Monday, July 31, 2006

Summer Reading

Despite the time spent grading essays this summer, I still managed to read a few books. I usually read for pleasure every day. I’m between books at the moment, and I’m rereading portions of Edward Abbey’s The Journey Home, a collection of essays that I just recently finished. Abbey surprises me with his recognition of the influence of corporations. This collection was published in 1977 when it seemed as though fewer of us were aware of the control that corporations have over our behavior and over the government.

Abbey is prophetic in the following passage taken from “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom."

As I see it, our own nation is not free from the danger of dictatorship. And I refer to internal as well as external threats to our liberties. As social conflict tends to become more severe in this country—and it will unless we strive for social justice—there will inevitably be a tendency on the part of the authoritarian element—always present in our history—to suppress individual freedoms, to utilize the refined techniques of police surveillance (not excluding torture, of course) in order to preserve—not wilderness!—but the status quo, the privileged positions of those who now so largely control the economic and governmental institutions of the United States.

Having seen blurbs by Jimmy Santiago Baca in praise of Adrian Louis' poems, and not knowing anything about Jimmy Santiago Baca, I picked up a copy of his memoir A Place to Stand. His book contains descriptions of his illiterate youth and young adulthood, his imprisonment for five years, and the transformation he experienced once he taught himself to read and write and began writing poetry. His writing kept him from extending his time in prison to what could have been a life term. His writing has also kept him from returning to prison. I recommend this memoir; it serves as a testimony to how poetry—and art in general—can keep us human and provide hope in a world where none usually exists.

I had heard mention of Mike Rose when I was teaching at Oklahoma State. When I saw a bent up copy of Lives on the Boundary at a discount bookstore in Leavenworth, I quickly grabbed it. Like Baca, Mike Rose describes a childhood without books and without language before he provides an account of his educational transformation. This foundation allowed him to assist students, most of whom were disadvantaged by their educational background and their poverty, in acquiring language and in adjusting to the rigors of college when he began working at UCLA. Working as a tutor, Rose managed to escape the depressing task of grading student essays in composition and expresses an inspiring enthusiasm for teaching, which can jar the behavior of even someone jaded like me. I even adopted the language of Rose when I encountered students who had plagiarized their essays this summer, recognizing that they had not yet acquired confidence in using the academic voice.

For fun, I picked up a copy of The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas. This nonfiction account differs from Junger’s The Perfect Storm by emphasizing the narrative over informational details about waves and the weather. This book kept me reading until dawn several mornings in a row. I kept on wanting to know what would happen next. It was as good as, if not better than, a novel.

In addition to these books, I also read portions of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, Elizabeth Bishop’s poems that were unpublished during her lifetime, and Michael Heffernan’s newest collection of poems, The Night Breeze Off the Ocean. I’ll provide more details about these books in the future.

It has been a busy summer for reading. I haven’t decided as of yet whether I will start reading John Coltrane’s biography or George Bent’s biography (entitled Halfbreed) during the remainder of the summer.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Celebrating the End of Summer Teaching

My summer session has ended. Two of my classes ended during the third week of July; the remaining two ended on Friday of this week when I turned in my gradebook. Because the last two classes contained more students, I spent all of the last week grading essays. Counting the prewriting and drafting that I had to grade, I ended up grading something like 120 different items. As one of my professors in graduate school once said, each assignment requires a decision, so that’s 120 different decisions. It’s no wonder that I often want to spend time at the end of the semester not making decisions. My first inclination is to squirrel myself away for a day or two, without leaving the house or answering the phone. I have told myself that I won’t check my campus mail and won’t look in on my online classes until Monday. Any students unhappy with their grades will have to wait.

Since I seldom drink and don’t alter my consciousness in other ways, I relaxed by rearranging my office at home. I still have to unburden my desk from its layers of detritus and file away student essays. But I rearranged some of my bookcases and moved my computer desk a little closer to my regular desk, which is a six-foot length of wood placed over two file cabinets. This file cabinet desk has been a part of my life since 1987. Moving the two desks closer together makes it easier to go from one to the other. No one ever said that the life of a teacher is exciting.

I’ll be entering my twentieth year of teaching when classes start again in three weeks. Much as I might like to get away during this short break from classes, I’m going to wait until it gets cooler. One hundred degree days are forecasted for the immediate future, and it’s not much cooler elsewhere unless I were to fly to Seattle or Vancouver.

I now think of the fall as my favorite season. One of the attractions nearby offers a chance to bask in the fruitfulness of nature. Red Barn Farm sells pumpkins and offers hay rides through the country. I am including a picture of this place so that others can feel a moment of relief from the heat of summer.

Friday, July 14, 2006

LibraryThing and Book-Buying

When I was reading a recent issue of Poets & Writers, I noticed an article about a website in which people have uploaded the titles of their books. This website, named, also allows those bibliophiles with similar books to exchange messages. This website attracts those people who feel particularly proud of the books that they have collected. I managed to add the titles of 200 books in my account in just a few hours time. I haven’t yet added any others. Listing the first 200 hundred books is free; adding additional titles costs $10.00 per year or $25.00 for a lifetime membership.

It would seem logical that this website would attract those readers with odd, eclectic, or esoteric tastes. Actually, the titles and authors found in abundance are the same ones generating interest in the mainstream, such as J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan. If I hadn’t listed a few works of fiction, I would have had far fewer matches with those who read the same books. Perhaps I should have resisted trying to find readers with similar tastes in fiction and should have concentrated on listing my more obscure titles.

I am surprised that no one else who has listed books with librarything has Julene Bair’s One Degree West or Anthony Sobin’s The Sunday Naturalist. Julene Bair’s collection of essays won several regional prizes. I luckily found a signed copy of her book at the Washburn University bookstore. Anthony Sobin taught creative writing at Wichita State for about ten years before he left teaching to run a gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Sunday Naturalist remains his only collection. It was a popular collection of poems in Wichita. I suspect that one day Anthony Sobin will release a second and perhaps a third collection of poems.

Besides finding something that I want to read, one of my motives in buying books has been to collect those titles that are not easily found elsewhere—either in bookstores or libraries. Although I still like browsing through area bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble occasionally, the great majority of my purchases anymore can only be made at Amazon. When I once tried to order a book through the Waldenbooks in Leavenworth, I discovered that none of their suppliers had that title in stock, which confirmed the necessity of shopping online. Barnes & Noble sells books online, but they take no care in shipping them. After I received two books that had been badly mangled in shipping, I swore that I would never again order a book online from Barnes & Noble. As a book-buying consumer, I am also unhappy with Books-a-Million because of their narrow selection of books at the store located at the Legends in Kansas City. Owned by conservative Christians, Books-a-Million limits its selection of current events to those books exhibiting a conservative perspective. Very little shelf space is devoted to poetry and jazz. One entire wall is devoted to Christian living, but very few people seem to frequent that area. Its Christian bias hasn’t prevented Books-a-Million from stocking books about sex—both novels and manuals. Even Henry Miller is represented with copies of both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. My wife likes shopping for fantasy novels and pens at Books-a-Million. Refusing to buy anything there, I pick up a jazz discography or a history title, one that I might order from Amazon at a later date, and sit reading in the fiction section while she shops, leaving my book on a table or on one of the shelves when I leave.