My goal for the year was 30 books, and I finished with 29 . . . darn you Brothers Karamazov!!!

Top Five Favorite of the Year:

5.  Magician's Elephant (read this with the kids . . . brilliant!)

4.  Teacher Man

3.  Originals

2.  Half of a Yellow Sun

1.  Silence

 

Humilitas, by John Dickson

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One of the greatest books of the year, and perhaps a new end-of-the-year traditional read. . . man it's good.

Thesis: The most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility (pg 19).

One of the failings of contemporary Western culture is to confuse conviction with arrogance” and that the solution to ideological discord is not “tolerance” “but an ability to profoundly disagree with others and deeply honor them at the same time” (pg 22-23)

Humilitas is “the noble choice to redirect your power in service of another . . . to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself (pg 24) . . . it is impossible to be humble in the real sense without a healthy sense of our own worth and abilities . . . {it} is more about how I treat others than how I think about myself (pg 25).

The power of a military commander, {teachers} CEO or university president are all conferred. They are granted to the leader by the organization. They are therefore extrinsic privileges and should be views as such. In other words, unlike “ability” and “persuasion” and “example”, authority does not belong to the leader” (pg 39).  It is gained by winning people over.

All of us tend to believe the views of people we already trust . . . even a brilliantly argued case from someone we dislike or whose motives we think dubious will fail to carry the same force as the case put forward by someone we regard as transparently good and trustworthy (pg 41, 42).

Leadership is not about popularity. It is about gaining people’s trust and moving them forward (pg 43).

And excerpt from the Hibbert Journal, 1918, Persons in power should be very careful how they deal with a man who cares nothing for sensual pleasure, nothing for riches, nothing for comfort or praise, or promotion, but is simply determined to do what he believes to be right. He is a dangerous and uncomfortable enemy, because his body which you can always conquer give you so little purchase upon his soul (pg 44).

We can all stand in awe of the amazing fact that we find ourselves living in a universe that only operates according to elegant “laws,” but has somehow, through those laws, produced a world of sentient being who can now comprehend those laws (pg 64).

If I have seen further, it is because I am standing on the shoulders of Giants” (pg 79).

Life is like “a boy playing on the seashore, searching for interesting shells and pebbles, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me” (pg 79).

People who imagine that they know most of what is important to know are hermetically sealed from learning new things and receiving constructive criticism” (pg 116) . . . self-reliance, which {C.K. Chesterton} believed was sapping the energy out of religion, the arts and life itself. Chesterton argued that human pride is in fact the engine of mediocrity. It fools us into believing that we have “arrived”, that we are complete, that there is little else to learn. (pg 120).

Opening yourself up to the vulnerability of being wrong, receiving correction, and asking others how they think you could do better . . . is where we develop (pg 123).

Achievement is such a fragile basis for self-esteem . . . the more you rely on achievement for a sense of worth, the more crushing every small failure will seem . . . knowing that we are loved and valued by those we love and value is the predictor of a healthy sense of self-worth. . . . relationships are where security is really found (pg 127).

Mistakes of execution are rarely as damaging to an organization, whether corporate, ecclesiastical or academic, as a refusal to concede mistakes, apologize to those affected and redress the issue with generosity and haste (pg 130).

An excerpt from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People – Humility truly is the mother of all virtues. It makes us a vessel, a vehicle, an agent instead of “the source” or the principal. It unleashes all other learning, all growth and process. With the humility that comes from being principle-centered, we’re empowered to learn from the past, have hope for the future, and act with confidence in the present (pg 131).

We are not just intellectual beings; we are also emotional and social beings, and these factors must be understood in the art of {teaching} . . . pathos is a speaker’s ability to move his audience with humor or tragedy or simple rhetoric craft . . . {and} we tend to believe people we like and trust (pg 138,139).

It’s a special kind of person who has so much to give and yet prefers to find out about others” (pg 144).

When people trust us, they tend to believe what we say, and few are considered more trustworthy than those who choose to use their power for the good of others above themselves” (pg 147).

The inspiring {teacher} must control his ego and throw his energy into “maximizing other people’s potential” and “ensuring that they get the credit” (pg 156).

From C.K. Chesterton, “An open mind is like an open mouth: its purpose is to bite on something nourishing. Otherwise, it becomes like a sewer, accepting everything, rejecting nothing” (pg 170).

RESOURCES:

-       I Told Me So, by Gregg Elshof

-       A History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

-       Great Speeches in History by William Safire

Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt

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Every once in a rare while I'll come across a book that not only speaks to my heart, it pulls at my fingertips and aligns with my heart so acutely, I swear, at some point in life, I would have written that exact story.

Teacher Man was that book.

For that past few weeks, I've been working on writing a teaching sort of book. The title so far is, "Teaching, Learning, and all that Human Being Stuff." I read this book as a sort of, get to know the lay of the land, sort of research. And now, I can't decide if I'm inspired or caged, because so much of what I've been writing and outlining is expressed in this book.

And man is it good. 

Here are a few favorite quotes and possible ideas/resourced I'd like to pursue a bit further:

The professor of education at New York University said, “first impressions are crucial. He said, The way you meet and greet your first class might determine the course of your whole career” (pg 39). This is actually a chapter I've been working on the past two weeks - how this concept seems to be taught and affirmed in many universities and lectures around the world, and how it simply isn't true. Just another educational scare tactic that serves an unclear purpose.

