TJ and SH

One of the great parts of getting ready to open a year is getting read lots of Annette Gordon-Reed’s work. Along with the books, there’s this piece about Charottesville that concludes with this paragraph:

American ideals have always clashed with harsh American realities. We saw that clash on the grounds of UVA. But how do we continue in the face of depressing realities to allow ourselves to hold fast to the importance of having aspirations, and recognize that the pursuit of high ideals—even if carried out imperfectly—offers the only real chance of bringing forth good in the world? In many ways, grappling with that question is what being a scholar of Jefferson is all about. Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.

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

NYT: How to help a teenager

Short, thoughtful article on what it means for a teenager to be college ready.

This is a great paragraph:

If your college-bound junior or senior still requires external accountability for school work, your child may be telling you he’s not ready for academic independence. Many parents focus too intently on grades themselves, rather than the process by which those grades are attained. If you still feel like the homework police at the end of 11th grade, it’s time to retire. A C-student who can manage his own academic life has a better chance of succeeding in college than an A- or B-student who depends on parental oversight.

It made me think about how I want to communicate with parents this year. Would a regular newsletter be in range? Some sort of document that outlines the work and offers ways to help, i.e., here are the helpful questions you might ask your kid this month.

New Yorker article with lots to chew on

Read this yesterday. Thought I might use it later in the year as a way of helping kids think about how a writer identifies a key question — are things getting better — and then brings a series of close readings to bear upon it. Different disciplinary lenses — psychological, historical, sociological — provide the author with the glue to hold his essay together, although its his skillful writing that provides the connections.

Several quotes to consider:

Was the past good or bad? Are we on the right track or the wrong one? Is life getting better or worse? These questions are easy to ask—pollsters and politicians love asking them—but surprisingly hard to answer. Most historical and statistical evidence shows that life used to be shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. Yet many people, like Milanovi?, have fond memories of bygone years, and wonder if reports of their awfulness have been exaggerated. Others concede that life used to be worse in some ways, but wonder if it wasn’t also better in others—simpler, more predictable, more spiritual.

The power of bad news is magnified, Pinker writes, by a mental habit that psychologists call the “availability heuristic”: because people tend to estimate the probability of an event by means of “the ease with which instances come to mind,” they get the impression that mass shootings are more common than medical breakthroughs. We’re also guilty of “the sin of ingratitude.” We like to complain, and we don’t know much about the heroic problem-solvers of the past. “How much thought have you given lately to Karl Landsteiner?” Pinker asks. “Karl who? He only saved a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups.”

Later in the year, when we get to writing/reviewing books, I hope I can use this piece as a model.

Rothman, Joshua. “Are Things Getting Better or Worse?” The New Yorker, July 16, 2018.

Reading: Why the novel matters…

This is a terrific Sunday morning read. There are some terrific lines and I’ll track down the podcast to use in the classroom.

It’s not unknown for people of no remarkable genius to come away from reading, say, Anna Karenina, fancying that if only Tolstoy hadn’t done it, they could. I’d go so far as to say that it’s peculiar to the novel to empower readers in this way, stirring in them intimations of creative energy. The better a novel is, the more we feel it’s been found among the ruins of the language we share. Whatever is made of words belongs to us too.

Novels cannot by nature fail to be dialogic.

But I think something of value happens when we read, say The Ambassadors – of value as an affective stimulus, I mean – that doesn’t when we watch, say, The Sopranos. Don’t tell me The Sopranos is more fun. That might only mean that Tony Soprano is more engaging than Lambert Strether. He’s certainly got a more engaging name. There is, though, more than one kind of fun. And to say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites. Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away.

Maybe, just maybe, I could use this at the beginning of the year to set up the “why we read” conversation.