But I was a folkie, and having those Dylan records was important to me. I would stare at the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan with its snowy Greenwich Village street and dream of a possible free-thinking life down the road.

I bought the new Rolling Stone the other day to read the interview with Dylan. I’ve read it twice. I think he’s the greatest artist America’s ever had. So, of course, I’d recommend you get the magazine.

       Zadie Smith in The New Yorker review of her new novel, NW.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Girls of Summer

I’m using my daughters to make a point. That’s them in the picture, thirty years or more ago.

A divorced father, I lived close to my three kids and saw them a lot. Overnights, dinners, movies, pick ‘em up from school, watch their games. All that stuff. But I looked forward eagerly to the week-long getaways with them from where we lived in Cleveland to South Florida to see my older sister and her kids over spring breaks, and in summers to drive to my younger sister’s big summer home on a lake in Northern Michigan. That’s where this begins. On Crooked Lake.

You almost couldn’t tell my kids apart from my sister’s kids or the other kids in my sister’s big extended married-into family up there. They dressed like them. Swam like them. Read the same Judy Blume and V.C Andrews. Listened to the same tunes. Same TV shows. Same movies. Same things to hold their hair back.

What they didn’t do like their cousins or the other kids there was water ski. Oh, they could get up eventually. And go around once or twice. But the other kids could hold on with one hand and adjust their bathing suit with the other. They could wave and signal their mother or father to speed up or go around the loop again. They could jump the wake and crouch down way out there almost hole-high with the boat and zoom across the water grinning the whole time. My kids couldn’t do that. They couldn’t drop a ski either. They certainly couldn’t go from the dock on one ski.

No matter that we went for a week or so every summer. The kids up there were there for the whole summer from places like Cincinnati and Detroit and Chicago. They skied every day. My kids couldn’t do what they did on skis. And as they got older and started to like boys, they didn’t even bother to try to get better or even ski anymore. They were too far behind. They’d sit on the dock looking at Seventeen or a book and get a suntan instead. Or float on rafts on their stomach to get their back and back of their legs brown.

They probably figured why even try to do something they couldn’t get really good at. They may have envied their cousins’ easy ability. They may have wished, for that daily hour when the boat was in constant use taking one kid after another for self-assured ski adventures, that they were back home in Cleveland, hanging with their friends who couldn’t ski well either.

If they had had a summer-long place on Crooked Lake they’d have been able to ride like the wind on skis. But as their life was, they couldn’t. They didn’t get to do it enough. They didn’t get enough practice at it. They didn’t get enough reps at it to be good.

I could relate. In the small town I grew up in in Western New York, some kids’ families had cottages on little nearby Loon Lake, or on another lake around there. My family didn’t. The kids that had a cottage could water ski like the Crooked Lake crowd. I couldn’t. I could shoot hoops and play baseball with the best of them, but I never learned to ski. I avoided the lake therefore, only going when I got older to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and feed the jukebox at Musty’s, a wobbly, wonderful lakeside dive.

You know where I’m going with this. I’m going to equate my kids and my not becoming easy skiers to some of the city’s school kids not being able to read well. As I’ve said many times in this blog/newsletter: the kids aren’t going to be able to read easily until they get enough reps. And because they don’t get enough reps, they’re going to pull back from it. Go away from it. Feel bad about it. Get mad at it. Say screw it. They’ll want to go back to Cleveland and hang with their friends who can’t do it well either.

For my kids and waterskiing, there was no way to catch up. An annual week of doing it, couldn’t get it done. There was simply no way to do it so infrequently and get good at it. There was no place to do it when they weren’t at the lake. No place to practice. It’s not that way for kids who aren’t good readers. They have schools. They have schools where they have to go almost 200 days a year. By law they have to go. At least till they’re 16. They can’t blow it off. They can’t avoid it. It’s like going to Crooked Lake 200 days a year. With a desk of their own and a teacher.

With all that time, ten or twelve years of time, nearly 200 days in each of those years, how come many aren’t learning to read well? If a kid went to the lake and went skiing that much and didn’t learn to ski competently, you’d think something was crazy. You’d think it couldn’t be true. You’d say the boat must not have enough oomph, the skis didn’t fit them, or the lake was too rough. Or that they were not really going ten or twelve years. Or they weren’t going every day of those 200. You wouldn’t accept that at the end of all that time, the kids who’d been going to the lake from when they were six until they were 18 couldn’t ski easily. You’d say that’s nuts.