Look into: War poems: Siegfried Sassoon, “Does it matter” and Wilfred Owen’s, “Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Possibly use myself: An excuse note from Adam to God or An excuse not from Eve to God

“There’s no respect for teachers who send you to the office or call parents. If you can’t handle it yourself you shouldn’t even be a teacher. You should get a job sweeping the streets or picking up the garbage” (pg 92). This one too is on my outline of topics to discuss . . . damn you McCourt!

“How are you supposed to discuss the conclusion of The Scarlet Letter, the happy end for Hester and Pearl, with Louise sitting a few rows back, her heart broke, Sal staring straight ahead ready to murder the first Irishman to cross his path? (pg 94).

You Don't Have to Say you Love Me: A Memoir, by Sherman Alexie

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Sit with me, please. Let’s talk. Please. Linger.

Let’s touch and eat everything that we touch.

Let us stay through breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s become each other’s favorite sinner.

- Excerpt from the poem Hunger Games (pg 320)

I've always enjoy Sherman Alexie and so wasn't all that surprised to find that I loved this one as well. The rawness, the intimacy, and the truths of hardships with parents and loved ones was about as authentic as I've read, ever, and I couldn't help but hear my own heart through his words.

But what I loved most, perhaps, was the way Sherman Alexie brought me on his journey of frustration, even hatred at times, but how, through it all, he found that his mother also did the best she could.

She was fully flawed, but she was also so much more. And I found that very convicting, as well as encouraging.

One of my favorite reads of the year.

If it’s fiction, then it better be true.

Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness

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Book three of the Chaos Walking trilogy, this book was . . . pretty good. I think I wanted to like them more than they I did, but they were worth the read, I think. 

Here's a brief summary of them all:

"The three novels feature two adolescents, Todd Hewitt and Viola Eade, who encounter various moral issues and high stakes as the planet around them erupts into war. The Knife of Never Letting Go(2008) begins with Todd being forced to flee his town after discovering a patch of silence, free of Noise. In the second book, The Ask and the Answer (2009), tensions rise as a civil war between two opposing factions forms, and in the final book, Monsters of Men (2010) the indigenous species of New World rebels against the humans just as a ship full of new settlers is set to arrive on the planet. The series has won almost every major children's fiction award in the UK, including the 2008 Guardian award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and the Costa Children's Book Award. Monsters of Men won the Carnegie Medal in 2011. The series has been praised for its handling of themes such as gender politics, redemption, the meaning of war, and the unclear distinction between good and evil, all threaded through its complex, fast-paced narrative" (via).

House on Mango Street : Sandra Cisneros

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Just might be one of the sweetest books I've ever read.

"But my mother's hair, my mother's hair like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincers all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama's hair that smells like bread." 

Just beautiful

The Art of Learning : Josh Waitzkin

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"Times at sea are periods of renewal, coming together with family, being with nature, putting things back in perspective" (pg 18). 

"So a kid aces a math test, comes home, and hears, "Wow that's my boy! As smart as they come!" Then, next week Johnny fails an English test and hears, "Your Mommy never liked reading either - obviously, it's not your thing." The boy suddenly links success and failure to ingrained ability" (pg 32). 

"So you guide the horse toward doing what you want to do because he wants to do it. You synchronize desires, speak the same language. You don't break the horse's spirit" (pg 87). 

"Investment in loss is giving yourself to the learning process" (pg 107).

"{they} were unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When Chen made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked up by the need to be correct" (pg 108).

"Intuition is our most valuable compass in the world" (pg 137). 

"In life's mundane moments, even the most cunning chess psychologists can reveal certain essential nuances of character. If, over dinner, a Grandmaster tastes something bitter and faintly wrinkles his nose, there might be an inkling of a tell lurking. Impatience while standing in line at the buffet might betray a problem sitting with tension. It's amazing how much you can learn about someone when they get caught in the rain! Some will run with their hands over their heads, others will smile and take a deep breath while enjoying the wind. What does this say about one's relationship to discomfort?" (pg 153) - Conflict reveals Truth of Character. 

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea

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The Babylonians invented it, the Greeks banned it, the Hindus worshiped it, and the Church used it to fend off heretics. Now it threatens the foundations of modern physics. For centuries the power of zero savored of the demonic; once harnessed, it became the most important tool in mathematics. For zero, infinity's twin, is not like other numbers. It is both nothing and everything (via). 

I'm not a math guy, and after reading Zero, more than ever, I'm convinced of this fact. However, it is a worthwhile read and, like the Washington Post said, "It's really something."

Some favorite quotes:

"In the history of culture the discovery of zero will always stand out as one of the greatest single achievements of the human race." - Tobias Danzig

"With the introduction of . . . the infinitely small and infinitely large, mathematics, usually so strictly ethical, fell from grace . . . The virgin state of absolute validity and irrefutable proof of everything mathematical was gone forever; the realm of controversy was inaugurated, and we have reached the point where most people differentiate and integrate not because they understand whether are doing but from pure faith, because up to no it has always come out right" - Friedrich Engels

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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If you've ever read, Same Kind of Different as Me, you'll like this one. If you have't read either, I recommend both. 

