For book number seven I decided to venture into unknown territory– poetry. I do not read a lot of poetry. The poetry I do read is generally of the epic variety (Homer, Milton, Dante). I now find myself teaching tenth grade English, and the first unit I am required to cover is poetry. With that in mind, I decided to read A Boy’s Will by Robert Frost. The only Frost that I had previously read was the poem “The Road Not Taken”. I was very pleasantly surprised by A Boy’s Will. Frost’s poetry is rustic and manly, with the added advantage of actually making sense. A Boy’s Will was his first collection, published in 1915, and reveals a young man seeking his future by firmly establishing his roots. If you are from rural America, Frost is the poet for you. I particularly liked “The Tuft of Flowers”. I look forward to reading more Frost in the near future.
I was born to be an old man. Some people dread getting older, getting wrinkled, and getting cranky. Not me. I understand why they are called the golden years. In order to make the most of my old-manhood, I have decided to practice. This rant is the result.
I recently started in a new teaching position, and on the first day of the new semester (and my first day on the job), my students were required to fill out “Student Data Sheets.” These were pretty basic, asking for both student and parent contact info. I couldn’t believe the number of students who asked permission to take out their cell phones to get the necessary data. I understand not knowing your parent’s cell phone number when you are 15 and have your own phone with your folks programmed into it, but not knowing your own home phone number?! It seems trivial, but I think this is indicative of a dangerous trend.
Technology has made the storage and retrieval of information so easy that there is no need for any basic memorization anymore. Why read a book when there is Wikipedia or Sparknotes online for free? Why memorize a poem or a passage when you can just search for it on your iPhone?
Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to find just about anything on the internet. What worries me is that we are producing generations of young people who have no conception of what it means to analyze, memorize, and synthesize information because they simply don’t have to. These blasted kids absolutely refuse to read assigned literature. It makes much more sense to them to read a summary that tells them the gist of whatever the assignment is, and finding such a summary is now a piece of cake. That serves them well for the present. Someday they will need the ability to think without internet assistance. What happens then? I’ll tell you what happens: they will hold me up in line at Luby’s because they won’t have the mental capacity to choose between lemon meringue and key lime pie (the answer is both).
I don’t know how to combat this problem. I might even be overreacting. I just can’t help but think that the technologies of convenience in schools today will become the technologies of dependence in all parts of society tomorrow.
Here’s what we’re going to do. First, you kids get off my lawn. Then, turn off the devil music. Next, pull up your pants. Finally, go read a book.
Anyone who comments gets an imaginary butterscotch.
The sixth book selected for my challenge was Rosshalde by Hermann Hesse. Hesse is one of my favorite authors of all time. His novels are always insightful, poignant, and deeply moving. That being said, Rosshalde is probably my least favorite Hesse work. It has all of the same qualities as his other books, but is simply too predictable. It tells the story of world-famous painter Johann Veraguth at his idyllic estate, Rosshalde. Veraguth is trapped in a loveless marriage out of devotion to his young son Pierre. The painter yearns for a life of freedom, away from the daily disappointment that life at Rosshalde has become for him. The only thing that keeps him from packing up and going to live with his best friend in India is his son. Veraguth finally decides that he must surrender his son to his wife for all of their sakes. Tragedy strikes and the boy dies, freeing Veraguth from both the facade of his life in Rosshalde and the pain of leaving behind the one person he truly loves.
Don’t get me wrong, Rosshalde is a very moving book. Hesse evokes the pain of a conflicted soul as well as (if not better than) any other writer. The plot is simply very predictable. I had a pretty good idea of what was coming after only a few pages. It is a beautifully written book well worth a read, but do not expect something as original as Steppenwolf or Das Glasperlenspiel.
The Current Count:
6 Read, 94 To Go
I made my first venture into philosophy of the year with my fifth book, John Locke’s Of the Conduct of the Understanding. This book is essentially Locke’s assessment of what prevents most men from using their understanding to its full potential and how to remedy that problem. Locke can be a bit tough to get through at times, but is always worth the effort. So many of his writings, whether political, moral, or educational, contain observations that seem fundamental to those of us that have grown up in a liberal democracy but were revolutionary in Locke’s time. Of the Conduct is one of those works. Locke points out that the educational system of his day was flawed, stressing dependence on showy argumentation and the unquestioned acceptance of orthodox principles in all areas of study. This particular work is aimed at grown men who want to free themselves from ignorance imposed either by themselves or by instructors. A man must, according to Locke, maintain an absolute neutrality on all topics until he has examined them with his own understanding and discerned the underlying principle of truth that should direct his view. No tenet should be accepted without examination, whether out of party loyalty or religious devotion. He also offers advice to the man who wants to train his understanding to be better equipped for such examinations. Reading is important, but disciplined and detailed examination is paramount. This book is not one to be picked up for a quick read (despite its relative brevity). If you are serious about intellectual improvement, this book is a must.
