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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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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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Socrates: A Sophist?

October 26, 2018

Thanks to James Keller, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

With his head in the clouds, Socrates, as portrayed by Aristophanes, is a figure of mockery. Not only that—he is a sophist. One who comes to The Clouds only after reading the Platonic dialogues may be startled at this discovery. He may ask, Are we even talking about the same person? That Aristophanes considers Socrates to be a sophist is most shocking. Certainly, public figures are often subjected to mockery, and though Socrates has been a celebrated thinker after his death, he was not so celebrated in life. But that he should be considered a sophist? Unthinkable. It is almost inconceivable that Plato, who in The Sophist considers the sophist to be something of an anti-philosopher, should have studied with and revered a sophist. Moreover, the Socrates that appears in Plato’s dialogues is pitted against the sophists, particularly in Protagoras, Euthydemus, and Gorgias. How is it, then, that Aristophanes could think that Socrates was himself just another sophist? Yet, Aristophanes’ perception may not be inexplicable when one notes the similarities between Socrates and the sophists as they appear in Plato’s dialogues.

The Socrates of Plato’s dialogues is most renowned for his method of inquiry, Socratic questioning. In order to test the wisdom of certain figures and in order to clarify his own ideas, Socrates asked his interlocutors a series of questions, a particular form of dialectic. Despite its name, however, it is quite likely that this was not his invention. Plato gives no indication that this form of questioning was unique to Socrates even though other characters express exasperation at his questioning. Indeed, characters other than Socrates use the same method or one quite similar. In Euthydemus, the sophist brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus also employ questions as part of the dialectic process, a practice that appears natural to them. And, in one of the later dialogues, a young Socrates does not ask the questions but receives those given by Parmenides, after whom the dialogue is named. This suggests that what is called Socratic questioning actually precedes him and was a tool of sophists. To an outsider, contemporaneous with Socrates, it might then appear that Socrates’ disputes with the sophists was not a repudiation of sophistry but an inter-sophistical dispute.

Nor might his method be the only perceived similarity between Socrates and the sophists. In Plato’s portrayal of the sophists, the sophists crave acclaim. Applause punctuates their arguments and speeches in Euthydemus and Protagoras. They love an audience and they love playing to an audience. Socrates can be contrasted to them in that he does not seek the approval of an audience, not in Plato’s version of him anyway. Nevertheless, he does gather an audience. Various characters do root him on in the dialogues. And in The Apology, Socrates mentions that young men like to follow him around for the sake of being amused. As he roams through Athens challenging various authorities to prove that they actually do possess the wisdom they profess, he proves them to be lacking. This act of revealing authorities to be fools—or, if not fools, pretenders to expertise that they do not in actuality possess—is unsurprisingly found to be entertaining by some. To an outsider, it might look like Socrates was trying to make a name for himself, just like a sophist might.

The source of this amusement was different, but even that might look the same to an outsider, especially one who only knew Socrates by reputation. Euthydemus and his brother also make fools of others, but that is because they build absurd arguments that make their interlocutor appear to have said something foolish. It is as if they tricked him. They treat argument as a sport, playing word games to prove such absurdities as that a man’s dog is his father. They are facetious and mocking, and they leave their interlocutors frustrated and sputtering, fearing to answer lest that answer be twisted and used against them. Socrates may have shared a similar reputation, as he also left his interlocutors speechless. In Meno he describes himself as a torpedo fish that leaves others stunned. But an important difference separates him from Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. He is not playing word games; he is looking for clarity. He asks people to define terms that they take for granted, and to their great consternation, they often discover that they cannot. A well-known example of this appears in Euthyphro where Socrates leads the eponymous priest to the realization that he cannot properly define piety. After discussing the question for some time with Socrates, the priest hurries away, uncomfortable with the conversation. But never did Socrates play a linguistic trick upon Euthyphro. Never did he seize on an ambiguity in language to make a fool of the priest, turning the conversation to mere jokes.

Many of Plato’s Socratic dialogues end unresolved, which speaks to another difference between Socrates and the sophists. As represented by Plato, the sophist teaches others how to win arguments, unconcerned with whether the argument is correct or not. (See, for example, Gorgias.) Whatever the point is to be argued, the sophist will be able to prove its truth. But Socrates’ goal is not to win an argument. He desires to find the truth. The sophist asks leading questions in order to get an admission from his interlocutor. Socrates uses questions to better understand the arguments of others, to challenge them—yes—but not necessarily to overthrow them. It is the truth he is after, not victory. Argument is not a contest to him, but a means for inquiry. So, at the end of a dialogue, Plato does not show Socrates on the field of verbal battle having won the day and turned back all comers. Socrates is much more likely at the end of a dialogue to announce that, though no answer has been discovered to the question being discussed, still he and the interlocutor must not stop seeking after the truth.

