31 December 2010

Life in the Margins

My friend is in his 80s; he wears dual hearing aids because he is nearly deaf, having had his eardrums blown out in WWII. He is developing cataracts which make seeing difficult, although he's planning surgery for them. I find this a lovely, optimistic thing to do: his curiosity and love of reading beating back those pesky proteins that would cloud the page. He does love to read and sits over his magazine with a colored pencil, editing the misspellings and poor grammar and incorrect facts. Fred was a teacher in his pre-retirement years. What a guy! I like to think of him as a humble guardian - a gatekeeper of the Mother Tongue - waging war with marker drawn.

Like many older folks, he likes to read things that are reminiscent: histories of areas he knows, stories from periods with which he identifies, and down-home country-isms. He is from down home, you see. He grew up on the Kentucky side in Appalachia, and his wife on the Virginia side. I like to think of them as a Romeo and Juliet meets the Hatfields and McCoys, only much happier, and clearly more sensibly disposed.

I was recently the recipient of some of Fred's hand-me-down periodicals. He was ready to donate them, and this particular publication is popular with local genealogists. I brought them home to remove address labels and to thumb through them before passing them along. As I browsed through Fred's editorial marks, I found a window into his life. For example, I never knew much about his military service, but his comments in the margins of articles written on the subject gave me to understand where he had fought and what he thought about the experience. Cryptic comments, like "tough time," "agree," "even worse," let me know that whatever the writer's description, it could not begin to measure what he had seen.

Specializing in non-urban, non-contemporary country life, these magazines spoke of growing up in remote hollows, drawing well water, no electricity, and barefoot boyhood. I could tell where Fred's bare feet had wandered, and a few things he had seen and experienced every time I came across his emphatic underlining and scrawled observations.

I have had one other such notable experience with margin notes in my life. In high school, a good friend and I shared a history book. I couldn't afford one; we had history at different times so she graciously shared her book and we passed it back and forth in the hall. For the record, I have always loved history but this class was decidedly boring and to enliven the hour we would make notes in the current reading, knowing the other would see it. We drew pictures back and forth, and otherwise communicated across the barrier of time via our extra-literation.  You could say we drew and read between the lines.

I remember once buying a textbook at a college book sale that boasted the following scheme: in the front cover of each book was the grade the student had made in the course (in order to sell your books this way you had to provide grade slips for proof) and you could buy based on one of a couple of strategies: you could buy the "A" student books and know you could probably trust their margin notes, or you could buy the unmarked books of the "C" and "D" students and start completely fresh. I always bought the marked books.

I have since experienced other editorial handiwork, some pleasant and some not. Thesis corrections were painful and occasionally incomprehensible. One undergrad professor often made my day with his sincere and supportive margin notes. As a student, you live and die by the red pencil. I have even experienced professional editing via computer program, although I must say it isn't quite the same. It's like breaking up in a text - just a little too impersonal.

A part of me feels it would open up an interesting new world if we could write a brief comment in every book we read. This is incendiary speech coming from a librarian, I know. And at the risk of creating a host of administrative problems for libraries everywhere, I will refrain, as should you.

Just know that when you buy my books, you get the window into my soul for free.

15 December 2010

Content, Context, Content

We really fail to fully appreciate the miracle by which children learn to speak and, by extension, to read. And how that miracle builds the future.

Probably many of us have seen the movie The Miracle Worker, and have all had the same goose-bumpy moment when Helen finally connects the motion of Anne Sullivan's fingers, and the feel of the cool wetness, with that one word from her babyhood - water.  You think about the hundreds of thousands of repetitions it took to provoke that epiphanal moment, and you wonder how your own children manage it with what seems like far less intervention.

Child-brains are sponges way more efficient that a sham-wow. We know this because they can catalog back to us every rude thing we've ever said when we thought they weren't listening. Which brings us to my theory of how kids learn language.

When our babies are born, we can't seem to resist talking to them. They look as intently at us as anyone ever will in our lives. In a way, they are a captive audience to anything and everything we have to say; we hold their totally dependent selves in our arms in such as way as to maximize communication. Think about it. How many times in our lives will anyone (much less our children) pay such attention to us? I believe this is not accidental - I think it has to be part of the great design of how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next.

Even new babies process our speech efficiently and immediately. They identify the sound of our voices: they know Dad from Mom. They know Mom from Aunt Bella. They know when Mom is cross. Soon, they know communicative sounds: singing, the shhh sound to calm them, the funny clicks and buzzes we do to amuse them. Eventually, they match words to results: eat to food to tummy-feels-better, for example. They discover their own ability to make sounds, and learn each sound's different response.

A working vocabulary is built on experience. Bed, toy, cookie, blanket, dog, etc. are the currency of day-to-day living. Well before a child can read, they can express their needs and observations in highly articulate ways. A child has an excellent foundation of functional vocabulary well before school age. After that, the skill becomes recognizing the word visually as well as aurally. Reading and writing, then, enable children to partake of a more permanent and dimensional use of language. Plus reading builds in them a vocabulary that goes beyond material usage. It helps them describe non-concrete situations such as feelings, impressions and ideas.

Once a child's enthusiasm for new language acquisition takes off, it becomes our obligation as parents to see to it that their lexical world is filled with constructive language. More than just the accumulation of vocabulary, children absorb our ideas, philosophies, and perspectives. Unfortunately, they can also absorb our prejudices, our phobias, our criticisms and our cynicisms. Even if we find evidence of these things in ourselves, we can spare our children those burdens.

Providing children with the tools for expression, communication and community is the first gift we give them as currency toward their future. Like clean air and clean water, our legacy should be a vocabulary filled with unsullied observation of their world: words filled with optimism and hopefulness. Much as we would not have them drink polluted water, we can refrain from teaching them words of fear, hate, intolerance, and anger, leaving those tucked away where we hope they never acquire them, knowing that just as toxic chemicals can harm their bodies, toxic words can harm their confidence and their souls.

Consider what Byron had to say:
"But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
  Falling like dew upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think."

Isn't it amazing to consider that the the potential of a better world is available in the words we give our children today. 

01 December 2010

Harvest Home

We sang Thanksgiving songs today in church, and one song struck me in a new way. Having sung it for nearly my entire life, I finally understood it:

"Come ye thankful people come, raise the song of harvest home.
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin."

Written originally in a time when societies were agrarian, this song could not have helped having resonance with its singers. Talk of harvest, the quality of the produce, the preparation for harsh weather ahead. In the middle 1800s, people depended on their own labors to ensure food enough; they helped their neighbors in times of struggle, just as their neighbors helped them. But everyone also knew that a blessing of grace, good weather, health, and strength were not to be treated lightly. They desired to bring their thankful song home. To whose home? To their own, of course. But they also raised them to someone higher up. Thanksgiving is supposed to be as elemental as this: we have food, we can be together to share it, and we're thankful. All is safely gathered it. Even us.

Whether our forebears were merely anticipating a cold winter, or whether they feared something more man-made, they took comfort in the earnest effort and trusted that diligent preparation would be enough to sustain them. They had been obedient and had faith in the rest. Modernly, we also build security gathering in life's harvest. For us, the crop can be strong, caring and responsible children-citizens, fiscal responsibility, the good will of our neighbors and friends, the diligent upkeep of our homes. More importantly it is the reservoir of spiritual strength we have stored up within ourselves and our families. We all plan ahead for protection against the cold winds, whether they be natural or the bluster of an occasional hard society. We trust, after all we can do in obedience, that good will stand on our side. We have faith in all the rest.

"Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be."

Corn is a very versatile grain: if it is less tasty to humans, livestock still love it. If it won't work as cooking oil for your cake, it can be squeezed into ethanol to run your car.

It is pleasant to think of ourselves as tall cornstalks carrying bundles of vitally nourishing grain (or renewable and environmentally safe fuel) to those around us, strong and resilient even in poor conditions, tougher than the storms that blow on us and the sun that bakes us, and, in the end, a life-saving resources to those we love. And make no mistake - we do feed AND transport, both bodies and spirits! We are good grain, and we are so thankful.

See us now, green-golden and straight-backed, rustling gently in the breeze.

26 November 2010

Sit a Spell

To have a conversation: Chat. Gab. Chew the fat. Confab. Visit. Schmooze. Natter. Shoot the breeze.

My friends and I try to get together at least once a month to have lunch. We all lead busy lives and this is a way for us to stay in touch. I find that we learn more about one another over a casual meal than we might have in other contexts of our lives. At church or at work we have duties to fulfill, things to see to, and distractions aplenty. At home, we may have a few minutes before the next round of chaos begins. But in the lunch place, using the time we have blocked out, we sit across from one another and just talk.

This kind of talk serves a number of worthy purposes. It gives us a touchstone to measure the normalcy of our lives. If Gayle and Eileen and Vicki are all experiencing the same frustrations, then maybe I'm not alone or abnormal after all. We pass around useful advice: I saw the best sale on mushroom soup, store A had grapes as big as your head. When I used this lotion, my dry hands cleared right up. Try putting a glass of water by the bed... you get the idea.

