Sunday, May 28, 2006

Not Reading Novels

It has become really hard for me to read a novel. Apart from The Bedford Incident, a quick read best enjoyed when lounging in bed, I haven’t read a novel in a couple of years, not since Hudson’s The Bones of Plenty. At some point, I plan on reading Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Wister’s The Virginian, and Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth. I may even get to Winesburg, Ohio. But there hasn’t been a great deal of urgency.

Instead of fiction, I have been reading narratives of history. My dad gave me a copy of Stalingrad, which describes the initial optimism of war and the abandonment of so many German troops by their high command. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have been reading histories of Kansas. Craig Miner, a history professor of mine when I was an undergraduate at Wichita State, first generated this interest in Kansas history with his accounts of life in Wichita during the 19th century. He read from his notes in one or two of his lectures, and these notes went on to form his book Wichita: The Early Years. The view from the bus window, and my imaginative recreations, during my trips to and from campus became much more interesting as a result of his class. In connection with my students’ research of the dead soldiers buried at Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, I have also read accounts of Beecher Island, the Kidder Massacre, and Custer’s involvement in the summer campaign of 1867.

When I took over someone’s online class a couple of years ago, the students were readings articles about global warming, consumerism, fast food, and the influence of media. Not knowing much about these subjects, I felt as though I needed to know more, so I set about educating myself, beginning with the documentary Super Size Me. The extra features on the DVD contained an interview with Eric Schlosser, whose book Fast Food Nation was also mentioned in some of the articles that my students were reading. Schlosser’s book has altered my perspective of meat and fast food and continues to remain controversial today, four years after the initial publication. Big Food is still trying to downplay the negative publicity generated by Schlosser’s book.

Some of the other books that complimented my teaching include Mark Lynas’ High Tide, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy, and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. In connection with my research into global warming, I also read Paul Roberts’ The End of Oil. All of this reading has essentially made me more politically aware than I was before. I regularly visit websites now that present a more open-minded approach to current events. Oddly, about a year ago, I stopped having my students choose subjects like consumerism and global warming by incorporating a textbook into my class instead of using links to articles available through the college library databases. It was easier adopting a textbook than updating the articles for five or six different subjects. My own research of these previous subjects hasn’t ended, however, and I may return, at some point, to having my students choose from a list of articles for their essays.

In addition to reading what augments the subjects my students address, I like reading memoirs and biographies. A jazz fan, I am drawn to reading books about those musicians I admire, such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece is particularly informative and enhances an appreciation of that classic album. I am also drawn to reading biographies of poets—Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, Patrick Kavanagh, Robert Frost. Understanding the biographical allusions in the poems of these people isn’t essential, apart from Robert Lowell’s work. These books cause me to return to their poems and to discover poems that I overlooked; these books also result in an understanding of my own writing habits and ultimately cause me to write more of my own poems.

Not having a place to call home because of my Navy brat life, I adopted Kansas and the Great Plains once I left the Air Force. I wanted to escape from the overcrowding, the concrete, and the pollution of the East Coast. After each overseas duty station, my dad brought us back to Maryland, first Glen Burnie and then Crownsville, which provided the home base when my dad worked at NSA and when he was stationed at Cheltenham, Maryland and at Nebraska Avenue in D.C. I opted to live in Kansas, partly because it reminded me not only of the agricultural land in the Fens, north of Cambridge, England, where I attended high school and where I served in the Air Force, but also of the Atlantic Ocean, which I crossed by ship several times and which fascinated me because of the unbroken horizon during those clear days. After my first ten years in Kansas, when I had doubts about my connection with the place, I left the state for Connecticut and stayed there for three years. I liked living in Kansas more and came back. Not part of the Midwest, Kansas is one of the Great Plains states, even though the eastern border of the Great Plains doesn’t officially exist until the 98th meridian for some geographers and historians and not until the 100th meridian for other geographers and historians. (Leavenworth and Kansas City are closer to the 95th meridian.)

In adopting the Great Plains, I have been reading memoirs by people like Dan O’Brien, Linda Hasselstrom, Kathleen Norris, and Julene Bair. It’s true that their experiences are different from mine because I have never farmed or worked on a ranch. Reading their work allows me to understand more about the landscape where I live and to learn some of the stories of people who have known this region.

I don’t believe that I can gain these kinds of benefits from reading novels. Willa Cather’s and Wallace Stegner’s novels are important depictions of life in the Great Plains. I turned to them first. Now I am seeking more background information and more first-person accounts in my reading about the Great Plains. My reading for my classes provides the information that I need to possess to point my students in certain directions; this more recent reading for my classes also provides an education in events that are so easily manipulated by those who either seek to profit from them or seek to misrepresent what has been happening in our lives.