From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class (via).

If stories are the medium by which we can turn stereotypes into open discussions of curiosity, than this book is first on the shelf. J.D. Vance doesn't shy away from his hillbillyness, rather, he embraces it. Then, he fills in the cracks and holes with the type of humanity everyone can relate to and cheer for. 

 

How to Fly a Horse: the Secret of Creation, Invention, and Discovery - by Kevin Ashton

I'm starting to realize that these kind of books - the "be an innovator or creator" or "everyone is an artist" sort of book - are all made and written from the same cloth. And How to Fly a Horse is one of the better ones, even though it took a chapter or two to get the horse off the ground. 

 

: Creation :

"Creation is a chain reaction: thousands of people contribute, most of them anonymous, all of them creative" because, "creation is human. It is all of us. It is everybody (pg 9).

"Creative thinking is the same as problem solving, then extends it to say that creative thinking is the same as thinking in general but with a creative result. In Weisberg's words, 'when one says of someone that he or she is "thinking creativity," one is commenting on the outcome of the process, not the process itself'" (pg 17). 

"Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Being suddenly hit years later with the 'creative bug' is just a wee voice telling you, 'I'd like my crayons back, please'" (pg 18).

"Creation is destination, the consequence of acts that appear inconsequential by themselves but that, when accumulated, change the world. Creating is an ordinary act, creation its extraordinary outcome" (pg 23). 

Work is the Soul of creation (pg 24). 

 

: Thinking :

"Thinking is finding a way to achieve a goal that cannot be attained by an obvious action" (pg 31). 

 

: Adversity : 

"Failure is not final. It carries no judgement and yields no conclusions. The word comes from the Latin fallere, to deceive. Failure is deceit" (pg 66). 

"The observation, 'Innovation is a series of repetitive failures' applies to every field of creation and every creator. Nothing good is created the first time" (pg 69).

"Time is the raw material of creation . . . the math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know" (pg 71).

"Creating something new may kill us; creating nothing new certainly will" (pg 85).

William Syrotuck analyzed 229 cases of people who became lost, 25 of whom died. He found that when we are lost, most of us act the same way. First, we deny that we are going in the wrong direction. Then, as the realization that we are in trouble seeps in, we press on, hoping chance will lead us. We are least likely to do the thing that is most likely to save us: turn around. We know our path is wrong, yet we rush along it, compelled to save face, to resolve the ambiguity, achieve the goal. Pride propels us. Shame stops us from saving ourselves . . . Rejection educates. Failure teaches. Both hurt. Only distraction comforts. And of these, only distraction can lead to destruction. Rejection and failure can nourish us, but wasted time is a tiny death. What determines whether we will succeed as creators is not how intelligent we are, how talented we are, or how hard we work, but how we respond to the adversity of creation (pg 90).

 

: How we see :

"Inattentional blindness: Something that we can't see, or don't want to see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem" (pg 95).

Selective attention: as someone becomes more trained, they move their eyes less, until all they have to do is glance at a few locations for a few moments to find the information they need (pg 98).

"Experts do not think less. The think more efficiently. The practiced brain eliminates poor solutions so quickly that they barely reach the attention of the conscious mind" (pg 100). 

"Creating is thinking. Attention is what we think about. The more we experience, the less we think - whether in chess, radiography, painting, science, or anything else. Experise is efficiency: experts use fewer problem-solution loops because experts do not consider unlikely solutions" (pg 102).

"Creation is attention. It is seeing new problems, noticing the unnoticed, finding inattentional blind spots . . . the real secret of the art is to always be a beginner" (pg 105).

Expertise - a system of beliefs, experiences, and assumptions, Kuhn calls, a paradigm, has blinded them (pg 107).

From David Foster Wallace:

After work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. The supermarket is very crowded. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing Muzak. It's pretty much the last place you want to be. And who are all these people in the way? Look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones. Look at how deeply and personally unfair this is. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It's the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of life.
But there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. If you really learn how to pay attention, it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't (pg 109). 

On David Foster Wallace: "It's a choice. His ability to choose to see ordinary things differently  - "as not only meaningful, but sacred" - made him one of the greatest writers of his generation (pg 110).

"Dissonance: When what we know contradicts what we believe, we can either change our beliefs to fit the facts or change the facts to fit our beliefs. People suffering from certainty are more likely to change the facts than their beliefs" (pg 116).

"Make an enemy of certainty and befriend doubt. When you can change your mind, you can change anything" (pg 117).

 

: Chains of Consequence :

"The Amish approach to technology only seems arbitrary. The Amish are cautious about technology because they are cautious about how it shapes their communities" (pg 149) - the decision to accept or deny is based not on themselves and their personal wants and desires. Interesting. 

So, do better tools always lead to a better life? Does making better things makes things better? How can we be sure that making things better won't make things worse?" (pg 156) - great questions. 

 

: The Gas in your Tank :

From Woody Allen: 

I never like to let any time go unused. When I walk somewhere in the morning, I still plan what I'm going to think about, which problem I'm going to tackle. I may say, this morning I'm going to think of titles. When I get in the shower in the morning, I try to use that time. So much of my time is spent thinking because that's the only way to attack these writing problems (pg 178).

Success doesn't strike; it accumulates.