The Current Count:
5 Read, 95 To Go
A few faithful readers have asked me how I am choosing which 100 books to read. The answer is a patchwork. Some of the books are ones that I have planned to read for some time. Others are suggestions offered by friends and family. Some of my choices are dictated by which books are already sitting on my shelves, as my wife likes to point out that I have a pretty good collection of unread titles in my library. Still more are books that randomly spring into my mind, which I then hunt for at Half-Price Books (thanks to a few HPB Christmas gift cards). I try to get a good balance of genres and authors through the course of a year, with an emphasis placed on books and classics that have stood the test of time. My 2010 list gives a pretty good idea of the kind of mixture I am trying to achieve.
The ultimate goal of my quest is self-improvement. I could read 100 works of junk fiction and call the challenge completed, but that would defeat my purpose. I look at every book I read (and encourage my students to do the same) as an opportunity to learn something. Even junk fiction can teach you something about yourself and humanity as a whole. Think how much more the classics can teach. Although my challenge has a stated quantitative goal, it does not ignore qualitative considerations. I am not just reading 100 books for the sake of reading 100 books. Instead, I am trying to read 100 books that I can use to better myself.
One of my favorite paintings of all time is The School of Athens by Raphael. In it, the greatest philosophers are all gathered together in one place, arguing the fundamental questions of philosophy. This is how I view reading. As readers, we have the opportunity to assemble exactly this type of supergroup. I do not mean that I wouldn’t let Dean Koontz or Steve Berry say a word or two in my conversation. But when it comes down to it, if you can learn from anybody, you want Plato, Churchill, Locke, Newton, etc. That is how I decide my 100—I want books that I will enjoy, but I want books that will teach me something even more.
Twelve days and four books down! My fourth book was Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. This collection of short stories is an homage to the down-and-out, featuring protagonists that even Hemingway would have pitied. The prose is crisp and easy to read, the characters are sincere and believable, and the subtle humor is relentless. The title story is my favorite, starring a band of Vikings coming up on middle age and rethinking their pillaging ways. Wells Tower is a new author worth keeping an eye on. Spend the fourteen bucks to get this book. You will not regret it!
The Current Count:
4 Read, 96 To Go
For the third book of my challenge, I chose The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. I have previously read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-5, and enjoyed both tremendously. The Sirens is an excellent example of trademark wit and absurd imagination. It follows the journey of Malachi Constant from billionaire Earthling playboy to penniless hermit on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Guided along the way by the chrono-synclastic infundibulated Winston Niles Rumfoord, Constant is an unwitting cog in an elaborate effort by the residents of distant planet Tralfamadore to rescue one of their messengers stranded on Titan. Don’t be put off by the science fiction label. Vonnegut’s writing is very tongue-in-cheek and painfully funny. Despite the humor and absurdity, Vonnegut raises serious questions about all facets of life as we know it. If you haven’t read any Vonnegut before, The Sirens of Titan is a great place to start.
The Current Count:
3 Read, 97 To Go
Last night I finished my second book of the year, The River War by Sir Winston Churchill. The River War is a history of the joint British-Egyptian reconquest of the Sudan in the late 1890’s. Churchill participated in the campaign as a cavalry officer. I greatly enjoyed the book, but would not recommend it to another reader unless he or she is either a history nut or a Churchill fan. I am both, and subsequently loved it. Churchill’s analysis of a modern, scientific campaign against an ill-equipped and untrained yet fanatical foe is particularly interesting in light of the recent war in Iraq and the ongoing struggle in Afghanistan. Churchill is a member of that elite group of authors who elevate the English language to an art form.
The Current Count:
2 Read, 98 To Go
The first book of the new year is done! I finished Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn earlier today. Loosely based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience with cancer in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, Cancer Ward follows the life of Oleg Kostoglotov as he undergoes treatment in a regional cancer clinic. Kostoglotov is a political exile who has spent his entire adult life in the Soviet army and a prison camp. Through his interactions with other patients (including an arrogant Soviet bureaucrat) and the clinic staff, we are given a glimpse of the complex dynamics that governed all facets of Soviet life. Solzhenitsyn’s reflections on the nature of life and death transcend the Soviet setting and speak to readers from any culture. This book can be very depressing at parts, but is ultimately hopeful in the face of all possible resistance. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a deeper read. Many thanks to my good friend Daniel of Surf Waco for turning me on to Solzhenitsyn.
1 Read, 99 To Go
Welcome to 1 Year, 100 Books. Last year I resolved to read 100 books before the end of 2010. I fell 35 books short. This year, I will be using this blog to hold myself accountable as I try to succeed in my quest for the century mark. Please feel free to suggest books to include in my 100, to give me updates on your own reading, or to offer suggestions for improvements to the blog. I will post updates regarding my progress every few days, and will post reviews of each book I finish.
The Current Count:
0 Read, 100 To Go