I say it’s nuts.

Every time I stop to write about it, the number of years and the number of days, and the poor results, confound me. Does the syllabus speak to the needs the kids have? Do the state’s curriculum requirements speak to the needs the kids have? Does anyone in a board meeting or a teachers’ workshop say, Hey, this isn’t working? Is what’s on the agenda for the poor-reading kids in the new school year different from last year? Is teaching every school kid to read well the paramount goal? Are the kids getting all the reps they need?

That my three daughters aren’t easy waterskiers is not important to their lives anymore. The lack of that skill doesn’t hamper them. It doesn’t prevent them from living interesting lives. If they couldn’t read well, it would make a world of difference. They’re lucky girls.

Free Thinker in China

Ai Weiwei finds trouble in creative ways

If it were the late ‘60s, when I was in college, you’d carry this book around in your hip pocket. You’d read everything the guy wrote. There’d be posters. T-shirts. More students would get cameras. They’d go see the movie ‘Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry’ at IFC over and over. They’d name kids after him.

You should not miss the movie. It’s 100% good.

I’ve become a little obsessed with him. I’m going to order an expensive book of his photographs. He took 10, 000 shots when he lived here for 10 years as a student. He loves New York. You see that in the film.

In a world where politicians and Lance Armstrong are bullshit, you’ll love this guy.

What The Smart Kids Are Up To

A magazine that’ll quicken your pace

In a time when most magazines are telling you how certain they are that the sky is falling, Fast Company[ might have an article about two recent college grads who just developed a geometry of graphite tubes that will carry water to the thirsty villages of Africa for pennies a day. There’s an article in the newest issue about a company that plans to make biofuels from Brazilian sugarcane.

Get it for yourself. It’s a monthly. It probably doesn’t cost more than a dollar an issue in the mail. Send your kid one. Anybody in junior high or beyond will like it. It’s an energetic magazine. It makes you realize how exciting it can be to be working on the world’s big and small needs.

I noticed in a store the other day that it’s in paperback now. It’s very good.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Year On The Street

Standing with my sign every morning was an engaging education.

Here are four quotes I used in an article I wrote in 1996 for a magazine I edited in Cleveland. I came upon them yesterday when I was rearranging things that were sliding off a shelf in my wonderful-to-me, book-strewn apartment :

I can think of no more important endeavor than reading. To be a little dramatic, it’s saved my life in many ways. I’ve been pursuing it now for a long time. Heavily I’d say for the past ten years. I began very late…If I had one wish for my children, it would be that they become readers.
-Harvey Keitel in Esquire

No matter how high the quality of programming, an excess of passive reception stunts a child’s oral development and prepares him or her to be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary rules of standard English…Frustration turns to resentment: kids drop out of school and, in the worst case, join violent gangs of ‘post-illiterates.’
-Jonathan Franzen in The New Yorker

To me, nothing can be more important than giving children books. It’s better to be giving children books than drug treatment to them when they’re 15 years old. Did it ever occur to anyone that if you put nice libraries in public schools you wouldn’t have to put them in prisons? If people don’t read, you have the kind of culture, and I use the word very loosely, that we have now. I think television turned out to be exactly as bad as the most irritating and pedantic intellectuals of the ‘50s said it was going to be.
-Fran Lebowitz in The New York Times

People who don’t read are brutes
-Playwright Eugene Ionesco

They of course still apply today. More maybe. They’re the types of observations that eventually got me to start this newsletter/blog two and a half years ago, and got me to go to Kinko’s and get my sign made. And got me to go downtown and stand with it in front of the Department of Education for an hour in the morning. Most mornings anyway. I’ve been there a year now. Here’s what I’ve seen:

Things change. Kids who passed me on their way to a sixth-grade (it was its first year) charter school grew remarkably. Little kids weren’t little anymore by year’s end. The parents or grandparents who walked with some of them the first months, backed off, and the kids came by themselves or in small groups. Some did nothing but holler and squeal and irritate adults on the sidewalk. You hoped they were somehow going to learn to read well. They need to. Some knew it. I could tell by the way even the noisiest respected what the sign said. They could tell the sign loved them, even as they some days nearly bumped me off the sidewalk.

Jobs, addresses, and relationships change too. Some people who used to walk by almost every day don’t anymore.