"Passion is innate and dwells in the heart. Knowledge is instilled and found in the head. The purpose of each Ilongot's life was to develop the knowledge they needed to focus their passion into creation for the common good. . . passion is the most extreme state of choice without reward . . . and the word passion comes from the Latin passio for "suffering" (pg 181).

"We can't be misled by passions, because they are so close, so internal to our soul, that it can't possibly feel them unless they are truly as it feels them to be. Even when asleep and dreaming we can't feel sad or moved by any other passion unless the soul truly has this passion within it. 

Or: Passion is the voice of the soul.

Passion is energy; if it does not create, it harms (pg 182).

The more we create, the less we destroy (pg 184).

Good writing is bad writing, well edited (pg 189).

"Almost nothing we create will be good the first time. It will seldom be bad. It will probably be a dull shade of average. The main virtue of a first sketch is that it breaks the blank page. It is a spark of life in the swamp, beautiful if only because it is a beginning (190). 

 

: On Group Think :

"The purpose of a creative conversation is to identify and solve creative problems, such as 'What should this episode be about?' or 'What order should these scenes be in?' The only participants in the conversation should be people who can make a contribution to answering these questions" (pg 214). 

"Adults think before acting; children thing by acting" (pg 221).

"We are all social chameleons, adjusting our skin to blend in with , or sometimes stand out from, whatever crowd we happen to be in" (pg 224).

 

: Good-Bye, Genius :

"The first definition of 'genius' comes from the ancient Rome, where the word meant 'spirit' or 'soul.' This is the true definition of creative genius. Creating is to humans as flying is to birds. It is our nature, our spirit (pg 236).

"It is easier to look for flies in the soup than to work in the kitchen" (pg 236).

 

Tim Cope : An Epic Journey of Selfishness and Destruction

"A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe" (pg 20).

From the onset, I was thrilled with what this book would offer and the journey we would share. I love survival and personal journey stories, especially the type that rely upon the kindness and goodness of humanity, and the type that bring man to the bring of giving up, of questioning all that they are and have, yet, several months or weeks later, find themselves on the other side. Stories that echoed Tim sentiments. "I would be able to render myself my vulnerable, and therefore pledge a much greater trust int eh humanity of others. With no familiar companion or culture to lean on, I would be forced to appeal to the better side of human beings no matter who they were. Doing so would offer me the kind of immersion - in the landscape and in the lives of people - that I craved" (pg 23).

At the top of page 49 I have written, "Currently sitting on the Great Wall. The sun rises, spilling an orange haze all around. Beautiful." This, perhaps, marked a shift in my reading, and in the story. While in the calm and quiet of my own journey, a revelation had crept in over the mountains, and it began to affect my reading of this book. From that morning on, I no longer connected with Tim's journey, I struggled with it. Because it seemed so unrelentingly selfish. 

 Photo by Tim Cope

Photo by Tim Cope

"In truth, though, Ruslan's news that he could guide me for just two more days was a mutually convenient way of parting with our rapport intact. I was already tired of trying to understand the world as it was filtered through his eyes, and i was looking forward to a new chapter" (pg 110). 

I think I understand what Tim means here, and have probably had similar lines of thought, but as I read these lines I found my heart and mind convicted, not sympathetic, because Tim's three and a half year journey is littered with thoughts of a similar strand. Namely, how people can help and bless him, but when they are of no longer any use, the parting becomes convenient. 

The markings in my book were suddenly littered and reduced to "ass" because I could think of no other imagery to describe Tim's actions. 

Actions such as refusing to leave his journey - his dream - when his pretty serious girlfriend was suddenly faced with a possible life-ending illness. They spoke on the phone, Tim acknowledges that she might not make it and could really use his company, but with his friends about to join him on his journey and with the thought that leaving might mean he'll never finish, he sacrifices her for his dream. A paragraph later, like his journey, she and her personal hell are forgotten because his friends have arrived and, apparently, life moves quickly on. 

Ass.

A dozen or so pages later, while isolated and in self-proclaimed "purgatory," Tim writes, "my situation was all the more tenuous. Additionally, unlike any other time on my journey, there would be no sympathetic ear from Kathrin - even if she were prepared to listen, she was in Italy and unreachable" (266). How quickly Tim needs help, which he often found in quick phone conversations and unexpected helping hands, yet he's unable to see that when others needed him, he was unavailable, because that would disrupt his dream. 

Ass.

Five pages later, Tim finds himself again in need of help, and yet again, he expects, and even demands, the help of another. While struggling to obtain a permit for travel into Russia, Tim writes, "Like every day, I was there starting at eight in the morning, on the fax and the phone. By lunchtime there was no permit and my frustration was boiling over. I refused to let Kosibek's secretary leave on her lunch break" (pg 270). Apparently, Tim's needs are more important than anyone else's. 

Ass.

After a few more stories like this, my opinion of Tim became very sour and critical. To the point that when he wrote about the Kalmyk people and their struggle for survival, I was no longer read his words and phrasings with anything other than criticism. Phrases like, "To survive, Kalmyks resorted to more frequent raids, sold their children as slaves, and even took up fishing" (pg 278). Why was the selling of children so easy to swallow and comprehend but taking up fishing so astonishing? Shouldn't it be the other way around? I might be nitpicking, but these subtle thoughts and ways of thinking saturate this story, and for me, became almost unbearable to read.  

