We’d just finished John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” When we read the end together out loud in class, my toughest boy, a star basketball player, wept a little, and so did I. “Are you crying?” one girl asked, as she crept out of her chair to get a closer look. “I am,” I told her, “and the funny thing is I’ve read it many times.”
But they understood. When George shoots Lennie, the tragedy is that we realize it was always going to happen. In my 14 years of teaching in a New York City public middle school, I’ve taught kids with incarcerated parents, abusive parents, neglectful parents; kids who are parents themselves; kids who are homeless or who live in crowded apartments in violent neighborhoods; kids who grew up in developing countries. They understand, more than I ever will, the novel’s terrible logic — the giving way of dreams to fate.
Along with “Of Mice and Men,” my groups read: “Sounder,” “The Red Pony,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth.” The students didn’t always read from the expected perspective. Holden Caulfield was a punk, unfairly dismissive of parents who had given him every advantage. About “The Red Pony,” one student said, “it’s about being a dude, it’s about dudeness.” I had never before seen the parallels between Scarface and Macbeth, nor had I heard Lady Macbeth’s soliloquies read as raps, but both made sense; the interpretations were playful, but serious. Once introduced to Steinbeck’s writing, one boy went on to read “The Grapes of Wrath” and told me repeatedly how amazing it was that “all these people hate each other, and they’re all white.” His historical perspective was broadening, his sense of his own country deepening. Year after year, ex-students visited and told me how prepared they had felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.
And yet I do not know how to measure those results. As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.
Until recently, given the students’ enthusiasm for the reading groups, I was able to play down that data. But last year, for the first time since I can remember, our test scores declined in relation to comparable schools in the city. I felt increased pressure to bring this year’s scores up. All the teachers are increasing their number of test-preparation sessions and practice tests, so I have done the same, cutting two of my three classic book groups and replacing them with a test-preparation tutorial program. Only the highest-performing eighth graders were able to keep taking the reading classes.
Since beginning this new program in September, I have answered over 600 multiple-choice questions. In doing so, I encountered exactly one piece of literature: Frost’s “Road Not Taken.” The rest of the reading-comprehension materials included passages from watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.
By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.
We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it? An accumulation of nameless energies.--Don DeLillo, from White Noise
To be not a man, but the projection of another man’s dreams—what an incomparable humiliation, what vertigo!—Jorge Luis Borges, from The Circular Ruins
Tupac. Coachella. Hologram. Taken apart, none of these things are new, or even revolutionary. But something happened in the wake of the Tupac hologram (henceforth: Holopac) debut at Coachella that I find utterly fascinating: people were awestruck (including yours truly). It provoked a kind of cultural zeitgeist awe that one rarely finds in this era. You don’t hear people of this generation utter the phrase “where were you when…” or a smug “I was there” in regards to most cultural ‘moments.’ “I was there” is not a brag in regards to seeing Gaga’s meat dress, for example, or Madonna making out with Britney at the VMAs. We were all there, on a zillion youtube videos and photographs posted minutes later. These utterances don’t occur nearly as often as I imagine they crossed the lips of prior generations. Woodstock. Altamont. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Ballet Russe’s Rite of Spring opening night. San Francisco in the late 1960s. It’s increasingly easier to “watch” an “exclusive” moment on youtube, then hit ‘close tab’ and feel satisfied that you, too, experienced it. We’re no longer the protective owners of unique experiences.
Talk of taking Holopac on tour, or creating new holograms of dead legends rings a bit false to me. We are so quick to duplicate and capitalize on “original” moments these days, and the reverence is equally quick to dissipate. I would also posit that a Marvin Gaye hologram, or a Jimmi Hendrix hologram, won’t hold nearly the same “I can’t believe my eyes” as the Tupac hologram. Gaye and Hendrix are pretty firmly—for lack of a better word—dead. The genius in “bringing back” Tupac is the uncertainty that swirls around his legend, the conspiracy theories that he is living it up, smoking weed and drinking Hennessy on a Caribbean island somewhere, laughing at all of us all the way to bank. There is still a slight superstition, if you will, upon first seeing the Tupac holgram, that it justmighthave been the real thing. This inspires, as Freud wrote in Das Unheimliche: “certain things which lie within the field of what is frightening. The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Freud also wrote:
Many people experience [the uncanny] in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies, to the return of the dead, and to spirits and ghosts. There is scarcely any other matter upon which our thoughts and feelings have changed so little since the very earliest times, and in which discarded forms have been so completely preserved under a thin disguise, as our relation to death. Since almost all of us still think as savages do on this topic, it is no matter for surprise that the primitive fear of the dead is still so strong within us and always ready to come to the surface on any provocation.
I mean, c’mon: even a recreated Jimmi Hendrix LSD guitar-on-fire schtick seems a little…benign compared to this first incarnation of the ghostly, godly Tupac, rising barechested and glowing over a desert of people, under a sinister fog of marijuana smoke.
The term simulacrum was first recorded in the English dictionary in the late 16th century as “the representation of a god” in something like a statue or painting. Only later did it gain the association of “an image without the substances or qualities of the original.” Plato would be banging his head against the wall re: HoloTupac. Baudrillard would applaud in DeLillo-esque way, I think: we are only projecting meaning and memories onto Holopac, onto this collection of light waves and dust particles. We are recreating the man in image and in memory, and here we have the perfect intersection of Freud’s uncanny and Baudrillard’s simulacrum. And what of those of us who watched a video of the Holopac? What intersection is that? Are we also truly experiencing this representation? Baudrillard writes:
The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.