Our talk is often practical, but sometimes it's fun. We trade stories from when we were young. We weren't young all in the same place, which makes it that much more interesting. By sharing memories, we can almost feel what it would have been like to grow up together.

A friend just moved away. When she first came to us, she hated the place. She was lonely for her family, she felt shut out of the ebb and flow. But some of the outgoing of us drew her in. It wasn't long before our jokes were her jokes and she lent sass and sparkle to our old ways as well. It is the way friendships grow bonds between us. When this friend then had to leave us to go onward, it threw her all over again. I find myself hoping her natural wit and pizzazz will bubble to the surface once more. For that to happen, she needs to talk to like minded people at the other end of the road. People who will re-establish her, and give her a base, and draw her into the new way of doing. And soon she will be at home. It just takes the right table at the right restaurant with the right conversation, and suddenly the world doesn't feel so strange, and we don't feel so much like strangers.

15 November 2010

What Your Child is Reading - Addendum: Diary of a Wimpy Kid

I haven't seen the movie, but I read the book (the first one in the series, anyway). I am speaking not of the latest John Grisham novel, but of the rage of your children 12 and under: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I will admit at the start that I may not be the demographic author Jeff Kinney was hoping to reach. However, when a book takes flight like this one did among the grade-school set, a self-respecting children's librarian needs to check it out (pardon the pun). 

I realize that what I am about to say may be beyond the point, since my opinion is hardly the one that counts: I find I am not anxious to recommend the book to parents who ask. I am not suggesting it be banned in Boston. I am not planning a boycott of Abrams. I am definitely not withholding it from the eager hands of the grade-school set who come (in droves) to find it on our shelves. My objection is not so great as to offset the fact that children are reading who may not otherwise read. But my overall impression is that it lacks affection

Greg Heffley behaves badly. I recognize that good little children who wouldn't think of doing the same things get a little vicariously illicit buzz from reading about the character's escapades. Most children know that kids aren't supposed act that way. They experiencve books the same way we adults do - as a sort of way to allow our id to go outside the norm for awhile. It is less troubling that Greg is the architypal underachiever, the one who makes our own foibles seem more normal. It is that he seems so content with his mediocrity, and kicks it up a notch with deception and carelessness. His parents are adversaries. His sibling is a nuisance. He is even mean to his best friend. I question whether it is morally responsible to publish a book in which there is no redeeming quality. Which reinforces a certain ethical neutrality in children, especially with regard to willingness to try, to be productive, and most of all, to love family members enough to at least occasionally think about their needs. 

Have I, once again, read too much into this?

07 November 2010

Reviewing Uncle Shelby

I have always had pleasant memories of Shel Silverstein's verse. On a recent reread, I have to admit I gained a little perspective as well. 

I knew, of course, that these were not your average Disney-ized children's poetry. Shel dispensed some pretty radical stuff, like the babysitter who sat upon the baby, and Sarah Cynthia Silvia Stout who (we are led to believe) was buried under her accumulated garbage, etc. Nevertheless, with some light editing, I read these to my children. One daughter can recite the fable of Peggy Ann McKay for you; another has the Falling Up child tattooed on her shoulder. We read lots of things together, but my children remember Shel warmly. 

Once, I was verbally attacked by an irritated bookstore patron who thought Shel was teaching immoral ideas to her young offspring. I shrugged her off as a kook at the time. Her problem: the Giving Tree seemed to her to suggest that one is not virtuous or caring until one has been totally depleted. I guess at the time I assumed it was a wealthy suburbanite feeling a little defensive about her dough. 

Recently, I reread The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece, and I'm afraid I am starting to see her point. The Giving Tree can be construed to condone the selfish and grasping little boy who takes and takes and never gives. It could be  read to illustrate how some people sacrifice much with little appreciation. Granted, it can also be thought of as a story of ultimate redemption and unconditional love. It does seem to suggest a certain passive willingness to be abused. 

And I had contemplated giving The Missing Piece to a newlywed couple as a sort of sweet token of finding that one right person. I think perhaps I read it wrong; at the very least I scrapped the idea of the story as romantic. The dot, sans piece, goes on a pilgrimage to find the part to make itself complete. Upon finding said part, it decides it was less free and less content: it decides that the extra weight of the piece was cramping its rolling-stone style, and casts it away. Oh, sure, it says all this with gentler and more self-affirming speech. But I do wonder if the not-so-subtle message is that we are better single and that wholeness has little to do with accommodating a spouse and family. 

I still love Shel of course. He teaches us that childhood doesn't have to be all baby-talk, and gives us access to the practical-radical (read: socially aware) idea. When you enjoy Silverstein remember: there is always a point to be made, and the protagonist doesn't always have to win. It is generally in the consequence that we find the charm. And if we are not always charmed by the message, we can find the perspective refreshingly frank. After all, the fun begins in the extraordinary place where the sidewalk ends. 

Why I Do What I Do

At work one morning, I was working on what we call a request list (or a pull list). This is a list of all the books patrons have requested over the last 24 hours, either in person at one of our service desks or at home via our website. It's a nifty and convenient service. Usually first thing in the morning we go around with the list and pull
the books requested. When we scan them into the computer, it knows someone has asked for it and prints a slip accordingly. We then send the book and request slip up the the circulation department where the patron can pick up the item(s). 

On this particular morning I was going down through the list when I became aware of a child singing. I tend to be so focused, at times, that I block out what is happening around me - sometimes much concentration is needed to ferret out a wandering book. So on this occasion, she was well into her song before I started to pay attention. 

The child was no more than 2 or 2 1/2 years old. She was building with a toy we have in the department and was singing as she worked, a Sunday School song called I Am A Child of God. Her voice was crystal clear, and she remembered the words remarkably well for her age. Her entire attitude was one of peaceful contentment and exquisite confidence in her world in that moment. I stood spellbound, hand outstretched to pick a book, but unable to complete the motion, lest by moving I break the spell. 

As a laborer among children, one is elaborately careful not to invade children's safety zone. I did not move closer to hear, nor more than glance at the child, lest I make her uncomfortable or self-conscious. Even had I been inclined to come nearer, her aura of almost sacred purity would have forbade it. This, I thought, must be how angels sound. And the goosebumps on my arms must be how folks like me would probably react to an angel in the room. 

I recently applied to another department in the library for a job for which I was (false modesty aside :-) overwhelmingly qualified. I was disappointed not to have gotten the job. But over the next few weeks, several things occurred which have made me reevaluate my disappointment: a child, exhuberantly happy about the book I found him, rushed up and hugged my leg. Another offered me his hand as we (including his mom)  walked to the place where his book would be found. An older child who had been in some minor mischief in the department in the past began talking to me - short conversations, to be sure, but talking! Even outside of work, children approached me or spoke to me in department stores and other public places. Ever careful to note the presence of parents, I was  totally charmed that these children found me approachable. 

One young lad, shopping with his parents, indicated that he had a nifty new hat and waited for me to express my admiration; of course, I obliged. After a few seconds of discussion about the superhero who appeared on the said chapeau, he went over to his parents, and I continued shopping. But shortly he came back to me and  said,  very matter-of-factly, "It's my birthday soon and I am having a party. Would you like to come?"  I am not sure I have been more complimented by an invitation in all my life. Of course, I had to very politely decline with the fact that I must return to work. But I assured him it sounded like great fun. (I could, at this point, sense his parents relax a little.) It was a totally charming exchange, and I have to say it made my day.

I find myself feeling that I belong in my present job, at least for sometime longer. There are things I need to do here, things I need to learn about the virtues of simplicity, generosity, kindness and goodness that are your children. 

I feel changed. After all, I have heard the voices of angels. 

06 November 2010

Being There

I am reading Eat, Pray, Love. I haven't seen the movie; I like to have read the book first because, being a librarian, I start with the premise that the book is always better. (Sorry Hollywood.) Sometimes I enjoy the movie very much, as it turns out. Still, I find that having read the book seems more fair to the author's point of view and that the movie should be judged against the book and not the other way around.


I am at chapter 24. I find that I am moved by a passage in which the author (the book is written in the first person) describes her progress in learning to speak Italian. She is speaking with her tutor and they are exchanging idioms. She is teaching him "I've been there" as an American way of saying "I sympathize with what you are feeling." Being a word-geek, I liked taking that moment with the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, to contemplate the nuances of this phrase. It's an exercise we should take from time to time.

"I've been there," has a couple of manifestations: simply saying "I've been there" is a way of saying "I have walked along in the same unmarked path of grief, sadness, discouragement, or pain and I am letting you know that up ahead you will pick up a trail again. Up around a big bend on the trail, you'll finally come to a road and it will lead you back to a big sunny place." Thankfully, we don't have to say any such awful, bulky, ponderous thing. We just say "I've been there." The American person we are addressing then understands that we have felt pain similar to theirs and adds in all the rest of the meaning. Isn't commonality of expression a wonderful thing?

Sometimes, in lighter situations, we say "Been there; done that." Or even "Been there; done that; bought the T-shirt." The first meaning that we have had a similar experience, the second meaning we have done it more than once, or done it in such a big way as to have earned a sort of membership.

