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More Book Love

Still thinking about book love.

Came across this review-meets-thoughts-on-ebooks on Chronicle of Higher Ed today.

Scott McLemee tells of the arduous process of re”organizing” his bookshelves, a process I know well (but as I noted in this post, my organizational scheme has eschewed such organizational measures in favor of chaos). He also makes me want to read Piper’s Book was There: Reading in Electronic TimesWill perhaps order on Amazon. Kindle edition? Hmmm…

What McLemee says that really resonates:

Given the limits of space, my acquisition of hardbacks and paperbacks must slow down; at this point, the ones on hand are saturated enough with significance to last the rest of my days. But the e-texts filling my coffee cup can accumulate as rapidly as ever. No shelf bends under the weight, and their imprint on my memory is like footprints in the snow.

He describes how each book, with its material there-ness, makes him remember from whence it came as he reorganizes his shelves. Inscribed with the names and notes of long-gone friends and family members, the books mean more than the words on the page. Unlike the argument Coxon makes, that I noted in my earlier post, the books aren’t made magical by the words on the page, but by the memories they evoke when you hold them, when you “feel your way” to what you’re looking for — a quote, a citation, a favorite passage.

I have a tutoring student who, every time I give her a new book, she buries her face in it and breathes.

Some Words About (e?)Books

Here I sit on an extremely cold January day, reading through education blogs, surrounded by my post prized possessions… my books.

I may or may not have a slight hoarding problem when it comes to books. It is an addiction that I know many English teachers share with me. Years ago, I gave up my obsessive need to alphabetize them by author and just started semi-categorizing them by “genre.” But good luck finding a book in my library. The categorization scheme makes sense only to me. An example from one of my bookshelves (this is the books-that-are-great-literature-according-to-my-standards shelf):

bookshelfThat bookshelf was purchased last year around my birthday, because I had stacks of books all over my office and my mom and I concluded that something needed to be done about it. As you can see, I have already spilled onto the top of the bookcase, and those bookends are coming frighteningly close to toppling to the floor.

I’ve been a book hoarder for a long time, so this is nothing new. As a child, I always asked for a book I was dying to read for Christmas, and when that’s what was under the tree, I would squeal as though I’d just been given a new car. My favorite store in town was Pages for All Ages, which has since folded, but which had the best children’s section I’ve seen to this day.

I know my books are my favorite things because I surround them with my other favorite things. For example:

bookshelf2Above this bookshelf is a picture of me, my mother, and my grandfather — three generations of Illinois graduates — in front of the Alma Mater statue on my graduation day. The bookends about to fall off of the other bookshelf were gifts from my aunt. Let’s just say that, with the possible exception of that Nicholas Sparks book in the floor stack (sorry, it’s from an earlier time), my books rank among my most valued of valuables.

And you know what? They’re not going anywhere.

I am a fan of the digital — anyone who knows me can tell you that. But when it comes to books, my husband will be the first to tell you that much of the money I make goes into buying good old ink-and-paper books (or good old wood-and-nail bookshelves). The eBook movement, therefore, is one I have been slow to criticize but also slow to join. When my friends were all getting Nooks and Kindles, I watched. Considered it. Got a Kindle. Said Kindle is now in my desk drawer. It comes out occasionally, at best.

I still wasn’t sure how I felt about eBooks when I was tasked, along with a team of fellow graduate students, with creating one for teachers this past summer. It is still in review and addresses issues surrounding text complexity and the common core. We incorporated videos, interactive quizzes, audio, etc. The authorship process was awful — anyone who has done digital composition understands its tendency to become a mind-numbingly recursive and dialogic process. See further thoughts on digital composition in this blog post from October.

This post from Dan Coxon on The Nervous Breakdown defends eBooks, and the argument Coxon makes resonates with me. He argues that the my-books-must-be-tactile approach is both outdated and unhelpful as the way we read shifts alongside the technological landscape. He reminds us that what is magical about reading lies in the words, not the pages you can touch, while at the same time acknowledging his own love of paper-and-ink texts. He writes:

The arrival of the Tablet in many ways echoes the invention of the paperback. Most ebooks are cheaper than their physical counterparts, and their ephemeral nature lends itself readily to pulp genres and mass market fiction. As a moderately unsuccessful writer I’ve found that ebook sales now make up around 80% of my book sales. While many readers are unwilling to pay $15 or more for a book by an unknown author, they’re prepared to hand over $2.99 for the ebook. I’d love it if everyone bought my physical book and cherished it, sharing it with friends and discussing it at parties, curling up with it at night in the intimacy of their bedroom. But I’ll settle for an ebook sale and a new reader.

As the meaning of authorship changes, we’ve witnessed major shifts in the ways we “consume” and encounter texts. For many authors, this is frightening, but for others, it is liberating. It is also both of these things for readers. I think of a friend of mine, who loves her Kindle Fire (I rarely see her without it). This friend is not a huge fan of digital technologies in general, and probably thinks I’m a pretty big tech nerd. She doesn’t teach with digital technologies, nor does she have much interest in doing so, but when it comes to reading, she has no problem buying a book with her Kindle and reading it on the plane or between meetings. When it comes to writing, I find digital technologies liberating. When it comes to reading, she does too.

