Reading as Setting


First in an occasional series…


The Brothers Karamatzov is on my top nine list of books. (It is not the ninth book; there are only nine books on the list.) Sometimes when and how I read a book imprint themselves on me so deeply that they are almost inseparable (for me) from the book itself. My best friend recommended The Brothers Karamatzov to me just before I left for Tunisia on an adventure that was to span several continents and half a dozen countries. “It’s a really compelling murder mystery,” she said, I remember. We were sitting in the car, parked outside of my house, because I didn’t want to go in and she didn’t want to go home. “The thing about it, though, is that I don’t even remember who the murderer was because it didn’t matter.”  I like to remember who the murderer is, in general, but she’s one of the few people who generally shares my taste in reading, so I trusted her.  Plus the book was big and fat and I knew it was going to be hard to fins anything in English, where I was going.


My first or second weekend in Tunis, I packed it in my back pack and took it to the beach. I took the subway – I remember that car very vividly: it was white and packed with people and it was air conditioned, which pleased me because the day outside was very, very hot. I remember pressing my hot face up against the cool metal pole – there weren’t any seats – and fumbling with the top of my back pack to get my book. And then I read and I read and I read. At some point I must have sat down, because I remember looking up and realizing that I was going the wrong way. Yes, I had gone all the way out to the beach – at least a half hour ride – and was so engrossed in my book that I didn’t even realize it.


I decided to go back to the hostel to finish my book. I came out of the subway station with my finger marking my page. I was walking with the crowd down the wide Tunisian boulevard, sun shining off the pavement, sandals slapping on the sidewalk, but it was as though I was caught in a blizzard in deepest Russia. When the sun blew the hair off my neck I thought, for just a minute, that it was the first few pellets of snow. And then someone called out, “Boston! Boston!” It was so divorced from where I was and from where my head was – two completely different places – that I didn’t know he was talking to me until he grabbed my arm. “I forgot your name,” he said. “But I remember you told me you’re from Boston.” It was my friend from the museum gift shop, the journalist with the half written novel. “Come,” he said, “Let’s go to a cafe, let me buy you a coffee.”


No,” I said. I remember that clearly, because I hardly ever said no those first few days in Tunis. “I want to go home and read.” I held up my book, which was still in my hand.


Come back to my place and read,” he said. “I want to read too.” So I did. Not the wisest move, perhaps – I wasn’t the wisest person in those days – but I went back to his house and all was fine. We drank red wine on the floor, reading together in silence.


And so every time I think of the Brothers Karamatzov, I think of Tunis, I think of the heat and the sunshine, I think of a quiet room on a winding Arab alley.

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562 Candles for Leonardo da Vinci

I find that scientific picture books can be read, enjoyed and learned from by older kids who might think that reading picture books is too babyish.  (And to be fair, while my 12-year-old reads them, he refuses to take them to school.)  One of the best, in my opinion, is Neo Leo: The Ageless Ideas of Leonardo da Vinci.  This picture book pairs da Vinci’s prototype drawings on one page with the realized invention on the opposing page.  So for example, the Neo page is 1903 – the Wright Brothers inventing the airplane, while the Leo page, across from it, has da Vinci’s sketches for a man-powered aircraft.  The sentences are simple, but the book is packed with information – did you know, for example, that da Vinci came up with idea for the contact lens scuba equipment and maybe even the bicycle?


If you’re kid gets really into Leo, take it one step further: my daughter loves Amazing Leonardo da Vinci Inventions You Can Build YourselfIf you have a ton of money and you’re not in the mood for inventing, you can always take a trip to Amboise where Leo once lived; you can see his old quarters and there’s a garden out back where many of his inventions have been built for the first time.  It’s actually very cool and definitely worth a look.

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Happy Belated Birthday, Alfred Butts

So who was Alfred Mosher Butts, born April 13, 1899?  He was originally an architect but when he found himself out of work during the Depression, he decided to try his hand at making board games.  He analyzed the different kinds of games available and decided that there was no good game for words and wordplay.  Eventually he came up with the idea for Scrabble.  The really innovative thing that he did was to analyze the New York Times to try to figure out which letters were used most often.  (This idea of solving a puzzle based on letter frequency originally appeared in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug” which Motts apparently read as a boy.)  You can see how important having the right number of different letters is – imagine if the number of letters in each set were completely random?  You might end up with a whole stack of Xs.


I was thinking about Butts, and his ground-breaking game that’s sold millions of copies and appeared in dozens of different languages (with, of course, different letter frequencies by language – you can’t play French scrabble with an English set!) and wondering how it connects to reading.  There are dozens of wordplay games, both traditional and electronic, that claim they can help your children to read.  Of course I have no evidence, but I suspect that it works the other way around – that people who are good with words and like them, end up enjoying word games and playing them more frequently.


