in_falling_snowHandwriting is a skill we no longer need in a texting, emailing, wordprocessed world, so it’s hard to argue why we keep teaching it to children. And yet we do teach it to them, sort of. What’s worse, I find myself hoping we won’t stop any time soon, we might even rediscover handwriting, we might see a “slow page” movement like slow food, leading us to enjoy the moment of writing itself.

The teaching of cursive writing, the writing we each develop into a unique handwriting style, is already being phased out in elementary schools in the US, replaced by keyboarding proficiency. In Australia too, increasingly handwriting is being dropped from curricula under pressure from other learning areas. And even when it is taught, in Australia at least handwriting is now more likely to be printed letters joined together. It’s not handwriting at all as most of us know it.

We called it running writing when I was at school. You learned it after printing, like a new language. We practised it a lot as I recall. I was never any good at it but I love it still, the capital D that looks like it was made for words like “Delight” and “Delicate”, the beautiful S with its supreme loopiness and potential for curlicues, those hills of small ns and ms that could just keep going. Oh God, I am starting to sound nostalgic. Quick, put on Radiohead and get out the iPad.

I confess I have a conflict of interest when it comes to handwriting; I write novels by hand. Not in a beautiful script, mind. I look at anything written by my grandfather, who was taught in an English public school, or my son, who’s taught himself various styles of writing, and it’s art. My writing is not art; it remains cramped, small, illegible even to me at times. I could have been a doctor with writing like mine. And I didn’t always write by hand. I typed my first novel on an Apple Classic II. Quite the techo, I didn’t even print it until I had a finished manuscript. But I soon found a computer file too linear for the way I work.

Since that first novel, I have written three more, all by hand, initially on cards of different colours, which had the advantage that you could shuffle them when totally lost as to what to do, now in a particular kind of notebook that I love for its narrow lines and plain cardboard covers. I write with a fountain pen. My favourite is a Waterman in a burgundy lacquer covered in little gold squares, given to me when my first novel was published. It only has one drawback – it no longer writes. I had an efficient little Montblanc that came with a leather notebook case, but I left it on a plane and like everything left on planes, it immediately vapourised. My day-to-day pen now is a lovely big Visconti made with cellulose using a refound technique – given me when I was researching In Falling Snow. In my hand, it feels like a pen that will never let me down. I am also coveting a vintage Waterman, to replace the one that doesn’t work, although you really only need one pen to write and the more I focus on which pens I might buy, the less I focus on getting a novel written.

I can’t say why I handwrite, in an age where handwriting has all but disappeared from our lives. I can type faster than most people can talk, I was using email before anyone had heard of it except my computer room colleagues (one of my first jobs was as a computer operator), and I mess about on the internet in favour of just about any real job. But I can say that for my novels, handwriting feels about the right pace. Even Scrivener, which I love later in a project, is too structured early on. I write little sketches and scenes and eventually they coalesce into a novel.

Many things we don’t need in life fade from view. If handwriting is dying as an art, perhaps I shouldn’t mourn its passing. I imagine the rationale is that it’s hard enough to teach children one set of letters, let alone two. And since few of us end up with a hand that even vaguely approximates that beautiful script we were taught, why try to teach it at all? Joined up printing will do.

But before we altogether consign handwriting to the land of outdated technologies, we should take a moment to consider this small fact of history. The very first Macintosh computer, not the one I typed my novel on but the one that preceded it, was a winner, its creator Steve Jobs said later, because of its beautiful typography, which was unlike any other computer before it. Jobs had sat in on a calligraphy course on the way to dropping out of college and had seen the art of handwriting, the art in the science, he called it, which had inspired him.

So every time I type an email, thumb a text, or flick a page, I try to remember the technology I’m using, the technology with which we are fast ridding the world of writing by hand altogether, is only available because the person who dreamed it up was in love with handwriting.

 

Visit Mary-Rose MacColl’s website.