Recently, however, I have started noting a shift in my purchasing tendencies. Though I reserve curling up in front of the fire for those books that speak either directly to my heart or to my head, in search of books to help me prepare for a puppy that will be coming home with me in March, I bought an ebook and sent it to my phone for quick retrieval and reference when my future pup refuses to “sit,” “come,” or “stay.” So despite my shelves of books that will continue to grow and multiply, I can understand the value of books that I cannot fill with sticky notes, mark with pen and pencil, accidentally spill coffee on, or otherwise make look like this:

book

To books, in all their media.

I am a Networked Individual

I’m reading two books right now, swapping between them for an occasional change of pace:

Product DetailsPersonal Connections in the Digital Age (DMS - Digital Media and Society)

Networked: The New Social Operating System, by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman, and Personal Connections in the Digital Age, by Nancy Baym.

They’re great. I’m only a couple chapters into them, but so far they’re offering interesting analyses of how personal connections operate in a hyperdigitized world. Best of all — neither of them are condemning digital media, nor are they lauding digital media. Instead, they’re providing nuanced descriptions of what it means to be a “networked individual” (Rainie and Wellman’s term) in the 21st century.

What I think I love most about reading these books at the same time is how similar their arguments are, despite the fact that their authors come from different disciplinary backgrounds. Barry Wellman is a social network researcher whose work I am coming to know well as I learn more about social network analysis. Nancy Baym comes from communication studies and the humanities, and spends her first chapter analyzing popular media artifacts in order to argue that there are multiple ways of perceiving how technology impacts us (or how we impact it, or both, etc. etc.). But they’re both arguing that today’s digital media aren’t making us better or worse people, but networked individuals. Rainie and Wellman give a description of networked individualism. Among other things, networked individualism is characterized by a world in which:

  • Many meet their social, emotional, and economic needs by tapping into sparsely knit networks of diverse associates rather than relying on tight connections to a relatively small number of core associates
  • Networked individuals have new powers to create media and project their voices to more extended audiences that become part of their social worlds
  • The lines between information, communication, and action have blurred
  • Networked individuals use the internet, mobile phones, and social networks to get information at their fingertips and act on it, empowering their claims to expertise (whether valid or not)
  • Networked individuals can fashion their own complex identities depending on their passions, beliefs, lifestyles, professional associations, work interests, hobbies, or any number of other personal characteristics
  • The organization of work is more spatially distributed
  • Home and work have become more intertwined than at any time since hordes of farmers went out into their fields

…and so on. Many of these descriptions of the networked world in which we live resonate with what I have found in my work with teachers and with what I have found in my personal life.

For example, I recently got a smartphone. For someone so interested in the role of digital technologies in teachers’ lives, it was long overdue. The smartphone has done nothing to me (what Baym would call technological determinism), and has not caused me to take on the characteristics of the technology to which I am (or am not) tethered. But it has made more obvious to me the degree to which I am a networked individual — my home, work, friend, and family networks intertwine in multiple spaces online. As Wellman and Rainie describe, my lines between information, communication, and action are quite blurry when I see an article, tweet it, talk about it on facebook, or blog about it here. I have many “sparsely knit networks of diverse associates” that cross the country and the globe, from India to Korea, from Colorado to Georgia, from my larger networked ties in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, which expand and contract with the movements of individuals from far in my past to very much present, to my familial network, which touches the Pacific and the Atlantic.

These books are giving me things to think about: both my own networked individualism and the networked worlds of my future research participants, not to mention that NCTE proposal on networks I’m piecing together with a friend right now. More on this later, I can assure you. For now, I’m taking my networked self to tutoring.

More on Stories

Gotta keep this one short, but I wanted to post an update on my resolve to reintegrate the creative into my work with high school kids… see previous post.

A few of my tutoring students, in particular my 10th graders (and a couple ninth graders, and one eighth grader) have been grappling with texts that contain ambiguity. In particular, we’ve been reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Additionally, my eighth grader and I just started The Life of Pi (I had to justify the hours I poured into it over break, after all) and my tenth graders read it in school. I brought Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif” to the table this week. Each of these texts contains some form of ambiguity, but each in a different way. In Handmaid’s, we’re left wondering about the fate of our main character and the role of her lover, Nick, in that fate. In Pi, we’re left to grapple with the role of the “real” in storytelling, and we’re left wondering (sort of) which is the “real” story of Pi’s survival. In “Recitatif,” Morrison messes with the mind of her reader by leaving the two main characters’ races ambiguous, forcing the reader to examine his or her own racial prejudices in the process.

My students have blogged about their love, or hatred, of ambiguity. See Christy’s thoughts on her blog. This post too.

We have discussed the role of ambiguity in our sessions.