Ms. Gilbert's tutor is, at first, mystified by the idea: you've been where? The phrase suggests, in his practical approach to English, that there is a physical place. And, in a way, she explains, it is. It may be a place in your head, but it resides somewhere that both speaker and listener understand.

The tutor then offers his own version: "I have experienced that on my own skin." Like a burn or a scar, Ms. Gilbert clarifies. How wonderfully expressive! Instead of a geographic image, as in the American version, Italians offer the place as themselves in an equally present and physical (and painful) metaphor. The difference is fascinating. In the American version, one sympathizes with the lost feeling, with the sufferer's environment of separateness. In the Italian version, one experiences the personal, visceral pain as a trauma to the body.  What does this reflect about how each of us sees the world?

20 August 2010

Pardon Our Bard: Shakespeare, current speech, and why we love him

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be."

Quick - who said it? This is one we all think we know. But do we really?

In the Bible? Nope.
Ben Franklin? Wrong again.

It's Shakespeare! We need not be surprised. One of the reasons he is still used in lit classes everywhere, why he is still so relevant, is that, among other things, he led the way in inventive use of the English language.

Here is the passage from Hamlet (Act 1 Scene 3):
"Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry."

Simply, if you borrow and lose an item, you lose a friend. If you lend, you don't have the item when you need it. Note how he uses language: "loan oft loses both itself and friend," animating the inanimate word: loan. The item is lost, the friend is lost. What a great economy of words! And notice, too, in the following line the phrase "dulls the edge of husbandry," suggesting not only the impeding of an act of labor and loss of productivity, but also the damage of the tool itself, all in one neat little package.

Polonius' fatherly speech to Laertes is packed with good advice. In the same brief speech he utters at least two more homilies we live by today: "to thine own self be true," and "for the apparel oft proclaims the man." Now where have we heard those before?

Shakespeare's ability to load his plays with scenic and memorable prose keeps him on required reading lists. Sure, the kids will groan when he is assigned. And when I say "kids" I mean high school, by the way. Though inventive and topical, he may be a bit on the adult side for younger children. I sometimes wonder if Shakespeare is a sort of bellwether. Kids who are willing to take the time and effort to understand Mr. S. seem to succeed in other ways as well, a testament to the idea that hard won is well earned: nothing can come of nothing. He is not an "easy read," but he's definitely worthwhile.

Tired of trying to slog through? See it performed - after all, it was written for this very medium. But be careful to choose a company or vehicle which will do him justice. The only thing worse than getting bogged down in the written text is to hear it speed by you poorly delivered and without much thought or interpretation.

And the next time someone tells you there's a method to their madness, you'll know who they have to thank.

28 July 2010

Who Do You Trust?

Who Do You Trust? By Lorelei Roberts

Everyone expects a snake in the grass: that's where they live. We don't expect them in our reading material. Too often, the more a periodical declares an unbiased presentation of the facts, the more you can assume a hidden agenda.

Words are vehicles for expressing thoughts. Books, letters and periodicals are a collection of words made formal. Oral or written, words are initially an expression of the ideas of the speaker or writer alone. Words collected together and presented before groups may create a following; others quote them, or adopt them in some way. Words delivered in various media often develop just such a following, and can be said to form a special interest segment. In this logical progression, a medium sometimes assumes that it represents the will or interest of a majority of people. This is where a specific journal, newspaper or broadcast steps over a very fine and possibly dangerous line: they become the self-appointed arbiters of opinion.

Such a juggernaut becomes proportionally more dangerous as it is more able to control the flow of information.

Ever notice the editorial pages in periodicals? It is a curious exercise. The publication is saying, in effect, "We absolve ourselves of editorial responsibility by presenting you with these token alternate opinions." You must trust that the editors have chosen a democratic distribution among the letters they receive. And you must trust that these letters have not been truncated or edited in some way.

Reading current opinion pieces then becomes a two-fold exercise: reading an article for information and reading the particular bias of the publisher.

Not everything has to be dispassionate to be of informational value. It's acceptable to have an opinion, making it clear from the beginning that you are not making an effort to be balanced. In this case, you acknowledge that there is always more than one point of view, but you feel strongly because... But, it is uniquely informative when you can present a case without all the baggage. Some issues are simply too complex to resolve by taking sides. Sometimes the reader must be trusted to be intelligent enough, or sensitive enough, to figure it out for themselves.

Word Face

If words are a well developed symbolism signifying speech, then catchphrases must take the notion one step further.

We've talked, recently, about the kinds of word-shorthand we use. A fascinating aspect of this is the motto, slogan or catchphrase. Companies crave brand recognition, and spend millions finding the right name for a product, the right slogan. If I whisper "Zoom, zoom," can an identification be more cryptic (but effective)? Political campaigns rally around one nutshell notion - "Yes We Can!" Even the Boy Scouts have a motto: "Be Prepared." We have Brangelina, leading us to the logical conclusion that Brad and Jennifer couldn't have a lasting relationship because their names could not be formed into a catchy blend.

The famous aren't the only ones doing this, of course. High schools are known by their team names, even though sports are an extracurricular and (presumably) not the school's core mission: Devils, Gators, Tigers. Notice how the names are generally tough-sounding: what societal shift might take place if they called themselves the Diplomats, the Benefactors, the Peacemakers. Hmmm... Granted, calling yourselves the Nice Guys seems to beg defeat on the field. However, before you jump to any conclusions, let me note that for years the toughest team to beat in my hometown was the Bluebirds. Whatever ribbing they may have taken, they pretty much beat the stuffing out of other teams.

The process by which a group chooses an identity is fascinating. Individual identity-building has a lot to do with the processes and philosophies of groups we gravitate to as we grow: for me it was the anti-war sixties, and the corresponding language. What was groovy for me is sick for my kids. The cultures in which we participate have a lot to do with our self-image, and the language we speak in our heads. It is interesting to ponder what the effect might be when media supplants the natural local language with a commercial mega-language. What if Madison Avenue (or Hollywood) is speaking so loudly in our ears that their voice is the one lodged in our self-concept?

Are the logos we surround ourselves with on a daily basis, on pants, school supplies, shoes, cars, lunch bags, etc. starting to define us? Do you Google? Branding is a not a new notion, but how we apply it is; in the past, products were branded, and now people are. Tom Peters has an article called The Brand Called You, in which he suggests that branding ourselves is a good thing. We identify ourselves in other people's minds as unique, special. The danger is that we become the brand, rather than the brand signifying us. When Mr. Peters talks about branding, he means that our actions are perceived as valuable to others. Our interior, not our exterior. We are not valuable to the extent that we internalize a slogan, but to the extent that we create a sterling character.

In the not-too-distant past, only cattle was branded. What might this bode for us?

19 July 2010

The Mel Factor: What happens when your ego grows faster than your vocabulary

Current events have shown a dark side of our language: its potential as a weapon. Words are a developed cultural symbolism used to convey thoughts and ideas. Human imagination doesn't always produce words of sweetness and light, as we know. Humans also possess a built-in gatekeeper, call it conscience, morality, ethics, good up-bringing, manners, etc. which guards the door of the mouth to prevent the issuing forth of harsh and hurtful speech. What happens when our gatekeeper is asleep at his post?

Once in a while we may be so emotionally moved that we speak more loudly, more emphatically, more pointedly, or more critically than we normally would. Once in a while we may be called upon to behave in a fairly aggressive defensive manner due to an injustice. I'm not talking about those cases.

I'm talking about the person who, with little provocation, uses language to pummel someone in an effort to demean them. The word-bully who shouts insults at the top of his/her voice, red in the face, neck cords straining, and spittle flying, so full of his/her own self-justified rage as to be completely unconcerned with any feelings but his/her need to annihilate. Not surprisingly, verbal bullies are deeply unimaginative, using more expletives than logic, sort of a cross between grade-school potty mouth and seriously egocentric adult narcissism. We'll call it the Mel Factor. Some verbal bullies erupt on any hapless victim. Most tend to pick a familiar (read family) victim, smaller and weaker, which gives them the illusion of power without any of the risks. Recent events have taught us that one does not have to be a scholar to catch the public imagination by the language one uses.

Words used to belittle, intimidate, and mortify are as surely abuse as a slap to the face. The unbridled use of abusive language, combined with overbearing physicality and menace is the fallback of a small and insecure personality. Unable to reason calmly and to generously allow for differences of style and opinion, one cannot entertain a position that is not his/her own. Or will not, having assumed the self-appointed role of the all-knowing OZ. Better to not have the ability to speak at all than to misuse it as some do.

16 July 2010

Words to Spend

Americans are a rich people. No matter our income we all have a wealth of words available for expressing whatever profound thought or hare-brained notion we wish. We have had words lavished upon us by generations past, and when we are bored with those, we make new ones. No one ever had less excuse for expressing themselves poorly than we do.

Think of it as a pocket full of words to spend, and a great, spacious-wide day to spend them in. Speak of a resplendent sunrise, sparkling dew, a downy-haired child. Or it can be a chilly dawn, a hazy sky, a smoggy drive. We have the tools to say exactly what we see, hear, think and feel. You don't have to be lyrical or break into song, just add detail - a little shine. Feeling a little self-conscious? Write your words instead - describe your excellent or awful day, your new car, your present mood or condition. Write so clearly and expressively that your great-great grandchildren, on reading what you've written, will see your day, feel your mood, smell the new car smell.

You have a great bounty of words to spend; it's the one area, even in a bad economy, that you don't have to scrimp. Don't just talk - spellbind, intrigue, edify. Language is a gift. The ability to fully communicate is a blessing. Don't squander it.

15 July 2010

KEY Words: Please, thank you, and other courtesies

"He pronounced the words: 'Open Sesame!' and the door immediately opened..." and before him was a great quantity of gold and valuable things. We all remember the story of Ali Baba and his visit to the cave of the thieves. In this story from our early youth, we learn that some words are important for opening doors.

At the library, children must use a password to get on the computers. Usually this is their library card number, or a substitute we supply at the reference desk. If they need this substitute (and even librarians don't have their cards with them at all times!) they must approach the desk and request one. The number is a password that opens the computer and these are theirs for the asking.

Oh, and they must say please.

Children, by and large, have remarkable manners, often much better than those of their parents. On the occasions that they forget, we remind them by asking, "What's the magic word?" Children always know without being told what the magic word is, and deliver it with a smile. We return the favor by giving them a heart-felt thank you when they are kind. Between request and this mannerly correction, their faces light up, without exception. We asked them, for a moment, to slow down and observe the courtesies and they, by their good natures, are glad to oblige. Children who did not feel the need of this nicety before do so now. Sure, a few see it as a game:  the "She won't give me the pass until I say it" game. But of those, the delivery of the key word improves the quality of the exchange. No one ever refuses, and no one ever gives me a hard time. I have a number of regular patrons, and they seldom forget now. A few even chat with me over little stuff from their day, because their courtesy has opened a door. I often compliment them on their lovely manners. It hasn't made them perfect angels in the library, but it has made a difference.

If only all the world functioned in the way this child-world does: "May I fish in your offshore fishing grounds, please?" "Why sure, help yourself." "How kind of you!" "Would you mind it if we go over here and make our own country based on our own ideas and beliefs and live peacefully forever?" "That would be swell, and that would give us an interesting new place to visit, and be friends."

Okay. Maybe not.

Still, you have to wonder, if manners were deeply ingrained from birth, if people were taught from very young to be sincere in their interactions and truly grateful for kindnesses, whether the world would be calmer. I am not talking about parroting words - we see this behavior everywhere: "Have a nice day." "Thanks. You too."
It is pleasant enough, but more of a Pavlovian response than an actual sentiment.

A few words have a special mission. They are meant to make us more human. And because the weight of our humanity rests with them, they should never be taken for granted. They should be delivered sincerely and directly, maybe with brief but direct eye-contact. They should be expected, as an understood recognition between valuable beings.

"Thank you for coming."
"Please don't be a stranger."
"You are welcome anytime."
"I'm grateful."
"I appreciated your kindness."

From me to you. Sincerely.

02 July 2010

The Echo

Some words hurt. They become the reverberating sound we hear when we shout into the Grand Canyons of life, echoing back to our ears pretty much the way they left our mouths: they are what they are, and there's no taking them back.

It is the mark of the kind-hearted soul to avoid hurtful words whenever possible. And it is the measure of a society to care when someone hurts. If you recall, there is a parable about the penitent, guilt stricken because his words had injured another. Seeking the advice of the sage, the supplicant was told to take the feathers from a pillow and place one on each doorstep in the village, signifying the number of people who had heard the slander. After completing this task, the gossip returned to the wise man for further instruction. Told to gather up every feather again, he protested: "Surely the wind has blown the feathers where I cannot find them!" "And so carry your words, my friend," he was gently reminded.

Wit and slander are divided at times by a razor-thin line. Do you ever hear friends banter back and forth with outrageous insults? We all toss off these little barbs in good fun, the idea being to make the insult so completely unbelievable as to ensure that we are not misunderstood. If we know (and love) one another well enough, we know how to avoid the truly sensitive issues and the soft spots in each others' psyche. Occasionally, we overstep and feelings are hurt, but if we are good friends, we make amends and exercise the discretion in the future which good friendship expects. We have known people who use a fine-tuned wit to injure without regard, and we eventually learn to exclude them or avoid them. The damage from such thoughtlessness can be extensive and most people of good conscience are uncomfortable in its presence.

Public wit becomes a little trickier. Take for example, the celebrity "roast." People who are friends, family and close colleagues of an honoree are assigned to deliver speeches that have the dual object of displaying the good nature of the mark, and conveying their sincere respect and affection. This is done (paradoxically) by lampooning them almost without mercy. The effect, when done right, is meant to be light-hearted and humorous but with a clear undertone of high regard. These occasions are meant to be fun: to convey honor without all the cloying and fussy praise. Once in a while, we cringe at some point which the honoree seems to take in stride, illustrating the very small margin for error.

I cannot say what it is of human nature that we entertain ourselves this way. But as a society becomes more sophisticated, or in other words more worldly, this type of wit becomes a sort of verbal game of "chicken," where the weak are offended and the strong become verbal bullies.

I reflect on this because of an article I read in a recent Time magazine. I don't think it is necessary to pinion the author. It is an author who, in fact, I have admired in the past. On the very off chance he reads this post, he may know of my general regard. He will also know that he stepped over this line as surely as much of his readership knew it. In the article, entitled My Own Private India, this well-respected writer used language that made me gasp: he spoke of one ethnic group in terms so breathtakingly unflattering that there was no turn-around place, no redemption. In a roast, the speaker may say a few outrageous things but culminate in a generous and thoughtful conclusion. I nervously waited for this turn-around, but it never came.

We see that hurtful speech has a private voice and a public voice. In this case, I wonder if a public voice occasionally chooses art over better judgment and becomes a little too removed from the personal impact of his words. Speaking aloud in a populated room, it is too late to depend on those gasping sounds to let us know when we have erred. Even worse, when we are alone and groping for the witty and urbane, it is hard to trust our own echo.

21 June 2010

The Scent of Lemons

I recently read The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan; I truly enjoyed it for a number of reasons having to do with hope, enlightenment, and a better world view. One aspect I especially appreciate is the balanced tone. This is no easy feat when you consider the overall theme of the book: the prospect for Mid-East peace.

The author alerts you to his intention in his introduction. He sets as his goal the use of actual source documents as opposed to speculation. He wishes to suppress his own voice, since his voice has no weight in this story: what follows is admirable. When he focuses on Bashir, he uses Bashir's words and his paradigm. When he discusses Dahlia, he uses her point of view, her writing. When he tackles the delicate issues between them, he uses their words to each other, spoken as uneasy friends. He supplements with third-party writings and a review of events. Tolan's "handling" of the issue is to not have handled it at all, but to have laid the facts of the matter before his readers. In addition, he has done so while retaining the emotion, the angst, the pathos of both points of view. I came away with compassion for both sides, with love and respect for both families. I felt, in a small degree, the weight of the problem; I stood in the middle and was emotionally pulled in two directions. What better way to experience the nature of this thorny problem? I have learned more from this book than from all my previous reading combined. I cannot say when I have been better served.

Tolin looks at the lives of two families whose opposite but similar histories weave around the same house. A lemon tree, planted in the house's courtyard by the Arab family, becomes a delicate and poignant symbol of their shared and troubled dilemma. By chance, the two families lives intersect, when events bring Bashir, the Arab and Dahlia, the Jew, together in a tenuous friendship. Tolan makes a fine effort to retain a balance without which this story cannot be credible.

20 June 2010

A Fine Line

My friend Lisa and I were discussing books the other day and I asked her to name her very favorite book ever. To an avid reader this is an unfair question. It's a little like asking which of your children you love best: you like them all in different ways, corresponding with their different personalities and charms. Faced with the impossibility of this task, we tried instead to determine why one book is better than another.

I argued, "Does not the fine use of words make one book better than another, one author better than another?"
"No," she countered, "The plot makes the book."
"Ah, but how does an author develop a plot? Through the skillful use of words."
"Okay," she conceded, but then offered up an insight too: two very different handlings of a similar plot or event can produce very different but likewise satisfactory stories.

This would suggest a few things:

1) A fine use of words develop a fine story.
2) A good story lends itself to fine description.
3) Poor use of words can equal a bad telling, no matter how good the subject, but...
4) Erudite words with no real point are, well, pointless. (Scholars do it all the time!)
5) Words need to paint a picture.
6) Monet and Rembrandt are equally compelling in their genre.
7) Ergo, a good story and good telling are equally important.

When you pick up a book, ask yourself a few questions:

Do I find the style and use of words appropriate, i.e. entertaining, descriptive, vivid, etc.? Can I "see" the characters, for example. Do I understand them; do I understand what drives them? Can I feel mist (or spiders) on my face, smell the lavender (motor-oil), etc.?

Does the story interest me? Does it captivate me? If I am interested I can still leave off at the end of a chapter. If I am captivated, I am just finishing the last chapter the next a.m.

