A Grab-Bag of Good Book News

August 22, 2010

Ever since the era of Slow Reading came along, sometime last Tuesday, readers from all over have been sending me the news.  Today, I open the ever-expanding goody bag to share a few shiny baubles with you.

Books help kids do better on bubble tests. It’s not every day that I like what I read in columns by David Brooks.  Still, he’s always smart and worth a read, and this time he brings good news.  Apparently, two recent studies confirm what book lovers already know.  In the first one, a bunch of underprivileged kids each got to choose 12 free books to read over the summer, and surprise, surprise, they ended up with higher reading scores than peers who didn’t get books.  Personally I would have dispensed with the study and just given every child a bag full of books.

The second study actually surprised me.  It tracked 500,000 kids in grades 5-8, and found that kids with high-speed internet at home are getting lower scores on math and reading tests.   That’s a lot of kids logging a lot of hours not reading books.

Who Needs a Monitor When You’ve Got Books on the School Bus? Remember those mornings on a school bus crammed full of laughing, screaming kids throwing sandwiches and hitting each other over the head?  Well, it never happens on one school bus in Florida. The driver Miss Kookyi (aka Rosemary Peterson) found a way to quiet her little charges: give them books.  They choose their own books and read all the way to school, then write book reports for prizes.   The competition is fierce, and every kid’s a winner.  I don’t know if anyone’s given Miss Kookyi a prize yet, but surely she deserves one.

Convicted Criminals Get Reading Time Instead of Jail. Judges in eight states now have an alternative to sending offenders to prison.   Instead, they put books in their hands and send them to reading groups.  I don’t know about you, but this makes my heart leap up.  Some participants have never read a book before, and through reading and discussion, their lives really do change. The program more than halves the rate of recidivism, and compared to the cost of throwing people in jail, it’s virtually free.  Let’s send a shout of thanks to the program that makes it possible: “Changing Lives Through Literature.”

And finally comes this little goody:

Study Hall for Grown-Ups. If you’re ever in Seattle on a lovely Wednesday evening, be sure to drop by the Fireside Room in the Sorrento Hotel.  It’s a reading party.   The place fills to the rafters with people who bring their books, sink down into posh chairs amid the velvet drapes, and proceed to read.  Silently, together.  There are waiters.  Lattes.  Adult beverages.  Snacks.   This may be the best book event ever.  And it happens every week.

So there you have a taste of what’s in the treasure box.  If we had to sum it up, we would say simply, Keep Reading.  Give Books to Kids.  To Criminals.  To Seattle-ites.  In short, to people everywhere and of all ages with nothing better to do, because, really.  IS there anything better?

Keep sending me the good news from wherever you are.


William Least Heat-Moon Goes on a Mosey for Quoz

August 13, 2010

If you like your travels interesting and your books the best kind of slow, then ramble on out to find a copy of Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey. William Least Heat-Moon, who’s driven back roads and side roads and everything but Interstate roads for decades, may be the best traveling companion one could want.   What could be better on a mosey than the company of a well-read, curious, funny and brilliant raconteur?

A mosey, as you know, is a leisurely walk, and even though Heat-Moon travels mostly by car, the thing is, he’s not in a hurry.   Instead, he’s in search of quoz, defined as anything “strange, incongruous or peculiar.”   Quoz-finding comes easy if you know where to look, and Heat-Moon knows: off the main roads and in places that haven’t been mowed down by the uniformity, as he puts it, of “crapulent consumerism.”  In short, he seeks out locales with character.  And characters. Read the rest of this entry »

How to Talk About a Pie You Haven’t Eaten, or Why Read a Book?

August 3, 2010

This week, we contemplate M. Pierre Bayard’s book How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. The argument, as I understand it, is that deep reading is passé.  You know, reading sentences, turning pages, dwelling in the life a book from beginning to end…waste of time.  Instead, M. Bayard promotes faking it.  You read a review or two, perhaps you even skim the cover or first page, you snatch a few bon mots out of the ether (net), and voilà. You can smartly join the conversation at a cocktail party.

I think I could use a martini.

Intellectual subterfuge is hardly new.  In fact, M. Bayard’s particular genius may be that he’s grabbed the copyright on skills known to undergraduates everywhere.  Surely even a few of them (not any that I know) would even agree with Bayard’s proposition that “it is sometimes easier to do justice to a book if you haven’t read it in its entirety–or even opened it.”

In just this way, I hope to do justice to M. Bayard’s book.

Now I will grant that not every book is worth reading.  Not every book is even a book.  (I hear a certain Bieber has just signed a deal for his “memoirs”).  But I’m not quite sure the cocktail party standard will quite do it for me.

Let’s say, for example, that we substitute “eating” for “reading,” and “pie” for “book.”  So, the proposition becomes, “Eating pie is passé.  Instead, we’ll read a description of a pie, just enough to fake out our friends.”

Now this will work, no doubt.  You can go to your next dinner party and talk smartly about pies you have known.  Just to give you some material, here’s this:

  • It was peach, homemade, filled with sweet, juicy ripe Freestone peaches I picked at the local orchard.  I made the crust with two sticks of butter, put lots of cinnamon  in the peaches.  You should have smelled the house while it baked: all that hot buttery crust, bubbling peaches, warm cinnamon.  And the taste…mon dieu.  We ate it warm, a scoop of slow-churned vanilla ice cream melting slowly on top.

Now I ask you, would you rather read the Cliff’s Notes about pie?  Or eat the pie?

Monkey Minds Unite. Or, What Kind of Knowledge is a Poem?

July 27, 2010

Wow!   One week, you write about monkey-mind and before you know it, monkey-minds everywhere write in to say, Amen, Sister.  They’ve commented here, sent emails, started discussions on other sites, blogged, commiserated, argued, wondered and been altogether jolly.   Enthusiasm for “Slow” has erupted so widely and all at the same time that I’m rethinking spontaneous combustion.

Someone may be about to jump in and say, “How ironic!”  Because after all, we found each other through the internet—the very same gizmo whose “Off” button we have pledged to enjoy more often.  Well, of course.

All of which leads me to the point of this week’s blog: Ambiguity, thinking, and the question of what counts as knowledge.

Ever since Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows hit the stage, the debate’s been on about the value of the internet and the value of Carr.   Evgeny Morozov, for example, equates Carr’s argument with that of a chap pitiful enough to denounce the telegraph in 1889.   Others reach even farther back to those who found moveable type disturbing.  (Personally, I’m not yet ready to give up on cuneiform, but that’s perhaps another topic).

Now in our culture the easiest way to make someone sound silly is to call them old-fashioned, and what could be funnier, really, than fearing moveable type?   “Ack!  The alphabet!  On little pieces of metal!”  Read the rest of this entry »

Slowing Down My Own Monkey Mind

July 17, 2010

This week around the global water cooler, there’s been a lot of buzz about Slow Reading.  And if there’s anything I like better than Slow Food, it’s Slow Reading–the kind we do when we’re thoughtful, focused, and engaged.  The problem, though, is that the internet, for all its merits, is making slow reading harder to do.   By rerouting the circuitry of our brains, it’s turning them all into monkey minds.

That at least seems to be the verdict of Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows…and of me.   I can’t speak for your monkey mind, so I’ll just speak for mine.

As you know if you’ve been tracking this blog, I’m an advocate of Slow.   Slow food, slow books, slow reading, slow life.  I grow a lot of my own veggies, make my own  jam, and buy from local farmers; I won’t buy an e-reader; my five-year-old cell phone is not shiny or smart.  I even make time in my week to do nothing.   But I also live and work in the plugged-in world.  Which means that after a few hours on the internet, my mind can get as chattery as any other primate’s.

If I were a stronger monkey, I would unplug for most of each day.  And I wouldn’t leave my browser open when I’m writing.  But I am not that monkey.  So today, I called in reinforcements. Read the rest of this entry »

Knowing Our Place: Learning from a Cracker Childhood

July 13, 2010

I grew up mostly unrooted, so when I read Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, I wished that I, too, had grown up poor in a rural Georgia junkyard with parents so religiously fundamentalist they forbade my wearing pants, cutting my hair, or having friends over to play.  That’s just how good a storyteller she is.   But Ecology is even more than a great story, it’s an act of devotion to place.   Ray’s embrace gathers in the human tales of family and Cracker culture, but also those of the longleaf pine forests that once blanketed the South.    For those of us who lack her deep connection to culture and land, this book is an occasion for longing.

Ray’s rootedness fascinates me, as rootedness always does when I meet people who have it.  Outside the South, they’re not that easy to find.   Most of us in the U.S. are mobility incarnate, variously attached—or not—to a series of addresses, but without deep knowledge of the places we live.   Even if we feel fiercely devoted to our city or neighborhood, we rarely know the deep, ecological story of the land our houses stand on.  Ray’s book is about roots in that deepest sense.  Its chapters alternate between yarns about family and tales of the longleaf pine and its whole forest ecosystem: the complex interdependence of pine trees and wiregrass, indigo snake and gopher tortoise, scrub buckwheat and chaffseed and the Mississippi sandhill crane.  She tells that story, too, in a way that will hold you spellbound. Read the rest of this entry »

Slow News: Plum Crazy

July 7, 2010

Apologies for the blog delay, but we’re in the midst of a plum emergency.  My plum tree decided that it was time for every one of its 600 plums to be ripe.  NOW.  So the kitchen’s been a-boiling with vats of jam, butter, chutney, and sauce.  For days, I’ve been slicing, simmering and spicing up plums, filling hot glass jars and screwing on lids; sliding the filled jars into the boiling water bath, and whew!   I’ve been a one-woman assembly line.  The best part is when, after ten minutes in the boiling bath, the shining jars come out of the bath to cool.  That little ‘pock’ you hear when the lids seal tight is one of the loveliest sounds of summer.

What could make life more complete?  Well, it turns out this week that I’ve been translated into French on the writer Nathalie Chassériau’s blog “Vive le Lenteur”—Long Live Slowness.   To which I say, Amen.   I was shocked to hear that I’d missed International Slow Day on June 21 (I guess the news was too slow to reach me in time), but I do love the way I sound in French:  « Nous sommes tellement amoureux des technologies que nous ne prenons pas le temps de penser au meilleur moyen de nous en servir,  ni quelles peuvent en être les implications. Les livres sont devenus pour moi le lieu idéal où  je peux enfin lever le pied ».   I said most of that (in English) to a Newsweek reporter, but I don’t remember saying the part about “enfin lever le pied,” but now that I think of it, what a bonne idée!  Merci, Nathalie!

So, quick post this week, to catch you up on the plum situation.   In the coming weeks, look forward to more Slow News from North Oakland, including some slow book reviews, and your eagerly-awaited update on the neighborhood farm news.  In the meantime, I’m going to crack open a new slow book I just bought and lever le piedVive le Lenteur!  And le jam.

Summer Around the Old Homestead

June 24, 2010

The Back Forty

In my fantasy life, I live on five acres with chickens and honeybees and a lamb or two, and an enormous garden that feeds me all year.  In my real life, I do what I can.  Since we just passed the solstice, I thought I’d post a round-up of the summer homestead news from here in the flatlands of Oakland.

After a long, wet winter and cold, wet spring, the plum report is a little bit mournful this year.  The fruit is small and slow to ripen, and we’ve got a little brown rot eating up some of the fruit.  That stuff can devour a full-sized plum in an afternoon.  Still, most of the crop is surely ripening, and I’ve already eaten a few.   They smell like perfume and taste like nectar, and I’ve never found a better plum anywhere. We’re warming up the jam-pots to get ready for harvest, which should start rolling in next week.

This morning, I found a ripe plum on the ground that must have fallen in the night, but some little critter had already chowed down.  I suspect the neighborhood possum, who’s also been known to sneak through the cat door to nab a snack of kibble.  It might also have the local raccoon, who’s been marauding around here for years. Read the rest of this entry »

Avatars in a World Without Nature, or I Like My First Life Just Fine

June 16, 2010

If I were an avatar

Is having an avatar a waste of time?   Mac McClelland, writing for Orion magazine, suspected that it was.  But she joined up with Second Life anyway (SL, for short), just to make sure.  I hesitate even to write about SL for fear of sending recruits.  But for the three of you out there who don’t already know, Second Life is a cross between a self-directed reality show and an out of body experience.  By going “in world,” players can  project themselves onto the avatar of their dreams, even a raccoon with big, human boobs; live in a pirate ship; own waterfront property; teleport from one popular spot to another; attend real lectures with thousands of avatar friends; and become skilled enough at the controls that they can even blush and have sex.   After a fashion.

The avatar who gives McClelland a tour of SL is so enthusiastic about its virtues that she sounds like she’s hawking time shares in Cabo.  She argues that a virtual world peopled with avatars is so much more satisfying than a chat room, because it creates as “sense of presence” and “brings people together.”

So let me get this right: You switch on the electrons, log in and launch the program, create a representation of some alternate self, and thus regain the presence you’ve lost in a chat room?

It makes sense that people want to feel more present.  We spend way too much damn time online.   The night McClelland first went in world as “Girl Next Door” with the name Isis Askenaze (great name, btw), 47,758 other users were already there.  If by “there” you mean sitting at their computers manipulating simulacra of themselves inside a world built by computer code.   Here’s a thought: how about inviting your neighbors over for dinner, Read the rest of this entry »

Bill McKibben’s EAARTH. A review, a rant, an invitation.

May 31, 2010

Before we all head off into our gas-powered, coal-fired lives this week, I invite you to take the pledge: You will not let the summer go by without reading Bill McKibben’s Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.  It’s not exactly beach reading, unless your beach is on the Gulf of Mexico.  And the way I see it, that is now everybody’s beach, everybody’s wetlands, everybody’s ruin.  We all have a hand in that broken cookie jar.

Bill McKibben would have us know a few simple things:

1.  Climate change isn’t some hypothetical future event.  It’s here.  Now.  And it’s only going to get worse.

2.  Civilization as we’ve known it—the civilization made possible by a stable, abundant and richly diverse planet—is screwed.  Because that planet no longer exists.  It’s over.

3.  Modernity has been made possible by cheap fossil fuels—and those days are gone.

For doubters, there’s data—lots of it.  And the numbers add up to this: the planet that human culture has known for 10,000 years has been changed so dramatically by human activity, McKibben has rechristened it “eaarth,” with an extra ‘a’.  After you read the first half of the book, you might wonder why he didn’t just call it Planet Doom. Read the rest of this entry »