 


mortal_artsSometimes the plot of a story develops out of a character’s development. Sometimes it comes from a picture or an article or a real world event. Sometimes it arises from the setting itself. And sometimes it grows from one single, vivid scene that the author simply can’t get out of their head.

When I began working on the plot for the second novel in my Lady Darby Mystery Series, Mortal Arts, I already had several elements in place. I knew I would be continuing Kiera, Lady Darby’s journey, as well as that of the other characters, and I knew where I wanted their development to take them in the second book. I knew I wanted Kiera to travel to Edinburgh, and I knew I wanted her to team up again with gentleman inquiry agent—and romantic entanglement—Sebastian Gage. I had also decided I wanted art to play a major role in the second novel, as Kiera is a gifted portrait artist. But beyond that, I was stumped for ideas as to what I wanted the actual mystery to be.

I researched the history of the area at that time for interesting events, but nothing leaped out at me. It also seemed important not to rehash the same elements of the first novel in the series, so that restricted by natural temptation to delve into the aftermath of the Burke and Hare murders.

And then it came to me. This one emotionally intense scene I could see so clearly. I knew immediately I had to use it, but to do so I had to figure out what was going on. Where was this room that looked like a bedchamber? Who was the man in the corner, and why was he drawing on the walls? What was Kiera’s connection to him? And why was the scene filled with such sadness and despair?

As I began to answer these questions, my story developed. I learned of Kiera’s childhood friends, the Dalmays, and how the oldest son William acted as her art tutor one summer. I discovered how William had been damaged by the war with Napoleon, and how his own father had him locked up in a lunatic asylum. And I met the younger brother, Michael, who managed William’s release, but worries that perhaps his brother should not be out. That perhaps not everyone is safe with him allowed to roam free.

That is where Kiera and the estimable Mr. Gage step in—to find the missing girl everyone is so concerned about, and to prove William’s guilt or innocence, once and for all.

Whether it starts with the character development, or the setting, or a single scene—it is always the questions that drive the story, for the author and the reader. The who, what, when, why, how of our characters, and the crimes they may solve or commit.

Read an interview with Anna Lee Huber on the Penguin website.


philosophers_tableRegardless of age, you can feel it. As August days creep by, it’s time to get ready for school. A fresh start beckons.

Looking back at my college years and many more years as a college professor, memories almost always circle around food. A dinner bell brings people together as nothing else can. Happy college evenings spent lingering over coffee in the dining hall and more friends pulling up chairs and delaying their departures…students breaking bread over good conversation in faculty homes and forever changing the classroom dynamic…parents coming to visit and picnicking with a group that expands with every wave of a hand…  As a college professor, hearing the expected request after just a few weeks from students wanting to fix food for the class, thereby making a large group more intimate…study sessions congregating over potluck dinners and nervous pre-exam breakfasts…dinner parties celebrating semester’s end and contact information exchanging…

Today I glanced at some of my upcoming book events and once again plates are passing—in Maryland to meet with educators and parents, we picnic—at the University of Virginia, students and I have dinner before the evening’s discussion—local eateries in Charlottesville supply their specialties, and a philosophizing afternoon takes a festive turn.

Here’s what culinary guru Alice Waters knows: “Our full humanity is contingent on our hospitality; we can be complete only when we are giving something away; when we sit at the table and pass the peas to the person next to us we see that person in a whole new way” (In the Green Kitchen: Techniques to Learn By Heart). In contrast, I know far too well, from far too much student testimony and personal observation, about the damage done by reliance upon technological substitutes for genuine human interaction. Heads bowed as students walk down hallways, cell phones clutched…the discomfort when a text message sounds during our conversation, not because of the interruption but due to the mounting anxiety to check it immediately…earbuds tuning out the person in the adjacent desk, also waiting for class to begin…social media postings unraveling with unforeseen and unfortunate consequences…

The best college meal plan is to make one. Whether your field of study is engineering, business, chemistry, or philosophy, you can make the commitment to join with others and pass the peas. Be smart about the technological revolution that brings with it so many wondrous advances—don’t allow it to replay the isolation and loss of community that was wrought by the industrial revolution.