Everything is already dead and risen in advance. Call me old-fashioned, but I say: let Holopac rest in peace. Leave him to wander the deserts as a shirtless specter that only appears during rainbows, or potentially sipping on gin’n’juice while he records more “posthumous” albums.
Don’t use an exclamation mark in a moment of anger. If you insert one in a fit of temper, lay aside the letter until morning. You will be surprised how silly it will seem then — not only the exclamation mark but the whole letter. That brings us to the colon, or if it doesn’t, we’ll drag in the colon. It is my contention that a colon could almost always be used in place of an exclamation point. Its use as a symbol of passionate expression is not, I’ll grant you, well known, and yet it lends itself to finer shadings of excitement than the exclamation mark….
[I]t will be helpful to learn that the colon, which is typed by striking only one key, can be employed in place of the exclamation mark in almost any given sentence where the emotion one wishes to express is of an amatory nature.
Take the sentence “You are wonderful!” That’s trite, and it’s made triter by the exclamation point, but if one writes it thus: “You are: wonderful,” it’s certainly not trite and it has a richness that the other hadn’t or hasn’t — “hadn’t” is better, I guess. Nothing so closely resembles the catch in the voice of the lover as that very colon. Instead of shouting the word “wonderful,” as the exclamation point does, it forces a choking pause before that word, thus giving an effect of tense, nervous endearment, which is certainly what the writer is after. Of course whether he should be after that effect, no matter how the sentence is punctuated, is a separate problem.
James Thurber, Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Guide to Modern English
There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).
In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness — which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what — because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one. Because of all the people involved in getting the novel from me to you or from you to me, whether I’m the writer and you’re the reader or vice-versa, or we’re the novel’s producers or its publishers, or we’ve been hobbled into versions of ourselves as its characters. There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them. In a novel, writing it, reading it, buying it, selling it, we can’t escape each other. A novel stays there. In life I think that people can actually forget about each other, one-sidedly, even. In life we can move on. Maybe.
I’ve been thinking again about Ingeborg Bachmann, how she burned to death alone in an apartment in Rome. She was in her forties, she wasn’t done yet with her trilogy of novels on styles of dying. And then there’s that scene in the first chapter of Malina, the chapter called “Happy with Ivan.” The protagonist tells us that years before she ever met Ivan’s children, when she knew even less about him than she knows now, “he told me: I’m sure you’ve already understood. I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course, but no one else. I nod, although I hadn’t known, and it’s obvious to Ivan that it should be so obvious to me.” That’s one of the (many) scenes in the book that gets me most — that feeling of, not just heartbreak and disappointment, but the swallowing it down and hiding it. “I nod, although I hadn’t known.”
I keep thinking about the apartment in Rome where Ingeborg Bachmann died in 1973, her lit cigarette. Lately I think about that apartment when I think about novels or when I think about love. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned to death in Rome, for writing that the stars were suns. In real life our universe is minor, there are other galaxies extending billions of light years in every direction, there are billions of people wandering around and I guess maybe some of them are loved and others aren’t, and some of the loves match up and others don’t. There are a lot of suns. If we got exposed to the full force of our own sun we would all burn to death, but yet it is faded and minor and so distant.
I’m not frozen inside either, I’m trotting and galloping and burning, I’m almost 100 degrees and even though I’m minor, there’s so much of me here that eventually each of my systems will give out and I’ll be inchoate atoms in the plotless universe again. Which happens to everyone. Would we really be happy with no books? Or writing ourselves happy books? Could Kafka have written a happy book, an Exsultate Jubilate, if he’d wanted to? Maybe he wrote a happy book and burned it, and we don’t even know about it.
I’ve traveled around the world, but nowhere — not in the hills of Burma, not on the streets of Detroit, Singapore, Havana, Hamburg, Hanoi, or the New York barrio where I now live — nowhere have I encountered people more foreign, forbidding, and fascinating than American white trash.
Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.
The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative (New York Times) "I got through that sentence / like a subject and a predicate"—Lil Wayne, rap’s preeminent grammarian. A new series called “Draft” featuring essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others on the art of writing.
What if we removed the passive course-to-course drudgery of the school day? What if there was no schedule? What if students were left with a list of coyly worded benchmarks targeted at creating quality humans, and we just waited to see what they could do? What if teachers were seen as mentors for projects designed to help students meet those benchmarks?
Ignore those requirements that society puts upon you, whilst in your Snuggie—why change your clothes if the Snuggie covers them, why bathe if the Snuggie absorbs all odors—and instead focus on what is truth and what is sacred. In this way, the Snuggie frees you from the temporal realm and sends you into the spiritual.
Have you ever been contacted by any of your “mist connections”? Sadly not. I’ve been a single fog for a long time and have tried many dating avenues: OKCupid, blind dates, and Mist Connections. I’m not sure what it’s like for you down there, but it feels like every cloud I meet is looking for someone who’s a little more _______ (fluffier, greyer, longer, forceful). I’m just looking to meet a cloud that likes me for the good but doesn’t get scared by the flaws. Is that too much to ask?