What I’ve Been Reading and Watching

Last week I failed a friend who asked for a book recommendation. Another friend came to our aid by suggesting The Boys in the Boat. A few other friends have really enjoyed that this summer too. I’ve been reading medium-long form journalism of late. Here are three recommendations with related thoughts:

• Good. Putting Eternal Salvation in the Hands of Nineteen Year Old Missionaries. Imagine being 19 (boys) or 21 (girls) and being sent to some distant corner of the globe (or Indiana) to convert people to your family’s faith. Mormon missions are extremely challenging. Once they complete their two-year long missions, 40% percent of young mormon missionaries (elders) disengage from the church. Readers, Mormon ones I’m sure, wanted evidence of that stat. Others felt it would’ve been a more balanced story had the authors talked to elders who had more positive missionary experiences. They’re probably right. 

• Better. You Can’t Quit Cold Turkey. Imagine losing your marriage and your career because you can’t control your appetite. Sad story. There’s lots I don’t understand about extreme overeating. I understand that some people really, really like some foods, but what I don’t get is if someone were to say, “Go ahead and eat the other half of the cake, but if you do, you’re going to lose your really excellent job.” Or “go ahead and eat another pizza, but you’re going to lose your wife.” I also completely understand that thanks to inertia, not moving is far easier than moving. The author of this story is also very large. He says people like him, a 50 year old, don’t make it to 65. I don’t understand why early death isn’t sufficient motivation to begin making healthy changes. The root causes of overeating must be psychologically much deeper than this story lets on.  

• Best. The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit. Imagine living alone in the Maine woods for 27 years. And only saying “hi” one time to one person. The fact that Chris Knight survived 27 Maine winters in a tent is mind boggling. As is the fact that some Maineiacs want to lock him up and throw away the key. Count me among the “provide some support and leave him alone in the woods” contingent. The author’s process left me uneasy. I couldn’t help but think he befriended Knight just for the sake of advancing his writing career. What is an author’s responsibility to their subjects? There should be some sort of reciprocity. By allowing the author to tell his story, Knight lost much more of the one thing he most cherished, his anonymity.

I’ve also seen two movies I highly recommend:

• Boyhood. Imagine being a boy age 6-18 in Houston, Texas. And having a succession of dads, two are alcoholics, one is extremely violent. Took 12 years to make. Excellent sociology. I was impressed with the central family’s resilience, but was dismayed by the negative portrayal of the vast majority of males.

• Ida. Imagine preparing to be a Catholic nun and then finding out your family was Jewish. Black and white with subtitles. Set in Poland in the early 60s. Not for everyone. I anticipate this being my favorite film of 2014. I’ve cast my vote for Best Foreign Film. Mesmerizing. 

Postscript—One article I couldn’t bring myself to read. Too depressing a headline. A disproportionate percentage of school shootings happen in rural and suburban districts. 

The 5 Most Important Things You’ll Read All Week

1) Have you noticed? Increasingly, bloggers are inserting numbers into post titles to increase readership and improve search engine rankings. “5” has replaced “3” for most popular number. “17” is trendy too. I don’t know why numbers increase readership and improve search engine rankings. I find it disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. As if all anyone can process anymore is a list. My one-time use of it here is sarcasm. I should start a movement. . . force a number into your title and we’ll refuse to read what follows. Who is in?

2) Imagine a world in which everyone reads and discusses books with people different than them. My favorite story from last week.

3) The Seattle Mariners are the best team in baseball when it comes to this.

4) Is this a trend. . . dad’s helping grown daughters who aren’t necessarily interested in their help? I’ve never offered unsolicited advice to my daughters. . . that’s an additional serving of sarcasm. One of my daughters’ friends laughed at her dad for sending her an article on “How to save and invest money”. Another “couldn’t believe” her dad mailed her bicycle to her at college, then assembled it during a visit. The “extremely large” bike box was difficult and embarrassing to pick up at the mail room. The two wheeler was used one or two times during the school year. This isn’t limited to dad’s and daughters. Parents often presume their young adult children want to save money, invest wisely, prepare healthy meals, bicycle, etc., etc. Maybe I should start a movement where parents let their young adult children know they’re interested in sharing different “lessons learned” if and when they’re interested. And then we’ll sit back and wait for our young adult children to ask us for help.

