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BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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Book Review:  The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner by Ezra Taft Benson

April 12, 2019

Thanks to Ned Boulberhane, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Someone once asked me why I read books from writers whom I don’t seem to like very much. The response was simple. If one only finds ideas that they agree with on a whole-hearted level, they will end up only seeing what they want to see. Sometimes it is good to be challenged, even if it is not always in our comfort zone. That is what brings us to the discussion of The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner.

Ezra Taft Benson served as the Secretary of Agriculture under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but perhaps his legacy is more rooted in his work as President of the Mormon Church (Dew 1987). In this work, which was an oral presentation transcribed into book-form, Benson attempts to make the case that the United States Constitution is a document that is the epitome of human freedom, as well as also having divine origins. Perhaps there is something poetic about how Benson introduces the subject, saying that sharing ideas through freedom is the work of God, and using coercion to force ideas onto people is the work of Satan (Benson 1986), yet that stands as only a poetic statement. Perhaps, what is more fascinating is when Benson discusses the relationship among freedom, governments, and the citizens of a nation. There is a bold statement that the people are superior to the government (of the United States).

To retort, in the United States, the government is not comprised of monarchs or theocrats, it consists of representatives of the people. Every member of the United States government is also a citizen or resident of the country. In short, the people are not superior to the government of the U.S.A. They are the government. As the monologue-style presentation continues, Benson states that the Constitution is a Heavenly Banner, for the Lord has approved the Constitution, and it is a document that emboldens freedom, which is the way of God. However, this fails to identify Article VI of the United States Constitution, which states that no one must pass a religious test to hold public office (Story 1874), not to mention a Bill of Rights, which also includes freedom of religion.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made regarding the meaning of these words. Freedom of religion applies not only to those who follow the pathways that Ezra Taft Benson is describing. It also applies to any other spiritual practice that is law-abiding and even to those who choose to refrain from spiritual or religious practices altogether (Cooley 1871). Therefore, to say that the Lord approved the Constitution is a statement that can stand as only a metaphor or figurative piece. It is the same Article VI and First Amendment that allow someone such as Ezra Taft Benson to hold the position of Secretary of Agriculture, for there are those who question whether or not members of the Mormon Church should be members of the government at all. Moreover, these are not relics of the Eisenhower administration. The same challenges were put forth during the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman in 2011 (Tarpley 2012), and once again the First Amendment and Article VI triumphed over all.

Not to provide a complete sense of disagreement, Benson makes a compelling case for small government, arguing that the United States limits government functions to avoid tyranny. This is an interpretation that holds a lot of supporters, for whether it is checks and balances or even allowing people to believe and practice the spirituality of their choosing (or lack thereof) they are protected. The government cannot force a spiritual belief system on the citizens. Benson’s argument expands into a rather unique stance at this point, where he makes the claim that we cannot expect a higher level of morality from our elected officials.

While Benson makes some strong claims about the origins of the Constitution and who approved of it, there is some agreement here, for if our politicians are not monarchs or theocrats, we must recognize them as ordinary human beings and citizens. A person is a person. Therefore, we must approach our elected leaders as representatives of the people, but also use the laws of the land to monitor the actions of our elected few, so our nation does not turn into a domain dominated by tyrants. Sometimes we turn to writers and thinkers that we expect to disagree with, and we find that there are times when we have found the unexpected point of agreement. The world is wide.

References

Benson, Ezra Taft. The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner. Deseret Book, 1986.

Cooley, Thomas. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. Lawbook Exchange. Ltd., 1874.

Dew, Sheri L. Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography. Deseret Book, 1987

Story, Joseph. A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States of America. Gateway Editions, 1874.

Tarpley, Webster. Just Too Weird: Bishop Romney and the Mormon Takeover of America. Progressive Press, 2012.

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The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” www.newyorker.com 15 August 2012. Web.