Am I willing to put up with some dragging of the plot? (Please say no.) There is sometimes a point in a book where you sort of regain consciousness - where suddenly you are aware that you are reading. Too often it is because the author has gone on and on about some small thing and your boredom switch was flipped. "Oops, here I am flipping ahead to see how many pages before the chapter ends and therefore I must have fallen out of the story." You know the point I mean. The parts of a story which need the most explanation are tricky for an author: how to make sure the scene is fully understood, without beating all the life out of it. (You mystery novelists will forgive the figure of speech.)

Do I come away a little changed? Does the story stay in my mind and why? Am I glad I read it or do I feel a little icky or a little cheated? Am I recommending it to everyone I see including my gynecologist or proctologist? (That, my friends, is when you know when you are obsessed with a book!) Or do I refuse to put it on my GoodReads updates because I am embarrassed to been seen as having read it?

Writers (and aspiring writers), give us plots that are ingenious and writing that is superb. Not much to ask. And in return, we will give you lavish praise to our plumber, 250 library circulations a year, multiple print runs, and that little slice of immortality - a NYT Bestseller designation. Tell me that's not worth a little extra sweat over your keyboard. And maybe one day we can say, without hesitation, yours was the best book we ever read.

17 June 2010

Choosing the Right (or Left): Using words to construct a social contract

When the United States Constitution was written, a number of men of wide-ranging beliefs and experience gathered together to labor under the exigency of securing their terribly important and hard-won experiment in ideal society. After extensive debate, they still could not completely agree, even though they had virtually all read and subscribed to the same overarching political philosophies. Why is this so? And what has it meant to us?

First, it is important to consider the broad spectrum of personalities and backgrounds. The majority were lawyers, but a good number were merchants, financiers, businessmen, or scholars. Many owned agricultural property; some held slaves, and others strictly opposed slavery. A few were clergy. Most were well educated. Either by virtue of birthright, or by exceptional motivation and intelligence, many attended the finest schools in the colonies. A good number rose from fairly modest circumstances and others were markedly wealthy. A few were first-generation immigrants, but at least one was a Plymouth pilgrim descendant. All were considered their state's brightest and best, and were likely elected to their seat in the Constitutional Convention because they represented the attitudes and expectations of their individual constituencies. Perhaps most importantly, all believed firmly in the importance of forming a free society that could endure.

This is where the dilemma arose. Each understood certain key words differently: freedom, democracy, republicanism, federalism, confederalism, to name a few. Probably every man saw the American experiment as unique, groundbreaking and an outgrowth of the human need to live according to the dictates of one's conscience. They just saw it in a different way, in different terms. Central government or loose confederation of states? A dominant executive, or a strictly apportioned senate? These consideration and hundreds more occupied them until they were worn down by the effort. In the end, each had to capitulate to the reality that they would never, could never agree. The final product was a study in compromise, somewhat unwillingly attained. Ratification by disgruntled states took over three more years.

The great genius of the Constitution is that the words everyone finally signed off on were so open to interpretation. So not etched in stone, so debatable. The lifeblood of the Constitution is not that is spells everything out. It is that it provided a sturdy enough framework that succeeding generations could build and rebuild within its principles to spell their own words - to fashion a government that works for all generations. Since its ratification, the Constitution has undergone 27 amendments. It is a testament to our faith in the original document that we do not take these changes lightly or come by them easily.

Even the founding fathers, with all their background in political philosophy, enlightenment theory, classical republicanism and Greek democratic ideology could not hammer out a precise document, because they could not predict future imperatives. Fundamentally, they all understood the necessity of self-determination but could not agree on the words which could exactly define each's vision of that goal. Nearly every man walked away from his signature deeply dissatisfied with the resulting document. In all their brilliance, they did not understand that the very ambiguity of the Constitution was its strength. To last it could not be inflexible: like a tall building built to flex in the wind, or move slightly with the shifting of the ground, the Constitution was built to both shelter and to stand.

Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood

We are a shorthand society.

When we speak, we tend to use an economy of words. The better we know someone, the fewer words we seem to use. Spouses of fifty years can communicate with gestures, facial expressions, and body language alone. Athletic teams are coached with hand signals and one-word commands. There are a couple of reasons for this phenomenon. As a situation becomes more familiar and routine, we need less detailed information in negotiating it. For example, when your teacher said, "Put your books away," a chorus of groans welled up from the class. Why? Because the formalized act of putting books away indicated that a test was coming. We blow kisses, point at our wrist, etc. for well-known shortcuts in conversation. Also, the human tendency seems to be to expend as little effort as a task reasonably needs.

Texting has taken a firm hold on the popular imagination, curious among a population at large which seldom writes anything. It is probably its brevity which so appeals to modern culture. In its way it is also a logical manifestation of the desire of the young to develop, through language, an identity of their own. Sure, adults text, but anyone over thirty probably does it incorrectly or apologetically. In any case, young or old, it is fraught with potential misunderstanding. Sb may be "stand by," "Sarah Brown" or "so bad;" ta could be a short goodbye or "thanks again" or "try again." Luckily, I suppose, texters feel they know one another well enough, or share enough of the same language patterns so as to be understood. Or perhaps the need to be perfectly understood has diminished. Speed of communication appears to be the goal.

In a business context, I have seen memos on the correct construction of a memo. While this seems a bit paranoid on the surface, it is also a reminder of the importance of clarity in a transaction which can have terrific consequences. When speaking of a contract, finalize has a vastly different meaning than terminate, which can, in some cases be clearer than saying finish. Strategy may be a better term than plan - more proactive and ongoing. Projection might be more accurate than prediction, sounding stronger and more controlled. A memo, by it's nature, is brief. The conveyance of a clear message in an abbreviated format can be critical.

It is often the written form which becomes the binding legal document, from docere; to teach or to prove. The effort of reading thus runs parallel to the development of understanding. When you read a love letter, the words have been chosen to evoke a sentiment and an emotional reaction. Therefore, it is imperative to use the collection of words which best conveys the desired understanding. The wording of a peace treaty must be clear and unequivocal; much depends on the understanding of all the signatories.

How important is the right word in crafting a sentence, both verbal and written? On the Titanic, the sailor on lookout used the words, "Iceberg right ahead," in reporting what he saw. He meant, as his testimony confirmed, that the iceberg was straight ahead. This may have been a common substitution, as his questioner doesn't seem to hesitate over the word. Written transcripts of his testimony then say that the ship started turning to port (left). Did they misunderstand, thinking the iceberg was to the right side, or was this just a 50/50 choice of direction to avoid the collision? Later evidence suggested that if the Titanic hit the iceberg head-on, it may have survived the impact, but the puncturing of its side insured flooding of the watertight compartments. It is much too simplistic to suggest that this tragic event came down to one word, but like the one domino falling, it may have linked the fatal sequence of events.

When Eric Burden sang "Please don't let me be misunderstood," he was singing of love. (I'm a little too young to identify with the Nina Simone version, thank you very much.) He also adds, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good." Think of it as a make-up letter in musical form. He admits to flaws and asks for love. Now there's an understanding you never want to leave to chance and shorthand, in writing or in speech, even if you've been married a hundred years.

So, learn to write a memo with precision; speak instructions clearly; follow up texts with the sound of your voice, and never, never text a love letter. Understand?

13 June 2010

The Magic of Interlibrary Loan

There are a few of you out there (you know who you are) who buy books. Theoretically, if you go to a top-notch bookstore, you can get them to order virtually any book in publication and even pay a little extra to have it come in the mail. And you can keep it! Move over Netflix. As great as this system is, it has a couple of flaws. First, you have to pay for the books. If you are Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, this probably doesn't present a problem. In fact, to save time, they could just buy a bookstore chain and hire someone to keep up with their Goodreads list for them. Or, you might take the view of Desiderius Erasmus who said: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." We book-lovers can identify with that, I think. However, I believe I have seen the consequence of this philosophy on those extreme hoarding shows. In a flabby economy, it is more blessed to borrow than to buy, to paraphrase St. Paul.

The second problem is that some very worthwhile books are no longer in publication, which means that you could go to second-hand booksellers, but still not be guaranteed a coveted title. Here you are writing your thesis on molecular changes in Artesian micro shrimp caused by cell phone tower emissions, and your public bookstore doesn't even have the book you need. Ridiculous! And if you do find the title, you may have to hand over your first-born child to acquire a copy. Not good. Not even if your first-born did just redesign the front quarter-panel on your new family sedan.

