Would Book Rating Systems Work?

So recently someone mentioned a topic that I’ve come across several times and so I decided to address it, which will enlighten the entire internet for now and all time, right? Hellooo? Anybody out there?

The idea is that having a book rating system similar to the one used for movies would help people looking for specific kinds of books while seeking to avoid other kinds of books.

The first thing to address is the potential hysterical attack on such an idea, because while everyone has to make choices in their reading, there sometimes arises certain parties who want the choice of discriminating in their reading (a necessary thing, I assure you) but who outright attack the attempts of others to make their own choices (which is also a necessary thing, I still assure you) in similar ways even if with different results.

It is stupid. There, got that out of the way.

So movie rating systems over the years in this country have had ratings like G, PG, PG-13, PG-17 (I think), R, X, and the unhelpful ‘unrated’, which can mean it is either two old to bother rating or it is calling itself unrated to lure in those who find R and X too tame for their addictions. Most people are pretty familiar with these ratings. They may not be aware of the changes that these ratings have undergone. For instance, G used to mean ‘general audiences’ or the entire family. Now it means ‘for toddlers’. PG-13 is a somewhat newer rating that confuses people, for this reason: some PG-13 are slightly more intense than a PG. Others might as well have an R rating. But, like too many people have assumed, since it states that PG-13 material is suitable for 13 yr olds and up, therefore all of the range of PG-13 is somehow suitable for all 13 yr olds. This is definitely the fault of the people who make such an assumption, but I can easily see how they could be deceived into making such an assumption. Personally, I do not trust ratings. Not only have the standards of the ratings sagged horribly off the side of the straighter road and into the pea green waters in the ditch alongside, but they have also become lame. Any G movie I watch is close to fifty years old. The newer ones from the last twenty years simply aim their short broad stick- like arrows at toddlers and preschoolers. Usually.

By the way, if someone does eventually require by law that preschoolers must attend preschool, will they still be pre-schoolers? Will it still be a pre-school? Or will someone come up with a magic sounding word like ‘kindergarten’ was in its heyday? Talk about advertising! Which I wasn’t, sort of.

Movie ratings are often a worm on a hook dangling out there to attract demographic groups. So they’ll make sure to add one harsh swear word so they can call themselves an R movie and get the edgy social status that those appear to have. Just try and remove that one word, however, for your own viewing pleasure, and howls of censorship rise greasily into the air. If our natural environment is so important, why is our emotional and social environment so dang polluted?

Anyway…

So, movie ratings aren’t terribly accurate, their standards shift, and they sometimes actively mislead. So how could this possibly work for books?

I’m pretty sure there are far more books published each year than there are movies released to the theaters. Far, far more books. Who’s going to read all those? Whose standards will apply in this day and age? How will those standards shift? And if nothing else, how will a comprehensive book rating system irritate the nasal passages of the ALA ? Because it would be nothing to sneeze at, I assure you.

There are simply too many variables in the world of book publishing. In fact, with more books crossing genres, that little classification system alone is having enough trouble as it is, let alone any classification that tried to assign ratings based on language, scenes, or intensity.

How would I even rate intensity? It depends on my hormones at any given time of month, for one thing. Am I in the monthly mood to cry? Then, yeah, it’s a cry worthy book of deep emotional intensity. One which wouldn’t stir me at all once I get past the last bit of the particular hormonal fluctuation I am in. What about other kinds of emotional intensity? Are the characters facing the end of the world and yelling at each other? Some days I will find this terribly stressful to read, and other days I will laugh at them in their predicament. So, intensity is out as a rating.

What about sexual scenes? How explicit is explicit, how detailed, what is its context, does it relate to the plot, is it between married people, is it some form of dominance, does it fade to black, is it something else? Who decides which get what rating?

Swear words might seem a clearer way to delineate books. But with the shifting standards already referenced, how many YA books now have F-bombs in them? Because, according to assumptions, ‘everybody swears, this is real life, etc etc’? And since YA no longer actually refers just to young adults who are out of high school, how many middle grade kids and elementary kids read YA? I mean, there is the de juro, and then there is the de facto situation. Publishers and writers are well aware of these issues.

So, swearing as a part of a rating system won’t work either. Again, too many variables, too much of a push to normalize swearing. Heck- publishers may impose upon their children’s lit section certain set vocabulary lists that rely on the latest educational curriculum, which can be bad enough, but the idea that they have to push the idea that everyone swears? How is that going to gum up any attempt to classify and rate literature? The difficulties involved simply multiply.