Of course, the champions of Scrabble aren’t always – or even usually – great readers.  As Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph Genius and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Playing makes clear many of the best players are simply obsessive types who spend inordinate amounts of time memorizing word lists.  (Oddly, I’m not that fond of Scrabble, but I see the appeal of memorizing word lists.  I recently memorized all the world capitals for no reason except that I wanted to!  I know, I’m very strange.  Maybe some day, someone will write a book about me.)  (Probably not.)  One woman who attended the World Youth trials recently reported that the vast majority of contestants couldn’t speak English at all, but they knew an awful lot of words!  It reminds me of spelling bees.  Actually, the people in Word Freak did not really remind me of the kids who train for spelling bees, but I think a lot of that is they were older, so the incentives for doing memorizing words and the way they’re spelled are very different.

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Love of Reading…

This week, 37 New York City principals launched a protest against the ELA, which seems to be the New York City state mandated English language exam for elementary and middle school students – the equivalent of North Carolina’s reading EOGs. There are tons and tons of posts all over the internet, including a very well written op ed in The New York Times by a highly regarded Brooklyn principal.  From what I can gather, the two main complaints are that a lot of the reading excerpts were well above grade level and the questions were so convoluted and text-based, even adults couldn’t answer them.


One of the things teachers keep complaining about is that it’s impossible to get kids to love reading and want to read when there’s all this high stakes testing that’s really about just getting the right answer. I was thinking about this yesterday and I think part of the question that no one’s really answering is: what are public schools – or any schools, really – supposed to do? Are they supposed to create a well educated work force that will supply the employers of the future? Are they supposed to nurture creativity and out-of-the-box thinking so that some really creative types can keep coming up with new ideas that will innovate and make life easier, better and healthier (add in whatever adjective you want here)? Are they supposed to figure out what each individual student needs to be successful and give that to him or her? I guess #2 and #3 are sort of variations on each other, but they are really distinct from #1. Maybe a better way to ask this is: do we have public schools/schools for the sake of society and the community or do we have them for the sake of the individual?


And maybe it can be both, I don’t know. Of course the massive conflicts we have in education right now are partially about competing interests – the interests of the kids vs the parents vs the teachers vs the reformers vs the voucherists etc. (I’m using ‘voucherists’ here as short hand for ‘people who want to privatize the schools’) (And also all these groups aren’t necessarily fighting against each other. But even when they align together, they still have distinct interests.)  But I’d like to hear a bit more about the conflict between what the kids need and what society needs. Maybe those are the same thing, but maybe they’re not.


I’m all for inculcating a love of reading in children, of course! That’s why I’m blogging about reading as a passion, as a craft, as something that’s worth passing down to your children. And I wholeheartedly admire the teachers who do this. But I wonder if that’s where some of the furor about this test comes in – what teachers see as their job is not necessarily what the people who made these tests see it.


I don’t really have any great books to give any insights into this post – well, except, maybe The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley. Which I did really like, with some caveats – although I agree with what I thought was her central thesis: kids in America spend so much time and effort on sports that they don’t have time or energy to devote to the actual school work. (I get that that’s not how everyone read the book though.) There are, I’m sure, a ton of books crack under the pressure of being smart and perfect, but the only one I can think of right now is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst.

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How To Grow A Reader

In the last twelve years, I have made many, many mistakes, but there is one thing I have done right: my children are readers.  Obsessive readers, the kind who bump into streetlights and door jambs because their heads are buried in a book.  Ubiquitous readers, who will anything from the ingredients on the back of the pickle jar to the worm composting book we brought home from the library by mistake.  Interactive readers, who often burst into laughter in the middle of a passage or beg to be allowed to share the most hilarious (or interesting or surprising or disgusting) lines.

How did this happen?  Well, of course they’re brilliant, creative types.  But since this is a blog about reading, I thought I would start by giving my advice on something I know well: how to get your kids to read.

First the ones everybody knows:

1.  Read to your kids often from the time they are very small

2.  Have a lot of books around the house.

3.  Let them see you reading.

Those are in all the parenting books.  But here are my additional, foolproof, money-back guaranteed (ha, ha, see that’s a laugh out loud line one of my kids would read out) suggestions 

4. Go to the library!  A lot!  Have Thursday Night Library Night or Saturday Morning Library Morning or Surprise!  It’s Library Afternoon.  Let your kids get out as many books as they want/the library will allow (within reason).  This drives my husband crazy because we usually have, literally, 45 library books on our library shelf.  (Seriously, if you do this, keep a library shelf because otherwise you will lose your library books.  I speak from experience.  Even if you have a library shelf, you may lose books, but not as many.)  Kids love the idea that they can get out all 7 Harry Potter’s or 6 different dinosaur books.  And they love being able to choose what they want, even if it’s not something you would choose.  And because it’s free, you don’t have to worry that every book is worthwhile.  We go to the library once or twice a week.  Generally, when we get home, I come into the house by myself, because the kids are still in the back seat of the car, engrossed in whatever new books they’ve just picked out.

5.  Don’t forget non-fiction!  When I was a kid, all they had for kids non-fiction tradebooks were encyclopedia-light books like The Dormouse or Delaware.  But nowadays there are absolutely amazing, insightful books on every topic you can imagine.  My son read books earlier this year about the making of the atom bomb and a boy in an tiny African village who built his own windmill.  My daughter’s favorite author last year was Gail Gibbons who writes books about everything from frogs to Valentine’s Day to the post office.  If your child has an interest, there’s sure to be a book about it.  And if you want to find your child an interest, the National Science Teacher’s Association puts out a list of the best trade books published each year.  I generally go through it and find all the books on the list that are in our library.  Also, there are lots of books on less-sciency non-fiction topics: rock stars and video games and TV characters, etc.  (Those are not generally on the NSTA’s list though, you’re on your own.)

6.  Don’t worry about age level.  My kids, now 8 and 12, just read through the entire list of picture book nominees for the North Carolina Children’s Book Award.  They found many of them hilarious.  At the other extreme, last year Ms Tumble (my 8-year-old) got really into Shakespeare and actually read the first two acts of Twelfth Night.  (I’m not sure how much she understood it – maybe more than I would have wanted her to!)  This isn’t to say you shouldn’t determine that the content of some books is inappropriate for your kids – of course you should!  That’s part of being a parent.  It’s just to say ‘don’t get hung up on the labels on the book that say ages 6-9′ or whatever.  That’s just some marketing director trying to figure out how best to sell the books, and it has nothing to do with your particular child.

7.  Limit screen time.  Okay, I know everyone has their own philosophy about this, and every kid is different, etc., etc.  So I say this only from my own experience.  We allow video games only on Friday and TV/videos only in French.  (That’s what works for us!)  My son is an avid reader who probably reads a minimum of 5-7 books every week for pleasure.  I guarantee you that if he were allowed unlimited video games, he wouldn’t read a single one.  Ms Tumble is different – she gets bored with video games after an hour or two.  But my son?  He forgets to eat, drink and use the bathroom when he’s playing video games, so I really think he would forget about books.  (And I know there are a lot of people who will maintain that reading books is no better than playing video games, that video games encourage creativity and develop critical thinking, etc.  And that’s fine.  This post isn’t to say books are better than video games, just to say that – for people who want their kids to read – unlimited screen time may make it harder.)

I have a lot more thoughts on this topic; I will add them as I think of them.  Toodleloo.



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Reading is the Staff of Life


My grandmother always used to say “Anyone who can read can cook.”  She said it in a kind of ‘whatever’ way, like cooking was really no big deal, and nothing to be proud of.  After lots of experience with cooking and (amateur) cooks, I’ve come to believe there are two kinds of cooks – those who can look in the refrigerator or the cupboard, see what’s there, know what goes together, pour this and that into the pot, stir, taste, wrinkle their forehead, scramble through the cupboard for the thing that’s missing, add that, and come up with a delicious meal.  And the second kind, those who can’t do any of those things, but know how to read!  My husband is the first kind of cook, I am the second.  But here’s the thing – isn’t it great that there are recipes?  So that those of us who have no cooking sense can still make fabulous meals?


Above is a picture of my white bread, from the recipe I read in the Good Housekeeping cookbook and have made so many times (usually around once or twice a week now) that I know it by heart.  Super easy and super delicious.  And all thanks to a book! 

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Changing Brains

An article in the Washington Post the other day argued that ‘reading online’ is changing the way that our brains work. Basically, it says that because reading online is often either very brief amounts of information – like text messages or tweets or facebook posts – or connected to and surrounded by all kinds of other information, videos and hyperlinks, etc., it is rewiring our brains to skim and search for information. Anecdotal evidence in the article suggests that people are having a hard time switching back to in-depth reading.


This is actually really relevant to me, as I work at a magazine where we’re debating the switch to online submissions. Right now, I spend about 20 hours a week reading paper manuscripts. If we switch, pretty much all that time will be spent reading on a device.


The article is written pretty much in a doomsday style: oh, no, our brains are changing and now we will no longer be able to read the classics!! But I think the author elides two different things: one are these short bursts of information like text messages, and the other is reading a longer work on an electronic device. I mean, I already read a lot of news online – while sometimes I might skim to the end of the article or stop reading in the middle, most of the time I read the whole thing through. And in the past, didn’t people used to skim articles in the newspaper? I’m just not as sure as the author that this is really changing society in a fundamental way.


The more interesting idea, to me, was the implicit one that we might not have easy access to our own past. When I lived in New York, I had a lot of Turkish friends, and they often complained that Ataturk’s decision to switch the Turkish language from an Arabic script to a Latin one meant that they really couldn’t read anything that had been written prior to the 20th century. At the time, I wondered how hard it could be to learn to read a different script. But maybe you had to read the text in a whole different way? It’s not that they couldn’t learn to do it, but that it wasn’t easy.


I don’t know. I have a kind of argument I haven’t really worked out that people are reading more nowadays because of the internet. More on that coming soon.

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