Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Books & Reading


During the week of Thanksgiving, I overheard one of the clerks at Barnes & Noble say that he had read fifty-seven books so far during the year.  That number is an impressive one.  If that person had not read another book during the remaining weeks of the year, he would have read more than one book per week. 

I have had students who enroll in my writing classes who dislike reading and who claim not to have read a book since high school.  Some students complain about the amount of reading required in my online classes.  Another student even said that my written lectures contain too many words that he/she is forced to look up.  What I need to do is start keeping a record of those students who claim not to like reading so as to determine whether the students finish the course.

My students would benefit more if it were required that the students read a scholarly book during the semester, that is, a work of nonfiction containing notes and a bibliography.  Learning to introduce their sources and to evaluate them would not be such an alien concept if they had seen how other writers use sources.  It would help, too, if students could see how writers use quotes and, in most cases, avoid dropping them into paragraphs without an explanation.  Usually, the students entering my classes have only read fiction if they read at all.  Their experience with nonfiction has probably been limited to their textbooks.

At two of the institutions where I taught, the students enrolled in English 102, the equivalent of a second-semester writing course, were required to read a work of fiction.  One institution emphasized literature and had the students writing about each genre—fiction (novel and short fiction), poetry, and drama.  Another institution used this required novel as the foundation for the essays written during the semester.  One essay emphasized the social elements found in the novel, for example; another essay emphasized the author’s biography and those biographical elements found in the novel.  At both of these institutions, I chose the work of Willa Cather, My Antonia at one institution and O Pioneers! at the other one.  It was during a time when I was very much concerned with place, having adopted the Great Plains as my home after having known a peripatetic existence as a Navy brat.  My Antonia, of course, is so much more than a novel about place because of its emphasis on marriage and male-female relations.

If I had the opportunity to choose a book for my classes now, I would probably choose Capt. Charles Moore’s Plastic Ocean: How a Sea Captain's Chance Discovery Launched a Determined Quest to Save the Oceans.  On the surface, the book emphasizes Capt. Moore’s discovery of the gyre of plastic waste found in the Pacific Ocean.  It is also a book that emphasizes Capt. Moore’s growth as a writer.  Not having finished college and not having a science background, he set about learning to write for a peer-edited journal with the help of associates.  After conducting a survey of scholarship and after polishing his writing, he eventually had the first article he wrote accepted for publication.  These are the kinds of things that my students need to know about writing for an educated audience, that is, learning how to write takes time and that any one work cannot be completed quickly but requires draft after draft. 

Capt. Moore’s concluding chapter of the book is particularly enlightening because he describes how we humans are exposed to the chemicals found in plastic—e.g., phthalates and bisphenol-A—and how these plastics may affect our health.  This book, and the last chapter in particular, fits with the thematic nature of my current classes because some of my students are writing about plastic, using articles found in library databases.

Judging from the books that I have recorded at LibraryThing, I have read something like sixteen or seventeen books this year.  That does not count the books that I may have bought in previous years and only started reading recently.  I may have read two books a month during 2014.  I will have to keep a closer record of my reading during the coming year.  I have been reading two books recently.  One is a biography of a ghost town in the Kansas Flint Hills during the 19th century; it is written by Joseph V. Hickey, an anthropologist, and titled Ghost Settlement on the Prairie: A Biography of Thurman, Kansas.  I also just recently finished reading Wallace Stegner’s Recapitulation, which is mostly an interior monologue as Bruce Mason returns to Salt Lake City after a forty-five year absence.  As he attends a funeral for a relative, he comes to terms with his past during a period of twenty-four hours. Both books have sat on my shelf for a good number of years.  I read Stegner’s The Big Rock Candy Mountain about twenty-four years ago.  Recapitulation features the characters from that previous novel.  I am certainly not asking anyone to model their reading after my own.  What’s important is that I read regularly and that this reading serve as an inspiration for my own students to explore their interests and to challenge their minds by reading non-fiction occasionally.