And finally, the people who sometimes wish there were a rating system have rather variable tastes, concerns, and standards. One person may want to avoid all swearing while another feels that any lifestyle depicted in a book needs to reflect certain belief systems. Don’t tell me this is censorship, or I will ask, why do you expect certain other lifestyles reflected in your reading? See? It is a matter of choice, based on beliefs and standards, personal life experiences, and so on. Some readers wish to avoid Christian literature expressly. Traumatized victims of crime wish to avoid specific scenes. It’s about choice, which can shift according to changing priorities of the reader. Don’t make a system out of this; let the individual work it out.

So book rating systems would have to be incredibly complicated to begin with, and then their standards would shift as soon as they became available.

So What To Do?

Trust Yourself.

1- I use the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads to do some research before I choose which books to read, at least I do most of the time. Once in awhile I just admit to curiosity and pick up a book everyone is talking about because I am willing to read something a little out of my line, if its turns out to be good enough.

2- I pre-read most of the books my children are going to read, to either prepare them for a particular book, to avoid certain ones, or to have a new book to discuss. I do this as a duty, just as I decide what foods will nourish their bodies, which fun junk foods to enjoy and in what amount, etc etc. And, in fact, I rarely guide the reading of my adult child nowadays. Those are her choices to make. When she offers me books that I would not ordinarily read, I read them, so we can do a fun nerdy lit analysis and coo over characters or grouse about plot. My younger daughter I still preview for. Not for much longer!

Mistakes can be made. I read the reviews of a particular book that was targeted at my daughter’s age at the time. It seemed to fit her tastes, everyone mentioned how incredibly well written it was, and no on mentioned the rape in the first chapter of the main female character who was depicted as the same age of my daughter. There were other scenes as well, later in the book. I only found out because after letting her read the book before I read it, because I trusted the reviews of strangers, she walked around looking a little sick and disturbed for a few days before I finally found out what I had allowed to happen. I went and read the book and was horrified. Well, we used that as a growing and learning opportunity. We had to work through a series of negative feelings. Time and great literature have both helped those memories fade. The lessons remain.

3- I also look at the way a book begins: is this one of those insecure books that ‘grabs my attention’? That is a sign that the writer does not trust the reader, or has plans that will become clearer as the book goes on. How are characters described, especially the women? What level of language is used? How does it foreshadow explicit scenes or how does it signal that things might get gruesome? Does it try and infuse nihilism into every page? Books usually hint at you, they foreshadow if you can recognize it. Some also groom you, exposing you to increasingly difficult scenes to work through because boy, do they have plans for you!

4- Here is the most important aspect of judgement I use: I try and stay close to the teachings of our Savior, stay close to light and truth, and feel spiritual warnings if a book might be a bad one for me to read. Yes, I have sometimes plowed on and discovered for myself that I should have listened to the spiritual warning. Other times, no, I stop, try and listen, and then respond to the spirit and its guidance. Because I want that more than I want any particular book in my life.

5- The recommendations of friends influence me as long as I can gauge well which friends have tastes worth taking an active interest in.

6- I do not rely on Goodreads for recommendations. While the actual book reviews can be helpful, GR sometimes likes to ‘adjust’ those to help authors get better ratings. Then there are the recommendations GR makes based on computer algorithms. Since I read this clean uplifting classic historical fiction, then I will obviously enjoy this trashy bit of work just because it’s set within a couple hundred years of the first book.

So choosing books is like shopping for food. What’s on sale? Can I digest that? Will it taste good? Will it be good for my family? Does it truly feed the soul the nourishment it needs? Is it just some fluffy fun for a few laughs? Is it so processed and laden down with unhealthy chemical combinations that no one should consume it? How do I make sense of nutrition labels? That, at least, is a more reliable rating system. More reliable than the front of the food package, I’m sure!

A book rating system would not work, and it would especially not work for the very people who think that such a thing might be helpful for them in making difficult reading choices. I would also add that a book rating system would just make life more complicated. Complications in life just sprout up all by themselves, so I don’t like adding more. I want less government, uncluttered grocery stores, and comfortable clothing. I read mostly older literature to more easily avoid explicit scenes and I read newer stuff very carefully, when I do read some of it. Am I missing something? Not really. What if I can’t find an acceptable book that day? Maybe I can do something that doesn’t involve reading. Really.

 

 

 

Can We Tolerate Clean Reads?

