Saturday, May 28, 2011

A book to make White People angry

Okay, the title is unfair.  But, there is some truth to it, because this week I look at Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.  And boy, is it a doozy.

The premise of Lies revolves around the idea of addressing the false history that is currently taught in our schools, tackling everything from the horrifying treatment of Native Americans by Colombus (and the Europeans in general), the seedy, shady doings of the US government and foreign relations, and even how U.S. History gets things such as slavery and Civil Rights so wrong.  The book also knocks a few U.S. presidents and other heroes off their pedestals, and expands upon a few narratives we have given some of our heroes (did you know that Helen Keller was a radical socialist? And that Woodrow Wilson was a raging white supremecist?  You do now).

If you've never heard of it, sociologist and historian James W. Loewen has thoroughly reviewed 12 textbooks currently used by school across American and examined them for historical accuracy. The results don't look to good. Aside from blatantly omitting crucial facts and breezing over the parts that make the U.S. look bad, Loewen points out that the most glaring error of these textbooks is that, simply, they are racist.  They only tell one kind of history: white history.

I found myself absolutely shocked to learn (rather, re-learn) my history about Native American Indians, the Reconstruction, even slavery and the Civil Rights Era.  The US has been far from perfect to minority groups, particularly racial minorities, and our treatment of them throughout history seems to be continually glossed over.  Loewen points out that,

Teachers and curricula that present African history and African Americans in a positive light are often condemned for being Afro-centric.

 Yet, he remarks, nothing is said about the portrayal of white Americans.  History is told from a Euro-centric point of view, with which no one seems to have a problem.  It makes me think of current legislation in Tucson, where there is a battle between the state superintendent Tom Horne, and the Tucson Unified School District, over what is called "Raza studies," or simply, race studies from Latino and Native American points of view.  Horne has said that these curricula should be banned, "because [they are] aimed primarily at members of one race, and we have testimony that this has promoted resentment toward one race."  Further,

But the bill would go beyond Tucson's Mexican-American offerings and would end other ethnic-centric courses, Horne said. Students would still be exposed to other cultures and traditions.
"You do it in the regular social-studies class," he said. "And you do it within the (state) standards."

The only problem with Mr. Horne's reasoning is that "regular" social-studies DO promote one race over the other - the white race.  And they DO promote resentment in other races - races that are not white.  The fact that history is not taught from the Native American point of view, who were indeed the first Americans, is evidence enough of that.  But this is where Loewen's struggle comes in.  While his book is noble, it also threatens the status quo.  It knocks white people down a notch.  That's something I'm personally okay with, but not everyone is at that point yet, and face it, there's nothing that makes white people angrier than being forced to recognize their privilege.  The total wrong-doings of slavery and the Civil War era regarding blacks is also far more stringent than any textbook would dare to present, out of fear of disrupting the establishment, not being adopted by mainly white school boards, and so on. 

And that's where Loewen gets to the crux of his argument (well, one of his cruxes...).  Books are sterilized, afraid of portraying anyone in a bad light, and certainly not in any position to promote controversy.  And this is a shame.  As Loewen writes:

Presenting a controversy seems somehow radical.  It invites students to come to their own conclusions.  Textbook authors don't let that happen.  They see their job as presenting "facts" for children to "learn," not encouraging them to think for themselves.  Such an approach keeps students ignorant of the reasoning, arguments, and weighing of evidence that go into social science.

This leads into another point of the book - how we teach history is all wrong.  Textbooks are tertiary sources.  Students (and teachers) need to rely on primary sources and lean into controversy.  With the internet readily available in nearly every school nowadays, this is easy.  By presenting history as real and controversial, instead of sterile and neatly sutured, students will be more engaged and more willing to learn.  Most importantly, they'll learn to think critically and make decisions for themselves, and not spout off misguided factoids without any real thought.

Now, I'm not going to make Lies out to be a perfect book.  It isn't.  Unfortunately, Loewen's bias and obvious disdain for anything on the right side of the political spectrum weakens his overall argument (and violates one of his own criticisms - his analysis, particularly of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, offers only one point of view, instead of offering enough controversy to generate thought and discussion, and allowing individuals to come to their own conclusions).  Further, his prose violates another one of his own criticisms - at times, it's far too long-winded, and Loewen drags points out for far to long, ultimately losing the reader's engagement at times.

That being said, the book is absolutely worth taking a look at, regardless of your personal political affiliation.  Right-leaning individuals may scoff at some of his ideas, or dismiss his findings and analysis, but Loewen has done a bang up job providing citations and references to back up his conclusions and his historical revisions.  This is a book that will make some people uncomfortable - but that's okay!  People need to be challenged, and hopefully, this book will do just that.

