Category Archives: Books

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me

I think I’ll use the opening piece as part of a “personal essay” unit. I think students will like and recognize the opening anecdote. I hope they’ll see how you can take one story from your own life and work it into a larger reflection. And if it makes a few young men uncomfortable, so much the better.

The essay I really loved, though, was Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable. I could teach with this one, too — how do you weave together an interpretation of multiple books — but it would be just as helpful thinking about language, how to use it, when it needs to be concrete and when it can’t be.

“We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretenses at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.”


We could argue about this quote for days. I thought about how often I urge students to be bold in their claims and I felt a flash of guilt. But I think what Solnit is urging us to consider is that we need to be bold in our ambiguity, in laying out both sides, in understanding that you make your best effort to understand through careful assessment of a situation and sources, but that you may fall short.

Several pages later, Solnit quotes Susan Sontag about war and what’s knowable:

“We’ — this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through–don’t understand. We don’t get it. We truly can’t imagine what it was like. We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying, war is; and how normal it becomes. Can’t understand, can’t imagine.”

She follows by saying, “Sontag, too, calls on us to embrace the darkness, the unknowability, not to let the torrent of images that proud down on us convince us that we understand or make us numb to suffering.” (p.84)

I read this as a way of helping students understand that ambiguity is different than relativism. There are lots of ideas and experiences out there that need to be constantly interrogated and contextualized. They can’t just be set aside or neatly labeled. That’s our work as students, scholars, and human beings.

Finally, in talking of the role of criticism, Solnit writes:

“This (an essay of Virginia Woolf’s) is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens an exchange that need never end.”

I love this framing and will use this quote with students. How do your write in a way that invites exchange around ideas? How do you write something that leaves someone scrambling to write back, to want to respond?

Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Updated edition. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2015.

Used books today

Burmese Days, 1963 Signet Classics Paperback.
Sirens of Titan, 1970 version.

I will always buy copies of George Orwell or Kurt Vonnegut’s paperbacks at $1.00. Always.

A very good Modern Library copy of Washington Square.
James, Henry. Washington Square. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Edging towards collecting these. ($3.00)

McMurtry, Larry. Roads: A Millennial Journey Along America’s Great Interstate Highways. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. I read Lonesome Dove in college but I also liked Moving On and Cadillac Jack. I think this book is a return to the roads he traveled as a book collector (and that showed up in Cadillac Jack.) Indeed, it’s Cadillac Jack where the rabbit heads show up in the grill of the Cadillac, a scene I revisited this weekend when a bird got caught in the grill of our Prius. ($3.00)

Stutzman, Paul. Hiking Through: One Man’s Journey to Peace and Freedom on the Appalachian Trail. Reprint edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Revell, 2012. I’m also a sucker for these sorts of long journey books, particularly on the AT, as Kara wants us to do this hike someday. Autographed copy — $2.00

Do I make myself clear?

I had not seen a number of these websites: I haven’t downloaded this as a desktop app but it seems pretty helpful. Lots of tools here. I bet my students will like this interface.

Evans, Harold. Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters. (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2017.)

Our smart principal

We read this as a group this morning:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny.
It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

Great starting point for the year…

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (NY: Harper Perennial, 1974).

Re-reading David Blight

Saw the latest Twitter blast and had to pull Professor Blight off the shelf. From the prologue:

“In many ways, this is a story of how in American culture romance triumphed over reality, sentimental remembrance won over ideological memory. For Americans broadly, the Civil War has been a defining event upon which we have often imposed unity and continuity; as a culture, we have often preferred its music and pathos to its enduring challenges, the theme of reconciled conflict to resurgent, unresolved legacies. The greatest enthusiasts for Civil War history and memory often displace complicated consequences by focusing on the contest itself…

Over time, Americans have needed deflections from the deeper meaning of the Civil War. It haunts us still; we feel it, to borrow from Warren, but often do not face it.”

David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 4.

Richard Sennett, part two

Finished reading yesterday and thought a lot about his distinction between authority and autonomy within a workshop. (Much joy at having a chapter called The Workshop).

This is the question we grapple with all the time. You want kids to become autonomous but you know that they’re not always ready. If you turn them loose too soon, you lose them, and it’s project-based learning going wrong. If you assume too much authority, it pretty quickly devolves into school and disengagement. We spend lots of time in PD discussing the nature of authority and how it’s earned; as teachers in a project-based school we have a number of our own projects that should serve as a model and as a source of authority.

I’m lazy, so I’m not typing this entire quote, but here it is:

I’ll use these two paragraphs in our opening week as try and figure out what rules the school sets, what expectations I have based on my authority as a teacher/project makes, and how they can begin to establish “legitimate authority in the flesh.”

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 54.

Richard Sennett

Reading The Craftsman. Great C. Wright Mills quote:

“The laborer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself, the satisfaction of working are their own reward, the details of their daily labour are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product, the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to the freedom to experiment; finally, finally, community and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence, and experiment in craft labor.”

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

The Wolf in Winter

I read to try and find ways to link all that I do together. I love a good thriller and if you add a bit of ancient religion, I’ll read them all.

This is a good quote about social work but really any non-profit work:

Stephen was clearly a good kid, but he had the egotism of youth. The world revolved around him, and consequently he believed that he had the power to change how it worked. And, in the way of the young, he had made another’s pain about himself, even if he did so for what seemed the best of reasons. Time and age would change him; if they didn’t, he wouldn’t be working in soup kitchens and shelters much longer. His frustrations would get the better of him and force him out. He’d blame others for it, but it would be his own fault.

John Connolly, The Wolf in Winter (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 115.

Quote on resilience

From a terrific novel, Universal Harvester:

If you work with or around children, you often hear a lot about how resilient they are. It’s true: I’ve met children who’ve been through things that would drive most adults to the brink. They look and act, most of the time, like any other children. In this sense — that they don’t succumb to despair, that they don’t demand a space for their pain — it’s very true that children are resilient.

But resiliency only means that a thin retains it shape. That it doesn’t break, or lose its ability to function. It doesn’t mean a child forgets the time she shared in the backyard with her mother gardening, or the fun they had together watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks at the Astro. It just means she learns to bear it. The mechanism that allowed Lisa Sampson to keep her head above water in the wake of her mother’s departure has not been described by scientists. It’s efficient, flexible, and probably transferrable from one person to another should they catch the scent on each other. But the rest of the details about it aren’t observable from the outside. You have to be closer than you really want to get to see how it works.

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017),137.