I’ve been an active member of Goodreads for several years now. I find it helpful for tracking books and finding more books and talking books and meeting book reading book lovers. Recently as I indulged my love of book reviews (both there and on Amazon), I have begun to sense a trend which I hope gets swallowed up in some other better trend. Not a worse trend, oh dear heavens, we don’t need anymore of those! It’s as if these days some sort of Bulk Discount Bin of Worse Trends had been upended over the continental United States!

The scenario is this: a new book comes out, or people rediscover an older book. The author may be heavily involved promoting it. Readers are enjoying discussing it. Then someone asks, quite innocently, “Is the book clean?” The author herself, and several other people who suddenly revert to their Mr. Edward Hyde personas, jump all over the very idea. They make fun of the questioner’s ‘purity’, calling such questions sheer vanity, useless, censorship, outdated, outrageous, not worthy of a response, that entire family deserves horrible Medieval ends, and much, much worse.

What is the word for the overreaction of a system to an otherwise perfectly normal and harmless irritant? An allergy attack? Antihistamine overdrive? Anaphylactic shock? Aren’t we trying to cure that sort of thing?

Because the question, while vague, has its purposes. There are growing numbers of people who acknowledge that much of our mainstream culture is slithering happily into the sewers of the world, and they don’t want to go with it. They may want to shield children. They may have sensitive history that makes them want to avoid sexual assault scenes in their reading. They may want to read about real problem solving and hopeful perspectives rather than gratuitous violence and nihilism. And why not? If a history museum fan wants to read about history, why not? I could even argue, with a bad taste in my mouth, that if a reader of gore and mayhem wants that, they need to be able to make their choice. But I ask this: if the history fan starts talking history, that’s not nearly the issue of a gore fan wanting to talk gore. And believe me, they often do. It works into every conversation. Ever have someone who wouldn’t shut up about the ‘Saw’ movies while at a picnic? Yeah. So why interfere with someone who is looking for ‘clean reads’? What’s this about choice? What did you just say about tolerance? Ok then.

The term ‘clean reads’ is vague, yes. It means various levels of clean to various people. It might mean absolutely no reference to sexual scenes, or it may mean a fade-to-black kind of approach to sex scenes. It may allow for a few of the milder swear words, or it may not. It may want to avoid the everything-is-the-same-so-nothing-really-matters philosophy that infuses so much literature with a kind of pre-soviet psychological grooming that leads to State control of culture and thought. But is it so hard to just ask: “What do you mean by ‘clean’?”

Can we suspend rash judgement anymore? Can we ask for clarification? Can we discuss?

The defensive maneuvers of those who cry- or shriek- censorship reminds me of Shakespeare: “Methinks he doth protest too much”. Censorship? Where were the cries of censorship when the publishers demanded changes? Where were the cries of outdated when the book refers to older literature forms? Why this pretense at moral superiority while trying to skewer the morality of another? Hypocrite much?

Thankfully, when I see these attacks, I am also seeing more and more responses of other bystanders who step forward and defend the simple question. Most simply see clean choices as that- choices. We all must discriminate or we would be required by circumstances to read all books in the world. Really! Just think about it: you have no choice. You can not pick one book over another. You must read them ALL.

Or: you must read the ones we demand you read. You are especially not allowed to read those ones over there.

Both are pretty ridiculous. One has been attempted at various times throughout the history of the world. (Hint: it’s the second one)

Why does this mean anything to me? because I have my own set of standards (LIKE EVERY OTHER READER) and mine happen to lean towards ‘clean’. How I define it can shift as I change as a person, because no one is still reading the books they read in first grade, or college, and only those. We all change. Nevertheless, my tendency towards ‘clean’ has stayed roughly about the same. Why do I choose that? Here’s why:

  1. I’m so tired of the sex scenes. They feel like this: the author is getting off on their own writing, and making me a voyeur; the spread of pornography with its attendant addiction, abuse, and cultural decline means we should be preventing it, not spreading it like verbal plague; and after avearge sex scenes become inadequate for an author, their readers, or their publishers, just how far are we going to go into the mire for that next fleeting jaded arousal? Or is that just a repeat of the addiction argument?
  2. I’m tired of the gore. So much of it feels, well, canned. Like extra juicy spam. You open it, it slops out, and you say, “Oh, cool! Gimme more!” Like movies that have jettisoned story for CGI gimmicks, many books have lost story for the sake of look-at-my-anatomy-research. It falls in a camp very close to just plain look-at-my-anatomy.
  3. The despair and intensity have become comical. Intense story telling that grabs you with the first paragraph and then demands your attention is an insecure kind of verbal assault. Not only does it get far too manipulative, but it’s like the guy who grabs your shirt as you try to end a conversation and he gets so in your face that you feel his spit on your cheek. He’s like “You see?? You know what I mean? Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot!!” And you just want to go have a life with not-this-man in it. Or at least, let-him-keep-some-distance.
  4. I think we’ve lost something when we lose the setting and descriptive abilities of past generations of writers. Plot heavy is more an aesthetic taste, but it often comes entangled in gore and explicit scenes of all types because so many of our generation have grown up with TV…or less than TV…I’m looking at you, video games. What if I find your ability to describe a woman’s anatomy a misplaced description when I have vague ideas of your setting?