Attitudes change. Some people who wouldn’t look at my sign for weeks began to accept what it must mean; now many of them smile or say good morning every time they go by.

Some people, quiet, reader-types, who may have never given a thumbs up to anything, give a thumbs up to the sign. A few cars honk their horns and roll down their windows so I can see their faces and their thumbs up. Some honk every time they pass. My eyes water a little bit over the reaction some days. I’ll think maybe some kid or parent will be encouraged or inspired by the sign’s message. Even if the school system won’t be.

I give a copy of the newsletter to some of the passers-by. I keep a few of them in a canvas brief case I set across the sidewalk. I don’t give everybody one. I don’t want to impose. Many people have too much in their hands. Coffee, a purse, the morning paper, iPhones. A few have a cigarette going.

Quite a few people have taken a picture of the sign. Some say they’ll put it on Facebook. I like it when they say that. Despite my standing in public with the sign, I’m not at all a natural at promotion. I’m really not, to a fault probably. But I don’t want to look like I’m running for something or selling myself. I’m 65 now. I’ve seen way too many self-promoters. I think the sign will be its own agent. I really believe that. The idea for it came in a kind of inspiration. The words formed themselves. I didn’t question it. I went to get the sign made immediately, very uncharacteristically for me who can often deliberate over something till it loses its steam (case in point: I’ve been single for 35 years).

I will give the sign all the time it needs. I will stand there with it another year. I like standing there. I like seeing what I see. Maybe some day I’ll start taking photos of what I see with the small camera that’s always in my pocket. I see great faces.

Sometimes a face stops and talks to me about the sign. At first they wondered what the deal was. What was I about. I always look down and refer to the sign. Then I say some variation on the same theme. I say that in the ten or twelve years that the schools have the kids, they should make sure the kids learn how to read well. I say that the excuses of background are tired. I say the schools exist in every neighborhood and each kid has a desk and each room has teacher. I say that if their early upbringing may have not allowed for enough reading reps to make for an ideal preparation for school work, the kids must be given a chance in school to get all the reps they need. I say that the curriculum must be fashioned to give priority to that need for reps. Ten or twelve years of that should get the job done. It has to. If it takes Saturdays and Sundays and summertime too. Whatever it takes to get in the reps.

What I don’t say, but what I believe to the core of me, is that the teachers have to be readers too. Go out and get English majors to teach kids about books and reading. People who love books. Love is what you need. Love is what they missed when they missed being read to when they were small. I saw it in their faces this past year when they walked by my sign.

A Store We Need, Needs Us

Help Save St. Mark’s Bookshop

My first issue, the most important place for me to put a small stack of my newsletters was in the vestibule of St. Mark’s Bookshop. To me, that small space was the home office of intellectual free papers and announcements for plays and art happenings that defined an intelligent city. When I crossed the threshold from there into the store, I was where I felt I belonged, the kind of store I had imagined myself in when I was younger and living elsewhere. A place where you might see Susan Sontag looking around, which I in fact did a couple times.

Now it’s fighting for its life. But it’s not dead. You can keep it alive by shopping there. Google it. Sign petitions. But go there. There’s no place like it. Let’s keep that sentence in the present tense.

Once The Best Friend You Had

The Village Voice doesn’t talk like it used to. That’s too bad for all of us.

It would have once been the leader in the fight against NYU’s expansion in the Village. Its writers would have been who you wanted to read on the subject. You felt stimulated and radical reading it. You felt you had a companion when it came out every week. No matter your age. It was the Voice you listened to.

Nothing has come along and really bested it. But it’s not a big deal anymore. It doesn’t have the income or the pages it used to. Craigslist took away its all-important classified ad base. Mobile phones took away what we thought was our timeless hunger for real pages to read from.

You probably don’t read it much anymore. I don’t either really. But when I’m stopping somewhere for a beer in an afternoon window or a slice somewhere, I’ll grab one. You should too.

                           Among the stacks, downstairs, at Strand.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

School Is Out for Summer

I wrote this piece a year ago as school was getting out. Its theme still applies. I didn't change anything, including my age.

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, some 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.

Adult Education

The New York Review of Books will challenge your mind. Sometimes change it.

It comes 20 times a year. The cover always has something you want to read on it. They give you a dozen story subjects on this cover, if you can see it in the photo. I probably wanted to read 10 of them. What magazine gives you that? I think I liked the Zadie Smith piece on her neighborhood in London best.

The ads are smart too. Almost all book ads. Their classifieds you read too. Ads for apartments in Paris; or personal ads placed by romantic hopefuls like the ‘leggy, literate, brunette’, or the ‘tall, striking Maui gentleman.’

It even feels smart. It’s tall. The paper they use has a gloss. It’ll rub off on you.

I’m A Devoted Richard Ford Fan.

His new novel, Canada, made me cry

If you looked at my sagging, crowded bookshelves you’d think Richard Ford had written a dozen or more books. But it’s just me having bought more than one copy of some of his stuff. And I’ll bet I’ve given away a half a dozen paperback copies of Independence Day. I’ve read it three times.

I wrote him a note once in the 80s to
tell him that his novel, The Sportswriter, had just helped me pass anxious time in a hospital waiting room while one of my daughters was having serious stuff done. He typed back a note from Mississippi. It’s in one of the books of his on one of those shelves.

Read Canada this summer.

 ‘The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm.’

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Near Boston. In A House Filled With Books

Nirvana for me normally. But I miss holding my sign.

I’m watching a friend’s house and his ailing dog while he’s in California for a daughter’s wedding. The house, if you’re a book person, is what you dream about. Books in every room. Three floors. Lumpy New England old-red-brick sidewalk out front. House right up to it. He’s a former magazine editor, so there are still subscriptions to Seattle magazine and the like. Framed things everywhere. Walls filled with them. Others propped around on all the floors. It’s like the Strand Bookstore.

There’s not really a TV. There are a few flat screens that another friend of his bought for him, wrongly thinking he’d see the light and get cable and use them. I tried the one in my bedroom the other night. All that came in were two New Hampshire PBS channels with shows about quilting and regional cooking. It’s nice to have no TV to default to. You listen to the Red Sox on the Bose radio in the big kitchen at an old butcher block table. You go five minutes up the street for pints to watch the Celtics. I’m not a TV guy anyway. (TV really is what’s making us sedentary and fat. It’s not Facebook or texting. We spend way more time watching TV than we do anything else. Way more. Like 50 hours a week. The culture is blindly in denial about this.)

I have resisted nosing through all his bookshelves and stacks this trip. I’m obsessed with the book I brought with me. It’s a paperback copy of  The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It was written in 1978. It won the National Book Award for non-fiction that year. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. What made me finally buy it, who knows. One of life’s wonderful mysteries, why we choose, or get chosen, and when. Maybe because a childhood friend from my rural hometown recently asked if I’d like to go hiking with him. Or maybe because I have three granddaughters who live right near the Tetons in Wyoming. Or maybe because I have found myself for years dipping into books about Buddhism. Maybe that’s why this book, now. It’s about all that stuff. And it’s filled with such a trove of details, as piled with observations and free thoughts as this wonderful house is piled with words and thoughts and imagery. It’s currently the best book I’ve ever read. I found myself thinking that I could rid my own shelves of all the books I have and just read and re-read this one. If that sounds crazy, well, then it is. ’If I’m out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog’ (the opening line of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, maybe the one book I would leave on my shelves, if I had to leave one).

The Snow Leopard is something I need. Like I need this house without a TV.

Like I need my sign.

My sign is quiet. It’s quieter than I am. When someone stops and talks to me about my sign, I want to say I’m the wrong guy to talk to. I’m filled with all the political noise that’s swirling out there. There’s too much noise about kids and schools right now. It’s almost all political. No one wants a solution because no one wants to stop fighting about it. That’s why I don’t want to talk about it on the sidewalk. I don’t want to argue. They do. I want to hold the sign that wrote itself; it even chose the period, and not a question mark. I just want to hold it. It isn’t an argument. It isn’t an ‘Occupy’ sign. Some guy from the Dept. of Ed. asked me the other day if I was with the Occupy group. He’s seen me hundreds of times. I wonder why he asked me that day. I’ve been holding the sign since September. Just holding it. No attitude. I’m just a sign-holder. I’m as much a loner as I look like standing there. I’m not going to join any group. No group has taught the kids to read. They’ve all had their chances. The sign isn’t partisan that way. It blames us all. It blames New York especially, New York with all its self-proclaimed progressive traditions. The sign just wants every school kid to learn to read well.