Some possible meal plans for you and old and brand new friends: Bring your lunches to a set place on campus at the same time, every week, and enjoy the familiar routine and camaraderie. Cook together one night a week.  Choose a setting and a time frame—and any morning know that there may well be friends there to share coffee or tea. Find a place in town, with prices that suit every pocket, and reserve a table twice a month. Get outside when possible—cookouts and picnics, complemented by walks, ball tossing, a board game. For the school year, set aside one night a month to assemble a feast from different cultures, with everyone contributing something.

What happens at dinner, among other things, is the sharpening of the art of conversation. When we are glued to things rather than to each other, we easily lose the ability to listen attentively, to reply thoughtfully, and to give discussions room to breathe. We need to practice—and chewing, swallowing, and passing the hot soba noodles and the yakitori naturally slows us down. Conversation finds its rhythm.

When your college years are memories, what will matter, after all? Forging relationships…belonging to the world and to each other…feeling part of life’s unfolding. I love the way renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi, a native of Israel, reflects on his craft and his partnership with Palestinian-born Sami Tamimi: “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it—what have we got to lose—to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together if nothing else will” (The New Yorker, December, 3, 2012: “The Philosopher Chef” by Jane Kramer).

Study, laugh, and eat. Pass the hummus, please.


troubled_daughtersEarlier this summer, I became – there’s really no better word to describe this – obsessed with a crime story emerging out of Poughkeepsie, New York, just a couple of hours’ train ride north of the five boroughs. An elderly man named James Nichols had died in his house last December, more or less surrounded by a cavalcade of items he’d hoarded for decades. He died alone, without heirs or loved ones, and was thought to be a quiet man, maybe a little strange. Then, a few months later, in the process of cleaning out his house, Poughkeepsie authorities discovered a body, encased in a plastic container and hidden in the basement.

The body was of Nichols’ wife, JoAnn, a first-grade schoolteacher who had disappeared around Christmas of 1985. Townsfolk were suspicious, but had little proof. The police questioned Nichols numerous times, but he stuck to his story: JoAnn, increasingly despondent after the death of their only son three years earlier, had disappeared, leaving behind a note that wasn’t quite suicidal, but hardly cheery. Nichols carried on with his life. But was it much of a life?

That story haunts me because it is the perfect example of horror lurking beneath a seemingly mundane existence. The relationship between a husband and wife involves great intimacy, supreme trust, and, when it sours, tremendous betrayal. Love transmutes into hate at the drop of a hat. We’ll never know why James Nichols killed his wife, but we know he got away with murder, that his awful act hid in the plain sight of his community despite the swirling rumors. But how did he stay so cool? Why did he go over the edge? Or, more awfully, did he never have an edge to begin with?

JoAnn Nichols’ disappearance and murder took place almost thirty years ago. But it’s a story that could have happened years, even decades earlier, that in fictionalized form would have been a fascinating, terror-laden work of domestic suspense. I wonder how a writer like Celia Fremlin, who understood the desperation of a post-partum-afflicted mother in The Hours Before Dawn, or Margaret Millar, who understood the toxicity of marriage like few others, would have used the Nichols tale, or something like it, as source material. Nichols’ truncated life is full of frustrating gaps. But fiction could give her a powerful voice, one that underscores that the most violent urges are acted on by the ones you think you know best.


Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat makes for a good read-aloud experience?

The answer to that query can be found in two disparate read-aloud experiences. One is a long-term Congressman reading aloud (in the dry, mind-numbing monotone) a newspaper editorial into the Congressional Record before a hundred inattentive colleagues. The second is a 72-year-old grandfather reading aloud a fairy tale parody to twenty-two attentive and enthusiastic inmates at a minimum-security prison facility.

Why did the first read-aloud fail and the other succeed? A two part answer: subject matter and reader.

In the first instance, the politician was simply going through the motions to please some constituents and he read it accordingly. If he were being graded for the performance he might be indicted for attempted murder of the spoken word. The material (as with most editorials) was boring and so was he.

