Thursday, October 16, 2008

What's your favorite book?

Because I teaching writing and literature (aka “English” (wink, wink)) people sometimes (often) ask me what my favorite book is. For the first few years people were asking me that question I would rack my brain and try to decide which of the hundreds of books I’ve read is my top pick. I’m not sure, but I don’t think I gave the same answer twice. In fact, over time the answer to that question morphed into, “It depends."  I would do that maddening teacherly thing and say, "It depends..." (and wait for dramatic effect)  "... on what I’m reading at the moment.” My “favorite” book is very often one that I’m enjoying at the moment. Quite a bit of the enjoyment I get from reading comes from discovering new stuff—new authors, new genres, new approaches, new ideas, new worlds—so whatever I’m reading right now tends to be top(ish) of the list. My mythology class has just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, for example, so I have just made my way through it twice in the last 6 weeks (once to prep the course and again to be able to say something about it when we got to it in the class). That makes it one of my current favorites. You should read it. Soon. It’s worth your time.

I have other favorites, of course. There are books that I re-read periodically because I like them so much. They’re like a comfortable pair of shoes or slice of Grandma’s caramel cake with a glass of cold milk. They’re familiar territory with known pleasures. I re-read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead from time to time. I’ve come back to Angle of Repose or The Sparrow more than once. The Robe was an annual summer read for quite a while. (Can you name the authors? Without the help of Google? (That, by the way, is another annoying teacherly thing... asking what you know about MY area of expertise.))

When I’m overwhelmed with life, or with student papers, I sometimes take refuge in the recognizable rewards of a story that I already know and love. What do you re-read? Why?

 On a related note, people sometimes (though not as often as I’d like) as me what book or books I might recommend—either for themselves or for their children (I especially like the latter query—there are so many!! good children’s and young adult books out there). Early in my teaching career I would recommend things in a kind of willy-nilly fashion—not taking in to account the reader very much. This practice came back to bite me once or twice. When I was in graduate school, working as a pharmacy technician,  I recommended Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping to a woman that I delivered prescriptions to and she was not too happy after reading it. She said the book was way too strange for her. If I had been a little wiser and a little more observant I would have noticed that she had row upon row of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey books on her shelves. What was I thinking, recommending a book with no horses, and nothing a fan of “westerns” would call action in it? I don’t know. Anyway, I’m a little more careful now. I ask what people have already read and liked before I pop off and recommend Black Like Me or Left Hand of Darkness or even Huckleberry Finn. (Notice, however, that I did recommend the Kingsolver book without asking you, gentle reader(s), what you’ve read and liked. Deal with it. . .  And read the book!)

 My dire warning notwithstanding, what reading would you recommend to a friend? What book or books have so changed your life, or at least your outlook on life, that you want to share them with the world?

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Promises to keep...

I guess there's kind of an implied promise in starting a blog. It is that the blogger, the writer, will show up from time to time-- regularly even-- and contribute some bit of knowledge or wit or insight (or, lacking any of those, a few lame excuses) to the world. The satisfaction I derive from reading the few blogs that I do comes from seeing new content-- new posts full of news, interesting information, personal updates-- funny, poignant, useful, frivolous information from my friends.  It doesn't compare to hearing that your stock portfolio is taking it on the chin, but logging in to a friend's blog and seeing the same old post from a week ago is a little disappointing. I've been disappointing my three readers for awhile, I'm afraid.

The thing is, I've been keeping other promises. My family deserves to have me as fully "present" as I can be when I'm at home. In other words, rather than sitting in front of the computer thinking up witty, bloggy things, I should be actively engaged in the dad thing. That's a promise I made explicitly to my wife when we got married. Dad things come before work things. 

Work things have a place, too, though. It turns out that you have to show up at least part of the time to qualify to collect a paycheck. I've been working steadingly (and way too slowly) through mounds of student papers of late. I used to complain about that work as being the hardest, least-liked part of my job, but I've tried to change my tune recently. Because I believe that the feedback I give on student writing is one of the more important teaching moments I spend quite a bit of time on that feedback. In some ways I probably spend too much time (who knows how much students actually read what I write on their papers), and in other ways I probably don't spend enough time (when a student really wants to learn from an experienced reader longer, more involved feedback helps quite a bit), but the time I spend on student writing is also an explicit promise. Read your syllabus... the syllabus states...

Work isn't all about student writing, of course. There are also class sessions to prepare, books to read (hurray!), meetings to attend (grumble), evaluations to write, politicking to ... uh, politick (sigh), etc. I really do like what I do, so I'm not complaining (mostly), but it all takes time. Maybe a blog isn't my thing right now.

Then again, here I am... blogging again.