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.