"If people know their history, their traditions, they understand the value of experience that our people have collected over thousands of years. When we know who we are, our place in the world, and why we exist, we are happy and have a purpose in life!" (pg 269).

- Okna Tsahan Zam

Most of the wisdom from this story comes from the mouths of Tim's friends whom he encounters along the way. They give of themselves, their resources, time, and even safety to help Tim fulfill his dream. In return, he seems content to give them the pleasure of his white-skinned company.

He thanks those who helped him, many times, and offers deep gratitude and indebtedness, yet, at the end of it all, what he seems to come away with is the beauty and harshness of the steppe, his dream of covering a vast and difficult land fulfilled, and several speaking and publishing contracts. He comes out on top, while his ex-girlfriend and everyone else he met along the way is left behind. 

As I write, I know it sounds harsh, and perhaps it is, but coming on the tail of stories such as On the Road and Into the WildTim Cope yet again encourages young men (and women) to set off on a life changing adventure where the one and only focus is self. On such a journey, personal experience is the ultimate goal, and everyone and everything are expendable to that cause.

I hate these stories, and I'm tired of them, because "A man without friends is as small as a palm. A man with friends is as big as the steppe." 

 

If you are intrigued even a little by Tim's journey, here are a few short clips that should satisfy the pallet. 

Harry Potter : A tool against prejudice

Started the Harry Potter series with my kids, and we are all loving it (no surprise really). 

Not only is J.K, Rowling a mastermind at storytelling - entertaining us all, from ages 5-34 - her stories are changing us all because, "exposure to "Harry Potter" stories changes the attitudes of children and young people toward people from disadvantaged backgrounds, specifically refugees, immigrants and gay people. So it turns out "Harry Potter" may be an effective tool against prejudice," which, for me, is as a good a reason to read anything.

Word by Word : Kory Stamper

I could never be a lexicographer because they pay too much attention to detail. Way too much attention to detail. They define them, split them, lump them, agglute them, and dissect them with a patience I’ve never had for anything, but I’m glad they do it, and I will never look at another dictionary with such simplicity and ignorance (change this word) again.

However, if you are a word person, a grammar guy or gal, and if you get caught up in all sorts of intricate discussion on whether or not “irregardless” is an actual word or a butchering of the English language, if you spend a large percentage of your writing and reading life wrestling with word choice, placement, and arrangement, then you might really dig this book. And then maybe, you can tell me your thoughts. I promise to listen and not judge.

Admittedly, it’s a bit strange, how much I want to be a writer yet how much I seem to just not care that much about grammar and the sliced down details of words, because I think words matter – greatly – and when I read a piece of work with poor grammar, I notice, and I’m distracted, at best. Checked out completely at worst. It’s actually one of the greatest and consistent critiques of my own writing and speaking, but, strangely, I just don’t care that much to spend my valuable time working on it.
Images, stories, and the rolling of beautiful sentences that conjure the deepest of emotions, that is what attracted me to literature and the words on a page, not the details.

It’s a conundrum, and for now, I’m okay with that, because I have to be. I don’t have time for anything else.

That said, nothing is all bad (or all good for that matter), and Word by Word is no different. (To be fair, and fully clear, I didn’t hate this book, not even close. I would just be extremely specific on who I recommended it to).

 

Here are some of the highlights:

 

“Most people think of the parts of speech as discrete categories, drawers with their own identifying labels, and when you peek inside, there’s the English language, neatly folded like a retiree’s sock: Person, Place, Thing (Noun); Describes Action (Verb); Modifies Noun (Adjectives); Answers the W Questions (Adverb); Joins Words Together (Conjunction); Things We Say When We Are Happy, Surprised, or Pissed Off (Interjection).”

Not sure if I ever saw it explained so simply. I’ll probably use this in the future.

 

“Many people believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language, that its job is to set boundaries of decorum around this profligate language like a great linguistic housemother setting curfew. Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. The corollary is that if certain words are bad, uncouth, unlovely, or distasteful, then folks think that the dictionary will make sure they are never entered into its hallowed pages, and thus are such words banished from Real, Official, Proper English. The language is thus protected, kept right, pure, good. This is commonly called “prescriptivism,” and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work at all. We don’t just enter the good stuff; we enter the bad and ugly stuff, too. We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can” (pg 35).

And I think they should be. People want and need dictionaries to understand the world around them, the language spoken, and the images attempting to be conjured. If dictionaries sifted out the slang and morphing and, god forbid, vulgarity of words, not only would a dictionary be even more boring, it would become more and more useless. At least to the common, every-day man and woman.

 

“We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. Sometimes English does exactly what we think it should; sometimes it goes places we don’t like and thrives there in spite of all our worrying. We can tell it to clean itself up and act more like Latin; we can throw tantrums and start learning French instead. But we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes” (pg51.

I’m currently in process of being considered for an ESL teaching position at a university in Philadelphia, so this stuck out a bit more to me than it otherwise would have. Language impacts the way we think, which clearly impacts the way we act and live. American’s, perhaps more than any other people group, crave, even demand, a life defined by autonomy. No surprise that the language does as well.