And now, they will do their own creative writing and incorporate an ambiguous element that allows them to communicate a theme of their choice.

Never done this before. We’ll see how it goes. Will keep you all posted.

I Knew It! Or, Why Stories are Awesome

Did you know that our brains are wired to listen to stories and get all lit up and excited like those MRI scans you see of people listening to some concerto? Well, I did. But here’s an awesome article that discusses this phenomenon far more articulately: “What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains.”

This comes to me via The Paper Graders who got it via a Penny Kittle Tweet. The Internet is almost as awesome as stories.

I’m going to veer off now, but I swear I’ll come back. I love my partner-in-crime, spouse-extraordinaire, and fellow amateur chef to death, but there is one area in which we differ drastically: he does not read novels. I do. I love novels. I read novels regularly and tell myself it’s because I have to do it for work, but that’s a total lie. I’m currently catching up with the rest of the universe and reading Life of Pi, which is amazing. He, on the other hand, is perfectly capable of reading a good novel (he did over vacation, as a matter of fact), but when it comes right down to it, his storytelling, storyreading, and storylistening preferences are simply different from mine.

All of that said, our relationship revolves around stories. We spend our evenings telling each other stories. Stories about our day. Stories about our lives. Stories we’ve really told each other over and over again but that don’t ever get old, because we love them so much. Stories about who we are. Stories about who we want to be. Stories about who we will someday be, and who all the people in our lives will someday be with us.

Ever met a 5 year old kid? (if your answer is no, crawl out from under your rock.) They’re the same way — only they’re obsessed with that one picture book you swear you never want to see again or that one story about Uncle Joe that you swear isn’t funny but they swear really, really is.

In other words, just because my husband doesn’t read stories in novel form doesn’t mean he doesn’t love stories. He talks all the time about whether or not he can “tell a story” with his science. I don’t really understand his science, so I don’t really know what that means, but I’m pretty sure if he “had no story,” none of the other scientists in scientistland would care at all about his science. The story gives it life, gives it a purpose. Right down to the most “objective” thinkers, we all love stories.

I do the research I do because I love listening to people’s stories and then weaving them together to tell another story, incorporating them into my own stories, and reimagining my work around their stories.

Allow me to quote Mr. S over at TPG:

Humans are fundamentally narrative creating machines. It is how we grapple with the world around us, our experiences, that which we generally call reality, pretty much everything. We process the world in the form of stories. Stories that we make up to make sense of our own lives, stories we make up to make sense of other’s lives, stories we make up to share our ideas. To the extent that a particular human gets good at the skill of constructing narrative he or she gets good at operating in community with other humans. And becomes good at dealing with him or herself.

So why is the story-ness being sucked out of education? David Coleman and other CCSS advocates argue that we need to take all those useless stories out of our classrooms and replace them with good, hard, expository texts. That writing narratives gets kids nowhere. That reading them gets them even more nowhere (or something like that).

It depresses me, but I see this shift happening in my own teaching and tutoring — one of my students came to me with a narrative assignment that got her so excited, we spent two sessions staring at it, revising it, and reimagining it together. I’ve never seen this kid revise like she did in those two sessions. I’ve never seen her so excited about writing. The experience made me realize how little creative energy students are getting at school — and, apparently, from me during tutoring. Shame on me. With this drive to be more able to “argue academically,” we’ve (I’ve) apparently forgotten that good argumentation relies on stories. I knew it… once. Did I really forget it? Forget what an integral part of education storytelling, storymaking, and storyreading is? That many stories, in fact, are making an argument. Carol Jago says on commoncore.org:

Across the nation, teachers say “I don’t have time to teach literature and literary nonfiction anymore” Why? Because the focus turns to the behaviors that students need to perform on assessments. What’s wrongheaded about this is that, with every fiber of my body, I know that the best prep for any kind of assessment in reading is to read and that students who read 20, 30, 40 books a year are probably going to have a pretty good vocabulary, understand complex syntax, and know what to do when they meet challenges in text.

The real heart breaking part of this though, is that the students who find themselves most often in the classes that are literature lite [and] reading lite, are those students who are most disengaged from school. So what are they experiencing? They experience a content-free curriculum. And the result is that instead of what we hope is a meaningful day in education, it’s meaning-less. And so it reaffirms these students’ belief that school is about nothing. English– that’s about commas and stuff– and that is the opposite of what those of us who love literature, love teaching students about literature, and love engendering those rich conversations about literature, would love to happen.

If we suck the stories out of classrooms — just like if my husband were to suck the stories out of one of his papers about proteins and stuff — nobody’s gonna care, least of all a roomful of teenagers. It’s time to make sure that we’re spending our time thinking about the stories we tell, where they take us, and where they come from. This doesn’t mean we need to read more novels. That decidedly would not have worked for my husband, who hated Beloved as a kid (but didn’t hate 1984, from what I can tell) and finds stories in other places. But it does mean we need to make sure that schooling doesn’t lose its creative edge. Even science tells a story.

I’m going to start with my own teaching, and go from there.