On one of the early pages in The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen writes that, ‘Ecstasy is identity with all existence.’ That’s how I feel when the sign is in front of me. That’s how I feel when someone looks/smiles/comments on the sign’s message as they walk by it. Sometimes when I can see that no one is approaching me, and won’t be, from either direction, for maybe 30 seconds, I’ll look at the sign myself. I’ll read it. I didn’t write it anymore than you did. I’m moved by it. I think it’ll change the world. I think things like maybe the kid who was killed in Tampa wouldn’t have been killed if every school kid would have been taught to read well. Young black males wouldn’t be seen as they’re seen. ‘Young black males’ wouldn’t be a category like it is now. See what I mean? That’s what I think when I read the sign. That might seem crazy to you, but it’s not.

So I sit here by a river and an ocean near Boston where folks have Red Sox decals and bumper stickers everywhere, and tattoos no doubt on places you’ll never see. I like Boston stuff. A Catholic kid in rural western New York State, I liked the Celtics before I liked the Yankees or Notre Dame. I like getting the Globe with my Times when I’m up here. I like their sports talk on the radio. Rondo is my favorite player. But I wish I were going to be back holding my sign tomorrow. Instead I have to hang here till mid-week.

I’ll read more of my book. I read it slowly.

The Best Part of Waking Up

The morning paper has textures no computer can give you

I go to the corner between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning to get the Times. My parents were early birds, now I am. I could get it delivered to my door and it’d be there that early, but I like to go out for it. I like the atmosphere of the city not quite ready for you.

A few mornings, the paper’s not there when I go. Trucks were delayed I guess. I get my coffee and go home. Those mornings I’ll read it online. (I’m not a Times subscriber so I only get a few days I can do that.) It doesn’t do it for me. It’s a hurry-up experience. The format and the videos and photo galleries and the archives, it makes you read differently. I don’t want to read differently.

I love a newspaper. I’m writing this near Boston where I am at a friend’s for a week. His house is a block and a half from a place you can get Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and the Times and the Boston Globe. You can’t improve on that, and they haven’t.

One of Life’s Big Treats    

Shopping at your local bookstore

It’s an easy and quiet trip to order a book from Amazon late at night. You’re reading Moby Dick and it’s so good you want more Melville in your life, because that’s the way we are. You go right to Amazon and you order Billy Budd. No notes on index cards needed to remind you to get it at your local bookstore. Back to reading Moby Dick, more Melville on the way.

That’s efficient fun. No doubt. But deeper fun can be had by going to your favorite bookshop. Get your Melville there.

I don’t know what to say about e-books. They look so thin and colorless to me when I see someone reading one on the subway that I have nothing to say about them, except they look not at all interesting, while real books look so interesting, I’ll buy ones I may never even read.

Go to your local bookstore. They’ve got smart people in them and good-looking books you’ll want to buy.

          Give kids a magazine like this. Get them a subscription.

Monday, April 23, 2012

After all the books and articles I've read about city schools and failure and what are we going to do about them...


This essay ran in the second issue of a cityReader. It still seems like the answer:

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

OK, So I’m a Celtics Fan
Ray Allen is one of the reasons

From The Boston Globe:

He cannot remember what was in the contest jar - balls or jellybeans or other objects - but Celtics guard Ray Allen clearly recalls the prize he received as a first-grader at his Oklahoma elementary school.
“I won three books,’’ Allen said with a smile. “I remember I felt so proud that I won those three books, those books were mine.’’

Allen traces his love of reading to that moment, and it continues today, as he uses the pleasures of a good book to ease the boredom of long road trips or soothe a particularly bad loss. To the world, Allen’s identity is as an NBA superstar with a smooth 3-point shot. But in the locker room, on the road, or waiting for a game to start, he is the guy with his nose in a book.

Make No Mistake
Alice Munro is the best

Last issue, in talking about Nathan Englander’s spectacular new collection of stories, What We Talk About When We talk About Anne Frank, I mentioned my all-time favorite short story writers. There were maybe ten I listed. Big names. No surprise I picked them as my favorites. They’d be on everyone’s list.

But my list was incomplete. I left off Alice Munro. It was a mistake. I think I know why it happened. The ones who easily made the list were so predictable and excellent, they all seem to belong there together. Alice Munro is different from them. She’s not famous in the way they are. She doesn’t represent an era, or a style. To me she shines in her own kind of light. She‘s the best ever. Those who read her know that. If you haven’t read her, I envy you your discovery.

Best book I’ve recently read. Funnyfunny novel about a modern-day boys' school in Ireland. Brilliant!