Thursday, March 31, 2011

Slow type

And now I run the risk of seeming ridiculously retro and nostalgic, but I loved the story in the New York Times style section today about typewriter fetishists.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

The article, "Click, Clack, Ding!, Sigh"...brought up a lot of buried misapprehension that I've always had about the slapdash approach to writing that the computer has created in all of us. And because this  is not just about the love of slow-brewed thoughts, but about the sad fact that we've embraced plastic over lovingly burnished metal, here's the slide show companion to the story.

In grad school, I was taking a class with Sven Birkerts when he was writing The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. In the class, he often threw out his theory about computers creating a lot of bad thinking and dashed-off writing (see Louis Smith, above). I'd even take it a step further to say that handwriting creates the best link between the brain and the hand, offering up more creativity and solid thinking. I remember casually asking a writer/editor if she ever tried writing in longhand first, because I always thought it brought better results. "Just sounds like a waste of time to me," she said with a flummoxed look, making me feel like a complete throwback...kind of like these typewriters.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The joys of independent reading

Recently, in light of some recent events at my school, I've been thinking a lot about the value of independent reading as part of the school curriculum. As standardized testing takes hold (and as independent reading assessment has become more time-consuming and difficult), kids are choosing fewer books on their own. It's a real loss, and it's happening at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. Our teachers have embraced independent reading, and we're seeing the payoff pretty clearly.

As an AP English student, I read scores of plays and novels. However, the books that I remember are the ones that I chose off of an approved but not core list. These books felt dangerous, outside the classic curriculum, fringe, and my attachment to them was personal. Those seared in my memory are Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turn of the Screw, among a few. They were generally books about people operating outside of normal society, often in deranged ways.

The middle and high school where I work has embraced a different kind of independent reading. Instead of edgy classics, our kids are reading YA fiction, often intense books with strong plots. Most are not reading Great Expectations, or even On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, but, quite frankly, they wouldn't anyway. While some lament the loss of the classic as more modern fiction is embraced, my feeling is that we are creating readers instead of turning kids off of reading for good, which is what would happen if I handed one of my students my personal favorites. My hope is that they will dig deeper and turn to classics after they build their reading muscles, which are often pretty lax.

The way that my school has promoted books and reading is through our "book club." An informal group of people who buy books and might start casual conversations about them. It is not a real book group, which, as a recent New York Times piece notes, is not always necessary. As Rebecca Stead notes, often a reader wants the book to only exist in the reader's mind. "For me, as a kid, a book was a very private world." Stead recalls not wanting to talk to people about the books she loved because it shattered that intimate relationship with the work.

People who want to promote reading, though, have to work hard to build a must-read excitement for a book. As book critic and author Laura Miller states, there's a whole lot of competing interests out there. Book groups and Internet book sites generate excitement and interest around an activity that, for most kids, might not seem worth their while.

“If you want to build a culture where people who could just as easily watch a movie are going to instead say, ‘Oh, I’m going to read this Tracy Chevalier book or ‘The Kite Runner,’ ” Ms. Miller said, “then they do need that kind of stuff like the book groups and discussion guides.”

Letting kids pick their own books is controversial, as this New York Times article -- "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like" -- indicates. At this point, though, it may be the only way to get kids to read. And, if you can't get kids to read, then you really shouldn't be in the education business at all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A new addiction with City of Bones

It's always fun to find a new book addiction, and I'm completely hooked on Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments Series. The opening nightclub scene in the first book, City of Bones, is an easy book talk. All I have to do is act it out (I knew those high school drama classes would pay off somehow), and the book is sold.

In this scene, the main character, Clary, a normal Brooklyn teenager, goes to an all-ages club. In line, she spies a cute boy -- who just happens to come to her (and the bouncer's) attention because he's got a sword. Inside, Clary's busy deciding whether or not to go talk to him as he ponders why humans are such easy prey and zeroes in on his first victim. The night ends with a killing and a dead body that can't be located. No one believes Clary's murder story, and she's wondering if it's all been a very strange dream.

The dream becomes the narrative as Clary bumps up against one otherworldly creature after another. My personal favorite is the sinister cabal of librarians -- archivists who resemble a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk and the Grim Reaper -- who can read minds and crack open memories, laying waste to the human hosts.

In one scene, these librarians, the Silent Brothers, come up in conversation. One character reminds another that he hates the Brothers.

"I don't hate them," said Jace candidly. "I'm afraid of them. It's not the same thing."

"I thought you said they were librarians," said Clary.

"They are librarians."

Simon whistled, "Those must be some killer late fees."

Clare's humor seems aimed at adults, but the romance and drama grabs kids. Let's just say that the series came to my attention when a student, normally calm and collected, checked out the third book and, with a wild look in her eye, grabbed it, explaining, "These are the most addictive books ever. They're like Twilight -- on crack."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Measure L passes

I've heard from a few who know far more about public policy than I that Measure L was bad governance, but I'm still happy that people came out to vote for libraries.

An LA Weekly blog quotes Yes on Measure L chairwoman Lucy McCoy as saying, "Tonight was a vote for keeping our kids safe after school, for helping job seekers get back to work, for seniors looking for a warm place to read and for all the Library goers young and old.  Angelenos have sent a clear message that our libraries are a critical part of the fabric of our community."

This blog, written by Patrick Range McDonald, correctly states that the Los Angeles Times mostly stayed out of the fray, allowing hallowed Southern California library lovers to post op-eds and choosing not to support the measure. The Weekly, on the other hand, exposed the frightening city hall shenanigans that were poised to undermine the entire public library system with its fantastic cover story, "City of Airheads," a rallying cry for anyone who cares about public institutions.

It's pretty obvious that we need a rallying point for school libraries. The unions are too focused on classroom teachers to worry about librarians. If the teachers unions can't fight for school libraries, who can?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Save LA's Libraries: Yes on L

Alexandria, which didn't make it
Today, of course, is election day in Los Angeles. I want to urge everyone to vote yes on Measure L, which helps fund the badly drained LA library system.

HERE is a wonderful piece by the writer/world traveler Pico Iyer. Our state and city budgets are in desperate shape, we all know," he writes, " but to save money by reducing library services and resources is like trying to save a bleeding man by cutting out his heart. Or — if we could reach it — his soul."

The way to think about it is "Do we want to live in a world without libraries?" My sense is that the people making these decisions are not the ones who need library services. 

Measure L gives the people who do the opportunity to tell the city that libraries matter to them. I've spoken to Susan Patron, a writer and LA's most famous librarian, and both of us agree that there is a very strong chance that, once the funds and staff are taken away, cities and schools will not give back, even in good times. When the budgets shrink, the libraries can't serve the people. 

Then, the people get angry at the libraries and its staff for not providing proper service. If we get to that stage, if everything has atrophied at the rapid pace that it's moving now, there is a very real chance that we won't have libraries because our idea of a vital library will be a dim memory. Definitely vote for L.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building a 21st Century library

I'm currently taking a class with school library master David Loertscher, which is turning out to be one of those uncomfortable yet valuable "learning what you don't know" experiences.

Loertscher, a proponent of expanding the role of the school library on campus and of using technology to teach, constantly reminds us of how plugged-in we need to be to teach this generation of students. The class is a real reminder of how much we're not doing to use technology on our campuses.

We're still here, but where are our kids?
Through Loertscher, I found a link to the "Big Think" blog, and a list by Scott McLeod of what we'd need to be doing if we were all serious about technology. Here's a taste of McLeod's list:

  • "treat seriously and own personally the task of becoming proficient with the digital tools that are transforming everything instead of nonchalantly chuckling about how little we as educators know about computers;... 
  • better educate and train school administrators rather than continuing to turn out new leaders that know virtually nothing about creating facilitating and/or sustaining 21st century learning environments;" 

    Sunday, February 20, 2011

    Dreaming dystopia

    Anyone who spends time with books and teenagers spends a lot of time in dystopias. Novels like Matched (Ally Condie), Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Little Brother (Cory Doctorow), the Uglies series (Scott Westerfeld), Truancy (Isamu Fukui), and Unwind (Neal Shusterman) inhabit stage-directed worlds in which nothing is quite what it seems and dark secrets abound. These are eerie, dangerous crystal kingdoms set up to be shattered by their teenage protagonists.

    Because of their popularity, the nation's top literary critics just can't avoid these stories, mostly crafted by adults to be devoured by teenagers. What do these books say about the way teens view the adult world? What does it say about their dreams of the future? What does it say about their anxiety in the present? Last year, Laura Miller wrote a brilliant review of The Hunger Games series in the New Yorker. I'm re-posting it here.

    Charles McGrath, acknowledging that these stories might find even larger adult audiences in movie theaters as film adaptations, says in the New York Times Magazine today:

    "Where grown-up dystopian novels — books like “Oryx and Crake,” by Margaret Atwood; “The Pesthouse,” by Jim Crace; and “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy — lately seem to dwell on a vision of a bestial, plague-ridden world where civilization has collapsed, these new Y.A. books imagine something far worse: a world where civilization feels an awful lot like high school and everyone is under pressure to conform."

     Read the rest of Charles McGrath's story here.

    I love that these stories are getting the attention that they deserve, but I disagree with the idea that these books are a lot like high school. The conformity is the potential nightmare of the adult world, an existence teens might be heading for if they're not alert. Kids are not afraid of the lives they are living, they are afraid of living the lives of their parents.

    Friday, February 18, 2011

    Children's Author on Libraries

    I keep saying I'm going to stop writing about the closing of public and school libraries and make this blog a little more fun. And really, I will. But it's hard for me to ignore the issue since things keep getting worse, at least here in Southern California.

    I'm newly riled up by impending budget cuts and the need for Measure L, which will increase city funding of Los Angeles libraries, currently closed entirely on Sundays and Mondays. (This frustrates me not only as someone who cares about the field, but as the mother of a book-loving 4 1/2 year old.)

    Susan Patron, a wonderful author whose book The Higher Power of Lucky won the 2007 Newbery, has a well-argued op-ed in today's LA Times.