Admittedly, that last point is not so much a moral point but it is affected by the others. So while I avoid certain kinds of books, I know everyone else avoid other kinds. I know there are books I think everyone should read, but I’m not going to get their cooperation with social pressure that involves humiliation, threats, and grotesqueries of verbal outrage. That’s not how I operate, anyway.

When people yell “JUST READ THE %^&$ BOOK!!” I wonder if they would also scream at me to “Just eat the cowpie we pried up out of this farmyard tire rut!” Because not all reading is the same, not all books have the same value, and actually, yes, what I read really needs to be as clean as the food that goes into my body. It needs to be good and clean, as wholesome as possible, and something my mind can use to build good thinking skills, healthy mind sets, and a hopefully long life of happiness and appreciation of beauty.

That doesn’t mean we never use our writing skills to address dark issues within our human experience, no, of course not. We can write about anything and still retain our humanity. Otherwise we risk descending to the level of predators or pushers who demand government support for their attempts to groom others into their hideous world. No thanks.

Not all books are the same. I repeat that. We’re not talking binary data streams here, we are talking the thoughts that influence actions which shape the character that builds or destroys civilizations. Yeah, many of those thoughts come from books. Read a book and just try not to think about it. I dare ya!

Summer Reading Programs

Summer Reading

It’s almost July and many kids around the nation are halfway through their summer reading lists. These might be assignments from school or they might be summer reading programs with the local libraries. The school assignments will have to wait for some other post, if I haven’t already dealt with that issue. I want to talk about library summer reading programs.


When I was a kid I don’t think these things existed. I know we had the R.I.F. trailer that came around to our countryside. And I did learn to check out books from school. It wasn’t until I was a little older and living in a small town with sidewalks and a local library that I really started reading extensively. The library was a few blocks from home, along an old, tree lined, residential road. It was a fine walk to get to the library, and it was a fine old library to get to. I wandered the aisles, picking things at random, or went straight for my favorite sections like science fiction or examining the fresh unknowns of the new book- display. I had no trouble reading during the summer, because it was far easier in the summer to read what I wanted without feeling guilt over neglecting the assigned stuff of the school year. Also, I had a lot of allergies. So, that was where I was coming from.

Now I know that kids lose a certain amount of reading or math skills over summer vacation. I can see the practical application of library programs. It also gives kids a place to go during their free time, if they have free time anymore. Libraries might also experience a loss of patronage during the summer because they are not needed so badly for book reports and other school work. Whatever the cause, reading programs have their place. Just not so much in our lives as a family.

When my kids were pretty little, we earnestly signed up for the local reading programs for summer time. We got our instructions, a printed sheet for recording titles, and bookmarks, pencils, and stickers. Then we went home and proceeded to make reading an assignment. I heard some demented motherly voice issue forth from my mouth that said insane things like this: “Have you done your reading today?” or “How many chapters have you read this week?” or “We have to go back to the library to check out more books, your goal is 25 books, etc…” and my most especial favorite: “We’re doing the reading program for the library, for school, and for Barnes & Noble, because the same books count for each list and we’ll be saving some effort while working hard to strip the fun out of reading.”

You must understand, I didn’t say it that clearly, and yet it became clear that this was what I meant. This was what I was doing to my kids. This is what we were doing to ourselves.

Then when the end of the reading program came, here was our pay-off:

Library program: you won tickets that represented chances to win some object or other, from puzzles and books to music devices. So, after reading with an idea of some goal at the end, that goal was nothing more than to win a chance at winning something else. Worse still than this mild but apparent gambling, or the years when neither child ever won anything, was the year one child won something yet the other did not. Oy! We’ll just refer to that incident as the learning lesson of that summer.

School program: you won the chance to attend a special assembly that seemed to promote the products of some company or other that might be associated with childhood reading and/or education. Either that or they got an ice cream cone, which my older child couldn’t digest. I can’t remember exactly.