In the second instance (and I must admit to bringing a certain bias to the case with myself as the reader), the positive response came because of the narrative and the reader’s effort to bring it alive. The inmates in question were taking an in-house class on parenting skills, which included reasons for and methods of reading to their children.

Choosing the right material should always be a prime consideration but tempered by the intended audience. After much consideration, the book I chose was I Am So Strong by Mario Ramos (Gecko Press, 2011) Here is the synopsis I included for the book in the Treasury of Read-Alouds for the seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

Give me a book with some good old-fashioned yelling in it, throw in a handful of familiar characters like that wolf and Red Riding Hood and those three pigs, add a couple of dwarfs, and then round it off with a baby dinosaur and his huge mother. The end result is one terrific read-aloud.

The main protagonist is a loud, boastful wolf who struts through the forest asking each fairy tale character he meets, “Who’s the strongest in the woods?” Each cowed response inflates his ego a little bit more until he encounters what he mistakes for a toad. That tiny creature names his mother—who suddenly appears as big as a dinosaur on the final page.

prison storytimeWhy that book choice for the inmates? Because the audience could easily identify with the subject matter: ego, bullying, shouting, comeuppance, surprise ending, and gentle humor. There wasn’t one listener that morning who could not identify with either the wolf or the creatures he was intimidating in the forest.

But just as important as the choice of material was the way I read it. Already familiar with the book from reading it to myself several times in the previous year, I still read it aloud twice in preparation for the class. I noted where I needed to lower my voice, where to make it boastful or sly (“Hello there, Sugar Bun,” the wolf says to a small rabbit. “Tell me, who do you think is the strongest around here?”), and where I needed to be ready for the wolf to lose his temper when the last little creature boasts his mother is the strongest.

It’s unrealistic to expect that every parent has the time to prepare ahead each book for reading aloud as I did the wolf story but they can certainly improve their performance with repeat readings on successive nights. But no classroom teacher should consider doing a read-aloud without rehearsing it the night before. (Just for job security alone, read the book or chapter ahead of time! The last thing you want is an unexpected word popping up in the text.)

So where does that leave the parent or teacher who isn’t Morgan Freeman or Meryl Streep with the spoken word? Children don’t expect Academy Award performances but they do expect fluency and effort. What they don’t deserve is a Congressman-reading-into-the-Congressional-Record performance. But what each of us can and will do, if we stay with it long enough, is improve because of the confidence we gain with repeated readings until we achieve the ultimate goal when a child or class exclaims, “Read it again!”

As for good read-aloud material, I try to make that easier than walking into a library and coldly making choices. Not every book is meant to be read aloud (some aren’t even worth reading to ourselves, never mind reading to others). The whole second half of my book is the Treasury of Read-Alouds with hundreds of titles and synopses, along with listening/grade levels for each book.

The usual criteria for selecting a book to my list is Plot, the wind beneath the story’s wings. Does anything happen that we care about? Do we want to turn the page to see what happens next? How long does it take to get things moving? Are we begging for more when the final page is read?

Conversely, the author who spends a whole page in a novel describing the butterfly on the pinewood plank on a spring morning by the lake may be a fine poet but the end result is not going to hold an audience for long unless the butterfly soon turns into a dangerous . . .

If plot is so important, where does that leave nonfiction? They’re usually not great read-alouds, unless the audience is especially interested in the subject. This means if you have a child who is very keen on one subject (Civil War, baseball, horses, etc.), he or she will usually be ripe for a read-aloud on that subject—but a whole class might not be.

On the other hand, today more than ever before there are excellent picture books that incorporate plot into nonfiction, focusing on singular events (plot) in a famous person’s life. My favorites include: My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris; Nurse, Soldier, Spy by Marissa Moss; Odd Boy Out: Young Albert Einstein by Don Brown; POP! The Invention of Bubble Gum by Meghan McCarthy; Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving by Laurie Halse Anderson; and The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle by Don Wulffson.

They are entertaining, informative, and, unlike textbooks or Congressional Records, seldom dull.


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  • Despite the claims that the Internet has hurt reading, I say it’s the best thing that ever happened to used-bookstores. Between, Alibris, Amazon, and Bookfinder.com, it’s near impossible to come up empty when looking for a favorite.
  • When was the last time you saw anyone (young or old) reading a book by Maurice Sendak? On the other hand, parents and teachers will get ten times more mileage for kids’ hearts and souls from Patricia Polacco’s books than from Sendak’s. Just a personal opinion.
  • When I’m shopping or browsing, I’m always influenced first by the book’s cover, followed by the rest of the book. So what happens when we go all-digital and there are fewer and fewer physical covers to catch our eye?
  • I’ve always wondered why paperback covers are so much more attractive than hardcovers. It’s like public radio’s Saturday afternoon opera versus “Car Talk.”
  • I just got around to reading The Franchise by Michael MacCambridge, the history of Sports Illustrated’s first four decades. (My teen years were spent devouring the magazine’s first decade.) Along with much ado about editorial and office politics, the book documents the sad slide of popular American magazine writing from lengthy and complex sentences to shorter and shallower writing, accompanied by a plethora of photos—something like slo-mo TV with pages. Poor Mr. Luce must rotate in his grave weekly.
  • My favorite part of book promotion tours was meeting the tour escorts and quizzing them on their favorite touring authors as well as the ones they dreaded. Every year the escorts would “honor” the latter with an award called The Golden Dart. My favorite anecdote was the author who got off the plane, discovered her book wasn’t on display in the airport bookstore, and cancelled the city. A Dart-winner if there ever was one.
  • My favorite question at a dinner party is “What was your favorite book as a child?” It’s always sad when someone confesses, “I never had one,” but most people can come up with at least one. And then the debate starts.
  • An old newspaper colleague once observed wisely: “The age we read a particular classic is inverse to our present age. That is, when we are 40, we recall reading Little Women when we were ten. When we are 60, we read it when we were six.”
  • I believe the last decade of Dr. Seuss full-length movies has done nothing to enhance his legacy. Please, Mrs. Geisel, don’t let Hollywood mess up Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
  • Most authors who talk to me about their books-made-into-movies sheepishly confess to a single motive: CASH, the very subject that feeds most author insecurities.
  • Why is it that doctors, scientists, and judges never think of writing a children’s book but celebrities keep writing them?
  • It’s a shame English novelist Michael Morpurgo and Australian picture book artist Bob Graham are not better known in the U.S. They’re as good as our very best. I’d take Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom over any Harry Potter book, and Graham’s A Bus Called Heaven is nothing short of great.
  • Can you remember why book-banners protested Trina Schart Hyman’s Caldecott-winning Little Red Riding Hood? Trina, who loved sneaking mischief into our illustrations, tucked away a bottle of wine in the basket headed for Grandma. Trina’s passing has left a painful void that is yet to be filled.
  • Speaking of censors, there’s a fascinating Webcast with E. B. White’s stepson about the time America’s most influential children’s librarian tried (and failed) to stop the publication of White’s first book, Stuart Little. Junie B. Jones would have given that librarian, Ann Carroll Moore, a good case of apoplexy or shingles.
  • I can name a dozen great dog novels but not a single cat book. How come?
  • You take Little House on the Prairie; I’ll take Caddie Woodlawn every time. As my son once observed when we were reading one of the Wilder books: “Dad, do we really need to know this much about hay?”
  • With 24/7 sports coverage on TV and the Web, someone ought to resurrect the out-of-print work of sports novelists Thomas J. Dygard and Alfred Slote.
  • Am I the only one who thinks we’ve reached the saturation point with apocalyptical novels for preteens and teens, to say nothing of the nasty-girl books. The slogan seems to be: If it sells, clone it. Is there an original thought in the house?
  • Kadir Nelson’s book illustrations are as close to fine art as you can get in kids’ books yet remain thoroughly accessible. He’s a treasure for our time!
  • After being missed for decades, Philomel has brought Doris Burn’s Andrew Henry’s Meadow back into print. If you’re unfamiliar with it, chase it down and revel in the glory that can be made from plain old black lines on white paper and a story that celebrates little kids who dare to find a life of their own. Oh, yes—Hollywood is preparing a film version, which means the children’s happy meadow probably will have wolverines and vampires lurking in the deep.
  • If you’re going to read Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, then you simply must follow it up with his Summer of the Monkeys.
  • It’s headed for the courts, so eventually publishers, authors, and e-tablet makers will allow us to digitally give away the e-books we’ve already purchased (probably if we first pay a little extra when we buy the book). But will they ever allow us to gift it to a public or school library, as we do with dead-tree books?
  • Who was the president that put James Bond on the bestseller list just when its publisher was about to retire the series? Jack Kennedy told Life magazine how much he loved reading the series and — bestseller list! Ah, for Presidents who share their reading.
  • How many famous “orphan” stories can you name, beginning with Harry Potter and going backward? For Dickens it was a magic ingredient. Still is.


the_neverending_story_michael_endeOne week ago today, I was sitting in a crowd with hundreds of other people, gathered in McCarren Park Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a beautiful clear night, to watch the last SummerScreen movie of the season. Not just because I love watching movies outside in the summer, but because the audience voted online for the final film, The Neverending Story.

I danced and sang to the theme song for the movie, I shouted “Falcor!”, the name of the giant luckdragon when he made his first appearance, I cheered when Atreyu made it past the Southern Oracle, got slightly teary eyed when Atreyu’s horse Artex submits himself to the Swamp of Sadness, was on edge when Bastian couldn’t see that he was the only one who could save Fantasia, and smiled when he did.

And while the movie may be a bit different from the book, I was introduced to the movie first when I saw it in a theater when I was nine years old. I don’t remember going to the actual theater, but I do remember when my mother bought me the book, which was black and had the AURYN, the lemniscate symbol with two serpents devouring each other. Bastian wrapped himself up in musty blankets and read his copy of the The Neverending Story in a chilly, dark attic, the pages illuminated by candle light. I used a crochet afghan that my mother made me and opted for a flashlight.

neverending_story_childhood_bookjpgSome books make us nostalgic about our childhood. They remind us of a time when life seemed less chaotic—when our priorities for the day involved things like daydreaming and reading a good book—and help reinforce the importance of the power of imagination. Bastian reads The Neverending Story, but becomes part of it as well.

‘I wonder,’ he said to himself, ‘what’s in a book while it’s closed. Oh, I know it’s full of letters printed on paper, but all the same, something must be happening, because as soon as I open it, there’s a whole story with people I don’t know yet and all kinds of adventures and deeds and battles. And sometimes there are storms at sea, or it takes you to strange cities and countries. All those things are somehow shut up in a book. Of course you have to read it to find out. But it’s already there, that’s the funny thing. I wish I knew how it could be.’

Suddenly an almost festive mood came over him.

He settled himself, picked up the book, opened it to the first page, and began to read

The Neverending Story.

There’s a cycle here. I can’t even count the times I have seen the movie, but after seeing it on the large screen again, I decided to re-read the book. Sadly, I don’t have my original copy anymore, but I borrowed a friend’s last summer when I discovered it on his childhood bookshelf at his summer beach house. Dave, I’ll give you your book back after I’m done. Promise.


real_talk_for_real_teachersFor many good teachers, the beginning of a new year can be depressing. It often seems that the new students are less prepared and surlier than those of the past. Many of us are tired of ineffective staff development sessions and the drudgery of spending too much time getting the students ready for a meaningless standardized test.

If you feel weary, imagine what a kid feels like walking into school these days. He is being taught that a series of worksheets or the regurgitation of some facts is supposed to demonstrate genuine scholarship.

Never forget that we teachers make the difference. No system or Common Core standard can look into a child’s eyes and recognize true understanding. A teacher does that. A teacher can look into a student’s eyes, read body language, offer a sympathetic ear to a kid having a bad day, or open a door that might change a life.

You, the teacher, have the power to do those things. You can be the turning point. Your skill and expertise are ready to be passed on, and the world will be a better place because of your wisdom, hard work, and dedication to the craft of teaching.

Students need us now more than ever. Let us all dedicate ourselves to having the best year we have ever had in the classroom. We can have a great year with our students not because of The System, but in spite of it.


read-aloud_handbookMost of us enjoy looking at the outtakes that frequently run with movie end credits these days, scenes that had to be cut but still were worthy of a tag-on performance. Every author has experienced the same dashed feelings when space or other considerations required him or her to slash a favorite scene or anecdote from a manuscript. Until blogs came along, there was no way for authors to attach them to the end pages.

So here, saved not by the bell but by the blog, is my favorite anecdote that didn’t make it to the finish line of my seventh edition of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

Recently the author-entrepreneur Seth Godin offered the following definition of the modern librarian: “The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.”[i]

For the most part, Godin was on target, although secondary librarians working with students who want to do just “enough to get by” might demur over the last part. I personally would add two more qualifications to the definition: spy and people-reader. In support, I offer the following anecdote from NPR’s 2009 “Story Corps” files in which Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Olly Neal told his daughter how he went from operating on the fringe of delinquency to college and law school. (”Story Corps”[is part of a national oral history project associated with the Library of Congress.)

Neal’s story began one day in the high school library in segregated Marianna, Arkansas. At this point in his life he was the epitome of “at-risk”: One of thirteen children in a home without electricity, daily tormentor of teachers (he loved calling them by their first names and reducing them to tears), with a history of shoplifting and using his mouth more than his brain. On this occasion, Neal was cutting class and hiding out in the library when he spotted a book on the shelf by Frank Yerby, at that time a little-known black author of adult novels. Between the risqué cover and text, Neal was intrigued enough to want more. There was a problem, however.

Frank_YerbyIf he took the book over to the library checkout counter, the girls attending it would notice and surely tell his peers that he was taking books out. “Then my reputation would be down, because I was reading books,” Neal explained to his daughter, Karama. “And I wanted them to know that all I could do was fight and cuss.”

In keeping with his established shoplifting talents, Neal stuffed the book under his coat and walked out. When he finished it, back he went to return it, only to find another Yerby novel in its place. “So I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll read that, too.’ So I took it under my jacket,” Neal said. “Later, I brought it back, and there was, by God — there was another book by Frank Yerby! So I took it.”

All together he read four Yerby novels that semester and a habit was formed that lead to newspapers and magazines and eventually to college, law school, and a judgeship. Lifetime readers often meet one book that towers above all others, a volume or author that “hooked” them so deeply they were pulled for life into the ocean of deep reading. Neal, an African American, had no idea Yerby was the first African-American to write an American bestseller, the first to sell a book to the movies, and the first to become a millionaire from his writings (55 million books sold). Langston Hughes got the attention and fame, but Yerby got the sales and money. All Neal knew was a good story when he met it, sometimes helped by a risque cover.

But Neal was ignorant of something else as well, something he wouldn’t discover until a high school class reunion years later when he chanced to meet his former teacher-librarian, Mildred Grady. To his surprise, she clearly remembered the Yerby incident. “She told me that she saw me take that book when I first took it. She said, ‘My first thought was to go over there and tell him, Boy, you don’t have to steal a book, you can check them out—they’re free!’” (Grady had established the school’s library a few years earlier.)

It’s here that the librarian-spy becomes a people-reader. Neal explained, “She realized what my situation was—that I could not let anybody know I was reading.” But she also recognized an open window of opportunity. “She and Mrs. Saunders would drive to Memphis and find another one [Yerby book] for me to read—and they would put it in the exact same place where the one I’d taken was. You’ve got to understand that this was not an easy matter then— because this is 1957 and ‘58,” Neal said. “And black authors were not especially available, No. 1. And No. 2, Frank Yerby was not such a widely known author. And No. 3, they had to drive all the way to Memphis [50 miles] to find it.”[iii] She also paid for the books out of her own pocket.

There are incalculable benefits from a librarian or teacher who knows what their students are reading, who knows Billy is crazy about the Alex Rider series and when she sees in the catalog that the next book is out, exclaims, “Hey, Billy—good news!” On such solid ground is built a lifetime reader. And as Olly Neal knows, it also creates a lifetime debt to that librarian or teacher. And one more thing: The reading seldom stops at one generation. Neal’s daughter Karama owns a doctorate in genetics.

 


headhunters“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe famously wrote. This always struck me as a provocative statement. True, I accept the inevitability of change. I know that nothing remains the same for long. But I once lived on a faraway atoll in the equatorial Pacific, a lost world that seemed happily immune to the ticking of the clock. Over the years, whenever someone’s noted how much our world has been altered by the march of history – often said with a sigh of regret – I think back fondly to distant Kiribati, a twinkling cosmos of islands, certain that their isolation protects them from the ravages of the internet and the rise of Justin Bieber. Nothing changes in Kiribati, I thought smugly.

So it turns out I was wrong. I had lived on Tarawa, what passes for the main island, for two years, and when I’d left I’d written a book about my experiences called The Sex Lives of Cannibals. Obviously, I never expected to return, but then, years later, while following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, I saw that my journey would take me back to my erstwhile island home. Stevenson is one of the very few writers to have ever called upon Kiribati. Another was Arthur Grimble, a former English colonial officer who wrote about the islands in the 1950s. Though separated by a half century, the island worlds they described would have been recognizable to each other, as indeed they were to me. Elsewhere in the world, change zips along at warp speed. Here, it moseys about like a turtle, slowly, deliberately, in no great rush.

And so imagine my delight when, upon arrival on Tarawa, I sensed that everything was exactly as it was. An atoll is but the narrow ridge of an undersea volcano, coiling around a shimmering lagoon that seamlessly merges with an endless sky. It always felt like a precarious place to hang your hat, but at low tide, with the lagoon in retreat, revealing an expanse of blinding mudflats, there is – at least for a few hours – the illusion of living space. There were more people on Tarawa now and mostly they had built their homes in the traditional style on platforms of coconut wood with walls of flapping mats and thatched roofs. The Mormons, I could see, had been busy building more schools and churches, and the island was greener than I recalled, but otherwise it appeared unchanged. The island’s lone paved road had mostly dissipated and a few of the cinderblock buildings were in advanced states of disrepair – not least our former house, which had steadily crumbled over the years – but this was to be expected. This wasn’t an innovation or metamorphosis. It was simply stasis, and in the face of inaction, nature asserts itself.

It was only later, as I gathered behind the guesthouse, standing on a seawall to enjoy the sunset, that I sensed profound change. There is not a more spectacular sight than that of the sun descending in crimson and orange grandeur along the equator, its wispy light casting radiant flares across the expanse of the lagoon and the cascade of palms following a sliver of land to the horizon. A gathering of fairy terns fluttered near shore, diving into the lagoon and singing melodically. I could hear the songs from the boys high up the coconut trees, which they had climbed to gather toddy, the tree’s nectar. The tide had come in and I watched it rise. And rise. And rise. Soon, it was bubbling beneath me, seeping into the seawall, and escaping like babbling fountains. The seawall was but a soggy, collapsing peninsula, suddenly surrounded on three sides by ever surging waters. I looked around me with particular interest, and noted the trees and bushes that just an hour or two earlier had been dry and undisturbed, but now lay immersed in the lagoon. Many of the coconut trees, I now saw, were dead, standing like mute sentries above the encroaching water. The island was sinking, its destiny foretold in the great beauty of the gathering sea. And this was something new and novel, and I reached for pen and paper, and began to write, describing what I saw, as if I were recording the dying days of Atlantis.