 

: Possible Reading Resource :

Polly Adler’s book A House Is Not a Home. Polly Adler’s name was well-known to discerning readers of the early twentieth century: she was the most celebrated brother owner and madam in New York. Her memoir supplied some fantastic quotations, including the delightful, “trying to chisel in on the beer racket” (pg 79).

“In an odd way,” Steve Perrault says, “I tend to feel that the definition is an imperfect thing any way you look at it. A definition is an attempt to explain a word’s meaning using these certain conventions, and you have to distinguish between the definition of a word and the meaning of a word. The meaning is something that resides in the word, and the definition is a description of that. But a definition is an artificial thing” (pg 124).

This is more like it. “The meaning is something that resides in the world,” and not in the specific artificial thing. That “artificial thing” is its roots, though, and without it, the word would be lost in the wind of language. Which is perhaps the beauty of the English language – it allows and fosters both.

 

: Possible Reading Resource :

“Jo Freeman’s pamphlet The BITCH Manifesto was written in 1968 and published in 1970, right as second-wave feminism crested. The year of the manifesto’s creation, “sexism” was first used in print, and the first public protest against restrictive abortion laws happened in New York City; the year of its publication” (pg 157).

Sideburns are a “play on the name of the Civil War officer who made them popular, General Burnside” . . . and we say somone is “worth their salt” because “in the ancient world salt was such a valuable commodity that we used to pay people in it (and this is why you also get a salary). (pg 171-172).

“In the days of steamer travel between England and India, wealthy patrons traveling with the Peninsular and Oriental Company reserved the choicest cabins on the ship, which were the ones that got the morning sun but were shaded in the afternoon – no air-conditioning in the nineteenth century. These cabins were on the left side of the ship on the way out, and the right side on the way home, and were so stamped “P.O.S.H” to indicate that the ticket holder had a cabin that was port side out, starboard side home. The “posh” ticket, then, was for the moneyed, elegant folk, and it was the association with wealth that gave us the “elegant” and “fashionable” sense of “posh” we know today (pg 177).

Whether it is true or not, I love it and will probably refer to it whenever I want to sound intelligent and well-read.

“Who thought that “pumpernickel” was a good name for a dark rye bread? Because when you trace the word back to its German origins, you find means “fart goblin” (pg 182).      

 

 

The Girl Who Save the King of Sweden - Jonas Jonasson

This is my second read of Jonas Jonasson, and I was a bit disappointed. My first read, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared was better.

But it could also have been the mood I was in because it's that kind of read. The story is fun and everywhere, in a Forrest Gump sort of storyline, and I appreciate Jonasson's writing style and wit. It just seemed to drag on a bit in this one.  

The story line is, "In a tiny shack in the largest township in South Africa, Nombeko Mayeki is born. Put to work at five years old and orphaned at ten, she quickly learns that the world expects nothing more from her than to die young. But Nombeko has grander plans. She learns to read and write, and at just fifteen, using her cunning and fearlessness, she makes it out of Soweto with millions of smuggled diamonds in her possession. Then things take a turn for the worse. . . . 

Nombeko’s life ends up hopelessly intertwined with the lives of Swedish twins intent on bringing down the Swedish monarchy. In this wild romp, Jonasson tackles issues ranging from the pervasiveness of racism to the dangers of absolute power. In the satirical voice that has earned him legions of fans the world over, he gives us another rollicking tale of how even the smallest of decisions can have global consequences" (via).

For me, one of the highlights was the little quote that started out each of the seven sections of the story:

The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits – unknown

The more I see of men, the more I like my dog – Madame De Stael

Present – the part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope – Ambrose Bierce

Life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty – Lise Meitner

If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear – Winnie-the-pooh

I have never once in my life seen a fanatic with a sense of humor – Amoz Oz

Nothing is permanent in this wicked world – not even our troubles – Charlie Chaplin

This book will not challenge your life in any way. Nor will it give you much food for thought. It's candy. That's it. 

And honestly, you might be better off watching Forrest Gump. Remember how good this was/is?

Silence, by Shusaku Endu - A MUST READ

As a life rule, I don't read books with movie covers, but this one was a gift from a former student who likes to challenge the status quo (thanks Graceann!) so I thought I'd make an exception.

Praise the Lord for broken rules.

Silencelike an anchor plunging into a raging ocean, has pierced my frustrated mind and calmed my torrential heart. For a generation seeking honestly and authenticity, this book holds under the lamp the struggles and blemishes and hope of Faith. Endo offers an open portrayal of mankind, our beauty and our tattered rags, and invites us all into the awkward and terrible silence of life that has no clear answers or discernible purpose . And he does so without fear or shame. 

With all my bruised and tattered heart I recommend this book to all.

Here is hint (and perhaps spoiler) of what Silence will bring:

God did not grant our poor companion the joy of being restored to health. But everything that God does is for the best. No doubt God is secretly preparing the mission that some day will be his (pg 21).

Written in the early stages of the novel, this simple statement becomes the backbone for the journey through silence, and the struggles of God's secret plan. The story is beautifully written but horrific in honesty as it allows doubt the freedom to roam and scream and cry - and to beat down the certainty of a just God. 

 

But Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt (pg 38).