To an outsider, perhaps it would appear that Socrates was just another sophist, asking endless questions to make fools of others, seeking fame, and winning an argument at all costs. Perhaps, he even started out that way, first learning with sophists and only later going his own way. But the similarities between Socrates and the sophists is ultimately superficial. Socrates, at least as portrayed by Plato, was not concerned with winning arguments at all costs. He would have seen that as a truly pyrrhic victory. He used the same methods as the sophists to achieve a different end: truth. In this way, Socratic questioning is properly named after him, because he used it for shared inquiry, not to lead others into verbal traps. If Plato’s portrayal of Socrates was closer to the truth, it is a tragedy that the comedian Aristophanes did not see it.

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I Speak Because I Can't

September 7, 2018

Thanks to Ben Peterson, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Once upon two years ago, I met a gentleman who was raised selling illegal whiskey in the dry counties of Arkansas. I asked this man umpteen thousand questions, and he seemed genuinely pleased to answer them for his umpteen-thousandth audience. His recollections—of shootouts and stings and hideaway stills—were electrifying. As an adult, he’d made an honest career as the owner of an auto shop in Orange County, but he had also dabbled in the creative arts since leaving behind his ‘shining youth. When I leafed through a 350-page memoir of those danger-quenched days, my heart sagged. I found this account, after the oral regalia I had been treated to over calamari and vodka, comparatively sleepy. Of course, the narrative was the same: only the narration was different.

At every bookstore there’s a table dedicated to books like this: inexpensively printed paperbacks wherein first-time authors unfurl their triumphs in business or give the nail-biting blow-by-blow of an experience of miraculous survival. Some of these books sell a zillion copies and get movie deals and become megapopular Oscarbait. Others scratch in a couple thousand, and then stagnate within a certain radius of personal acquaintanceship with the author. These might be the last pages the author ever writes; if so, it’s probably because the author is not a “writer.” They were not spurred to the pen by an ineluctable need to express themselves with its black blood, but by a more basic desire to share with others the passages from their life that appear to be the most interesting.

Unless YouTube suddenly becomes pay-per-view, I suppose books are still the most feasible commercial medium for autobiography. They are the traditional medium, anyway, and most people looking to cash in on their best dinner party stories are not also looking to spark a stylistic revolution. This leads to a lot of books written by people who don’t know how to write. (Professional writers don’t necessarily “know” how to write either—there is no one way to do writing correctly. But career writers seem by some admixture of luck and labor to stumble on a so-called “artistic” style, or at least an above-average ability to make stories readable.) At worst, these tenderfoots aspire clumsily to an imaginary muster they believe all writing is supposed to pass. They think too much about the peculiar shape of writing. At best, they eschew any unlikeness between writing and talking, and transcribe the same words they might use aloud when telling their tale between mouthfuls of calamari. They hardly think about what’s peculiar to writing at all. Rarely does a singular literary “voice” emerge from a first-timer; most of the books on the memoir table read as if they were ghostwritten by a single, unstoppable eighth-grader.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, artistic success is equated with scholarly laud. The artists who achieve it are typically exemplars of the singular voice. They revel in the particular, the symbolic, the idiosyncratic. They are allegorists and poets. They can be found on many a “Best What-Have-You” list, but might not be widely identified with their actual work. They are recognized for their recognition. Elsewhere, success is defined by consistent efforts that are consumed and enjoyed by large numbers of people. (“Regular employment” is another definition of success in the creative dimension, but it may be synonymous with this one.) These artists are entertainers. They revel in the relatable and the emotional. They care about their audience sometimes with a saintly intensity. They might not be widely recognized at all, but their work certainly is. Obviously, there is tremendous crossover between these two camps, but it is fortunate when that eighth-grader madly typing all of our biographies leans more toward obsession with the story than toward the details of delivery.