Enter the Public Library (Whistles! Applause! Victorious marching music!) and a charming little convention called an Inter-Library Loan (we in the biz remove the hyphen, so as not to sell out to the Man). With an interlibrary loan, you can request books from all over the United States. You can get bestselling novels or deeply arcane scholarly treatises. You can get limited publication editions, and out-of-print volumes. You can request and receive movies, magazine articles or whole magazines, music CDs and newspapers, in short anything that circulates in a library somewhere. There are a few items which are rare enough or fragile enough that the resident libraries choose not to lend them. In these cases, you can request them to send you photocopies or scans of a small number of selected pages. This last is useful if you are pursuing research and only need the specific reference. I once received microfiche which originated in Germany. Here's how it works:

Your library will usually have a link from it's homepage which indicates that this service is available and which takes you to a page explaining how to borrow. If you have trouble finding the link, call the library and they will happily guide you. Once there, the process will require 1) that you have a library card active in the system and 2) that you create an online presence. This latter is a facilitator; chances are the library already has the minimal amount of information it wants you to plug in here. It is merely an easy and efficient way to process your requests. They won't ask for any identifying birthmarks or tattoos, and the most intrusive information may be a phone or e-mail to inform you when your item arrives. Here's the best part - it costs NOTHING. Ok, once in a while, a library may have a fee for photocopying, but you can say up front that you wish not to pay. You don't even have to explain that your kid is at a private university and you are reduced to getting your newspaper out of the neighbor's yard. Most libraries will still send a small number of pages for free.

Once you are logged in to the ILL system, it will link you to WorldCat, a worldwide catalog which includes an enormous number of public and private libraries. You will search this catalog much as you would the one on your local library's webpage. Once you have identified and clicked on your item, you will see a link, usually highlighted in red, to borrow. Clicking on this link will carry over all the book information your home library will need. Since you are logged into your "account" the system will automatically know who wants the loan.
This account should also allow you to track progress, see what you have out, and see requests that are pending. Once you click "submit," the request goes to the ILL Genii.

The ILL genii in each library system sort all things out, send forth your request, receive and process the items and send them to your branch for pickup. Just think - the library book that touched the hands of Zac Ephron in L.A. could be in daughter Mindy's hands in as little as two short weeks. (Nah - he probably buys his books.) The loan period varies per library, but a temporary sticker or label on the book will give you a due date. To return the item, simply take it back to your branch library. (p.s. Don't think because the item came from a far away library that they will never know if you keep it - remote lending libraries are remarkably humorless and severe when it comes to a breach of faith such as this.)

So now even if the philistines in your local library fail to grasp the importance of owning every volume of Fungus Growing Magazine, you can still be up to speed. Is this a great country or what?!

09 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - The Serialized, the Standarized, and the Superficial

When my kids were young, I insisted they read one classic (what we call a "core collection" book in the library biz) for every two or three series paperbacks they read. As tyrannical as this may sound, my kids actually did not require much governance on this one - any child who is worth his or her salt as a reader comes to recognize rather quickly what constitutes an absorbing story. They so often chose truly interesting and well written books that I ceased to have to monitor the situation. We saw the series paperback as a sort of "rest period" between more challenging books. The idea is not to eliminate series books which kids obviously enjoy. The object is to challenge your children's reading ability by carefully evaluating the three Ss: the serialized, the standardized and the superficial.

Series paperbacks are books built on a basic formula: a character or group of characters performing a type of adventure or action, such as solving mysteries, playing sports, etc. The stories can be predictable and somewhat repetitive and demand little of the reader. They're not meant to be great works of fiction; they can be entertaining but not particularly thought provoking: a light read. Stories are often pleasant, and can teach positive values, or they may be silliness for the sake of it. If your children are unwilling readers, these may ease them into reading. Thinking back, I wonder if my enjoyment of comic books was inversely proportional to the disapproval of them by grownups.

Beware of the occasional series, adult and juvenile, where the big mission seems to be to crank out little money-makers as quickly as possible. I suspect that certain authors have a database set up which works something like the old Mad Lib books - the author fills in new character names, place names, verb here, adjective there, etc. and the database produces a "new" story. Admittedly, reading them is better than not reading at all. But sometimes not by much. Children's reading skills need a workout just as their bodies do.

When a book series becomes too standarized, it fails to activate a child's imagination. Have you ever listened to a band and thought that their songs all sounded kind of similar? Or watched a sitcom and felt like you had seen it before (or something very like it)? As the old joke goes: "I listened to a country song backwards, and my wife returned, I got the house back and my dog came back to life." Sometimes genres fall into a malaise, writing the same plot over and over with minor variations. It's as if they all attended a writing school in which they were given a set of plot parameters and told never to vary. If your child can guess the ending by the end of chapter one, they may not be sufficiently challenged.

There is apparently a fine line between elegantly simple and superficial, and some publishers are missing it. The library has a superabundance of books that propose to teach: ABC books, Count-to-Ten books, Name-the-Color books, etc. Some are sweet or clever or ingenious while some are lame and spiritless. Little does the average person suspect that they, too, could be a published author even if they have never picked up a pen. A (insert picture of Aardvark), B (insert picture of Bee), and so forth. As long as you can spell Umbrella, how hard can it be? Even if you are reading to a toddler, you don't have to bore them witless: after the first reading the child pretty much gets that C stands for Cat. There are too many authors who lean on a filler formula established in the misty past: teach children shapes, colors, ABCs and how to count to ten. Who cares if they're having fun? Almost as bad are the books which replace plot with repeating major characters who have lately arrived from certain daytime cartoon shows. Let's just say that brand recognition does not a true literary experience make.

Whether you are reading to your children or they are reading to themselves, a book should be well constructed enough that some element of it sparks the imagination, initiates a thought process, provides a surprise or an insight, or gets a laugh. Books are a window into all the great ideas that have been passed down through time - noble thoughts, beautiful places, character building experiences. Encourage your kids to choose the window with the view.

08 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Fiction vs. Nonfiction

I have always been a reader who loves facts. Sure, I have read my share of fiction and many of the good fiction writers make a laudable effort to get their facts straight. The reasons for my preference have a lot to do with personal temperament, reading philosophy and, simply, what interests me.

You might assume that most children read fiction, and you would be correct. Most children see nonfiction as "homework," and nothing takes the joy out of reading like that word. Nonfiction represents the assignment to report on an historical figure, or to explain global warming, or to tell why the Declaration of Independence was important. Fiction represents children doing cheeky stuff, having grand adventures, and laughing their heads off. To your kids, nonfiction is spinach, and fiction is chocolate cupcakes. Small wonder they prefer the cupcakes.

I am here to tell you that both have their place. Oh, sure, we could eat vegetables (read nonfiction) all the time and it would be so good for us. No cavities, no empty calories, no goofy, mindless stories. Ugh. What a dreadful way to live. As a kid, I thought dinners with dessert were a perfectly civilized custom. In fact, sometimes one eats steamed brussels sprouts primarily to get to the chocolate cupcakes.

Ok, now I'm hungry. Anyway. The point is that for a child to be intellectually well-rounded they should be encouraged to have some of both. Fiction can be very informative, but it can only go so far. Nonfiction can (oh, yes it can!) be engaging, but it is not usually a laugh a minute. So then the problem becomes one of how to get them to eat their broccoli, er, ah... read nonfiction and like it. Only the most inspired teachers can serve up fact-based literature and make it palatable. We all had those teachers who made the inquisition come alive, but did we have teachers who did the same for biology? (I did. His name was Mr. Belzeski and he taught at McNichol Middle School in Florida. I was a mid-term transfer and he made me enthralled with biology, no mean feat. He made nonfiction come alive and I love him still. Hats off to you Mr. B, wherever you are!)

Teachers can have a big impact on a child's love of facts, but it's a taste which must be nurtured at home. If parents are reading dime novels or technical manuals all the time, their children will have the same polar view of reading: throw-away pulp fiction or sleep-inducing "required reading." If, on the other hand, they set up the telescope with mom and dad, and look at the stars, and if mom and dad suggest/provide some well-written guides and stories about the stars and constellations, well, you can see that this provides a whole different insight into the world of facts. If dinner table discussions include current events, children will eventually develop a curiosity about them. If they see illustrated histories lying on the end table, they will eventually pick them up. See how easy this is?

Most importantly, nonfiction works must not be used as a club to beat them. "Susie, I want you to read this treatise on the War of the Roses, and write a six page summary or no dinner!" Or, "Instead of your favorite TV program tonight, how about a little Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire?" Allow your children to develop their own questions about the world and be on hand with the appropriate (and well thought out) books on their topic. Even if it's The World's Scariest Spiders, or Sixteen Bugs That Live on Your Face. (Relax, I just made those up. I think.)

Don't fret if they prefer Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I am willing to bet that there will be plenty of other future PhDs who will have read it too.

After all, truth is stranger than fiction.

06 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Content Matters

In my family's house, we periodically have the debate about music. I say "the debate" because I suspect a similar conversation takes place in many homes, especially those with adolescents, pre-teens, and teens. Frankly, the same conversations took place when I was that age in the 60s, and you can only imagine what my parents had to say about MY music. (Put your calculators away - yes, I am somewhat middle-aged and we'll leave it at that.) The conversation was sometimes about volume, but mostly it was about words.

Keeping in mind that these are the most undefined, angst-filled years your child is likely to have in a lifetime, it is important to understand the impact that words have on their development. These kids are searching for identity: from you, from their friends and from the culture around them. I don't think I need to remind anyone that of those three avenues for learning, parents are far and away the least cool (hip, jive, happenin,' down, tight, fresh, etc. etc.), even though your kids love you. As they struggle to not be you (no matter how much they may admire you) you will be struggling to have an impact on their development anyway, as you must. If your children are still young enough (i.e. listening to you at all) you may want to try to influence what they are reading. Books are one area that you can have an almost total look into their minds. If they are old enough to reject your book choices, try reading theirs.