One of Sebastian's first lessons, that God does not think nor act in the way of man, nor is He limited to "this or that" thinking. Because God didn't die for the miserable and corrupt alone, he died for all - because all are good and beautiful, and miserable and corrupt. Like Sebastian.

 

What do I want to say? I myself do not quite understand. Only that today, when for the glory of God Mokichi and Ichizo moaned, suffered and died, I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent" (pg 64).

Neither do I, myself, quite understand. 

 

Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind (pg 92).

This is one of the most powerful quotes on sin I've ever read. Nestled just about midway through the story, it seems, perhaps, a turning point - even if Sebastian isn't aware of it yet. Because, ultimately, although God appears silent, with arms crossed, he is not "oblivious of the wounds he has left behind." He is aware. Very aware. But He is also Just, and Good, with a larger plan in mind.

 

If it is true that God is really loving and merciful, how do you explain the fact that he gives so many trials and sufferings of all kinds to man on his way to Heaven? (pg 96).

Answer: Because He is kind and merciful and is not limited to "this or that" thinking. 

 

No, no. Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty. Thus he reflected as he lay in bed. Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman of Capharnaum with the issue of blood, the woman take in adultery whom men had wanted to stone - people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijiro. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame (pg 124).

In the margins of my book I wrote, "holy shit." This is one of the toughest yet greatest passages of the book because not only did it deeply reveal my heart, it deeply revealed my heart. "True love was to accept humanity WHEN wasted like rags and tatters." When I first read these lines, I thought of those who have abandoned me, who have walked away and said, "Your rags and tatters are too much." Then, along with the priest, I was filled with shame. Because I have done the same. Because I am the same.

 

I'm not telling you to trample out of conviction. If you just go through with formality, it won't hurt your beliefs (pg 127).

These words are provocative because, on both ends, it challenges the connection of actions to the heart. I think most, if not all, would agree that apostatizing in action does in fact hurt one's beliefs - just ask Peter. But then, could the reverse also be said? That the formality of religion won't promote one's faith, right? Why is one true and not the other? This is not so easy to swallow and I need more time to consider it.

 

'But in the churches we built throughout this country the Japanese were not praying to they Christian God. They twisted God to their own way of thinking in a way we can never imagine. If you call that God . . .' Ferreira lowered his eyes and moved his lips as though something had occurred to him. 'No. That is not God. It is like a butterfly caught in a spider's web. At first it is certainly a butterfly, but the next day only the externals, the wings and the trunk, are those of a butterfly; it has lost its true reality and has become a skeleton. In Japan our God is just like that butterfly caught in the spider's web: only the exterior form of God remains, but it has already become a skeleton' (pg 160).

And not just in Japan . . . could it be because of formality? Maybe, but also, many other things. Because we, like are motives, are simply "this or that."

 

: (possible) Answer :

"There is something more important than the Church, more important than missionary work . . . and then Christ . . . speaks to the priest: 'Trample! Trample! It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross' (pg 182, 183).

It isn't enough, but it is sufficient. Because if I knew it all, if I could explain and understand all that He has planned and how He thinks, than He wouldn't be worth calling God. He wouldn't be worth trusting. 

Because things I can explain are simple things, and simple things don't deserve worship.

 

 

Silence is now a major motion picture, starring Liam Neeson, and directed by Martin Scorsese.

Tribes : We Need YOU to Lead Us

There wasn't anything groundbreaking about this book, but it was filled with many small nuggets and reminders that were worth rereading/considering. Simple truths that fit in a pocket, on a sticky note, or constantly in thought.

Perhaps the deepest question it brings to the surface is with a statement made early in the book, on page three, where Godin states, "Tribes make our lives better. And leading a tribe is the best life of all."  I wrote in the margin, "Really? Why?" and he doesn't really ever answer the question. At times, he even somewhat contradicts it, but maybe that's the point - that the "best life of all" doesn't necessarily have a defined description. 

But we'll get to that. For now, here are a few nuggets worth stuffing in the pocket:

"Leadership is about creating change that you believe in. My thesaurus says the best synonym for leadership is management. Maybe that word used to fit, but no longer. Movements have leaders and movements make things happen. Leaders have followers. Managers have employees. Managers make widgets. Leaders make change" (pg 14).

"Organizations that destroy the status quo win. Individuals who push their organizations, who inspire other individuals to change the rules, thrive. Again, we're back to leadership, which can come from anyone, anywhere in the organization" (pg 35).

"You have everything. Everything you need to build something far bigger than yourself" (pg 37).

"What's missing is the will to make things happen" (pg 42).

"What people are afraid of isn't failure. It's blame. Criticism" (pg 46).

"Great leaders focus on the tribe and only the tribe" (pg 50).

"A tribe that communicates more quickly, with alacrity and emotion, is a tribe that thrives (pg 52).

"{a tribe leader} finds areas of common interest and then gets out of the way" (pg 53).

"Leadership is a choice. It's a choice to not do nothing" (pg 59).

"A curious person embraces the tension between his religion and something new, wrestles with it and through it, and then decides whether to embrace the new idea or reject it . . . it has to do with a desire to understand, a desire to try, a desire to push whatever envelope is interesting" ( pg 63).

"It's easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten, or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished" (pg 64). 

"Religion at its worst reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith" (pg 81).