5) I’m filing this under “Sometimes I Amaze Myself”. I’ve done it again, I’ve come up with a brilliant idea. This one will enable me to extend my triathlon career for many more years. Based upon my swimming, cycling, and running training log, I have a very good feel for how fast I can swim 1500 or 1900 meters, how fast I can ride 40k or 56 miles, and how fast I can run 10k or 13.1 miles. That means all I have to do is guess how bad my transitions would likely be, and presto, I can spend a few minutes on-line on Mondays to see what place I would’ve finished had I actually shown up at that weekend’s races. This way I save tons of coin and race every weekend without swimming through seaweed or increasing my exposure to the sun. I “won” my age group at a few recent races.

 

What I’ve Been Reading

Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty? Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.”

The Tale of Two Schools. Fieldston and University Heights are in the same New York City borough but worlds apart. How much understanding between their students can a well-told story bring? A lot it turns out.

The Hunt for El Chapo. The story of how the world’s most notorious drug lord was captured. Sure to be a movie.

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core. When a comedian points out the way in which the current priorities don’t add up, it earns even the attention of those who haven’t thought much about school since they graduated. But the brutal math of the New York City school system is no laughing matter.”

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Entering students at my uni will read this novel and discuss it during orientation in early September. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that steadily gets more and more interesting up to the very end. After 50-75 pages, I may have set it aside if it hadn’t been “assigned”. The story of a family of five. The dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University. Recommended. It will resonant strongly with those most sympathetic to the animal rights movement.

Bill Simmon’s Big Score. How a failed newspaper writer built a new kind of media empire at ESPN. I’ve completely tired of Simmon’s act, but still found this an interesting “new journalism” case study. A few factoids. The four major sports are worth a combined $91.2b. ESPN’s worth $50.8b making it the most valuable media brand in the world. Bill Simmons has 2.6 million twitter followers, I’m up to 46. 

On deck—American Crucifixion by Alex Beam. The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

In the hole—Family Life by Akil Sharma.

 

Be Less Lonely

By making time to read. Every day. And not just periodicals, blogs, email messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates. Fiction and non-fiction books.

Bookish people are less lonely because they have an endless supply of friends. With the exception of some especially good long running series, television and film characters usually don’t rise to the same level of friendship as literary ones.

Cleo, an eighth grader at a middle school I’ve been helping out at this year, figured this out about eight years ago. She reads incessantly. Averaging about a book a day. Substantive books typically read by high schoolers. And then she reviews them on her blog, Cleo’s Literary Reviews. Apart from sometimes reading in classes she’s not supposed to, I have no idea how she does it.

Our negative preconceived notions of bookworms as socially stunted people ill-prepared for the “real world” are anachronistic. Cleo likes her school and gets along great with her classmates. She appears imminently happy and has a promising future in the “real world”. Cleo will impress with her vocabulary, imagination, and knowledge of the world.

But the longest lasting gift of reading doesn’t have anything to do with competing in the global economy. Most importantly, Cleo’s happiness won’t fluctuate as wildly with the vagaries of “real life” relationships because she’ll always be buffeted by a steady stream of interesting people, created by an endless army of imaginative authors.

Administrivia

• One wonders. Is the recent uptick in readers explained by my heroic cycling exploits in the Eastern Sierras or is it just the inevitable effect of especially brilliant content (remember, italics denotes sarcasm) or was it the off-the-cuff decision to attach a racy snowboard picture to the “Educational Slowdown” post from a few weeks ago? Whatever. Welcome new readers.

• I’ve updated the front page by deleting the “About This Blog” tab. The little bit of text from that tab is now apart of the “First Time Here?” tab. I also condensed and updated the list of most popular posts. New and improved so please share away.

• I could use the help of regular readers. For the first time in awhile, I’ve worked through my queue of post topics/ideas and new ideas aren’t flowing as much as they might. Therefore, I’m wondering, what would you like me to write more about? Thanks in advance for any ideas, links to articles of interest, or questions you’d like to see me bat around. Absent much input, I’ll probably switch to posting twice weekly.

• I may be switching to a different template sometime soon. I want to add copyright protection and I need to switch from wordpress.com to a wordpress.org template to do so. I’m leaning towards “Linen”, but if you have a favorite wordpress.org template you think I should consider, hollah.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

What I’m Reading

Just finished “Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It” by Lawrence Lessig. If you plan to be, are currently, or ever were a political science major, you’ll lap it up. Lessig is whip smart. I was drawn to the book after hearing Double L interviewed on NPR. An expert on internet law, he said something to the effect of “Scholars should switch topics every ten years.” The higher ed world would be a far more healthy, invigorating, interesting place if profs universally applied that notion.

If you don’t keep a copy of the U.S. Constitution on your nightstand, you may find it slow going. The writing dragged at times. It would have been an even better book if L2’s editors had required him to reduce it by 25%.

Lessig explains why it’s understandable that 89% of the public doesn’t trust Congress. In short, every member of Congress spends 30-70% of their time fundraising because their primary objective is to get re-elected. Also, many see their Congressional work as a means towards an end of becoming high paid lobbyists. Important issues get short shrift and members’ compromise their ideals all in the name of campaign fund raising. The details depress.

Props to LL for eschewing academic norms and offering solutions to the problem. One major contradiction in his otherwise insightful treatise was this—he acknowledges that the public’s passive resignation is a rational response to the dysfunction while at the same time  he argues citizen involvement is the key to his proposed solutions. I appreciated the specificity and boldness of his fixes, but didn’t find them realistic enough.

Unintended effect no doubt, I’m less interested in politics as result of reading the book.

Needing a break from academic social science writing, I just started The Orphan Master’s Son—A Novel by Adam Johnson. Read some great reviews and saw Johnson interviewed on the NewsHour. I keep getting drawn back inside the Hermit Kingdom.

On deck, my first ever cooking/food book—An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Awhile back I posited that people don’t change. I hereby amend that, people don’t “Change”, but they can “change”, by which I mean personal attributes don’t change much over time, but interests can. I’ve always been an “eat to live” kind of guy, but in the last year or two, I’ve started to enjoy cooking, eating well, and spending time in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the long-term effects of the fem-vortex. Anyways, look for me to starting cooking with even more economy and grace real soon.

In the hole (baseball term for the sports challenged), the Happiness Hypothesis—Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve downloaded the first chapter, just casually dating at this point, so I’m not committing to marrying Haidt (although that may soon be legal in Washington State, but I digress).

In related news, I sent Nineteen this link to Jonathan Franzen’s screed against e-books. She loved it because she’s also hopelessly nostalgic about the printed page. Maybe someday in the distant future Franzen and she will realize you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Some of my writing students want to improve their vocabulary this semester. That’s admirable, but they probably won’t like my suggestions:

1) Read more.

2) Not just Junie B. Jones and Archie comics (for Fifteen). Read progressively more challenging material. Or at least rotate in challenging stuff between the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter (for Eighteen).

3) When reading challenging material, take time to look up some of the words you don’t know. (A favorite i-Pad e-book feature, touch the word, touch the definition tab, five-ten seconds, genius. The plus side of an admitted trade-off).

4) Integrate newly learned words into your conversations and writing even if you don’t use them perfectly initially. I called Fifteen a sycophant the other day. She asked what that meant. I told her it was the first word on the aced vocab quiz adorning the frig. That brought a smile. Use em’ or lose em’.

5) The power of osmosis can’t be exaggerated. This is the “try to play tennis with people better than you” concept. Hang with people whose vocabularies are further along than yours. In addition to Modern Family, talk about ideas, what you’re reading, North African and Middle Eastern political unrest, and the Wisconsin state legislature. You become the company you keep.

The problem with my suggestions is most young people prefer multimedia to reading, spending hundreds of hours Facebooking and watching legions of movies for every substantive book they read. Apparently blog posts are even too long. Fifteen rarely chooses to read in her free time, gravitating to Facebook and SuperNanny instead. Interestingly though, whenever she’s required to read quality literature in her English class, she always enjoys it.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. Absent immersing oneself in vocab-rich reading material, dictionary work, time spent in literate small groups, and more vocab-rich reading, don’t expect to light the vocabulary world on fire.