This is actually harder than it sounds. If you show up at basketball practice reading the same book your son's friends know he is reading, it is the kiss of death for his cool quotient (or whatever they're calling it these days). If it's not a book you've already read, try to read it privately. You may have to pretend to just casually notice what they're reading and pretend you read it ages ago, and sidle into the whole BTW, what did they think of it? track. We all know what a mine-field these conversations can be, so try not to make your kids think you are being all Big Brother on them. Kids deserve a very wide range in choosing their own reading material. Censorship isn't the goal here. That said, you do have a right and an obligation to state clearly any objections you may have and why you have them. There are books extreme enough that you can object to having them in your home. Just keep in mind that kids will generally find a way to read what they want to read, and if you have taught them well and laid a good moral foundation for them, they will interpret what they are reading in the sound and moral way you hope.

In trying to set up a Father's Day book display one year, we bumped into a sobering fact. After you left the Easy Reader books and crossed over into Juvenile Fiction, the dads in stories became somewhat less than exemplary. Dads were more often portrayed as absent, abusive, clueless or dead. Try building a cheerful display out of that. The lesson here is to try not to freak out if your kids are reading heavy topics. But don't ignore them either. A conversational opener like, "Wow, that's a pretty heavy book," might be enough to get them to tell you about it. We all read stuff that bears no direct relation to our lives. The fact is, when your kids read stories (true or fictional) about how children experience hard things and fight through them, it can be inspirational. By having a look into the difficult lives of other people, they have a broader world view and can develop empathy and compassion. Possibly the only time you need to feel a threat is when they are consistently reading about the same heavy topics over and over. This could suggest, at minimum, that they have not resolved their thinking about an issue. It is probably not necessary to jump to the conclusion that they are involved in drugs because they read several books that have drug abuse plots or subplots. But it's possible they know of kids who are having these difficulties. When your children hide their current reading or their preferences, it may be time to be concerned.

It does not pay to be overly naive. There are some authors who would gladly pollute your children's minds if it meant making a buck. Sorry - but this really is so. Just like teaching your children to avoid bad people, you need teach them to discern when ideas are bad for them.

Your kids are just as likely to be reading about kids doing positive things. Often, it's more important how a book ends than what is going on in the middle, believe it or not (and within reason). My experience is that the majority of authors for children mean to clearly come down on the side of good and right; to reinforce positive values. On the up side, your children really do prefer to read upbeat, positive and humorous books. They like heroes, problem solvers, and the guy who takes the high road. They still boo the villains. Trust your children's innate goodness.

I am gratified by the number of parents who seem to know what their child prefers to read. Kids trust me to advise them on what to read next, so I have a pretty good idea too. Read what they're reading. Be interested in the topics they find interesting. Talk and listen. If you can keep your kids talking to you, the battle is half won. And take comfort in the fact that kids who read are kids who reason. Readers tend to make better decisions.

04 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Textual, Audial, Visual

When is reading not reading? When it's listening, or looking at pictures. Isn't reading technically the interpretation of established symbols (writing, ususally of a printed nature)? Is it? The august OED has several things to say about the verb read, definitions including 1) to look at and comprehend; 2) hear and understand the words of; and 3) to interpret the significance of. So, if reading includes all of these senses, then when your toddler takes in a picture book with you, they themselves are reading in two senses of the word, as you supply the third. And, as we know, this is an important stage in the skill of reading as we commonly accept it.

With that out of the way, let's look at the whole experience of reading.

Visual Reading

Have you ever watched the movie of your favorite book and found yourself a little disoriented? This is especially apt to be the case where the original book did not have illustrations. One of the great values of reading is the imaginary world we create of a story, woven of the bright bits and pieces of our own familiar experience grafted into the unfamiliar fictional world. We imagine the story - that is, we form images of how we believe it should look. (From the Latin imago - image!) Therefore, we are a little put out when Hollywood changes the picture.

The picture books we read to young children are interesting in their reading function. They are usually so overwhelmingly visual that they can almost subvert the story. They range from books which are only pictures - no words at all - to long pages of text, but all have a fairly predominant visual aspect. These are books that are most commonly read aloud to children, and, in so doing, give an important but preliminary reading experience. Illustrations which are informative (a letter B - with a picture of a bee, for example) can assist comprehension, whereas a picture of guitar-strumming flea might be considered fun but maybe not so educational. (And who cares? Not everything has to be a teaching moment.)

I have sometimes wondered if children who are non-sighted from birth experience a story in this same inner-visual way. I suspect not. It would seem to me that what a non-sighted child might imagine are scents, the sounds of voices, the feel of objects, etc. - things from a familiar realm. In any case, the experience must be different if a book is read to a child rather than being read by the child, sighted or not.

Audial Reading

I am a huge fan of audio format. I still get the enjoyment of the complete book because I am careful to use the unabridged versions. I think abridged copies are cheating; however, I am willing to concede that half a pie can be better than no pie at all. As an tool for interpreting written text, i.e. traditional reading, it is of marginal use, with one exception: many children listen to the unabridged audio versions as they follow along in the corresponding book. This works for children who are fluent enough readers to keep up with the speed and flow of a narration, and can help them with pronunciations and give them context for unfamiliar words.

Non-mechanical audio is the number one way to listen to a book. What do I mean? Why, human voice, of course. In hearing Mom or Dad or Sister or Brother read a book, the child not only perceives aural signposts, but is also cradled in the comfort of a familiar and beloved voice. And as a bonus, children pick up on cultural cues as well: vocal accent, local or regional pronunciations, and inflection. Shared responses to a story, such as a chuckle, a sigh, a note of concern make the story a group activity. In addition, parents have the opportunity to convey a sense of their own value system as they read.

One other form of audial reading has a curious twist: reading aloud to oneself. I have read aloud for a couple of reasons: to savor a particularly excellent turn-of-phrase, to impress on my mind a particularly salient point, or to use as a method to confirm my understanding. This later is a peculiarity of my own learning system. I find that reading a sentence aloud helps me clarify an especially difficult point.

Textual Reading

For most of us, most of the time, reading involves sitting silently with a book reading inside our heads. This is a completely different experience than the previous two. As noted at the beginning of this column, it is the place where our image production holds full and unfettered sway. I see my colleagues finishing up a lunch break by "curling up" with a book. The physical manifestation of this is varied. One young colleague has a style I admire - she is able to lean back in a chair with absolute unstudied relaxation, delicately balanced on the very cutting edge of falling, but completely comfortable, safe and sanguine and involved in a story heart and soul (and consciousness). She is the picture of peaceful enjoyment. It seems to me that such completely absorbed consumption of a good story is the pinnacle of what we wish to impart to our children. We give them a sturdy vehicle for a solitary trip to the stars, and a place to park the spaceship when they need the sound of our voice.

03 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Why Silly is Good

Kids' books have the most charming titles. Adult book writers could learn from them: Beauty and the Beaks; Click Clack Moo: Cows that type; Chicken Butt; Never Tease a Weasel - well, you get the idea.

Innocence and fun seem to be two words meant for each other. Children trust that all intentions are good, unless they are taught otherwise. They want to smile, even when a situation does not seem to warrant it. Happiness is the instinctive state of mankind - the one before we layer on all sorts of miseries and woe. I am certainly not the first person to state that the world would be safer, kinder, and more peaceful if child-like virtues took over more often. It is the innate wisdom of a child to wish to see a sunnier side of a situation, and a measure of our deep-down decency as adults to want to give that to them.

Seriously parents, what do you think will happen if you read silly books to your children? Do you think they will never take life seriously? On the contrary - life will force its seriousness upon your children soon enough. Are you afraid these books aren't teaching good values? Goofy does not negate the message. When "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out," her predicament satisfactorily illustrates responsibility as well as any grim pronouncement can. Why not laugh? Chances are, adults who are grumpy about a book's silliness could probably stand to be a little sillier from time to time. Don't worry that your kids will be confused about reality. Kids have as clear an idea of the absurd as you do. They know it's silly and that's the point.

There are a couple of other practical reasons for a dose of silly: for one, it gets them to read. Part of the great value of silly is that it is often carefully constructed phonetic word-play. Possibly the best known example of this is the Dr. Seuss brand of wacky naming/rhyming schemes and far-out situations. In taking your child outside the mundane realm of labored reading, he frees them to explore more imaginative thinking while he, in turn, is free to sneak in all the phonetic sound practice you could ask for.

Silly sells. If the title draws the interest of your little one, the rest is easy. In addition, when you read goofy nonsense to your kids, you laugh too. Kids feel better when they sense that Mom and Dad are enjoying the fun and the experience is enhanced all around. It's good when the reading experience seems less like eating one's spinach, and more like having a treat.

Silly words are still words. They still teach, and they still count as reading. Besides, you don't read solely for information - you read for fun. So Relax. Climb in a big chair with your kids and read yourselves silly.

01 June 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Advanced Readers

Some kids read better than others. And some kids speed through everything directed to children and need further material. What to do?

