Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Such was Archimedes

Doesn't this sound like Doyle's depiction of Watson describing his own response to Sherlock Holmes? This quote is Plutarch describing Archimedes.
Some ascribe this to his natural genius; while others think that incredible effort and toil produced these, to all appearances, easy and unlabored results. No amount of investigation of yours would succeed in attaining the proof, and yet, once seen, you immediately believe you would have discovered it - by so smooth and so rapid a path he leads you to the conclusion . . . Such was Archimedes.

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith

From the opening paragraph:
Professor Dr. Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld's birthday fell on the first of May. He would not always have remembered it had the anniversary not occurred on May Day itself; as a small boy he had been convinced that the newspaper photographs of parades in Red Square, those intimidating displays of missiles, and the grim-faced line-up of Politburo officials, all had something to do with the fact that he was turning six or seven, or whatever birthday it was. Such is the complete confidence of childhood that we are each of us at the centre of the world - a conviction out of which not all of us grow, and those who do grow out of it sometimes do so only with difficulty. And this is so very understandable; as Auden remarked, how fascinating is that class of which I am the only member.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feline Memoriam

She was just an American mutt cat. People hardly noticed at first, but she was a calico. White across most her body, she had a splash of black on the crown of her head, lapping up on one ear, a splash of gold on her cheek and a smudge of gold by her nose and then a beautiful gold and black tail. She had the tiniest, daintiest, and the most beautifully pink paw pads you could imagine.

She joined us as a kitten, in October 1994. At church, a semi-feral mother cat had had a litter of kittens which, for reasons unclear, she had nested in a trellis, twenty feet above ground. Daily, she would, one by one, carry the kittens down to the ground and then back up the trellis. Eventually, the church staff began capturing the kittens as they became old enough and found homes for them among the parishioners. We took one. But still there were more kittens. With a two and a half year old boy and a two month old girl, and two other cats at home, Sally did not feel like there was quite enough going on and thought that if one kitten was good then two would obviously be better.

The call came one week while I was away on business. Sally trekked down to church, children in tow and in hand. Another kitten was available. "She doesn't seem at all friendly, I don't think you will want her with small children in the house" she was told. Sally instructed our boy to sit down against the wall and to be quiet and still. He sat as infinitely flexible children sit: back straight up, legs straight out in front. "Open the cage. Let's see what happens." Bennett jumped out, trotted over to Price, lay down in his lap and started purring loudly. That was all that was required to secure a place in Sally's heart and a new home.

So she joined us. Late Friday, I returned home, digesting the week's events, writing reports in my mind, figuring out how to analyze a client's business problems. Washing up before joining the family for dinner, I registered that there was a cat litter box in our bathroom. Hmmm. Wonder why that's there? But I just registered it. Other more important things to think about.

At dinner, Price could hardly contain himself. Despite coaching from Sally to not say anything and to see how long it would take before I noticed that the cat population of the house had increased by fifty percent, after two or three bites of dinner he burst out, "Daddy, did you see what was in your bathroom?" I could only look at Sally, "You didn't."

But she had. And so Bennett joined us and became a part of our family adventures. Quiet, shy and self-effacing, she was hardly to be seen when visitors were about. But when we were on our own, she would find whoever was still, snuggle up to them and softly purr contentedly. She took to jumping into the crib with baby Sarah, always curling up in the crook of her arm, two little lives bound together from the beginning. It has been one of those cherished small pleasures in my life to come into a room and find one of the kids reading and there, no matter what posture they were in, would be Bennett. Lying in their lap, snuggled up by their face, on their back, crouched on their legs. Somewhere. And purring.

She was a well travelled cat, one of not too many that circumnavigated the globe. She moved with us from Atlanta to Australia. There in that wonderfully strange land, she stalked geckos and huntsman spiders in the house, chased mynah birds out of the kitchen and fended off Australian possums trying to climb through Price's louvered windows.

She came with us from Australia to England where she had to reside in quarantine for two or three months. Fortunately she was relatively close to us and Sally and the kids could visit her periodically. They would be shown down the hall of large cages, somehow squeeze all of themselves into her cage and then be left for an hour to commune and share their ham sandwiches. Never aggressive, Bennett could be forward when there was a whiff of ham in the air.

Then back to Atlanta. Around the globe and with a world full of experiences, she was back where she began, back to the familiar.

The family has grown. The two and a half year old is now sixteen, towering above Bennett's visual horizon. The baby girl is a lovely young woman with a tender heart. Another boy came along, noisy and energetic but capable of gentleness where an aging cat is concerned. There have been other pets, a magnificent Boxer dog, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, frogs, etc. They have come and they have gone but Bennett was the quiet mistress of the pet world in the house.

This last year, age crept up on her. She slowed down. Always petite, she lost weight. Always stalking, this past month, she was now being stalked. In the past week it was clear the time had come. And now she is gone.

She was just an American mutt cat, but she was loved. She was one of those small, gentle, quiet, ornaments of life. She brought her own measure of grace, beauty and contentment. Rest in Peace.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Sometimes the solution is just waiting to be found.

One of the issues with which we have wrestled at Through the Magic Door is the incorporation of an appropriate rating system for books. One that is meaningful, descriptive, reliable and not subject to gaming. A rating system that addresses the world as we find it, rather than the world as we might want it to be.

In the next iteration of our advanced search database on the site, we will be incorporating a rating system that we hope meets these criteria.

There has, however, been one unresolved issue. We have Highly Recommended (HR) books (with appropriate descriptions and examples of what that means), Recommended (R) books and Suggested (S) books. We even have a category of books, Possible (P). P books are those that are pretty pedestrian or flawed in some way and are unlikely to appeal to the average reader but might be happily read by individuals with a strong interest in the topic or genre.

But what to do about those books towards which we as parents raise a skeptical eyebrow? Books which our children may enthusiastically want to read but of which we are deeply suspicious in terms of taste or values? Books about gastrically impaired canines (Walter the Farting Dog), sartorially challenged kids (The Adventures of Captain Underpants), trans-species (?) romance (Twilight), socially twisted mean girls (Baby-Sitters club), the linguistically challenged (Junie B. Jones), etc.

Books which under most circumstances we would definitely not recommend except that they are books which kids love to read at a certain age. Books that, in their own fashion, do help build the habit of reading despite their content or nature. Which is the greater good, more reading or reading fewer, "better" books? Of course that is a false dichotomy. In fact, the raison detre for Through the Magic Door is in part to make sure parents can easily find the really good books that are likely to appeal to their children in place of the aesthetically challenged fare being hawked so indiscriminately. None-the-less, no matter how many good books you may make available to your child, like as not, there will be a phase (or two or three) when your child wants to read something that is highly suspect in terms of either aesthetic quality or in terms of behavioral norms that are being advanced.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we only review books we believe are likely to be worthwhile to some child and parent. We don't invest time in reading or reviewing a book in order to trash it. De facto, if there is no review then we either haven't read the book or we have read it and it is not one we would recommend.

So how to deal with books that we have read and don't recommend but recognize that children will want to read anyway because it is the hot item on the publishing circuit and being heavily promoted or because their friends are reading it or because it touches on the inappropriate? "Eskimo", to use Mrs. Gilbraith's euphemism in the wonderful Cheaper By The Dozen.

We don't want to necessarily promote these books by drawing attention to them but it is not appropriate to stick one's head in the sand and just pretend that they don't exist and aren't effective in getting some children to keep reading? That is the problem we have been wrestling with.

In this quarter's ever delightful Slightly Foxed, (the literary magazine that is dedicated to bringing attention to wonderful books from the past few years or century that have drifted from the limelight), there is an article, Nobody Ever Writes to Me, by David Spiller regarding the six volume collection of the correspondence, The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, 1955- 1962, between those classic old-school literary figures George Lyttelton and Rupert Hart-Davis. Their very names evoke a lost age that was only a blink of the eye ago.

As an aside, I should warn readers that Slightly Foxed is an incideous magazine for anyone infected with even the mildest strain of bibliophilia. In a house bursting at the seams with books and no place to put even the normal volume of new acquisitions that I make, the last thing I need is to be lured into new purchases. Collected correspondence between literati from fifty years ago, is, in the normal course of events, virtually at the bottom of my list of books to watch out for. More than at the bottom. Down the well. Way down.

And yet Spiller has done what all the writers in Slightly Foxed do. He has piqued my interest. He has ignited a spark. I know that, should I come across this set of books in my visit to bookstores, there is a high likelihood that, despite my prejudices, other interests and lack of space, those books will be coming home with me. Subscribe to Slightly Foxed if you wish but beware.

In his article, Spiller comments on how Lyttelton and Harte-Davis corresponded about many things but among other items, they wrote of literature and of books and how despite the differences in their ages, there was a high degree of agreement and judgement. He mentions:
Both men read Ian Fleming, whom Lyttelton described as 'bad and at the same time compellingly readable'.

I think we have there the answer to our rating dilemma. To HR, R, S, and P we can now add BBCR - Bad But Compellingly Readable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The House of Christmas by G.K. Chesterton

The House of Christmas

by G.K. Chesterton

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost - how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wives' tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Sunday, November 30, 2008


Thunderstruck is Erik Larson's most recent book. Previously, he has written among others, The Devil in the White City, which I have not read, and Isaac's Storm, which I have read and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in history and/or natural disasters.

I similarly recommend Thunderstruck. Larson adopts a particular story-telling stratagem which does take a little getting used to, but it does work in the end. He has two stories to tell, one of the development of wireless telegraphy by Guglielmo Marconi and the second of a mild mannered wife murderer, Dr. Hawley Crippen. Larson tells these two stories as separate but interleaved tales and for the first half of the book this is a little distracting but as you approach midway, the logical connection becomes more compelling. It works. Larson is a storyteller in the old fashioned, strong narrative style of Walter Lord.

I have had this book for some while, repining in various stacks around the house. I kept putting off reading it because I have in the past read two, three or maybe even four chapter length accounts of Dr. Crippen's crime and I knew of its significance in terms of wireless telegraphy. I am glad I did eventually pick up Thunderstruck and begin reading though. Larson is a masterful story-teller and brings to life this fascinating period of technological progress and social change. A sample paragraph of his very evocative writing style:
Despite the war Hawley enjoyed a childhood of privilege. He grew up in a house at 66 North Monroe, one block north of Chicago Street, at the edge of an avenue columned with straight-trunked trees having canopies as dense and green as broccoli. In summer sunlight filtered to the ground and left a paisley of blue shadow that cooled the mind as well as the air.

Monday, November 17, 2008

British and American Favorites

As an inveterate list-keeper, I am always interested in comparisons between one time period and another, and between one place or culture and another.

In the past year a major establishment newspaper in the UK and one in the US both, within six months of one another, asked their readers a slight variant on the basic question - What were your favorite childhood books? The UK paper, The Daily Telegraph, ran their question January 17, 2008 and the US paper, The New York Times ran its question July 19, 2007. The Telegraph had 189 commenters leaving one or more suggestions. The New York Times had 1,031. The Telegraph readers identified 430 separate books that they recalled fondly from their childhoods whereas the larger number of Times' readers mentioned 977 separate titles.

The results are of course completely unscientific but, as is often the case, the less rigorous the method, the more interesting the speculative discussion arising. The Telegraph and the Times both occupy similar societal/journalistic positions as papers of record and probably are reasonably similar in terms of the income/education/professional occupation profiles of their readers. The Times' responses might have a slightly greater emphasis on fantasy and science fiction as the question was asked in the time period around the release of the final instalment of Harry Potter.

OK; enough caveats. Below are the results from the readers of the two papers. Listed first are the top twenty individual titles specifically mentioned by the readers in each country. There is then a second list of authors where readers indicated something along the lines of "All of Roald Dahl" or "Everything by Louisa May Alcott."

There are four titles that show up on both the UK and the US lists; The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Charlotte's Web. There are also four cross-over authors; Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Enid Blyton and Isaac Asimov. I am amazed that Enid Blyton made it onto the top twenty list of authors on the Times' list. I can only speculate that a good number of Canadians must have snuck across the internet frontier to put in some votes. None-the-less it is interesting that the four cross-overs should represent two quintessentially American and two quintessentially English authors. Other surprises - Poe, Alcott, Milne, Nesbit, Andersen, Dickens, Kipling, Verne and C.S. Lewis each show up on only one list, and not even necessarily on that of their country of origin. Hmmm.

Top Twenty Authors in the UK and US
(The Daily Telegraph)
(The New York Times)
Enid BlytonJudy Blume
C.S. LewisRoald Dahl
Arthur RansomeBeverly Cleary
Beatrix PotterRobert Heinlein
Roald DahlIsaac Asimov
AesopJules Verne
Rudyard KiplingDr. Seuss
Willard PriceRay Bradbury
William ShakespeareEnid Blyton
Charles DickensJack London
E. NesbitLouisa May Alcott
Hans Christian AndersenMark Twain
Malcolm SavilleAlbert Payson Terhune
R.L. StevensonMadeline L'Engle
Captain MarryatEdward Eager
Dr. SeussL.M. Montgomery
G.A. HentyA.A. Milne
H. Rider HaggardAgatha Christie
Isaac AsimovEdgar Allan Poe
Jacqueline WilsonJohn Bellairs

Friday, November 14, 2008

Book Connections

One of the many attributes of books are their function as routes of connection. Connection between distant partners in a one way conversation; connections across time; connections into imagined realities.

A minor aspect of this connectedness between readers through the medium of a book is the detritus of reading that attaches itself to a book. If you are an avid frequenter of used-book bookstores, as I am, you will know what I mean. Aside from the thrill of finding a book you had heard of but never seen, of finding a new author whom you are willing to try out when it only costs three or four dollars as opposed to twenty, of finding some magnum opus on some narrowly focused topic which appeals to you, there is also the occasional shiver of connection when there is some visible mark of the prior reader.

Sometimes this mark is an irritant. Fine books which someone has dog eared, or worse yet, highlighted or underscored are a particular disappointment. 'How could they?' Then there are the signs you come across that prompt you to try and imagine some vanished scene. This piece of buttered toast, these cracker crumbs, this splash of spaghetti sauce - just what were the circumstances that immortalized them in these pages?

More intriguingly are the signs and evidence of the prior owner as a person. Certainly if they have signed their name on the inside cover. Sometimes there is even a telephone number or address indicating that the book was so valued that they wanted it returned if they became separated from it. Occasionally the book is sufficiently old that the telephone number is simply a town name and a four digit number. Imagine what the environment was for this book when your phone number was only four digits.

Perhaps my first exposure to the thrill of connecting through books occurred when I was ten or twelve and in the first thralls of what was to turn into a lifelong fascination with Egyptology. We were in London for a few days, an interlude on the way from somewhere to somewhere. I spent the morning and early afternoon in the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. Coming out of those wonderful hallways of imperial collecting, I crossed over the street to the line of bookstores that then faced the Museum, each specialising in some aspect of history. Making my way down the line, I came to one that focused on archaeology. Entering the doorway, the magical door, I came into a wonderful bookstore of floor to ceiling bookshelves, a bustling elderly lady behind the counter, the smell of musty old books and furniture wax, and the feeling that the people who were in there were the people that were meant to be there. The distant but real affiliation one feels for fellow bibliophiles.

At that time, I had a particular fascination for a British egyptologist, Sir William Flinders Petrie, who had conducted digs in Egypt and the Middle East from the 1880's through the 1930's. Asking at the counter whether they had any of his works, which I did not see on the shelves, the elderly gentlemen who appeared to run the store with his wife, said he thought he had some in the back. He disappeared for five or ten minutes and came back with four or five volumes of Petrie's works. What a find and in nice condition as well. From the 1890s, they positively emanated an aurora of ambassadorship for their era. I fortunately could just afford them and happily made my way back to our flat.

It was only there that I discovered that two of these books had been owned by E.A. Wallis Budge, a fellow Egyptologist and contemporary of Petrie. Budge had not only signed the books but there were occasional marginalia scattered throughout where he either agreed with or disputed some observation of Petrie's. I felt like I had suddenly come into possession of a truly magical thing, this book that had been held and handled and marked by another Egyptologist whom I had read of and admired. It felt as if I were casting myself back in time and reading through his eyes.

I am not sure I have, since that time, come across anything quite so evocative, but there have been plenty of minor items. Yellow faded newspaper reviews tucked into the back of the book where clearly someone has been taken by a review of a book, cut it out, and made their way to a bookstore to buy the book. Sometimes it is as small as some torn pieces of paper with little notes wedged in at some important passage; important to that long ago and often long passed reader. Occasionally there is money used as a bookmark - a twenty dollar bill is the highest denomination I have yet come across - Thank you long ago prior reader!

All of this is brought to mind by a book I have just finished. I have been sampling mystery writers from the early and mid twentieth century, particular authors that are gifted with capturing the essence and feel for a particular place and time. Raymond Chandler was a real pleasure but also Ross Macdonald, Rex Stout and others. I have also been enjoying Sjowall (Sweden), van de Wetering (Netherlands), and Mankell (Sweden again). And then there is Georges Simenon and his Maigret. Apart from rendering Paris of the 1930's - 1960's, there is the pleasure that Simenon was so prolific. As long as you enjoy the Maigret stories, there is always another new one to find - more than a hundred novels and short stories.

I picked up a copy of Simenon's Maigret and the Killer at Book Nook. It sat in a stack for a while till I recently pulled it out and began reading. As I did so a slender book mark fluttered to the floor. A Common Reader book mark. The book is not inscribed so I know not who the former owner was. But we apparently did have a point of connection beyond Maigret and the Killer.

A Common Reader was a wonderful little book catalogue company back in the 1980s through the early 2000s, run by Jim Mustich. Their catalogue was always a pleasure to read, independent of whether there were books you might wish to order. It was truly a reader's community of kindred spirits. The catalogue was of such quality that I know of many readers who saved them as they might a book. This was not just another piece of junk mail. They focused on the little known treasures and on customer service. For seven years, when my career took me overseas to Australia and the UK, A Common Reader was a link back to the US reading community and they heroically shipped large numbers of books to me in out of the way places. Like so many others, A Common Reader fell victim to the commercial tundra-like conditions that is the modern book business. They went out of business in 2006, leaving a mournful reading community with fond memories.

And bookmarks. We share that one additional connection, whoever had Maigret and the Killer before me. We both like Simenon and his Maigret books and apparently we were both Common Readers.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The power of literature

From Esme Raji Codell's Educating Esme. Codell relates her experiences as a first year fifth grade teacher in a new Chicago inner city school. One anecdote pertains to Estes, our featured author on May 8th, 2008.
After lunch each day I read aloud to them. We push the desks out of the way, pull down the shades, and turn off all the lights, except for an antique Victorian desk lamp I have. It is a very cozy time.

I was reading them The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, about a Polish immigrant girl who is so poor that she wears the same dress to school every day but insists that she has a hundred dresses lined up in her closet. The girls tease her mercilessly until she moves away. Her antagonists discover that she really did have a hundred dresses . . . a hundred beautiful drawings of dresses. Oh, God, it took everything not to cry when I closed the book! I especially like that the story is told from the teaser's point of view.

Well, everything was quiet at the end, but then Ashworth asked if he could whisper something in my ear. He whispered, "I have to tell the class something," and discretly showed me that he was missing half of a finger. It was a very macabre moment but I didn't flinch.

I faced him toward the class and put my hands on his shoulders. He was trembling terribly. "Ashworth has something personal to share with you. I hope you will keep in mind The Hundred Dresses when he tells you."

"I . . . I only have nine and a half fingers," he choked. "Please don't tease me about it." He held up his hands.

The class hummed, impressed, then was silent as Ashworth shifted on his feet. Finally, Billy called out, "I'll kick the ass of anyone who makes fun of you!"

"Yeah, me too!" said Kirk.

"Yeah, Ash! You just tell us if anyone from another class messes with you, we'll beat their ass up and down!"

Yeah, yeah, yeah! The class became united in the spirit of ass-kicking. Ashworth sighed and smiled at me. The power of literature!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Force but no motion

I am enjoying a book by Esme Raji Codell, Educating Esme, an account of her first year as a teacher. A wonderfully enthusiastic teacher, she has a stubborn and plain-spoken streak that comes across in her writing. Speaking of her attempts to make classroom teaching exciting and memorable, she comments on those who are more concerned to conform to the accepted and who speak out against innovations.
"But certain people just think it's their job to freak out. As long as they're freaking out, they feel busy, like they must be doing work. Getting upset is force, but no motion. Unless we are moving the children forward, we aren't doing work."

If you wait long enough

The pieces come together.

Some thirty or more years ago, I read in a book of sea stories, or perhaps a book about the naval war in World War II, a paragraph account about a ship's steward from China who held the record for the longest survival at sea following a sinking, more than a hundred days. My recollection was that this occurred in the Pacific. For some unknown reason, this glancing reference fascinated me then, and has stuck with me over the years. I think it was just the idea of being adrift for nearly a third or half a year, an immensity of time for a ten or fifteen year old as I would have then been, when I read of it. I remember wondering, as I often do when reading of disaster or survival stories, what later became of the survivor.

Well, good things come to those who wait. I picked up a copy of Captain James E. Wise, Jr.'s Sole Survivors of the Sea from the Eagle Eye Bookstore. Published in 1994, it is a collection 2-10 page accounts of sinkings in which, as one would suspect from the title, there is a sole survivor. And there, in Chapter Two, is the account of Poon Lim and his survival for 133 days adrift as the sole survivor of the S.S. Benlomond. My recollection of the story proved to be pretty accurate with the exception that the sinking actually took place in mid-Atlantic 750 miles east of the Amazon River.

The Benlomond was torpedoed on November 23, 1942 by the U-172 and sank quickly. Lim with the rest of the crew abandoned ship and was left drifting in the water till he managed to locate one of the ship's large rafts. Climbing aboard, he found himself alone but with some basic provisions. With careful husbanding of these supplies and recurrent efforts at fishing and collecting rain water, Lim survived 133 days alone and adrift across the South Atlantic before being rescued by a fisherman ten miles off the Brazilian coast.

Lim was feted, studied and honored for his unique feat of survival. He received the US Merchant Marine Combat Bar with One Star as well as being invested by King George VI with the British Empire Medal. Poon Lim eventually settled in the USA, became a US citizen, and worked with the United States Line as Chief Steward until retiring in 1983.

While there have now been longer durations of survival at sea (177 days is the current record), Poon Lim still remains, sixty five years after the event, the holder of the record for duration of solo survival at sea with 133 days alone on a raft in a wide open and little travelled ocean.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Gloomy Academic by Louis MacNeice

Sappho and Alcaeus by Alma-Tadema, 1881
The Gloomy Academic
by Louis MacNeice

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills...
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats


Sailing to Byzantium
by William Butler Yeats

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Falling Down is Part of Growing Up

"With each tottering attempt to walk, our bodies learn from the falls what not to do next time. In time we walk without thinking and think without falling, but it is not so much that we have learned how to walk as we have learned not to fall."
To Engineer Is Human by Henry Petroski page 13

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Skippery Boo by Earl L. Newton

The Skippery Boo
By Earl L. Newton

I went to bring,
From the rippling spring,
One morning dry and damp,
A brimming pail
Of Adam's ale
For use about the camp;
My happy frame
Did well proclaim
A cheerful bent of mind,
And I hummed a song,
As I loped along,
Of the most enchanting kind.
But my heart stood still,
As I turned the hill,
And the spring came to my view,
For drinking there
Of the potion rare,
Was the terrible Skippery Boo.

He drank his fill
From the flowing rill,
And shook his mighty mane,
Then with his jaws
And his hairy paws,
He ripped a tree in twain.
With fear and dread
To camp I sped,
For my trusty .30 bore,
Then turned about
With daring shout,
And sought the spring once more;
But though my feet
With speed were fleet,
As o'er the glade I flew,
No sign was there
On earth, in air,
Of the slippery Skippery Boo.

To left and right
I strained my sight,
To find where he had gone,
Among the pines
I sought for signs,
But found not a single one.
To East and West
I turned my quest,
But all to no avail,
No trace I found
On gorse or ground,
Of his departing trail.
And then aloft
My gaze I doffed,
And there in the hazy blue,
On the topmost spine
Of the tallest pine,
Hung the fabulous Skippery Boo.

Oh, the Skippery Boo
Is a fanciful zoo:
A mermaid and a bat,
A grizzly hare
And a webfoot bear,
A goof and a bumble-cat.
He can fell an oak
With a single stroke,
Or shatter a mountain side,
Then lightly rise
To the azure skies,
And light as a zephyr ride.
My heart he fills
With terror's chills,
Oh, don't know what I'd do,
If some dark night,
In broad daylight,
I should meet a Skippery Boo.

A poison flows
From his warty toes,
And the grass where he shall tread,
Shall wilt and fade
At evening's shade,
And tomorrow shall be dead.
And who shall walk
Where he shall stalk,
O'er valley, hill or plain,
Shall die, 'tis said,
Of illness dread,
And a terrible dark-green pain.
So as you wade
This vale of shade,
And jog life's journey through,
At day, at night,
Be it dark or light,
Watch out for the Skippery Boo.

The Happy Family by John Ciardi

The Happy Family
by John Ciardi

Before the children say goodnight,
Mother, Father, stop and think:
Have you screwed their heads on tight?
Have you washed their ears with ink?

Have you said and done and thought
All the earnest parents should?
Have you beaten them as you ought:
Have you begged them to be good?

And above all - when you start
Out the door and douse the light -
Think, be certain, search your heart:
Have you screwed their heads on tight?

If they sneeze when they're asleep,
Will their little heads come off?
If they just breathe very deep?
If - especially - they cough?

Should - alas! - the little dears
Lose a little head or two,
Have you inked their little ears:
Girls' ears pink and boys' ears blue?

Children's heads are very loose.
Mother, Father, screw them tight.
If you feel uncertain use
A monkey wrench, but do it right.

If a head should come unscrewed
You will know that you have failed.
Doubtful cases should be glued.
Stubborn cases should be nailed.

Then when all your darlings go
Sweetly screaming off to bed,
Mother, Father, you may know
Angels guard each little head.

Come the morning you will find
One by one each little head
Fill of gentle thoughts and kind,
Sweetly screaming to be fed.

The Song of Mr. Toad by Kenneth Grahame

The Song of Mr. Toad
by Kenneth Grahame

The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them knew one half as much
As intelligent Mr. Toad!

The animals sat in the Ark and cried,
Their tears in torrents flowed.
Who was it said, "There's land ahead?"
Encouraging Mr. Toad!

The Army all saluted
As they marched along the road.
Was it the King? Or Kitchener?
No. It was Mr. Toad!

The Queen and her Ladies-in-waiting
Sat at the window and sewed.
She cried, "Look! who's that handsome man?"
They answered, "Mr. Toad."

On the Ning Nang Nong by Spike Milligan

On the Ning Nang Nong
By Spike Milligan

On the Ning Nang Nong
Where the Cows go Bong!
And the monkeys all say BOO!
There's a Nong Nang Ning
Where the trees go Ping!
And the tea pots Jibber Jabber Joo.
On the Nong Ning Nang
All the mice go Clang
And you just can't catch 'em when they do!
So its Ning Nang Nong!
Cows go Bong!
Nong Nang Ning !
Trees go Ping !
Nong Ning Nang !
The mice go Clang!
What a noisy place to belong
Is the Ning Nang Ning Nang Nong!!

The Panther by Ogden Nash

The Panther
By Ogden Nash

The panther is like a leopard,
Except it hasn't been peppered.
Should you behold a panther crouch,
Prepare to say Ouch.
Better yet, if called by a panther,
Don't anther.

The Pobble Who Has No Toes by Edward Lear

The Pobble Who Has No Toes
By Edward Lear

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said, 'Some day you may lose them all;'--
He replied, -- 'Fish fiddle de-dee!'
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink,
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said, 'The World in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!'

The Pobble who has no toes,
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose,
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said, 'No harm
'Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
'And it's perfectly known that a Pobble's toes
'Are safe, -- provided he minds his nose.'

The Pobble swam fast and well
And when boats or ships came near him
He tinkedly-binkledy-winkled a bell
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side,--
'He has gone to fish, for his Aunt Jobiska's
'Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!'

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green Porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet
Formerly garnished with toes so neat
His face at once became forlorn
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble's toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps or crawfish gray,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away --
Nobody knew; and nobody knows
How the Pebble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up,
To his Aunt Jobiska's Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish;--
And she said,-- 'It's a fact the whole world knows,
'That Pebbles are happier without their toes.'

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat by Edward Lear

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat
Edward Lear

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
"O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
"What a beautiful Pussy you are,
"You are,
"You are!
"What a beautiful Pussy you are!"

Pussy said to the Owl, "You elegant fowl!
"How charmingly sweet you sing!
"O let us be married! too long we have tarried!
"But what shall we do for a ring?"
They sailed away for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows,
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

"Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one schilling
"Your ring?" Said the Piggy, "I will."
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Calico Pie by Edward Lear

Calico Pie
by Edward Lear

Calico Pie,
The little birds fly
Down to the calico tree,
Their wings were blue,
And they sang "Tilly-loo!"
Till away they flew,--
And they never came back to me!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!

Calico Jam,
The little Fish swam
Over the syllabub sea.
He took off his hat,
To the Sole and the Sprat,
And the Willeby-wat,--
But he never came back to me!
He never came back!
He never came back!
He never came back to me!

Calico Ban,
The little Mice ran,
To be ready in time for tea,
Flippity flup,
They drank it all up,
And danced in the cup,--
But they never came back to me!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!

Calico Drum,
The grasshoppers come,
The Butterfly, Beetle, and Bee,
Over the ground,
Around and round,
With a hop and a bound,--
But they never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back!
They never came back to me!

The Lobster Quadrille by Lewis Carroll

The Lobster Quadrille
By Lewis Carroll

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail,
"There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle—will you come and join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the

"You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out
to sea!"
But the snail replied, "Too far, too far!" and gave a look
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join
the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join
the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join
the dance.

"What matters it how far we go?" his scaly friend replied.
"There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France-
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the

The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll

The Walrus and the Carpenter
by Lewis Carroll

The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might;
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright--
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.

The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done--
"It's very rude of him," she said,
"To come and spoil the fun!"

The sea was wet as wet could be,
The sands were dry as dry.
You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky;
No birds were flying overhead--
There were no birds to fly.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand--
"If this were only cleared away,"
They said, "it would be grand!"

"If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose," the Walrus said,
"That they could get it clear?"
"I doubt it," said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.

"O Oysters, come and walk with us!"
The Walrus did beseech.
"A Pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach;
We cannot do with more than four,
To give a hand to each."

The eldest Oyster looked at him,
But never a word he said;
The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
And shook his heavy head--
Meaning to say he did not choose
To leave the oyster-bed.

But four young Oysters hurried up,
All eager for the treat;
Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
Their shoes were clean and neat--
And this was odd, because, you know,
They hadn't any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more--
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low--
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing-wax --
Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot--
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need;
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--
Now, if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
"After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?"

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but,
"Cut us another slice.
I wish you were not quite so deaf--
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick.
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but,
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said;
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Father William by Lewis Carroll

Father William
by Lewis Carroll

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head--
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door--
Pray, what is the reason of that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his gray locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment -- one shilling the box --
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak--
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw
Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose--
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father; "don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you down-stairs!"

Hearn and Lowell

I picked up a copy of Selected Poems by Robert Lowell at one of my favorite used bookstores yesterday. I have been aware of Lowell as a poet for the past ten or twenty years and I am sure I have read some of his poems but nothing has stuck or resonated. Thinking to deepen my exposure and see if I might find something that I like, I leafed through the book and came across a poem that, in passing, references Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a fascinating individual who was one of the early Westerners to take up residence in Japan in 1890, ultimately becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen. He wrote many books about Japan and in particular Japanese folklore and myths, many of which were pitched towards children. It was an illustrated version of one of his stories which introduced me to Japan as a very young child. Among the titles still in print are Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Independent Reader), Lafcadio Hearn's Japan: An Anthology of His Writings on the Country and Its People (Young Adult), and The Funny Little Woman (Picture Book).

Here is the poem from Lowell that brought Hearn to mind.

Father's Bedroom
by Robert Lowell

In my Father's bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.
The broad-planked floor
had a sandpapered neatness.
The clear glass bed-lamp
with a white doily shade
was still raised a few
inches by resting on volume two
of Lafcadio Hearn's
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.
Its warped olive cover
was punished like a rhinoceros hide.
In the flyleaf:
"Robbie from Mother."
Years later in the same hand:
"This book has had hard usage
on the Yangtze River, China.
It was left under an open
porthole in a storm."

Monday, October 13, 2008

What's new is old

For years I have heard readers and writers that I respect reference F.A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom as a critical book in their own development. I recently picked up a copy. Written originally in 1944 in the context of the various totalitarian regimes of the Second World War (Communism, National Socialism, and Fascism), this was Hayek's reflection on the nature of and contest between individual liberty and government authority. I have only started the book but there are a number of items that seem awfully pertinent in this time of financial market turmoil with almost universal pleading for interventions to mitigate that which has been well anticipated for nearly a decade (a deflation of the asset bubble).

Hayek serves a prefatory and cautionary quote from David Hume "It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once."

His opening paragraph is worth quoting at length - we have travelled these paths before and it warrants keeping things in perspective while all the Chicken Little's are squawking so loudly.

The Abandoned Road
A program whose basic thesis is, not that the system of free enterprise for profit has failed in this generation, but that it has not yet been tried.- F.D. Roosevelt

When the course of civilization takes an unexpected turn - when, instead of the continuous progress which we have come to expect, we find ourselves threatened by evils associated by us with past ages of barbarism - we naturally blame anything but ourselves. Have we not all striven according to our best lights, and have not many of our finest minds incessantly worked to make this a better world? Have not all our efforts and hopes been directed toward greater freedom, justice, and prosperity? If the outcome is so different from our aims - if, instead of freedom and prosperity, bondage and misery stare us in the face - is it not clear that sinister forces must have foiled our intentions, that we are the victims of some evil power which must be conquered before we can resume the road to better things? However much we may differ when we name the culprit - whether it is the wicked capitalist or the vicious spirit of a particular nation, the stupidity of our elders, or a social system not yet, although we have struggled against it for half a century, fully overthrown - we all are, or at least were until recently, certain of one thing: that the leading ideas which during the last generation have become common to most people of good will and have determined the major changes in our social life cannot have been wrong. We are ready to accept almost any explanation of the present crisis of our civilization except one: that the present state of the world may be the result of genuine error on our own part and that the pursuit of some of our most cherished ideals has apparently produced results utterly different from those which we expected.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No solution but some worthwhile observations

Nancy Schnog had an article in the August 24, 2008, Washington Post, We're Teaching Books That Don't Stack Up.

As a teacher herself (of juniors and seniors in high school) she has some reality based observations. I don't agree completely with the implications of some of her analysis, but it is well worth reading. At the core of her article, she obliquely identifies the issue - the challenge of matching a child to the books that she might love so that interest fuels passion for reading rather than that academic exercise smothers the fire.

It is not easily done at all, and especially in these days of ever broadening social norms, inflated expectations of (mental and social) maturity, and attempts at standardization of education. I am not against rigorous performance measurement of children and schools but do recognize that that presents some very legitimate challenges that have not yet been effectively addressed.

Neurology of learning

From an e! Science News article, September 25, 2008, From 12 years onward you learn differently.
Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds and adults. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback ('Well done!'), whereas negative feedback ('Got it wrong this time') scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring. Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. Adults do the same, but more efficiently.

It is a short article and worth reading in its entirety.

Adam Gopnik on Babar

From Adam Gopnik's article in the September 22, 2008 New Yorker, Freeing the Elephants. A reflective article with some interesting observations. I particularly enjoyed his concluding paragraph.

Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the “Babar” books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life. “Truly it is not easy to bring up a family,” Babar sighs at one point, and it is true. The city lives on the edge of a desert, and animals wander in and out at will, and then wander out again to make cities of their own. The civilizing principle is energetic but essentially comical, solid-looking on the outside but fragile in its foundations, reducible to rubble by rhinoceroses. Even the elephants, for all their learning and sailor suits, can be turned into slaves through a bad twist of fate. The unruliness of natural life is countered by the beautiful symmetries of classical style and the absurd orderliness of domestic life—but we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that we are ever really safe. Death is a rifle shot and a poisoned mushroom away. The only security, the de Brunhoff books propose, lies in our commitment to those graceful winged elephants that, in Babar’s dream, at the end of “Babar the King,” chase away misfortune. Love and Happiness, who are at the heart of the American vision, are, in Babar’s dream, mere tiny camp followers. The larger winged elephants, which are at the forefront of this French vision of civilized life, are instead Intelligence, Patience, Learning, and Courage. “Let’s work hard and cheerfully and we’ll continue to be happy,” the Old Lady tells the elephants, and, though we know that the hunter is still in the woods, it is hard to know what more to add.

Insight without illumination

I often am exasperated by the large community of well intended readers (most often out of academia) who spend so much time harping about the purported disguised messages (and thereby corrupting dangers) hidden in classics of children's literature, usually with the resulting advocacy that children should not be exposed to these books. My exasperation is threefold. First, that the critiques leveled at the books (usually race, class, and gender or some combination) are so extended that they would encompass virtually all well written books and thereby leave us without reading material. Second, that the messages are often so hidden that they are only discernible to an adult rather than to a child; and an adult, at that, with plenty of time on their hand for reflection. In addition, that which is being criticised is open to multiple equally legitimate interpretations - i.e. the criticism is speculative rather than fact based. Third, that the critique is so completely divorced from any sense of proportion or perspective. Proportion in that the element being criticized may only be a small part of the story. Perspective in that a parent needs all the help they can get to find an engaging story quickly and doesn't have time to read/comprehend a forty page explication about the inherent class bias exhibited in Lassie or the dangers posed by the disguised misogyny of the Hardy Boys. They just need a good story - Now!

All that being said, sometimes these cogitations do turn up some interesting points. It is rather as if these deeply knowledgeable critics entered a darkened room with a laser pointer. They can point out all sorts of interesting little features of the room in a strange red light but can give no overall illumination of the nature of the room. The parent gains more understanding of the room with a one second flip of the light switch than three hours of a laser pointer tour.

All this is brought to mind because of an article by Adam Gopnik in the September 22, 2008 New Yorker, Freeing the Elephants. Gopnik addresses a central charge leveled at Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books for the last two or three decades; namely that they are purveyors of an imperialist mind set and are therefore dismissive of the non-European world.

It is an interesting article for pointing out different ways of understanding the context in which the Babar books were written and ways of interpreting the stories. Gopnik is as deeply knowledgeable as the critics but takes a more tolerant and encompassing view of the stories.

If you are short on time though - just read the Babar stories. They are still great after all these years and will almost certainly hold your child's interest.

Insight without illumination

I often am exasperated by the large community of well intended readers (most often out of academia) who spend so much time harping about the purported disguised messages (and thereby corrupting dangers) hidden in classics of children's literature, usually with the resulting advocacy that children should not be exposed to these books. My exasperation is threefold. First, that the critiques leveled at the books (usually race, class, and gender or some combination) are so extended that they would encompass virtually all well written books and thereby leave us without reading material. Second, that the messages are often so hidden that they are only discernible to an adult rather than to a child; and an adult, at that, with plenty of time on their hand for reflection. In addition, that which is being criticised is open to multiple equally legitimate interpretations - i.e. the criticism is speculative rather than fact based. Third, that the critique is so completely divorced from any sense of proportion or perspective. Proportion in that the element being criticized may only be a small part of the story. Perspective in that a parent needs all the help they can get to find an engaging story quickly and doesn't have time to read/comprehend a forty page explication about the inherent class bias exhibited in Lassie or the dangers posed by the disguised misogyny of the Hardy Boys. They just need a good story - Now!

All that being said, sometimes these cogitations do turn up some interesting points. It is rather as if these deeply knowledgeable critics entered a darkened room with a laser pointer. They can point out all sorts of interesting little features of the room in a strange red light but can give no overall illumination of the nature of the room. The parent gains more understanding of the room with a one second flip of the light switch than three hours of a laser pointer tour.

All this is brought to mind because of an article by Adam Gopnik in the September 22, 2008 New Yorker, Freeing the Elephants. Gopnik addresses a central charge leveled at Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books for the last two or three decades; namely that they are purveyors of an imperialist mind set and are therefore dismissive of the non-European world.

It is an interesting article for pointing out different ways of understanding the context in which the Babar books were written and ways of interpreting the stories. Gopnik is as deeply knowledgeable as the critics but takes a more tolerant and encompassing view of the stories.

If you are short on time though - just read the Babar stories. They are still great after all these years and will almost certainly hold your child's interest.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Books as catalysts

I have completed Nicholas A. Basbanes' wonderful Every Book Its Reader. He is eminently quotable and I will be posting a number of items here shortly.

Let's start with this simple observation:
That literature is fundamental to our cultural heritage and our shared patrimony is a given. The Greeks have their Iliad and Odyssey, the Chinese their Tao te Ching, the Indians their Mahabharata, the Italians their Divine Comedy, the Spanish their Don Quixote, and each of these works is a literary masterpiece that is transcendent, every one an epic in the most fundamental sense of the word. Even among cultures that have not survived to our time, great works that helped define who these people were live on - the Mesopotamians with their Gilgamesh, the Persians with their Shahnameh, the Anglo-Saxons with their Beowulf, the Romans with their Aeneid, the Maya with their Popol Vuh, to cite just a few examples. But books not only define lives, civilizations, and collective identities, they also have the power to shape events and nudge the course of history, and they do it in countless ways. Some of them are profoundly obvious, as in the case of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1852 novel that, some believe, moved Abraham Lincoln to remark, "caused this great war," or Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, an eloquent condemnation of the pesticide DDT issued in 1962 that questioned the sureness of technological progress and ushered in the environmental protection movement.

Anne Frank and library books

From Anne Frank's diary. A Dutch friend, Miep Gies, helped shelter Anne and her family and retrieved her diary after she and the others were arrested. One of his contributions was to bring five books from the library each week.
We always long for Saturdays when our books come. Just like little children receiving a present. Ordinary people simply don't know what books mean to us, shut up here.

Later she records:
I can hardly wait for the day that I shall be able to comb through the books in the public library.

Thomas a Kemp - "I have sought for rest everywhere, but I have found it nowhere except in a corner with a book"

How many books does the average child read in a year?

We know from the Census Bureau and Commerce Department that the average household spends about $35 per year on books.

I have often wondered how many books an average household contains but have yet to come across any sort of information that might answer that question.

The other day it occurred to me that I don't know how many books an average child reads each year. The question came to me while following a list serv discussion where the majority of the participants were advocating limiting access to books that, while popular for many decades, run counter to current social sensitivities. My initial thought was - We alredy have a hard enough time getting many kids to read much at all, why keep cutting back on books that are known to attract them?

Which then led me to the question: just how many books do kids read? It is not an easy one to answer and if anyone has better information I would be very interested in hearing about it. The best I could come up with is some calculations from raw data released in a report this year by Renaissance Learning, What Kids Are Reading. In it they report the number of books children read per year by grade. They then also provide the same information for the readers performing in the top decile of reading proficency.

There are obvious issues with this source of information. It is a structured reading program: presumably school districts that can afford such a program may already have a higher than average reading population. It is unclear that the results capture summer reading volumes. The results are self-reported by students (though they are subsequently quizzed on content) which might lead to higher than accurate reported reading. It should also be noted that the decline in number of books read, makes some sense as children move from 32 page picture books to 80 page intermediate readers, to 150 page young adult books.

The average child starts school reading 39 books per year. This goes up a little their first couple of years in school and then declines steadily. In their high school years, they are reading about 6 books a year. This latter number is consistent with surveys that are conducted periodically in which adults are asked some variation on the question of how many books did you read in the past year and in which the results typically vary between four and ten books as an answer.

The interesting aspect is that Renaissance also reported the results for the best readers. They start first grade already reading at nearly twice the volume of their peers, i.e. 74 books per year versus 39. They also exhibit a decline in number of books read per year till by high school they are reading 25 books per year. However, this represents more than a four-fold multiple of number books they are reading over that of their peers (25 books versus 6 books).

It would appear that the culture of reading is already established by high school years and that it represents a pretty wide variance between the top readers and everyone else. Mathematically, the implication is also that 76% of all books read, are read by only 10% of the population, again a number consistent with other data. I see this concentration of reading little remarked upon in the various articles and research I come across.

While these numbers are provisional, I suspect that they are in the ball park (potentially too high) and probably directionally correct. So on average, each househlod spends about $35 on books each year and the average child reads around forty picture books per year in their young years (1st through 3rd grade), about fifteen books per year in their independent reader grades (4th through 8th grade) and six books per year in their young adult years. Those are soberingly small numbers when you think about which books you would prefer that they read at each of those grade levels.

Reader Testimonials

The stories of readers' interactions with books seem evergreen to me. Here are some stories from the Vancouver Sun, Tuesday September 23, 2008. I particularly enjoyed those of Rae Ellingham and Elsie Wollaston.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening
by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport

This is a new one to me. This is such a sad, wistful, regretful poem about silent strength. I especially like the lines

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

How strange it seems! These Hebrews in their graves,
Close by the street of this fair seaport town,
Silent beside the never-silent waves,
At rest in all this moving up and down!

The trees are white with dust, that o'er their sleep
Wave their broad curtains in the south-wind's breath,
While underneath these leafy tents they keep
The long, mysterious Exodus of Death.

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial-place,
Seem like the tablets of the Law, thrown down
And broken by Moses at the mountain's base.

The very names recorded here are strange,
Of foreign accent, and of different climes;
Alvares and Rivera interchange
With Abraham and Jacob of old times.

"Blessed be God! for he created Death!"
The mourners said, "and Death is rest and peace;"
Then added, in the certainty of faith,
"And giveth Life that nevermore shall cease."

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

Gone are the living, but the dead remain,
And not neglected; for a hand unseen,
Scattering its bounty, like a summer rain,
Still keeps their graves and their remembrance green.

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'er the sea -- that desert desolate --
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in mirk and mire;
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and the death of fire.

All their lives long, with the unleavened bread
And bitter herbs of exile and its fears,
The wasting famine of the heart they fed,
And slaked its thirst with marah of their tears.

Anathema maranatha! was the cry
That rang from town to town, from street to street;
At every gate the accursed Mordecai
Was mocked and jeered, and spurned by Christian feet.

Pride and humiliation hand in hand
Walked with them through the world where'er they went;
Trampled and beaten were they as the sand,
And yet unshaken as the continent.

For in the background figures vague and vast
Of patriarchs and of prophets rose sublime
And all the great traditions of the Past
They saw reflected in the coming time.

And thus forever with reverted look
The mystic volume of the world they read,
Spelling it backward, like a Hebrew book,
Till life became a Legend of the Dead.

But ah! what once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literacy and language stability

From E.D. Hirsch, Jr.'s Cultural Literacy.

If you drive in the French Riviera and stop at the town of Menton, you can find small children speaking rapidly in excellent French. Their easy mastery of French grammar and pronunciation will seem charming and enviable. If you then drive east from Menton for just a few minutes and pass over a line painted across the road, you will come to the town of Ventimiglia. There you can find small children speaking charming, enviable Italian. To the children on both sides of the painted line, and perhaps to you, it all seems quite normal: the easy mastery of French or Italian, the arbitrariness of the border, and the fact that the painted line determines which language the children speak. We have come to accept such arrangements as being natural, but from a linguistic point of view they are not. French and Italian, as well as English and all the other national languages, were just as consciously and politically constructed as the national borders that separate them. These standardized national languages were fixed in essentially their present forms by seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and (in some countries) nineteenth-century language normalizers who made their decisions, more often than not, at the direction of a central national government. National languages and national borders are codependent artifices. Taken together they have generated one of the most important features of the modern world - the huge, linguistically homogeneous populations of the industrial nations.

That small children should speak Hungarian inside the borders of Hungary (or Polish inside the borders of Poland), and that the language spoken in one place in Hungary should be the same as that spoken in another, is a situation that can exist with such precision only because it is carefully sustained by the Hungarian system of education. Inside a national border, education helps to keep the national languages stable by holding it to standards that are set forth in national dictionaries, spelling books, pronunciation guides, and grammars. In the modern world we therefore find linguistic diversity among the nations but, with a few exceptions, linguistic uniformity inside the nations. This pattern did not arise by chance; it is a self-conscious political and educational arrangement.

Consider the languages of Europe in their natural earlier state, before they were standardized into national literary languages. In the Middle Ages it often happened that only closely neighboring dialects were dependably intelligible to one another. If you traveled four villages away instead of three you might not be able to understand what people were saying. A dialect map for the fourteenth century would show isoglosses marking off domains of mutual unintelligibility between speakers. No linguistic lines were painted across the road; the shifting linguistic borders could be drawn differently, depending on which dialect was used as a base. What's more, these languages changed radically over time. A fourteenth-century Rip Van Winkle waking form a sleep of a hundred - rather than twenty - years might find it hard to understand the speech of his children's grandchildren. The natural law of oral languages is constant change, but that law has been amended by the development of national written languages sustained by national systems of education.

A little more than a hundred years ago, in the 1870's, Henry Sweet, the distinguished linguist who was the model for Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, predicted that in a hundred years the English, Australians, and Americans would be speaking mutually incomprehensible languages because of their great distance and isolation from each other. Sweet was one of the most knowledgeable linguists of his day, and his prediction was one that other scholars of the time would have agreed with. Up to Sweet's time, languages had followed the universal law of constant change. Whenever people who spoke the same oral dialect divided from each other geographically, their languages also came to diverge. That is why, judging by previous linguistic history, Sweet's prediction seemed sound. Before the spread of literacy in the nineteenth century, speakers had neither an external standard nor an internal gyroscope to keep their languages stable. Thus, in the eighteenth century Alexander Pope wrote:
Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be.

But Pope and Sweet were wrong. We not only understand the British and Australians today and they us, but we are able to read Pope and Dryden, and most American schoolchildren can read Gulliver's Travels by Pope's contemporary Jonathan Swift. The modern English language has turned out to be far more stable than anyone in those days could have predicted. The same has been true of other European languages.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

What is special about reading?

Further to Peter Carey's Pure Pleasure, Carey's list of the most pleasurable books to read. In his introduction, Carey has some interesting things to say in, Why Read? A Polemical Introduction

What is special, oddly enough, is the result of an imperfection in the medium books use by comparison with the medium of film or television. Pictures of the sort relayed by film or television are an almost perfect medium, because they look like what they represent. Printed words do not. They are just black marks on paper. Before they can represent anything, they have to be deciphered by a skilled practitioner. Although accustomed readers do it instantaneously, translating printed words into mental images is an amazingly complex operation. It involves a kind of imaginative power different from anything required by other mental processes. If reading dies out, this power will disappear - and the results are incalculable. For reading and civilization have grown together, and we do not know whether one can survive without the other. The imaginative power reading uniquely demands is clearly linked, psychologically, with a capacity for individual judgement and with the ability to empathize with other people. Without reading, these faculties may atrophy. The translation of print into mental images also makes reading more creative than contact with other media, for no book or page is quite the same for any two readers. I do not mean by this that the reader is really the "author" of the text - as it used to be fashionable for critical theorists to pretend - any more than a pianist playing Chopin is Chopin. But a reader, like a pianist, is engaged in an intense creative operation. If you are used to it, you will notice the effort it takes only when you leave off. Put your book aside and switch on the television and the sense of relaxation is instant. That is because a large part of your mind has stopped working. The pictures beam straight into your brain. No input from you is needed. What this means is that a democracy composed largely of television-watchers is mindless compared to a democracy composed largely of readers. Ours changed from the latter to the former in the second half of the twentieth century.

Reading and crowding

Peter Carey is an Oxford professor and British novelist. Among his works is Pure Pleasure, Carey's list of the most pleasurable books to read. In addition to his topic, Carey has some interesting things to say in the introduction, Why Read? A Polemical Introduction

Given the possible scenarios - nuclear war, plague, famine - that can be expected before that point is reached, it may seem footling to speculate about the effect of population explosion on reading habits. But it is clear that, whatever the external disasters, people's attitudes to privacy and solitude are going to change - and that, of course, is where books come in. Reading admits you to an inner space which, though virtually boundless, is inaccessible to the multitudes milling around. This is likely to make it more precious and sought after as ordinary terrestrial space gets used up. At present the gap between people who read books and people who do not is the greatest of all cultural divisions, cutting across age, class and gender. Neither side understands the other. To non-readers, readers seem toffee-nosed. To readers, the puzzle is what non-readers fill their minds with. If in tomorrow's densely packed world reading becomes a lifeline to sanity for almost everyone, this gap will close - which will be a good thing for people as well as for books.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

To Any Reader (RL Stevenson)

Well this is embarassing. Having posted Stevenson's dedication in his A Child's Garden of Verses I recollected one of his poems which captures some of the magic of reading. I am completely confident that I posted it on the site somewhere but I can't for the life of me find it. Did I just imagine posting it?

Regarldess, here is that magical poem, wherever else it might have disappeared to.
To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing around the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

To Alison Cunningham from R.L. Stevenson

From the dedication by RL Stevenson in his A Child's Garden of Verses to his childhood nanny.

To Alison Cunningham
From Her Boy

For the long nights you lay awake
And watched for my unworthy sake:
For your most comfortable hand
That led me through the uneven land:
For all the story-books you read:
For all the pains you comforted:

For all you pitied, all you bore,
In sad and happy days of yore: --
My second Mother, my first Wife,
The angel of my infant life --
from the sick child, now well and old,
Take, nurse, the little book you hold!

And grant it, Heaven, that all who read
May find as dear a nurse at need,
and every child who lists my rhyme,
In bright, fireside, nursery clime,
May hear it in as kind a voice
As made my childish days rejoice

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Drover's Life by Desert Rat

And here is the alternate view of the drover's life to that presented by Banjo Paterson. In this case the parody is written by a real drover, Wally Darling, who wrote under the pen name, Desert Rat.

A Drover's Life
By Wally Darling (Desert Rat)

As I write this little ditty
Perhaps I'm feeling blue
For the swag is wet and sodden
And the fly is blown in two.

The rain is pouring heavy,
The wind is bloody chill.
And I rather feel like howling
With the dingo on the hill.

No doubt this life is thrilling
Out beneath the desert stars.
When your fitting sole companion
Are a mob of mad Gallahs.

Then the old joke comes to memory.
It was written long ago,
That the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

When your are sitting on a rooter
With a green-eyed monkey holt
A quiet horse they tell you
But sometimes he'll buck and bolt.

So you hit him in the shoulders
With a pair of three inch spurs.
Next thing you know, you're sitting
In a patch of bloody burrs.

When you are tangling with the clean skins
In the dust and in the heat
And the big Mick with a grievance
Makes a beeline for your seat.

You try to make the fence
But the Mick's got too much tow.
Oh, yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

When you are coming down the Canning
Where the lonely stages are
And the owner comes to meet you
With his brand new motor car.

And the dust he raises mingles
With that churned up by the feet
Of the hides that you are droving
Some of which perhaps he'll eat.

And when you are sitting on the night horse
On a dark and stormy night.
You see the white-horns glistening
In the lightning's ghostly light.

And you shiver there and wonder
If they jump, which way they'll go.
Ah, yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

Now the tucker's mostly tasty
On the Canning route you know.
When the flies have had a gutful
And the meat hats have had a go

And when you eat the babbler's browny
Well it's best to close your eyes.
For it's hard to tell the difference
Between the currants and the flies.

Or when you're whipping water
Till your bellows nearly burst.
And your water camel joeys
And you bullocks cry from thirst.

When the feed is mostly scanty
And the waterholes are dry.
The squatters sitting on your back
It's enough to make you cry.

So you reckon that you will truck it in
Give something else a go.
Yes, the drover's life has pleasures
That the townsfolk never know.

You battle down a dusty stage
To a well that's broken down.
Or a tank shot full of bullet holes
By yokels from the town.

And they wonder why you hit the grog
And curse their lousy stations.
Why many a man has cut his throat
In sheer desperation.

So let this be a warning,
To you fellows of the town.
Who want to go a droving,
Where the bullocks all come down.

For if you go a droving
You very soon will know
That the drover's life has pleasures
That it's better not to know

Yes, I sometimes rather doubt it
But then I wouldn't know.
They say that the drover's life
Has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.