    Patron, who worked for 35 years at the Los Angeles Public Library, starts off by talking about the role libraries played in her life as a kid in LA.

    Then she describes about the political and economic issues:

    The measure doesn't call for a tax increase. It calls for a change in city priorities, a change in how we allocate the funds Los Angeles already collects. That change of priorities is crucial. The city's leaders have shown that they cannot be trusted to weigh the worth of our library appropriately as they grapple with L.A.'s deficits. Their unwillingness to give the library its fair share means that the voters must step in.

    Measure L will restore six-day-a-week service to all our libraries, and eventually seven-day-a-week service to our Central Library and six regional libraries. It will increase support for afterschool and summer programs, and provide funding for books and other materials.

    Measure L has been endorsed by a wide range of business and civic leaders, including former MayorRichard Riordan and authors Ray Bradbury, Joseph Wambaugh and Janet Fitch.

    Children have little say in their quality of life; they entrust that to us. I'm voting yes on Measure L — yes on open doors, yes on big ideas, yes on a welcoming refuge at their branch library for every kid in every neighborhood.

    Please pass Susan's piece around if you share my strong feelings about books and reading, and if your life has been made better by them.

    Saturday, February 12, 2011

    A holler in Britain, a (long-awaited) peep in L.A.

    I'd just locked up the library and jumped in my car when an NPR story about protests in Britain over public library closures grabbed my attention. The main activist in the movement, mom Lauren Smith, who said that she'd never fought for a cause before, summed-up the scope of the tragedy brilliantly:

    "Smith said politicians in London don't appreciate the role libraries play — as gathering spots for young children to read ... 'all the way to a 93-year-old lady whose husband had died, she only spoke to one person on a Tuesday, when she went to the library, and that was the person in the library branch, behind the counter.'"
    If only library-closure protests looked like this one.

    Sounds so familiar. In one protest, desperate patrons went to a threatened neighborhood library and checked out every single book.  A musician is doing a library tour. Read -- or listen -- to the story here.
    After being amazed by the groundswell in Egypt and witnessing its effects, I've often thought about the lack of protest over so many lamentable things in America. On a local note, it's been a little sad to see the lack of outrage over the Los Angeles Public Library closures. Are library lovers just not the types to raise a ruckus over something that impacts their lives weekly?

    Now there is something that those quieter people can do. Just got the list of endorsements for Measure L, the "fund the library" measure for the city, and was happy to see some of my friends (like David Kipen) and favorite writers (Pico Iyer, Ray Bradbury) speaking out for it. Check out Measure L's endorsements here.

    L.A. residents need to take a tip from the British -- time for some news-grabbing protests here, before it's too late.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    Huck's fate

    The other day, an instructional aide at my school asked me how I felt about new revisions to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. "I think it's horrible," I replied. "It's censorship!" Seemed like a no-brainer.

    Happily, I actually got a few seconds to scan the New York Times' Sunday Opinion today and had a chance to read a more nuanced view of the situation. I've been thinking a lot about how we need to revolutionize the way we teach reading and novels in high school, and there's plenty of food for thought in writer Lorrie Moore's excellent take on the Twain debate -- and the issue of "the n word" -- "Send Huck Finn to College."

    Here's an excerpt from Moore's piece:

    "There are other books more appropriate for an introduction to serious reading. (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” with its social-class caricatures and racially na├»ve narrator, is not one of them.) Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which vibrantly speaks to every teenager’s predicament when achievement in life is at odds with the demoralized condition of his peer group, is a welcoming book for boys. There must certainly be others and their titles should be shared. Teachers I meet everywhere are always asking, How can we get boys to read? And the answer is, simply, book by book."

    She's speaking as a mother who has, first-hand, experienced the withering impact of giving a child the wrong book at the wrong time. (She seems to have a black son, to whom the novel's language has a special sting -- though the term is used promiscuously in the hip-hop he listens to.)

    To read the entire article, click here. Moore, an amazing short story writer, wrote the powerful The Gate at the Stairs, one of the most brutal and beautiful novels that I've read in the past decade.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Brown's Brutal Cuts

    It's hard to envision where California will be in five years after the reality of cuts upon cuts transforms our already troubled state. Governor Brown's cuts come on top of devastating library layoffs and weekly closures and they will take down literacy programs.

    What will happen when people become used to a closed library and what will be the percentage of the populace who struggles to read -- or is entirely illiterate?

    Click here to read the Library Journal's account of exactly where these cuts will hit.

    In the article, Paymaneh Maghsoud, head of the California Library Association, says that libraries have done more than their fair share in placing their people and programs on the state chopping block:

    "The revelation ... that Governor Brown is proposing to eliminate all $30 million in state funding for three of California's most valuable public library programs both disastrous and disheartening," she said in a press release.

    Maghsoudi said that library funding had already been cut 75 percent under the two previous administrations.

    "The public libraries have done more than their share to assist with the budget deficit over the years by absorbing painful cuts," she said. "The time has come to stop the bleeding and CLA respectfully asks the members of the legislature to oppose these proposed cuts to our valuable programs."