Enthusiastic readers will eventually outrace the usual children's fare. This can be problematic for a couple of reasons I will discuss later. The first order of business is determining whether your child is at this point.

In the library, the arbitrary, customary and theoretical and division between a Child and a Young Adult is approximately age 12. This is arbitrary because, as most parents know, there is no wave of a magic wand and *poof!* you're a young adult moment. And trust me when I say that the line between children's books and young adult books is more a chasm than a line.

In the children's section, Juvenile Fiction is the classification for chapter books, and these can range from very easy to fairly challenging. As a rule of thumb, kindergarten through third graders will be reading from a section of beginning chapter books called Easy Readers, so I am speaking of books aimed at the older kids, aged about 9 to 12. Reading skills vary widely, so that 7 year olds may be reading on a fourth grade level, and 7th graders may be struggling along in much younger books. Parents should have a sense of where their child falls in these parameters. In this discussion, we will deal with the more advanced readers.

Within a children's department at the public or school libraries, you should feel reasonably safe having children read any book on the shelves, with a few caveats. If you know that your child is more sensitive to sad, scary or otherwise intense situations, you might want to screen books using reputable sources. These can include the librarian, older siblings who have read the books, and reviews by professional reviewers. One clearinghouse website is BookSpot (http://www.bookspot.com/booksforchildren.htm) where you can see several links for evaluating children's books. Another valuable resource is a database called Novelist. It is a paid subscription site, but your public library is very likely to have a subscription which you can use from home (call your library for details). It is important to remember that, while children's books are monitored for rough language, gratuitous violence and the like, there are still apt to be some hard subjects for younger kids, such as hardships of war, holocaust, death, loss, divorce, etc. More important than just knowing what vocabulary your child understands and whether they can comprehend a story, is determining what kinds of information you are comfortable having them exposed to at this young age.

Generally, the problem for advanced readers is that they do comprehend very well, and have large enough vocabularies to require more of a challenge. They have read increasingly more involved literature until they reach the point at which they perceive some books as too formulaic, too predictable or not complex enough to interest them. The temptation may be to cross them over to young adult books, but this move should be thought out carefully. Young adult books often include themes that are usually not present in books for younger children. These can include drug abuse, sexual situations, graphic violence and language, and more. Information which can be cautionary for older kids may be downright frightening for younger ones.

Some series books appear in both sections of the library. A good example is the Harry Potter series. You may have noticed, or heard from others, or observed in the movies, that the storyline became a bit more intense as time passed (and with each ensuing book in the series). Hence, the earlier Harry Potters appear in the children's department, but the later ones are to be found in the young adult department. These designations are not accidental. Much review and debate goes into the decision of where to place books in the system. Long and short - be cautious in sending your 8 year old prodigy reader over to YA for books. Timmy may understand very well what he is reading. Perhaps better than you might wish.

So what can they read? Like it or not, this is where you as the parent may have to take a more active part. You can start by recommending books you have read which you find appropriate. If your child's tastes are different than yours (and this is almost certainly the case), you might research in the sources listed above for appropriate material. If your child is older and you want to carefully introduce books of a more controversial nature, you may have to read them also. Your child's mental development can be no more important to you than their social, spiritual or emotional development. If you can talk through issues, you will know when he or she is reading something they find troubling.

Children on the older end of the scale, say 12 or 13 years old, may be able to handle many of the classics, such as Dickens, Austen, Twain, and etc. You may need to be available to explain a few issues having to do with Victorian society (Dickens) or slavery (Twain), but these can be meaningful conversations.

If in doubt, ask the librarian. Especially in larger libraries, children's departments are staffed with folks who, by training and/or experience, are good at being up-to-date on what kids are reading.

30 May 2010

What Your Kids Are Reading - Accelerated Reader

In my next few blogs, I will be giving you some observations about what your kids are reading, from the mechanics of getting children to read to the types of books that seem to most interest them. Knowing what your child is reading is an essential part of knowing what is on his/her mind, knowing what issues are important to him/her, and being able to intelligently discuss what is happening in their lives.

Reading from Accelerated Reader Lists

For those of you whose kids do not attend a school which uses the Accelerated Reader system, you have my hearty congratulations. For the rest of you, read on. I know I risk offending the AR folks and school administration, but from a child's, parent's, or librarian's viewpoint, a more bulky and inefficient system would be hard to find.

Accelerated Reader is a company which sells packages to schools containing tests which your children take after reading from a specified list of books. Schools can buy a large list containing many books or a smaller list containing few, depending on the school's budget for such things. On the up side, overworked (and underpaid) teachers don't have to a) assign every child the same book (which they have read themselves) or b) read every book ever written. I think you can see that the basic idea is sound.

In actual execution, however, the AR list is every librarian's nightmare. First, the schools probably cannot reasonably buy every book, even on a smaller AR list. The list changes, as do the reading preferences of children, almost hourly. Even if the school could buy every book, they cannot buy enough for the hundreds of kids who might want to read it in a school year. The overflow of demand flows onto the public libraries and bookstores. The school posts the AR list on its website (usually) and while children often know this, very few parents do. Attention schools: kids are not taking home the fliers you sent (what a surprise).

A parent comes to me because today, nine days before the end of the school year, they were told that Tommy has a total of seven AR points and needs twenty to move up a grade. Trust me when I say that this is more common than you may think. If parents are members of PTA, they just might be aware of this system, but if it is a single mom who works three jobs to keep a roof over Tommy's head, you will forgive her, I hope, for letting such a detail slip. These are not negligent parents. They are simply broadsided by a system which frankly also frustrates the literature professionals at your library. Tommy's mom has dark circles of fatigue under her eyes and does not need to lose sleep over a somewhat complex system of measuring her child's reading development.

The system works like this: a child reads Book A which is ranked for a certain Book Level/Reading Level and for a number of AR points. The reading levels are meant to guide the child to reading of more and more advanced material; a way of nudging them along a path to better reading. They are given a test after they complete a book. The tests they are given presumably measure the child's comprehension. The AR points seem to be an aggregate requirement for the year. I cannot know, of course, because AR does not communicate it's goals to the public library. Nor do the school systems. Since parents are generally unaware that a list exists and libraries are not routinely given one, it's hard for us to know which books are needed. Searching for an appropriate book can be an ordeal.

The library e-mailed all the schools in the county and city school systems at the beginning of the school year, and received one (1) AR list in return. We scoured the schools' websites and came up with approximately two-thirds of the rest and bookmarked them on the Internet. Of these, about a third or more changed the link to the list, some formatted their lists in a format hard to use, and the rest had no link at all. We have one school which has not updated us with a list since 2000. Until recently, we only had paper copies.

Once we have a list on hand, the scenario is something like this:

Parent comes in with Susie in tow. Susie needs an AR book. Librarian asks, "What is Susie's reading level?" Dad is blank, but Susie may say, "Teacher says I can read anything in the 4.2 to 4.6 level." This is the first dad has heard of it. Younger kids will probably not know their reading level. Librarian says (this time to Susie, of course): "What do you like to read?" Susie shrugs. Librarian says, "I'll tell you what. I will give you what I have of the list in your level, and you take that over to a table and look it over. Write down on this paper five or six books you think you might like, and we'll see if we have them." Fate decrees that, if we are lucky, one of the six are both owned by the library and checked in. Dad then adds: "we were hoping for at least two or three books, because we're going to grandma's and will be gone a week." The entire transaction can take an hour. In the meantime, Susie may or may not like the looks of the books we actually find, dad is well past ready to go home, and little brother has removed the hard drive from a computer.

This system is certainly an intelligent effort to quantify your child's reading progress. It is, however, cumbersome to use and frustrating for the child, the parents, and libraries. In all fairness, AR has a website with a search engine for all the books for which they have tests. Unfortunately, without a specific access code, there is no way to tell from this site which tests your school owns. With luck, AR will make their online database more user friendly. Perhaps, in an effort toward equity it will provide all schools with access to all tests, thereby ending the disenfranchised status of poorer school districts. It would be heartening to have them put the literacy of children before crass commercialism, but that's just me talking crazy. In the event this golden age comes, it will enable librarians to access availability and easily determine whether the book Susie picked up at random is, in fact, on the school's list and in her reading level. Also, it would be nice if AR continued expanding its list of available books, so that no child is forced to read books that don't interest them simply because it's one of the twelve books allowed at their reading level.

To summarize: your child, at least up into middle school, is probably reading from an AR book system, or something similar. If you care about the quality of your child's reading experience, pester the school to make available to you updated and easy-to-use lists. Print out the reading level you are working with, sit with your child and think ahead about the books your child will/can read. You can even reserve books online or by phone at your public library. We will call you and you can buzz by and pick them up quickly and easily. Some libraries even have drive-through windows! If you can't find it in your home library, many libraries belong to consortia and can check around for you (more on that later). Badger your schools into keeping us, your public library, informed. We will be doing the same. Also, campaign for more reading choices for your children.

Hang in there parents. The school really is on your side and so are we. I stand on the assertion that reading well is Job One. Math and science are vital, but it's hard to teach from a textbook that cannot be read.