Loewen also offers some great ideas for how to revamp the teaching of history - but I'll talk about that more next Wednesday.

P.S. If you want to read more about the "Raza studies" bill, a brief introduction is here.

If you are interested, here are some other links:

Save Ethnic Studies AZ

Law and Border

Law and Border - La Raza Studies Documentary

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Classic Book Conundrum

This week, I've decided to tackle the age-old question: what makes a book a classic?
Unfortunately for me, there seems to be no universal criteria on which to make this distinction.  A Google search brings up about 336,000,000 results of people asking that same question, but there's no real answer designated anywhere, and that makes my job particularly hard.  I've seen a gamut of responses, but all are as arbitrary as the next.  Yet, our society HAS in fact determined that a set of books are worth reading through the generations.  Seriously, you see the word "classic book" thrown around as if it were a fact about nearly every book that just happens to seem old.  So it would be nice to know: really, what makes a book a classic?

Common responses have ranged from, "Classic books are those that are universally relevant," to "It can stand the test of time," which are similar enough, I suppose.  There's also the pithy maxim "it must have a timeless theme."  Basically, this concept has been debated by the likes of Italo Cavino to Mark Twain (or so says Wikipedia).  And yet, Cavino even acknowledged determining a universal list of "Classic" books is impossible:

“There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”

Great.  Well, that being the case, I've decided - I'm not going to bother.

What I am going to do is instead take a look at publishing companies who sell books under the premise of being a 'classic book.'

In addition to bookselling chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders having their own special "classics" list, publishers like Random House, Oxford University Press, Modern Library, and Penguin Books sell what they determine are "classic" titles.  Obviously, these publishers have some idea or criteria for what makes a book a classic, but between all of them, there isn't real consistency.  From what I've seen, B&N, Borders, and Oxford World's Classics seem to include mostly books whose authors are dead, or that cannot be considered 'modern' classics.  Modern Library is dedicated to (no surprise) what they call "Modern Classics," and Penguin Classics and Random House's Everyman's Library is a nice eclectic mix of both old and new.

So, even amongst publishers, different books are considered "classics."  I'm not surprised that chains like B&N and Borders have lists made up primarily of older books - many books on their list are considered 'public domain,' so every few years, they can publish a new set of the same books, just with different covers and pages, and make a quick buck off the lit-nerds whose life isn't complete unless they own every edition of the same book they've already read 12 times.  But perhaps that's cynical of me (and honestly, I'll need to devote another post to that topic).  Let's look away from the profit-driven model of "Classic Book" and examine the content of the individual lists.

B&N and Borders share an interesting commonality: their lists are primarily made up with white, male authors.  With the exception of some famous females such as Austen, Bronte, Wharton,  and a few others, the list is overwhelmingly male.  B&N has what it calls an "African American" subsection of its classics, which includes 8 - eight! - books written by black authors (and of those 8, 2 are just reprints of earlier editions, so it's really 6). 8 out of 320 books published as a classic, written by black authors. And not just black authors, African American authors.  African and South American authors seem to be wholly unrepresented when it comes to classic books, from these publishers at any rate.

(Sidebar: to their credit, B&N does what I've seen no other publisher do: publish a book of 4 slave narratives, by typically unheard of authors - why they couldn't dedicate each their own book, well, that's a question for another day.)

But maybe that's not fair.  Maybe a wide range of novels from Africa or Central and South America just were not written centuries ago.  Totally possible.  Let's look at Oxford's list.  They include Cervantes, a Spanish author, but technically, being from Spain he's still European, so I don't know how I feel about singling him out.  On a positive note, Oxford features a much more even gender distribution, featuring women I've never even heard of (though, they do that with men too, so I'm not sold yet).  They do include Sayings from the Buddha by Pali Nikayas, have to give them credit for that.  But, overall, there seems to be even less non-white authors on this list.

Hmm. I'm beginning to pick up on a nasty trend.  Let's look at Modern Library's list.

Modern Library has identified a list of 100 Best Novels, not necessarily a classics list, but I'll modify it to my purposes. I'm only going to work with the Board's list, not because I have anything against the every-day reader, but because of their best books, they listed L. Ron Hubbard three separate times, and in my eyes, that's a travesty on a scale large enough to strip away any privilege they had in determining a "best novel" list.

Anyway, Modern Library scores points for including one of my favorite books, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, but loses points for including only 7 women (though, I originally thought it was ten because I mistakenly counted Evelyn Waugh as a woman - my bad).  Only 7 women, of 100.  On top of that, only a handful on non-white authors.

It seems what determines classic books is not the merit of the book itself, but the merit of how progressive our society can be when it comes to recognizing worthy titles.  It's not by accident that the majority of all these lists include white male authors.  And I don't want to discredit those authors - some of them are truly terrific.  Some are...not really my cup of tea.  But I am hard-pressed to believe that, even in our modern times, we cannot find more than a sampling of non-white authors writing truly fantastic books.

Ah, but Alex, you haven't finished the last two lists, by Random House and Penguins. Don't worry, I'm getting there.  I was actually quite surprised with these publishers.  Random House's Everyman's Essentials Library include 100 books, like Modern Library's, but the list is far from being as homogenous as the others.  Including more women (such as Toni Morrison), more Latino authors (Gabriel Garcia Marquez rightfully makes the list several times), and more Eastern and African authors (including Achebe and Lao-Tzu), it's a much more eclectic and expansive list.

But as far as classics goes, Penguin Classics by far and away has done the most extensive work with developing a library.  With over 1,500 books (and still growing), Penguin includes both Modern and old Classics.  But what I admire most about this publisher is their acknowledgment of the trend my brief research is demonstrating.

I shouldn't be surprised that the most famous and Classic books are those written by white men.  Our world still operates from the white man's perspective; privilege and racism are ever existing, so of course, our society lauds white men's contributions to literature and books.  But Penguin Classics does a bang up job addressing this notion:

In recent years there has been an expansion of Spanish, German and Italian translations, and a broadening of the publishing of non-fiction. The series is now as committed to philosophy, theology, travel, politics, history and autobiography as it is to fiction and poetry. There has been an increase in the representation of women's writing, particularly in the English language. The original Penguin English Library editions of the major nineteenth-century English novelistsDickens, Austen, Hardy, the Brontës, Gaskellhave been replaced by new versions with up-to-date critical apparatus and freshly and accurately edited texts. There will continue to be a large growth in the representation of vernacular English texts within the Classics, both of fiction and poetry, in response to a much broader sense of literary tradition.

Now sixty years old, the series has little left to prove but much still to accomplish. Whilst reasonably comprehensive on European literature, the vast non-Western canon remains a challenge that can only be met gradually. Gaps cannot be filled overnight. A new edition requires the right person with both the skills and resources for this detailed, painstaking and demanding task.

My point in addressing this is not to clamor for the removal of titles from our "classics" lists.  I simply want publishers to begin to include authors who don't fit the white male paradigm we find in these lists.  This isn't just a book problem, either.  We find it in television and video games all the time as well (but that's for a future blog post).  Again, no hate for white people, or men; just a call for diversifying our libraries, and a challenge for us as a society to stretch ourselves when it comes to what we consume in media.  Why diversify?  Well, that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Well, it's Tuesday, and I had every intention of updating this blog today with my first random post of my choosing about a topic having to do with Literature. Only problem is, I didn't research my topic, and then I realized while looking over my class schedule that having regularly scheduled posts on Wednesdays actually works better for me. So no "real" post for today.

But, I decided that doesn't mean I can't make a general post about myself (and books). So to the small, pitiful number of you who actually read this, here's a post:

I (mentally) went through my summer reading list, and decided to compile it in a Word Document. I'm not sure if it's entirely complete (I'm not in my apartment or near my bookshelf right now, so I might be missing some titles). But, here's the list so far (compiled alphabetically by author's last name):

The Environmental Justice Reader: Politics, Poetics, and Pedagogy, Joni Adamson, et al

Catherine and Other Works, Jane Austen

Lady Susan, Sandition, and Letters, Jane Austen

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Persuasion, Jane Austen

Those Who Save Us, Jenna Blum

35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say, Maura Cullen

Youth-Led Community Organizing: Theory and Action, Marvin Delgado and Lee Staples

What is the What, Dave Eggers

Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti**

Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire

Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire

Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell

The Autobiography of Malcom X, Alex Haley and Malcom X

Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath

A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving

What Happened to You?: Writing by Disabled Women, Lois Keith

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

The Student Leadership Challenge, James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen*

100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Marquez

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The Resident Assistant’s Survival Guide, Karl Pillemer, et al

Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

Soil Not Oil: Environmental Justice in an Age of Climate Crisis, Vandana Shiva

 “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Beverly Daniel Tatum

The Ascent of a Leader, Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Jean M. Twenge & W. Keith Campbell

Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, Cornel West

Hope on a Tightrope: Words and Wisdom, Cornel West

*Saturday’s Book Review – get excited!

**I have already read this, but it’s review probably won’t come for a while…

A few of these I've read before, but am really interested in re-reading again because I enjoyed them the first time around. Many of these are "professional development" books - books I bought because in some way, I thought they could help me in my current profession (plus, I was given the funds to buy them, and I love buying books!).  Safe to say, it's a pretty eclectic mix.

Ideally, I want to switch back and forth each week from novel to non-fiction, but we'll see how that goes.  Anyway, so far, 4 of 33 which isn't...bad, I suppose. I have a long way to go, but hey, I have nothing to do all summer.

If anyone reading has recommendations for books I absolutely have to read, please, let me know. In the meantime, I'll be working through these (and a few others, because I know I've forgotten some...).

AVB, out.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The (non-)power of Persuasion

At the beginning of my summer break, I picked up the first book I could find and just began reading. That book was Jane Austen's Persuasion.  So here I am, using my first real blog post to review Persuasion and attempting to persuade you to continue reading my blog (oh-ho, see what I did there?).

My edition of Persuasion includes an introduction by literary professor Susan Ostrov Weisser.  In it, she says: “Just as Jane Austen is the favorite author of many discerning readers, Persuasion is the most highly esteemed novel of many Austenites…[and] has often been seen as the thinking reader’s Pride and Prejudice.”

Well, that bruises my self-esteem.

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite novels.  And to think, all this time, I’ve been enjoying the ‘non-thinker’ Austen novel.

I understand what Ms. Weisser is saying.  Persuasion is certainly different from Austen’s earlier novels.  It’s darker, more dreary, and misses out on that “light, bright, and sparkling” prose for which Pride and Prejudice is so famous (though Austen herself used that phrase as a pejorative).  That’s not to say it’s not an enjoyable read – its wit is certainly more cutting, more scathing, and at times more delicious than previous Austen novels.  But, the overall product just doesn’t seem as polished to me. And yes, I'm aware that this makes me a bad Austenite; don't worry, I'm working through this.

Persuasion was written before Austen’s death, and scholars believe she did not have the time to carefully revise her work as was her usual way before submitting for publication.  I can tell.  While Persuasion is a nice read, its pace is much slower than earlier works, and a lot of the action takes place off-page, so to speak. This makes for an anti-climactic read.

For those who have never read Persuasion, a brief summary is in order: Anne Elliot is the middle child of Sir Walter Elliot, a pompous, vain man whose self-perception of grandeur could span the Pacific ocean three times over.  With his equally vain daughter, Elizabeth, Sir Walter overspends his income, and is forced to undergo the degrading process of letting his manor out.  Walter and Elizabeth care little for Anne, who is just a sad middle child, and often forgotten by her family.  The youngest sister, Mary, rounds out the Elliot family, and everyone save for Anne is fodder for Austen’s biting critique of 19th century English social class structure.

The reader learns that Anne was formerly engaged to a handsome Captain Wentworth.  The engagement was broken off, however, after Anne was persuaded by good family friend Lady Russell that Wentworth was too poor for Anne to marry.  To cut a long summary short, eight years later, Anne still loves Wentworth and by chance, he comes back into her life.  The novel follows Anne as she navigates through dealing with these feelings and Wentworth's seeming lack of interest in her.

That summary doesn’t do the book justice, and I realize I'm leaving a lot out, but if you really want to know the whole of it, well, here you go. To say that it’s difficult to summarize succinctly because this is one of Austen’s more complex novels is apt – there are more characters and more strands of plot in Persuasion than any other Austen novel that I can recall. But let's look at the crux of the novel, the driving force of the narrative: Anne's relationship with Wentworth.

Simply put, Persuasion’s biggest flaw is its romance – unlike Darcy and Elizabeth, or Emma and George Knightley, Anne and Wentworth hardly interact in the text.  Austen doesn’t devote much dialogue for them to share, instead having an omniscient narrator summarize what they say to one another.  There’s no pop, no sizzle – it’s just boring.

Furthermore, the reader never really gets to know Wentworth.  We learn that he’s now a self-made rich man, and very kind and gentlemanly and all that jazz.  But we don’t see his passions, his interests, even his faults.  He’s like a shiny Ken doll that we have to take for granted is totally awesome and a perfect fit for our Barbie even though we’re not allowed to take him out of the box.  Wentworth just isn't as well rounded or interesting as previous Austen heroes.

This really weakens the romance, and the book.  What we know of Wentworth comes primarily from Anne.  When Anne realizes Wentworth still loves her because he acts strangely when with her at an opera towards the end of the novel, we just have to take for granted that what Anne is saying is right – because we don’t know the character well enough to contradict her.  And when Wentworth and Anne finally do reconnect, not only is it two chapters before the end of the book, Austen devotes very little dialogue to the moment, and the result is unsatisfactory.

As a couple, Anne and Wentworth are just boring.  Which is a shame, because Anne is pretty awesome.  Anne is genteel and reserved and a far cry from Elizabeth Bennet, but she’s an endearing character.  The reader really does feel bad for Anne – she was convinced to break up with her fiancé, her family pretty much always ignores her or thinks her not worth mentioning, her fiancé comes back and seems to be totally uninterested in her, and she’s constantly used and abused.  She's not an unlikeable character, and that makes it all the more disappointing when her romance feels so lacking.

We know that Anne’s a very intelligent, well read woman, too; she quotes Byron like there’s none other.  Which makes it a shame that the most invigorated we see Anne is when she’s conversing with another male that’s not Wentworth, a Captain Benwick.  Anne isn’t a boring character – she just doesn’t really have chemistry with Wentworth.

Persuasion’s main villain, Mr. Elliot, Anne’s cousin, also lacks the sting of P&P's Wickham or Sense and Sensibility's Willoughby.  Like Wentworth, all of Mr. Elliot's villainy takes place outside of the text, and we never really feel repulsed by him.  We learn about his misdeeds through a third party, the unfortunate Mrs. Smith, but after this, he never really does anything on-screen that makes us loathe him.  What we do see, a letter from him disparaging the Elliot family - mainly the patriarch, Walter - would be worse if the reader were actually supposed to like Sir Walter.  As it stands, Sir Walter Elliot is a pompous ass, so while the reader understands that Anne is a good daughter and wants to defend her father against this attack, we kind of want to side with Mr. Elliot on this one.

However, the novel really shines when it focuses on its supporting cast.  Mary Elliot, the youngest sister, is a riot and Austen’s resident lady-ditz.  The amount of hysteria and sheer ridiculousness Mary exudes puts Mrs. Bennet to shame – it’s glorious.  Austen very effectively uses Mary, along with Walter and Elizabeth, to attack the upper-class and the conflated, overblown notions of superiority of the wealthy.

This is where the book is enjoyable.  Austen is clearly enjoying herself when she ruthlessly mocks the pseudo-nobility that is the Elliot clan.  And we do to.  At least, I did.  Unlike other novels, Austen firmly embraces the self-made middle class, and her social critique is spot on (and hilarious).  This is where Persuasion is worth reading.

Overall, I wouldn’t say Persuasion is bad – it's Austen’s attempt at a more mature and dark novel.  Perhaps if she had more time, the writing would be tighter, and the romance, more polished.  Perhaps, with time and a second read-through, I'll appreciate it more than I do now. As it stands, its decent, and at times even wonderful, but I’ll take my Pride and Prejudice and 'non-think' my way through it any day of the week.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Blogging about Books

Why start a book blog?  Well, firstly, why not?  Blogging is hip, cool, and apparently a la mode.  But more importantly, I have my first summer off since…well, since I began my college undergraduate studies four years ago, and I need something to do.  More importantly, though, I need to find something practical and productive to do.  Reading is great.  More than great, its fantastic.  But I’ve flirted with the idea of some day becoming a book critic, or at least working in some capacity analyzing books.  What better way to start practicing than to blog about books?

I had a vision, in late March, of starting a blog and becoming an internet-renowned blogger, and with this vision came brainstorming, outlining, constantly thinking about ways to achieve this goal.  Realistically, I understand it might not happen.  Even if it does, it will take a long time.  Yet, I think what was most important about my brainstorming session in March was it allowed me to create a vision for what I wanted to do with the blogging medium.  Book reviews are nice, but nothing groundbreaking or stellar.  I decided I wanted to hone my literary analysis skills, but also do more – just talk about books.  But in, like, a cool way.

So that’s what I’m going to do.  With a pre-made list of topics about books and literature to explore, I am creating this blog: a blog dedicated alternatively to book analysis and reviews, and general analysis of the literary medium.  The general idea is to submit analysis postings on Tuesdays, and book reviews on Saturdays.  I know, I know, “the best laid plans,” and all that jazz, but that was talking about mice and men, of which I am neither, so I think I’m good.

Perhaps only a handful of people will ever read this; c’est la vie.  But, I’m optimistic that I’ll learn a lot from this endeavor, and that alone is worth the undertaking.