The B&N program: You got a chance to choose a book. This was a pretty cool idea, until we got to the store and discovered the books available for this opportunity were thin, ordinary, school approved, and a bit lame. They were on one little spinning tree that the girls spun around and around for a very long time, hoping the classics or the adventures or the imagination might yet spin magically into sight. Meanwhile, I had to resist the budgetary nightmare of wandering a retail book store in a penniless condition. Perhaps we unwittingly disappointed the intentions of the store managers in their even offering a reading program to begin with. Why offer a program if you’re going to glare at us when we redeem our book list and then leave? Hey, I’m a reader; I need things spelled out, ha ha.

So for us, the downside of summer reading programs was that our efforts made reading into a chore. It turned summer vacation into a list of assignments, teaching our family to jump through more hoops, and finally, it threatened to turn my kids off reading. We did ultimately learn to do this instead, the upside of reading programs: ignore reading programs and do it our way. By the time my oldest was in the higher levels of elementary school we had ditched the summer programs. Let the programs work for those they work for; they did not work for us- we worked for them. With less than ordinary pay offs. I never did get the librarians to understand this; they thought my children were in some terrible danger.


As a side note, I recently noticed that I had the same reaction to the Goodreads reading challenge. I did it a couple years in a row, setting a goal for the number of books I would read that year, and then doing it. But I stopped because it just felt like I was tracking something that really didn’t need to be tracked. Just because we have computers to cook up ten times the statistics we lived with back when people had to use slide rulers, does this really mean we have to? I do confess that I couldn’t help but notice a detail, thanks to Goodreads and their tracking: when I stopped measuring my book count for myself, my reading actually increased considerably. Not that I’m being statistical. Perhaps just droll.

Without these looming little reading programs, we read when and what we wanted, with no counting of pages or titles, and no tracking deadlines. We read out loud because we enjoyed the language of the story, not to push one more chapter into the day. We read to be transported, not to be book mules. We read during the summer because it is a delightful thing to do, not because we wanted to win a chance to win some material thing which we might very well not win at all. Sure, those incentives can help people discover reading. Many of us in this life have done something as an assignment only to discover that we loved it. But how many times have such programs taught a person to dislike the thing that was the supposed end goal? IS there ultimately any end goal when it comes to reading? How many people even react the way we have to such public-minded efforts? I know we did when it came to reading programs.

I’d love to hear from others and their experiences. Do summer programs work for your kids? I don’t just mean the stuff they won; I mean the achievement of a love of reading? Were there other after effects that pleased or dismayed you? Did you do these summer programs when you were a kid? How did they work for you?

God bless libraries. Without the one in our small town I wonder how I would have made it through those years. There were alleyways of bookshelves to prowl. There were music records (including my first audio books, played on an LP!). In this enclosed microvillage under one roof I could look at and even borrow framed artworks. There was a corner for a bookstore, where I flipped through books available for keeps for the donation of a nickel that I could clutch all the harder because they were mine, all mine, both covers and all that magic in between. I would just as easily spend a quarter on a pile of old books as I did on a bag of candy. And back then, a quarter got you a lot.

It’s the day before July today. One kid is off to camp and the other is working on an art project. I just finished a book for my own pleasure. The rain hits hard outside, the air conditioning hums, and pretty much no matter which way I turn my head I can see books. I made ‘camp kid’ pick up all the books she’s been dipping into lately. A pile of books by the chair is just fine unless you won’t even be sitting in that chair for a week. Besides, she always comes home from camp a slightly different person; who knows what she’ll be interested in reading next week? I can say this much: it won’t be an assignment.

Norton’s revisited

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I’ve been getting deeper into the Norton’s I mentioned in my past post. My daughter had already found a book by E. Nesbit in there and was happily reading it. I wandered into the discussion on Little Red Riding Hood.

It was fascinating, reading hundreds of years’ worth of interpretations on this story. But then it got bad. In the middle of an anthology on children’s lit I found a story, or excerpt, about a young woman dealing with a Jerry Springer kind of dysfunctional family. The story passage was loaded with nasty landmines: f-bombs, references to sexual assault of the child protagonist, and a clinging attitude of random and directed rage. Sure, rage goes with rape. But neither goes with kid’s lit. What is wrong with people?

I often make the comparison between nutrition and reading. I’m not the inflexible strident advocate of broccoli and nutritional yeast and nothing else. That really is a stereotype that serves only the wicked, anyway. I think good food and yummy food are great. I also know that sometimes medicinal teas taste lousy but work miniature miracles. I like potato chips and the occasional ho-ho treat. In books, I expect a certain standard, which means I usually end up reading the classics. I also like some graphic novels, and I like funny short stories like “You’re on Next Sunday” by John B. Keane, wherein two drunks play rugby with the ghosts of a graveyard and get away with cheating. This is a worthwhile comparison. Food for the belly, food for the soul.

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In our school curriculum, the kids like to keep a running tab of sorts comparing how many ways recycling gets worked into each and every course. It’s in Science class, it’s in Health class, it’s in Math and Language Arts and Social Studies and Educational Technology (computer) class. It was seriously discussed during speech therapy.

How often does honesty get discussed? The honor code is vaguely referred to once or twice a year in official statements. Other than that, honesty is not a theme or general characteristic of reading assignments. It is not mentioned as an attribute of health, in scientific readings, or studies of history. It just isn’t considered a pressing issue like recycling. And while cheating has become more of a problem, I can’t help but wonder if this is a very probable situation: that more cheaters recycle than recyclers cheat.

The nasty violence of our world is an adult issue. It is perpetrated against children- but only by criminally minded sociopaths and psychopaths. It’s our job to protect kids from this, and when some poor children have been subjected to such evils in real life, we help them recover from it and during whatever long term process that is, their goal should be to become the best person they can be. And I will even go so far as to say that reading about such evils may help a suffering child work through their own trauma. But it may just as well add to their trauma. For the child that has not experienced such things, it serves no one to hurt their spirits and minds with ideas of rape and hatred of children. Unless we are grooming them. Whether a victim of sex trafficking or a child of wholesome safe families, both deserve to work through their troubles and build upwards, build better, imagine better, grow healthier, and not linger over the evil in their lives. Every one of us can ask for better than that, we can reach for it, plan for it, and accomplish some form of better in our lives. The after effects of evil may still be with us, but that is not the focus of our lives. We are meant to be good, to choose good, and to do good.

The irony in the Norton’s? In an earlier section (“New Canadian Readers, pg. 139) the editors refer to previous editors of readers who chose readings that would interest children, which will “lead to a love of literature”. But then the Norton’s editor states this: “Today’s first reading books never mention “love of literature” in their prefaces.” Perhaps this is not academic after all. Perhaps Norton’s is a witness and testament of the abuse we heap upon our children, stripping them of childhood, innocence, love, wonder, and joy. May God have mercy on us.

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One last note: we have lost heroes in favor of protagonists, and many times in favor of antagonists and bad guys. We have lost interest in Good insofar as it is depicted as Boring. We have cultured a taste in Evil the way a criminal predator will groom his victims, proceeding from justifying talk about illicit unhealthy acts to showing it in words and pictures with the end goal being acts of evil, the consumption of the victim, the continuation of addiction and crime and damage for and to the perpetrator. This is not civilization, this is barely a society. It is wallowing in the muck and mocking those who will point it out as the filth it is. Let us be greater than this- greater than the sum of our parts, greater as in nobler, with dignity, true happiness, and a deep seated joy of life. That takes great effort of a very different sort. But is in entirely possible, it is never too late, and it reaps us rewards we cannot begin to imagine.

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Vive Le Norton’s Anthologies

First, let’s talk about libraries. My family went to the library recently and I discovered two things:
1- Books that showed on the library website as not available at the library were actually *right there* on the shelf, in front of me. I got two books from my list checked out that way.
2- I have revolving library strategies: first, look through the list I brought to the library. Find some of those to check out, if I can. Second, stroll about, wander, browse, and strum a few fingers over the spines to slow me down. My gaze landed on a series of books I hadn’t known were there: books about books, books about authors, and books about story telling. That was where I discovered the Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English.
Norton is to anthologies as Asian is to elephant. These books are big, thick, wide, and full of memory. This is a 2005 edition, and since I have a couple Nortons at home, I was pretty interested in this one. In fact, since it was about children’s lit, I think I’m more interested in this one than in, say, The Norton Guide to Literature or The Norton Anthology of English Literature. This particular one has some great chapters in it. There’s a chapter on alphabet books through history, a chapter on primers, and even a chapter on comics, which surprised me.

Something else surprised me: a fair amount of opinion. I find it a relief to read a human opinion, particularly ones I tend to agree with. So many books (or other information sources like the media, etc.) have grand delusions of objectivity, which they absolutely fail at. Instead, they call what they write objective, and then react strongly to someone else who simply responds to the opinion held within their writing. And yes, there is a lot out there to have opinions about. And a lot out there where opinions don’t carry much weight. Anyway, here is a quote from Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature: the translations in English. Page 85, at the bottom, has these sentences:

“Today as demands for accountability dominate discussions of education and standardized testing is advocated at every level, the factory models of the early nineteenth century appear to be returning and are threatening to circumscribe our understanding of literacy. Literacy is again being defined narrowly as a skill rather than more complexly as the ability to gain access to a long literary tradition and to engage with a text’s interpretive possibilities.”

Below that I read an interesting passage that taught me about an incident I had not been aware of before. In 2003 a group of ninety British authors signed a petition protesting rampant state testing and stating “children’s understanding, empathy, imagination and creativity are developed best by reading whole books, not by doing comprehensive exercises and short excerpts and not by ticking boxes or giving one- word answers.”

Our public school is a CEO-run cyber school. It has a business model and runs on contract with the state. We want business models, because business models often work very well. A Business can make money and succeed in society. But education is neither just a business model nor a government program. If it must be one of those, I would choose the first, because then, as a consumer, I at least have some chance of being heard where the voice of the people in government is so much more sadly lacking. But business models don’t always work when we are growing children. We are not, I must emphasize, not building children. We raise them, like cows. We grow them, like fetal cells that become walking talking human beings. We train them like puppies and we interact with them like the each other that we are. A certain amount of testing and accountability is necessary. Measuring has its uses. But beyond that, we have an entire world at our disposal of personalities, interests, strengths, and weaknesses. The Norton in question discusses how one can not talk about children’s literacy without discussing education, and this is often true. Our educational system determines much of the perception of how children learn, what will be taught them on a daily basis, and how they may end up perceiving the world around them, including books and the worlds therein. Our educational system is not doing this well. Neither is some of our publishing business world, either. In some areas of these massive organizations, reading is a skill to measure by word number, word length, basic reading comprehension, and so on. This requires experts who research children and draw up generalities that can then be pressed onto the individual child like a cookie dough cutter. The same happens to many books: they require set lists of vocabulary words be used rather than creative story telling of a rich and natural sort. Storytelling as a formula, only more processed, like Velveeta world building. You may even be able to microwave it. Creativity tends to be the first casualty in this model, and then children are the next. If I look back at the quote from the petition of those British authors, I see words like ‘empathy’, ‘imagination’, and ‘creativity’. These are far too human to fit in a processing plant of human conditioning. When stories are no more than training for a person to follow instructions, then we have lost access to essential aspects of being human. This is not done by accident. No expert who recognizes these things will say, “Oh, I wasn’t aware that every society that has done this in history did it to the detriment of the humans involved”. Or “They must have oppressed the human spirit by mistake”.

Unless we have no spirit. Would that make it ok to lose our heart?

I kept out of our house those books that tended to instruct children on how to prepare to follow instructions. It was a weird pattern I became aware of as I accepted books from friends, joined book clubs, or went to the library. Some books didn’t just use simple words because they were written for very young children learning their words; they used simplistic vocabulary and stories to dampen down the questioning young mind. Questions are part of what drives the human mind. Books and education can stimulate that questioning, or repress it. Our current society does a lot of suppressing these days in language and thought. Well, it encourages harsh language of one kind while oppressing honest opinions or questions of another kind. I mean, while we have become anxiously aware of how we refer to various other people or we worry about offensively expressing our deepest beliefs, we have also become a coarser nation using the worst swear words in more commonly traveled social circles than ever. In books, definitely. And more often in children’s lit than ever before.

Perhaps the business model is part of the problem. Our cyber school was bought by Pearson, a textbook publishing group. Yes, our school is now run by the corporation that prints our textbooks. That’s like pharmacies buying hospitals. It isn’t wrong for a company to buy another company, but it may be wrong for a company to buy certain other companies. No system is perfect, of course, but some things just seem like a really bad idea. I’ve been watching the beginning of the effects following this acquisition, and there has been one surprise, so far, at least. The lit books have actually gotten better. I’m waiting to see how this plays out in 10th and 11th grades, which in the past had particularly horrendous literature for fresh young minds to digest. I’ve got my eye on you, Pearson.

So in my ramble I’ve mentioned coarse society, literature texts, and suspicion of government and business together. And libraries. I can hope, can’t I, that the libraries will continue to serve the general populace? Banned Books Week aside, libraries tend to be about truth, not just information. Even if as a school assignment one has to go mine information at the library, the truth remains there for us to stumble upon, in the stacks, online, in conversation, in personal thought, in a fairy tale. This Norton’s is over 2,400 pages long. It is nearly an entire library unto itself. Can’t wait to step in and strum my fingers through the pages, pausing at a picture here, reading a story there. It gives me lots to think about.

Back in Action

Sometimes storytelling gets dissed. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I hear it in their tone when some people mention fiction, or books, or the most basic insult, stories. Maybe this is because a while ago some housewife couldn’t admit that she listened to soap operas on the radio and so called them her ‘stories’. Maybe it happened when some hard nose declared that fiction was of the devil and non-fiction was naturally morally upright. But storytelling has taken it on the nose. It ends up being relegated to the low status of children’s literature, or it is even considered downright lies because many stories, as true as they are, are also fiction. But storytelling is one of the oldest crafts available to Mankind. I’m not even sure what is supposed to be better than telling a story. Non- fiction, when told well, tells us a story. So what is it? Statistical bar graphs? Political editorials? Nutrition labels?
We depend on it daily for our spiritual sustenance. For instance, Genesis starts this way: “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth”. Is there any more glorious story than that?
If the idea of storytelling still does not appear a respectable enough art, then pardon me while I throw a spiritual brick through the window of this misconception (of which I may have to repent for, later) by informing you that there is another Genesis in the scriptures. I call it, in my little mind, the other Genesis… in the scriptures. It is in John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.
No, it does not begin with “In the beginning was the math” or “In the beginning was the law of supply and demand”. Yes, it may be prideful for me to point this out. Perhaps the thought that writers often wield their fallible, mortal creativity in supreme terror of how it will sound in public will serve as a sort of check and balance to my prideful rant.
Stories are rich verbal banquets that feed our minds. It is time to get storied. After all, that is what winter is for. Now that I am back to my neglected blog, I have to feed it rich verbal manna in the hopes that it can recover and grow strong. Comments from my lost little group of intrepid readers will go a long way in sustaining this run down little place. It needs some paint, but the heart is already there.

Story telling

I have been missing in action from my own blog because while I enjoy it, I really must have a certain amount of energy to enjoy it. Life has a way of challenging a person, especially a mom, and between the holidays and the needs of teens (WHY do people think that teens are somehow ‘done’ by the age of 15? Like consumable baked goods??), I have been a very tired blogger. So here is my chance.

One of the things that gets my attention is book reviews. I loved reading them in the newspaper, when we used to get a newspaper. I love them on Goodreads. I love them elsewhere, like that other behemoth that recently bought Goodreads. Recently I’ve observed what I consider a total misunderstanding of the idea that a writer should ‘show, not tell’. We hear this from 5th grade on through adult life. It really is a good method of writing. But sometimes, telling a story has its own merits as just that: a spinning out of a yarn, a flowing monologue of memory, a passing of oral heritage from one person to another. Just telling the story can be a fine and blessed experience.

In the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” this is exactly what happens. An old woman relates stories from her youth to the woman who visits her. Meanwhile, the second woman goes on with her own life in between visits and what develops is what is called a story within a story. This is one of my favorite ways of story telling. This is seen in a children’s book I recently read: “An Elephant in the Garden” by Michael Morpurgo. It’s very similar in that an elderly woman in a care home tells a boy and his mother her amazing experiences as a teen during the bombing of Dresden in WWII. There are two stories going on, although the story of the ‘here and now’ is not as heavily developed as the story of her memories. I enjoyed the story and my daughter and I enjoy discussing it. Next time it comes up, I’ll have to tell her that some reviewers gave the book bad vibes over this element. Reviewers had no patience, it seems, for the most original form of narrative- that of simply telling a story. I found it rich, compassionate, lively, and timeless. Of course, many people saw this in the same way I did. But I wondered about this demand for rules I thought I was seeing. Sure, we’re supposed to ‘show, not tell’. But we also have to fill the need for the way each story speaks to us. Rules exist for many reasons, and one of those is so that we can break them!

I have started reading Wendell Berry’s novel “Hannah Coulter“. I’ve read several of his non fiction essay books. This is my first try at his fiction. I peeked at some of the reviews online, and there it was again: a bit of a lecture that Berry needs to follow the mantra to ‘show, don’t tell’. What is this? Public school? Have our minds contracted this far?

The book is glorious. It is rich, gentle, and its tells its story. It feels as if I were sitting on an old lady’s porch watching the summer day drift by as she rolled word after word, sentence after sentence, off her tongue. It has been a beginning of what I hope will continue to be a wonderful reading experience.  A book like this shows that you really can tell.

Now back to baking Christmas cookies and trying a no-yeast bread stick recipe. Glorious Christmas wishes and more to all my readers!