"The reason it's so difficult to have a considered conversation about religion is that people feel threatened. Not by the implied criticism of the rituals or irrationality of a particular religious practice, but because it feels like criticism of their faith . . . in order to lead, you must challenge the status quo of religion you're living under" (pg 82).

"When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow" (pg 83).

"The easiest thing is to react. The second easiest thing is to respond. But the hardest thing is to initiate" (pg 86).

"The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People will follow" (pg 108). 

"Reagan's secret is to listen, to value what you hear, and then to make a decision even if it contradicts the very people you are listening to" (pg 128).

"People don't believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves. What leaders do: they give people stories they can tell themselves. Stories about the future and about change" (pg 138).

"Tribes make our lives better. And leading a tribe is the best life of all." Perhaps, because of humility. Because they are using their gifts and talents and they are using (or withholding) them for the benefit of the tribe. And when we consider ourselves smaller than the bigger picture, when our role is beyond ourselves, and we see the Tribe thriving, there is immense joy and satisfaction. Because it's beyond ourselves.

 

 

Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

When I walk into a room, I'm lower than anyone else, and that everyone takes me for a buffoon, so "Why not, indeed, play the buffoon, I'm not afraid of your opinions, because you're all, to a man, lower than me! pg 43

A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and make a mountain out of a pea - he knows all of that and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility . . . pg 44

That's just it, that 'but . . ., Ivan was shouting. I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen. We know what we know! pg 243

For the mystery of man's being is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him. pg 254

I knew on "fighter for an idea" who told himself that when he was deprived of tobacco in prison, he was so tormented by this deprivation that he almost went and betrayed his "idea" just so that they would give him some tobacco. And such a man: "I am going to fight for mankind." Well, how far will such a man get, and what is he good for? Perhaps some quick action, but he will not endure for long. And no wonder that instead of freedom they have fallen into slavery, and instead of serving brotherly love and human unity, they have fallen, on the contrary, into disunity and isolation, as my mysterious visitor and teacher used to tell me in my youth. - pg 314

The Adventures of Pinocchio, by C. Collodi

When your boy is struggling to trust in authority, that they see a much bigger picture, this is a great read. 

Here is one of my favorite scenes:

"Pinocchio threw himself at the feet of Fire Eater. Weeping bitterly, he begged in a sad, quiet voice, "Have pity, kind sir!"

"Well, what do you want now puppet?"

"I beg for mercy for my poor friend Harlequin. He has never done any harm in his life."

"There is no mercy here, Pinocchio. I have let you go. Harlequin must burn in your place."

"In that case," announced Pinocchio, "I see what I must do. Come, officers! Threw me on the flames. It is not fair for Harlequin to do in my place!" (pg 40)

 

Not only is Pinocchio beginning to see the consequences of his actions, he is beginning to learn what love is. This is still early in the book, but that's another lesson easily and appropriately grabbed from this book - just because you "get" something, doesn't mean you are forever perfect after. This, along with the skill and ability to trust in a bigger picture, is crucial for young kiddos. 

The Smartest Kids in the World, by Amanda Ripley

After five years teaching and administering in an international school, my thoughts on curriculum have morphed, my teaching strategies multiplied, and my ideas of the "perfect school" challenged. This book was an excellent read because it affirmed some of things I do and would like to do as an educator, but more importantly, it convicted me as a parent. No matter where we are in the world and regardless of the school we find ourselves in, when it comes to holistic education of children, it's all about the home. Not after school clubs, not dynamic teachers, and certainly not technology. The responsibility is on me, the parent.

The Smartest Kids in the World travels from the US to South Korea, Finland, and Poland and asks the same question over and over, "What makes a great student?"

The answer isn't all that surprising.

About midway through, Ripley says this, "Parenting, like drive and diligence, was often in international studies of education. The evidence that did exist tended to focus on one country only, and it generally showed what you'd expect: More involved families had children with higher grades, better test scores, improved behavior, and better attendance records. That dynamic held true across all ages, races, and income levels in the United States."

Then she asks this question, "But what kinds of parental involvement mattered most? And did parents do different things in different countries?

Answer: Intentionality.  "When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time they were fifteen" because, "Done well, it meant teaching them about the world - sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things."

"As kids got older," she continues, "the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parent who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adult. Unlike volunteering in schools, this kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels" (pg 108-109).

The best days of class, according to Kim, one of the students shadowed, were the ones where her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book (pg 40).

No gimmicks, no movies, and no posters. Just conversation. Discovery. And time, where the kids are allowed to ask questions and search for answers. Much like good parenting.

 

Favorite Quotes:

“I’d like to live somewhere where people are curious.” Pg 38

“The best days were the days her teacher pushed the desks into a circle and everyone talked about the book.” Pg 40

Sisu – Strength in the face of great odds – a sort of inner fire. “It is a compound of bravado and bravery, of ferocity and tenacity” pg 153

“{Tom} looked up in media res and discovered it was a Latin phrase that referred to starting a story in the middle of the plot. He caught up quickly, and by spring, he could toss off his own allusions to Greek mythology in the English classes. He figured out that a lot of the banter had been bullshit, but he’d needed to learn the vernacular.” Pg 188

 

The Extremes:

South Korea's educational outcome:

 

United States educational outcome: