Forgetting Books We’ve Read

“If we think of a library as a city and a book as an individual house in that city, each sentence becomes one tiny component of that house. Some are mostly functional – the load-bearing wall, the grout between the bathroom tiles – while others are the details we remember and take away, perhaps recalling their texture and colour when we assemble our own verbal dwelling-place.”  –Jenny Davidson

Who I am is constructed, in part, out of books I’ve read. When I read, especially if I love what I’m reading, I feel as if the book has entered my very bone marrow. But I read, on average, four or five books a week. Often more. Where has my mind put decades of books?   

Julie Beck’s article in The Atlantic offers an answer. It’s titled, “Why We Forget Most of the Books We Read.” She writes, “people often shove more into their brains than they can possibly hold.” She cites a study from 2009 showing the average American encounters 100,000 words a day. Our memories simply cannot keep all this information readily available. I say pish posh, the memories we take in from what we read has to do with its relevance. We hang on to the information that most impacts us, intrigues us, or that we put to use.  

Beck also points out we’re better able to recall the context in which we read a book, so we remember reading a green-jacketed novel based in Sierra Leone while on vacation, but are likely to recall the book’s contents. To me that’s one of memory’s gifts. I’ll never forget reading The Color Purple while nursing my firstborn or reading The World According To Garp while on the couch recovering from knee surgery or becoming so immersed in by Kathleen Grissom’s The Kitchen House while at an airport departure gate that I missed my flight.

Okay, maybe I feel threatened by the idea that I’ve wasted literal years of my life reading books that simply float beyond memory into a void. But there’s plenty of evidence that books change us, whether we remember them well or not at all.

  • A study at Emory University found reading can have long-term effects on our biology. Study participants read only part of a novel, yet still showed significant increases in connectivity between the left and right brain regions. This effect lasted for several days. Imagine the effect of reading regularly!   

  • Stanford’s Natalie Phillips found an overall increase in blood flow during close reading. She writes in Stanford News, “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions.” Blood flow also increases during pleasure reading, but in different brain areas. Phillips suggested that each style of reading can create distinct patterns in the brain that are “far more complex than just work and play.” 

  • Regular readers, according to various studies, are much more likely to volunteer, donate to charity, and vote than non-readers.

  • Research demonstrates that people who find themselves most transported by fiction and who express the most empathy for the book’s characters are more likely to express empathy in real life. 

  • Fiction readers score higher on theory of mind, which is the ability to understand other people’s thoughts, emotions, and perspectives. It’s likely to stem from the way we engage with stories. As researcher Keith Oatley writes, ”These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories, which includes making inferences and becoming emotionally involved, and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life. Fiction can be thought of as a form of consciousness of selves and others that can be passed from an author to a reader or spectator.” 

Yes, we “forget” books we’ve read in the sense that we can’t easily recall them, or maybe recall but can’t remember much of the plot. In school-like terms, we can’t pass the test. I can’t help thinking, however, that this goes much deeper than surface recall.

Tiny babies take in language all around them. They learn, on their own timetables, more and more words. (Which adults around them can’t help but “test” with “What does an owl say?” and react in delight when the child hoots.)
They also learn what reactions words elicit (Making the sounds for “Want milk” turns, magically, into actual milk.) And they learn much more – how words convey and transform emotion, how words affect people differently, how words on
a flat page can hold a world-stretching story, how words can soothe and harm and instigate and become vehicles for imagination. Thankfully babies acquire language without testing them on where they first learned a word or what picture book taught them about the sounds made by owls.

I believe we take books in much the same way. They sink in deep and stay there whether we can dredge them back up to the surface of recall or not. I can remember some books reasonably well without Google’s help, but those are a fraction of the books that expanded my perspective, deepened my spiritual outlook, and gave me glimpses of lives well beyond my own. I may not remember the titles I’ve loved but at the same time I know they changed me. Still, I’ll let Billy Collins have the last word. 

FORGETFULNESS   by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue
or even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall

well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted   
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

 

 

 

Clichés

“Story is an affirmation of our ties to one another.” 
~Terry Tempest Williams

My spouse and I are listening to a not-so-great audiobook as our long drive’s entertainment. After an hour or so I turn it off for a much-needed break. Mark is surprised I don’t like it. (Apparently he hasn’t heard my sighs.) I suggest the problem is not the plot but the clichéd writing. That’s when my marriage comes into question.

This man, with whom I have made children and to whom I have pledged lifelong fidelity, claims clichés are expected. He sees my expression but unwisely goes on to say he believe clichés are actually necessary.

It’s lazy writing, I tell him. As an editor I excise clichés with a fierce pen. (Although we editors no longer edit with pens.) 

Because we’re stuck in the car, I give him a bit of the cliché talk I share with writing classes. I say thanks to imaging studies, we know what writers have long understood. Sensory-rich language, particularly when embedded in stories, makes writing come alive for the reader.

When we take in straight-up information like a lecture or textbook, our brains show activity largely in the language-processing area. This indicates we are doing the basic work of decoding sounds or symbols into recognizable meaning. In contrast, a well-told story activates not only our language processing areas but also other areas of the brain – putting us inside the story. Say we read about walking into a much loved rib joint where smokers are finishing up bbq pork, greens and onions are frying, a milkshake is being poured from one of those chilled stainless steel malt cups. Our sensory cortex is activated as if we smell the smoker, hear the greens frying, see the thick milkshake slump into the glass. We may even salivate in anticipation.

Consider the way news comes to us. During a quick televised report we might hear brief facts about a suspected break-in on the west side of town, no one hurt, police investigating. We process the information along with the day’s avalanche of facts, unlikely to pay much attention unless we live on the west side or have our own troubling break-in memory. But if we’re told the story differently, we experience the story’s events. Say the homeowner is interviewed. She describes sitting on the couch late at night, snuggled up in her pajamas watching a movie. She thinks she hears something on the back porch. She mutes the volume, listens, gulping back her fear. When the doorknob rattles she grabs her phone. Suddenly broken glass is scattering across the kitchen floor. She leaps from the couch and runs to the front door, her fear-moistened hand scrabbling to turn the knob, and then she’s running barefoot across the snow to her neighbor’s house. She pounds on the door, almost collapsing in relief when she’s welcomed inside. As she tells the story, you react.. Emotional areas of your brain for fear and relief light up. Your motor cortex lights up in the area controlling your hand as if you too are scrabbling at the doorknob, then lights up in your legs and feet as if you too are running down the steps and across the snow.

That’s why I expound on this with my writing students, I tell Mark. So they know to let the reader’s arms feel their strain as they try to lift Grandma out of bed, preserving her dignity though they feel like weeping. So they help readers feel enraged at their high school math teacher’s expression when he suggested they drop out of calculus. So the reader’s skin prickles when they write about an unfair workplace. Mark is nonplussed. This man, who tears up at animal reunion videos, says maybe people don’t feel things as intensely as I do.

These are fighting words, but I’m still in explain-mode.

I’m talking brain imaging, I say. Our brains mirror other brains; that’s how we understand one another. He’s still got his patient listener face on, so I continue. This explains how clichés impair writing. Because when we hear a cliché like put the cart before the horse our brains don’t evidence any interest. That saying was originally a clever use of language the first 1,000 or 100,000 times it was said but our brains react minimally to clichés. Brain imaging shows we take them in only at the most basic level. Phrases like “scared out of my wits” or “made of money” were original once, but now they deaden our responses.  Besides, many clichés in common usage come to us from generations ago, when everyone knew how foolhardy it was to put the actual cart before the actual horse. Take the cliché “caught red-handed.” This likely came from centuries back, when serfs worked the land of some lord or another. There were strict rules against poaching. Even if one’s family was starving on what little they could grow, it was illegal to hunt on the lord’s land. Caught red-handed meant you had blood on your hands and would be severely punished.         

Mark alleges he still likes clichés and gleefully adds the cliché, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”* It’s a game now. We continue to toss out ever more ridiculous clichés until we weary of them and put the audiobook back on.

Listening to it, we finally we reach a cliché-related accord. I agree with him that a book’s character can and perhaps should use clichés if it’s in keeping with that character. In this pop mystery, I can see why a character or two would talk this way. Mark agrees with me that the book we’re listening to also uses clichés in description and plot development outside of character narration, and it’s off-putting. We listen a few more miles and he says. “Now I can’t help but hear all the clichés. Thanks.” We give up on the book.

Yes, we’re still married. And yes, I still give that cliché talk but have learned to keep it in the classroom.

*The expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” first appeared in a book of husbandry back in 1523.  It’s also not true. Studies show you can teach old dogs new tricks, in fact senior dogs do better than young dogs when learning tasks that require inference or reasoning.

First published in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine.

Finding Ourselves In Biographies

What makes us into who we are? I wondered about that early on, thanks to four rows of biographies in the children’s section of Porter Public Library. They were shelved separately from other books, even other biographies, in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Each featured a different person of importance, yet the worn spines looked very much the same when same lined up — as if to say greatness is consistent.

I rode my bike, played with friends, spent time in the woods behind our house,  and indulged in make-believe. I also read for hours every day. I took a stack of books home each time we visited the library. Usually a book or two about animals, a biography, and as much fiction as I could carry. I also brought books home from the school library each week. Typically I finished all the books before it was time to get more, then suffered without reading material.

I carefully selected books from the biography shelves. Initially I chose life stories of anyone Native American, any scientist, any artist. This was a smaller selection than I would have liked. Next I chose any book about women. Also a smaller selection that I would have liked. I worked my way through these shelves, skipping only the volumes about sports giants. Each book, written by template, found significant factors in the subject’s childhood that presaged their future greatness. Of course this led me to consider my own not-so-unique childhood. Being an introvert, I was somewhat relieved that greatness wasn’t in my future. Being  a child obsessed with suffering in the world, however, forecast that I might not grow up to make things better. This added to the burdens of my elementary years.

In my teen years I read well beyond those tired old juvenile biographies, finding books that illuminated these luminaries while showing them as human sized. I realized that people considered leaders in public life were quite likely, just like ordinary people, to be morally weak or otherwise plagued by common failings. My parents weren’t happy when I mentioned these revelations at the dinner table. “There’s nothing wrong with looking up to someone,” they told me. “What do you gain by diminishing heroes?” I thought it helped us see that people considered important aren’t so different from the rest of us. (I didn’t win those dinner table debates.)

I also began to read deeper, more revelatory biographies of people I admired. I watched plants grow through the mystical eye of George Washington Carver.  I hiked  into euphoric vistas with John Muir. I sank into despair with Jane Addams and rose from it as she found her purpose in a dream. I traveled and healed with Albert Schweitzer. I wondered if I might have survived, growing into wisdom as Elie Wiesel had. I fell into Huey P. Newton’s stark revelations about racism in America. I considered my own silence in relation to Maya Angelou’s childhood choices. I examined my dreams after reading Carl Jung’s insights. I crouched behind trees with Jane Goodall, considering our oneness with all creatures.

I suspect each of us is seeded with all sorts of abilities and possibilities. And when challenged, we are likely to do good. What we call “heroism” is explained, by those who exemplify it, as “I was just doing what anyone would have done.”

I remain fascinated by what makes us who we are, beyond neat templates. We can explain this as individual callings, ancestral legacies, trauma-encoded behaviors, archetypal journeys, the grand mystery of each life’s catalysts. Or not explain it at all.

I also remain fascinated by the stories that called to us in childhood, what those stories mean in our lives today,  and how stories of our own ancestors affect who we are.

What “important person” did you look up to as a child? What template was imposed on your childhood? How do you see “greatness” differently from an adult perspective?

 

 

30+ Book Nerd Delights

book nerd, book bucket list,

How many of these do you want to do? Have many have you done? 

Create a hidden room behind a book shelf.

Take a photo of a book title that perfectly epitomizes your day and share on social media.

Read in a cozy retreat like a hammock, tent, yurt, tree fort, whatever sounds cozy to you.

Pay attention to Library Angels. This is the name given to reading materials you aren’t looking for that somehow appear in your life and turn out to be exactly what you need. Here’s a peek at the strange history of book synchronicity.

Regularly exult in the wonder of libraries. In case you’re not aware, library drinking fountains dispense magic water. Really, try it.

When traveling, make a point of visiting an area library. For incentive, here are some of the world’s most beautiful libraries.

Leave a Post It note to the next reader of a library book.  Maybe a simple, “Dear Next Reader, I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.  warmly, Previous Reader.”

Name a child after a literary character or author. There are plenty of lists online like FlavorwireMomJunction, and Babble but chances are, your name and the names of your family members have probably already shown up in literature. Just do a search for “name fictional character.” (My kids’ names are found in the classics, in Star Wars, and in video games although we actually chose names that seemed wise and gentle.)

Bestow literary names elsewhere in your life. When I was a kid, my pink bike was named after a fictional horse. Over the years we’ve given cows, chickens, and dogs some lofty monikers. I tend to name things around the house too, like our vacuum and our kefir starter…

As you read, drink what the characters are drinking in the book.  Local microbrew with Bill McKibben’s Radio Free Vermont, gin with Anne Patchett’s Commonwealth, locally made wine with any of the Inspector Bruno mystery series by Martin Walker, Prosecco  with Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series of novels, hot chocolate mixed with a hint of hot pepper with Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate.

Start or join a book club. If you have time, don’t limit yourself to one.

Indulge in poetry-infused movies and movies about writers.

Savor quotes from your favorite books by copying them onto a plate or mughand printing them on a scarf, or writing them on a shirt using a bleach pen.

Go to book fairs. They’re available in every state of the U.S.  and around the world.

Reread a favorite childhood book to figure out how it shaped your life. (I’m pretty sure The Secret Garden saved me.)

Go to a workshop offered by an author you admire.

Go through a book shelf and donate high quality volumes you no longer want to your local library or an area women’s shelter. Or ship them to Books for SoldiersBooks for Africa, or Reader to Reader. (Huzzah, you’ve just given yourself space for more books.)

Try the read and release method with BookCrossings. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, playground, or waiting room. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently, nearly 12 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Make a composition book cover or try simple bookbinding.

Read under a tree or in a tree or anywhere in nature that inspires you.

Stay up all night to finish a book.

Buy a copy of a book you appreciated and send it to a friend, just because. Do this often.

Whenever possible, buy your books from local brick and mortar bookstores. And get to know the people who work there, they’ll have excellent book suggestions. (But beware. I was thrilled to see a bookstore open not far from me. Although it quacks like a bookstore, it doesn’t act like one. It has lots of local authors and locally made bookish crafts with a token array of bestsellers, but it turns out the owner charges “partners” a non-refundable application fee of $75 to have their book or products sold there for a limited period of time. I cannot imagine what will happen to authors if such a model becomes commonplace.)

When you buy books online, consider steering your dollars to an ethical business or non-profit like Better World Books  or Biblio.

Eat what characters are eating in the book. Thick inviting sourdough bread while reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan, hot fish and corn muffins while reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, authentic bird’s nest soup while reading The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang,  peanut butter bar cookies topped with chocolate while reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest  by J. Ryan Stradal, nachos with cheese sauce while reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, a hearty sandwich of the sort served at The Bistro, in nearly any of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache Series (sign up here to get a free download of Three Pines recipes).

Read in the tub. Or a pool. Or the ocean.

When you travel, read a book set in your destination. Heading to San Francisco? Try  The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World: A Novel of Robert Louis Stevenson by Brian Doyle.  Off to a small town in Wisconsin? Read Jewelweed by David Rhodes. New York City? Try Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt.

Shape snacks that look like books out of fruit leather, honey, and chocolate.

Or heck, help your area library or bookstore run an Edible Book Festival.  Here are some images from the annual festival at Cleveland’s own Loganberry Books.

Cancel plans, then read.

Make altered books.

Connect with your favorite authors on social media. Link to them with a meaningful quote or the way their work changed your outlook. Want more suggestions for showing authors your love? Here are 17 ways.

Let what you read inspire your own work. As Austin Kleon, author of Steal Like an Artist says,  “Read deeply. Stay open. Continue to wonder.”

Reading Has To Do With Play

games to build reading skills

To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.  – Victor Hugo

Reading readiness and reading advancement has little or nothing to do with educational toys, apps, or enrichment programs. It has much more to do with what kids naturally like to do: move their bodies, enjoy stories, take part in conversation, and play freely.

Why?

Movement helps children develop sufficient brain-body maturation so they can successful decode abstract symbols into meaning.  This includes complex neurological pathways as well as sufficient kinesthetic awareness and proprioceptive sense.  (Find out what movements are essential in “Reading Readiness Has To Do With the Body.”)

Reading aloud every day, starting in babyhood, helps children associate reading with closeness and pleasure.  Even a board book builds vocabulary, demonstrates left to right sequencing, and promotes comprehension. We can fold reading time into daily rituals like story time before naps and again after dinner. We can also show how much we value reading by letting kids see us reading our own books and magazines.

As kids get older it’s important to avoid offering rewards for reading or make reading a precondition for privileges. That’s because rewards, even for something kids already enjoy, significantly diminishes their own intrinsic motivation. Telling kids “20 minutes of reading before you can play games on the tablet”casts reading as an obligation, leading kids to devalue reading  while enhancing the appeal of digital entertainment. (No wonder “eat your broccoli before you can have ice cream” makes broccoli the enemy and ice cream even more tempting.)

Stories stretch the mind and imagination. They help us, at any age, develop empathy and give us a larger context for our own lives.  That’s not limited to the page. There’s extraordinary power in telling family stories. When we share tales of our doubts, misdeeds, and triumphs we’re not only building family cohesiveness, we’re also (according to science) helping kids grow up with greater confidence and self-control.

Daily conversations, including all those questions kids ask,  helps them advance in reasoning and social skills while bringing us closer to each other.  Let’s admit, a great deal of parent and child interaction isn’t true conversation so much as directives, complaints, and reminders (because, well, life) so it helps to create openings for conversation. Hold a space for kids to talk about what’s on their minds —- this often seems to happen on a walk, a drive, or at bedtime —- good times to avoid earbuds and screens.  Make a practice of showing you’re listening by using eye contact and avoiding interruption. Talk about big issues and dilemmas in your lives, in your community, and in the news. Big topics have a way of stretching young minds.

Free play is an essential part of childhood. It also helps kids develop the skills necessary for reading well. It may look like fun, but in ways deeper and more vital than we can imagine play is a process of learning. We don’t have to engineer their play. Play is, and always has been, a universal language. Give kids as much time for free play as possible. But when you want to play along, here are a few ideas.

 

Word Play

games to improve reading

  • Tell simple jokes (sorry, this includes Knock Knock jokes), attempt tongue twisters, call each other made-up names, say goodbye in rhymes like “Out of the door dinosaur!” and “See you later excavator!
  • Play Cherries & Pits to get conversations started. Very simply, each person takes turns telling the best things (Cherries) about their day and the worst things (Pits) about their day.
  • Tell round robin stories. One person starts a story with a character and setting (“The elf woke up to find a large bird staring at him.”). The next person adds a few sentences before passing it along to the next person. This works well with as little as two people and nearly always becomes amusingly improbable.
  • Turn socks into puppets for impromptu plays. Puppeteers can hide behind a couch or sheet-covered table to perform, although socks in my house tend to talk on their way to the laundry.
  • Make story stones  (pictures on stones or tiles) and grab a few to prompt a story idea. Other stones can be added as the story goes on.
  • Ask off-the-wall questions. “Would you rather be a monkey or a lion?” “What would it be like if people had wings?” “If we could go on an adventure together what would we do?”
  • Write messages to each other. Scratch a few words in the sand, leave a message in magnetic letters, designate a place (under each other’s bed pillows, perhaps) where secret notes can be left, share a question and answer journal (taking turns asking and answering any and all questions), and leave little love letters for kids to find.
  • Sing songs with familiar tunes and invented lyrics. Those tend to be somewhat scatological in my family, a favorite faux opera here has to do with encouraging dogs to go out and get their elimination duties over with….

 

Games

reading games

  • Play impromptu memory games. For example, take turns tapping out a beat, seeing if the next person can repeat it. Or try imitating movements in sequence (first person jumps, the other person jumps and adds clapping, first person jumps and claps and adds a turkey gobble, and so on).  Or take turns memorizing a sequence of unrelated words to repeat back in two minutes or ten minutes or the next day. Be prepared to lose to your kids!
  • Play hand-motion games like Wheels on the Bus, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Cee Cee My Playmate.  Show kids jump rope rhymes. (You might check out Anna Banana: 101 Jump Rope Rhymes by Joanna Cole.) And don’t forget  hopscotch rhymes.  Research shows these simple games help kids become  better spellers, have neater handwriting, and better overall writing skills.
  • Encourage classic games like checkers, mancala, and chess. Games of all kinds typically help kids understand sequencing, grouping, and memory. No need to choose specifically educational games.
  • Make your own board games along with your child.
  • Set aside one evening a week as a family board game night or set up a kids’ game club with friends. (There are even great games for kids three and under like Roll & Play, First Orchard, and Feed the Woozle.)
  • Waiting in line with kids? Find objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet together, from avocados to zeros. Or play the classic Going on a Picnic game. Start by saying, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark (or any “A” word). The next person continues with “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing an aardvark and a basketball (or any word starting with a B) and so on. The last person to remember and repeat the list is the winner.
  • Encourage active games. Consult Great Games! 175 Games & Activities for Families, Groups, & Children! by Matthew Toone and Mom´s Handy Book of Backyard Games by Pete Cava.
  • Use the dictionary (print copy!) to play surprisingly addictive word games like Blackbird.

Map Play

games to help readers

  • Encourage kids to draw maps of places they know well (your kitchen, your house, your street) and maps of imaginary places (alien planets, mythic kingdoms, ninja training camps).  Draw a map of where you’ve hidden packed lunches for them to discover or the bedtime chapter book you’ll read.
  • Encourage children to set up obstacle courses. Indoors this may include three somersaults through the hall, chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, and a bunk bed ladder to climb. Outdoors the course can be more ambitious.
  • Enjoy regular treasure hunts. First hide a prize or two. Then place clues through the house or yard. These can be simple words or sentences, symbols, or pictures. Each clue leads to the next. The prize doesn’t have to be a toy or candy (it could be a note saying “we’re going to the park!”) the fun is in the hunting. Encourage children to set up their up treasure hunts too.
  • Letterboxing combines walking, navigation, and solving riddles. Clues help seekers find “letterboxes” hidden outdoors. Seekers mark their logbooks with a rubber stamp found in this box, mark a logbook in the box with their own personal stamp, then leave the box for the next seeker. For more information and links to regional clues, check with organizations such as Letterboxing North America  or Atlas Quest. Or use the guidebook, It’s a Treasure Hunt! Geocaching & Letterboxing.
  • Try orienteering. This sport combines navigation, map reading, and decision-making. Participants walk, run, bike, or ski using a map and compass to choose the best route on or off the trail. Consult Orienteering Made Simple And Gps Technology: An Instructional Handbook by Nancy Kelly.
  • Take turns playing Line Zombie. Draw a line on paper with a pencil or on the ground with chalk, using arrows to indicate direction. The other person must follow the line either by tracing on the paper with marker or walking on the chalk line. Zombie noises optional.

 

Portions of this post adapted from Free Range Learning.

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever platform you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They make wonderful business gifts for clients and great promotions for related products. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. I’m a long-time member of a book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. And our boys’ book club lasted till our kids all went off to college, over nine years of lively bookish gatherings.  You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings.

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There’s a wealth of not-so-mainstream options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Expose local authors. Ask an author to serve as an expert, answering a question or two for an interview to be published online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or give a talk to your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype. Talk up local authors with people you know.

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

I Can’t Hear You, I’m Reading

can't hear when I read, lost in reading, unreachable reader,

“Girl Reading” Pierre-Auguste Renoir (public domain)

I don’t simply get lost in books. When I read, I am unreachable.

Getting too absorbed in reading was a problem when I was a kid. I didn’t notice if I’d been reading in the tub so long the water turned cold. I didn’t notice the lamp I surreptitiously turned on after bedtime was still illuminating my page close to midnight. I didn’t hear my mother tell me to “get your nose out of that book and go outside” or hear her call me for dinner. I wasn’t trying to disobey. When you’re swooping aloft on the air currents of a story it’s hard to notice what’s happening back on Earth.

The problem was worse in school. I’d get done with some inane social studies assignment and sneak a library book from my desk. Soon I’d lift off, finding myself in the howling winds of a Siberian blizzard or the scorching plains of Africa. Eventually the poke of a classmate’s finger would rouse me. I’d look up to an odd silence only to realize the class had moved on to math and the teacher had called on me.

I got lost in more than books. I started reading daily newspapers when I was ten or eleven years old. (Trying to figure out the nonsensical world of grown-ups, something I’m still trying to do.) My younger brother tells me I was entirely unreachable behind the paper. He had repeated nightmares that he ran into the room yelling, “Dad has been kidnapped!” only to hear my preoccupied “uh huh.”

When I became a mother I didn’t let myself read for fear of ignoring my babies. Okay, that’s a lie. I read when they were asleep or safely occupied. (Surely they needed a break from my constantly loving gaze and all those vocabulary-enhancing conversations.) I took my babies out twice a day in any weather passable enough for a jaunt, often walking with a book propped on the stroller handle. (This was possible only because there was no traffic in my neighborhood.) I also read while nursing, peeled potatoes with a book on the counter, read well into wee hours of the night despite chronic new mom exhaustion. Admitting this to people unafflicted with a library addiction as severe as mine feels uncomfortably revealing.

I thought my lost-in-books-syndrome had eased somewhat by now. That is, until I missed a flight because I was reading.

I rarely fly, so I’m super responsible about the details. I print out copies of my flight information for my family, compact everything I need in a small carry-on, take healthy snacks, and arrive at the airport ridiculously early. Apparently what’s really irresponsible is allowing myself to take reading materials.

Last time I had to fly I was heading home from San Francisco. My fellow homebodies will understand why I chose a non-direct flight, one that stopped in a small Texas airport, simply because it departed earlier in the day and let me get home sooner. I had almost two hours between connecting flights but didn’t waste a moment getting to the the departure area. In this not-so-big airport with its small departure gates I couldn’t find a seat unencumbered by people or their luggage or their Cinnabun bags. So I sat on the carpet, my back against the wall, and started reading The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. I made sure I was no more than 10 feet from the desk to ensure I’d hear them call my flight.

I repeatedly looked up to check the clock until I lifted off into the book, becoming lost to linear concepts like time. When I looked up again (after what seemed like only moments) the area was empty.

A plane was taxing away from the window.

I wasn’t on it.

A bored employee assured me the flight had been called several times. They saw me sitting there but I didn’t look up. There were no flights heading north or west after mine till the next morning.

I got to spend the entire night on a hard plastic airport bench. The lights were dimmed but informational announcements about keeping your luggage secure played every 15 minutes. All. Night. Long.

I finished my book. I read everything on my Kindle. I memorized the posters on the wall. I thought bitterly about living on a backward planet where transporter beams are not yet a reality.

Perhaps I should start a support group. Hello, my name is Laura. I’m an Unreachable Reader.

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Example

Louis Benezet, natural math,

1930’s classroom (forestpark4.wikidot.com)

Children are intrinsically eager and able to learn. If we step back from our limiting preconceptions about education, we discover learning flourishes when we facilitate it rather than try to advance it through force, intimidation, and coercion.

Over 85 years ago a pioneering educator proved that delaying formal instruction, in this case of mathematics, benefits children in wonderfully unexpected ways. Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire schools, advocated the postponement of systematic instruction in math until after sixth grade. Benezet wrote,

I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children thru the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.

While developing this rationale, Benezet spoke with eighth-grade students. He noted they had difficulties putting their ideas into English and could not explain simple mathematical reasoning. This was not only in his district; he found the same results with fourteen-year-old students in Indiana and Wisconsin. Benezet didn’t blame the children or teachers, he blamed introducing formal equations too early.  So he began an experiment, abandoning traditional arithmetic instruction below the seventh grade.

In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite – my new Three R’s. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language.

To start, he picked out five classrooms, choosing those districts where most students were from immigrant homes and the parents spoke little English. Benezet knew that in other districts the parents with greater English skills and higher education would have vehemently objected, ending the experiment before it started.

In the experimental classrooms, children were exposed to what we’d call naturally occurring math. They learned how to tell time and keep track of the date on the calendar. The students played with toy money, took part in games using numbers, and when dimension terms such as “half” or “double” or “narrower” or “wider” came up incidentally, they were discussed. Instead of math, the emphasis was on language and composition. As Benezet describes these children,

They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division.

At the end of the first school year, Benezet reported that the contrast between the experimental and traditionally taught students was remarkable. When he visited classrooms to ask children about what they were reading, he described the traditionally taught students as “hesitant, embarrassed and diffident. In one fourth grade I could not find a single child who would admit that he had committed the sin of reading.” Students in the experimental classrooms were eager to talk about what they’d been reading. In those rooms, an hour’s discussion went by with still more children eager to talk.

Benezet hung a reproduction of a well-known painting in the classrooms and asked children to write down anything the art inspired. Another obvious contrast appeared. When he showed the ten best papers from each room to the city’s seventh-grade teachers, they noted that one set of papers showed much greater maturity and command of the language. They observed that the first set of papers had a total of 40 adjectives such as nice, pretty, blue, green, and cold. The second set of papers had 128 adjectives, including magnificent, awe-inspiring, unique, and majestic. When asked to guess which district the papers came from, each teacher assumed that the students who wrote the better papers were from schools where the parents spoke English in the home. In fact, it was the opposite. Those students who wrote the most masterfully were from his experimental classes.

Yet another difference was apparent. It was something that Benezet had anticipated. He explained, “For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child’s reasoning faculties.” At the end of that first year, he went from classroom to classroom and asked children the same mathematical story problem. The traditionally taught students grabbed at numbers but came up with few correct results, while the experimental students reasoned out correct answers eagerly, despite having minimal exposure to formal math.

Based on these successes, the experiment expanded. By 1932, half of the third- to fifth-grade classes in the city operated under the experimental program. Due to pressure from some school principals, children in the experimental classrooms were back to learning from a math book in the second half of sixth grade. All sixth-grade children were tested. By spring of that year all the classes tested equally. When the final tests were given at the end of the school year, one of the experimental groups led the city. In other words, those children exposed to traditional math curricula for only part of the sixth-grade year had mastered the same skills as those who had spent years on drills, times tables, and exams.

In 1936, the Journal of the National Education Association published the final article by Benezet. His results showed the clear benefits of replacing formal math instruction with naturally occurring math while putting a greater emphasis on reading, writing, and reasoning. The journal called on educators to consider similar changes.

As we know, schools went in the opposite direction.

Louis Paul Bénézet

Louis Paul Bénézet

This article is an excerpt from Free Range Learning. (Next post, the extraordinary benefits of emphasizing natural math over math instruction.)

A Dozen Ways To Revel In Poetry

poetry fun, celebrate poetry, exquisite corpse, traveling poetry, set poems free,

It’s all about how the letters are arranged. (mosswaterss)

1. Leave poems where they’ll be discovered. Write a poem on the sidewalk with chalk, crayon it on your child’s lunch napkin, tack it on your market’s public notice board, or tuck it into a friend’s coat pocket.

2. Pull a poem from a hat. Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat. Try the “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” method.

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

3. Dine with poetry. Linger over some beautiful lines as you savor each mouthful.  The poems don’t have to be about food, but that can add to your pleasure. Find a rich assortment in The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink edited by Kevin Young and in Appetite: Food as Metaphor: An Anthology of Women Poets edited by Phyllis Stowell and Jeanne Foster. Or let these poems nourish you.

~”From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee

~”Perhaps the World Ends Here” by Joy Harjo

~”Love Poem with Toast” by Miller Williams

~”The Invention of Cuisine” by Carol Muske-Dukes

~”Onions” by William Matthews

4. Sign up for poem-a-day sites. This month my wonderful library system is offering 30 days of poetry by email, featuring the work of local poets along with prompts for your own work.  You may also want to subscribe to Poetry Daily.

5. Watch poetry-infused movies.

6. Play Exquisite Corpse. This strangely fascinating game was created by the Surrealists in Paris. To play with several people, each person writes a phrase on a sheet of paper, folds the paper to conceal the words, and passes it on to the next player to contribute the next line. Each participant must be unaware of what the others have written, thus producing an absurd but often delightful poem.

7. Let yourself fall in love with spoken word poetry. 

~”Human the Death Dance” by Buddy Wakefield

~”Drunk Text Message to God” by George Watsky

~”OCD” by Neil Hilborn

~”Shrinking Woman” by Lily Myers

~”Accents” by Denise Frohman

~”Place Matters” by Clint Smith

8. Go on a poetry diet.

9. Set poetry books free. Leave them where strangers can find them, perhaps a coffee shop, a hospital waiting room, a dentist’s office, a barber shop, or a muffler repair shop’s waiting room.  If you’d like, register them with BookCrossing.com to see where they travel.

10. Take a poem into nature. It doesn’t have to be wilderness, simply under a tree or near water, and the poems don’t need to reference nature although these do.

~”Catechism for a Witch’s Child” by J.L. Stanley

~”The Silence of the Stars” by David Wagoner

~”The Seven of Pentacles” by Marge Piercy

~”Sometimes” by Sheenagh Pugh

~”Hum” by Mary Oliver

11. Hang on to poetic life lines. Some lines read long ago wait in our memories, rising to awareness at just the right time. The Academy of American Poets offers some time-honored life lines.

This line by art historian Bernard Berenson came to my mind recently as a friend struggled with cancer.  “I would have stood at street corners hat in hand begging passers by to drop their unused minutes into it.”

12. Curate a collection of your favorite poems. If a poem truly resonates with you, save it. Print such poems out out and paste them in a lovely scrapbook, or copy them by hand in a journal, or calligraph them on fine paper, or (as I do much less artfully) keep them in a word doc. After a few years you’ll have a highly personal, completely invaluable collection.

It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.