The reformed moonshiner I met was at the time making his second sally into the written word. He hoped to refashion his memoir into a screenplay, which he figured would make a snappier sell to production companies than the unadapted book. If prose had been unfamiliar territory, scriptwriting was the surface of Neptune. (Professional screenwriters do know how to write: there is a correct, saleable way to write an industry-grade script. Paradoxically, virtually every script written exactly in this mold is terrible and never gets produced.) For guidance he had lately been “attending” the online MasterClass in screenwriting helmed by Aaron Sorkin. He complained at length about Professor Sorkin’s fumbling diction and awkward performance at the virtual lectern. I smiled: the idea of today’s Ben Hecht being anything but the most sure-footed of orators struck me as unexpected and funny. After all, this is a guy known foremost for his ability to speak well.

Except, that isn’t what Aaron Sorkin does. Aaron Sorkin makes other people speak well. He cannot be less intelligent than his famously gabby mental offspring, but that doesn’t necessarily make him as quick or as cogent. It’s Allison Janney’s job to make it look easy. Maybe to the writer the words don’t come so easily. Maybe they instead come through a long, careful, painstaking distillation of cerebral fluid. Isn’t writing a stone-squeezing sort of vocation? What is the point of cultivating a distinctive textual timbre and time signature if not to be able to conduct a communicative tunefulness that eludes one’s internal wind section? Joan Didion described herself as “neurotically inarticulate,” yet she’s produced some of the most praised language of at least five separate decades. This effort required a remove—a private buffer during the transubstantiation of thoughts out of the cognitive ether. (In my case, this means enough time to remember smart words.) Such a concession is seldom granted in face-to-face, real-time rapport, which affects the shy like quicksand. When words fail, you start to feel misunderstood, and to be misunderstood is to sink into disconnection from your fellow human beings. A unique voice, in another medium, well-whipped and surely braided, can be the rope to pull yourself free.

These thoughts began to congeal after I watched the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The story is culled from Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling “failed experiment” in Gonzo journalism, a Frankenstein style of reportage that pursues the Truth (big T) through a self-aware refraction of events. The reporter steps into things and allows the mud on their boots to become part of the story. Thompson is the protagonist in this fact-tinged travelogue, playing the dual roles of boy-who-cried and wolf: he raises alarm over the meth-addled mange of Western society, and he does it by wearing that decay, almost proudly, on his own hide. Of course, he lathers on a lot of makeup and fiction (and, I hope, embellishes the amount of drugs involved).

The movie version has its fun visualizing this haywire carnival cruise, but loses some ineffable element that holds the book together. After the film I snooped through some of the DVD special features. A couple of these comprise Thompson riding around Vegas during production and grumbling like an ox on a motorcycle. I recognized that husky, clipped voice: for the last two hours I’d heard Johnny Depp mimic it precisely. I realized suddenly that his performance had been based on Thompson himself. Not the figurative Hunter S. who appears in the pill-popping Iliad, but the literal Hunter S. who merely inspired it (and wrote it).

Philosophically—in the name of gonzo science—this makes sense. Peeling away some of the disguise makes the underlying tension between fact and fancy all the more aggravating. But, aesthetically (which I guess means it’s a matter of taste) it just doesn’t feel right. The book’s narration has a perverse clarity that becomes garbled by Thompson’s intonation, which sounds like a sewing machine firing into a pillow. Depp lived in Dr. T’s basement for four months to absorb his mannerisms, and before this they were garrulous pen pals. One’d think this would give Depp a clement appreciation of the variables between written and spoken Thompsonese. Maybe it did. But when camera came to action, he opted to mix the dialects all up together, and that decision throws a monkey wrench in the gears of Fear. In trying to be faithful to his friend the good doctor, to teleport him intact into a story where he has already, in his own way, inserted himself, Depp denudes Thompson of the very trait that ever gave the story life: his real voice.

Now take someone like Chuck Wirschem, who wrote a book called HitchHiking 45,000 Miles to Alaska. His writing is casual and familiar, unaffected with obtuse adjectives and mindfully uncoiling syntax. It’s conversational, if not especially memorable. Excusing some extra tightness in the grammatical discipline, Wirschem’s style of writing probably does not fall far from his style of speaking, because he probably never pushed his writing to any extraordinary lengths, because he’s probably able to make himself understood with the first or second phrasing that he puts together. For other writers, there are astronomical units between their vocal loadouts. When one tongue is brought in to do the work of the other, things can bottleneck, and become a barrier to one’s ideas. Microsoft Word is then a necessary detour. But it can also be the scenic route, where even on the dourest, dampest, drizzliest of days, you might chance upon something beautiful, something one of a kind.

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