Friday, December 23, 2011

A Year in Reading

This year I continued to focus a lot of my reading on books that I thought would help me teach my African American Voices class. Some of that reading included nonfiction books about the African American experience: Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism; Eugene Robinson's Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America; and Randall Kennedy's The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. All three were gripping, addictive reads.

Shortly after I read Robinson's book, I saw him speak as part of the St. Louis Public Library's Black History Month program. His talk, on the the role of African Americans in the Civil War, led me to Stephanie McCurry's Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. A more hardcore history book than I typically read, and somewhat tedious at times, the book nevertheless had some useful material that I ended up incorporating into a class on popular fiction of the post-Civil War era, in which I set up the stories of Charles W. Chesnutt as a corrective to the fantasies of white writers, exemplified by Joel Chandler Harris's "Story of the War."

I also read Gerald Early's new book A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports, as well as Albert Murray's 1970 The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. These were both stimulating books by first-class thinkers and writers. Less intellectually rigorous was Patrice Evans' Negropedia: The Assimilated Negro's Crash Course on the Modern Black Experience, a collection of glorified blog posts that made for entertaining bathrom reading but not much else.

Over the summer, I participated in another NEH Institute, this one on American culture as viewed through the lens of Motown and Jazz music in the years 1959-1975. It turned out to be quite fascinating, as well as a lot of work. Here's what I read; and here is what I wrote. Perhaps inspired by the course's emphasis on how music can be used to study culture, I ended up reading a number of books about black music: Gerald Early's One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture; Michael P. Jeffries' Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop; David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello's Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present; LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka's Blues People: Negro Music in White America; and Albert Murray's Stomping the Blues.

I also read several famous African American autobiographical narratives, all of which were great: Richard Wright's Black Boy; the Autobiography of Malcolm X (I taught the 1964 chapter in class); Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (which I plan to teach next year in place of Toni Morrison's Beloved); and Langston Hughes' The Big Sea (which I'm going to have the students read for summer reading).

Among all of this nonfiction about African Americans, I did read a few important pieces of fiction: Toni Cade Bambara's 1972 short story collection Gorilla, My Love; Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance classic The Blacker the Berry; and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (the only piece of fiction Malcolm X read in prison).

Of course, the most unforgettable novel I read this year was Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, which I read along with a number of my colleagues. You can read the blog I kept about the experience here. Afterward, I enjoyed reading Isaiah Berlin's illuminating Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History.

Early on in the year I also read Sherman Alexie's rather uneven collection War Dances; over the summer I re-read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for my school's all-school summer reading project (which culminated this year in a great student production of the play); and I also plowed through David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript The Pale King, which, though it is nowhere close to a coherent, finished novel, still contains some pieces of writing which rank among DFW's best. What a loss that he is gone.

So that brings me to the end of my tally of 2011's reading. As I look ahead to 2012, I anticipate spending more time with Tolstoy—reading some of his shorter works; as well as with Gogol—his novel Dead Souls. I'm planning on dipping again into Library of America editions of William Faulker and Zora Neale Hurston that I bought during the summer of 2010. I'd also like to read the short story collection Hue and Cry, by James Alan McPherson, who seemed to come up a lot in my AA Voices class this time around.

Beyond that, who knows?

As I wrote this post, I was a little surprised by how much I read this year (and I didn't even mention all of the Judy Blume and Roald Dahl I read to my daughters before bedtime). Part of me (and I fear, part of you, dear reader) wonders, Where did I get all the time to do this? Don't I have a life?

To answer those questions in order: I don't know, and, I think so.

I don't think I neglect my family to read. I do exercise somewhat regularly. I prepare my classes thoroughly and carefully, and grade papers promptly and conscientiously. In fact, much of what I've been reading lately is directly useful in my teaching.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that I watch almost no TV. Not that there's anything wrong with TV. A year or two ago I got completely addicted to The Wire and watched all 60 episodes in a month and a half. But somehow I just generally don't have the patience for TV, strange as that may sound. You have to have a quiet house to watch TV; you have to plop yourself down and passively observe a screen for a set period of time.

This may sound bizarre, too, but in the end I guess I read so much because it seems to me that reading is one of the best things that life has to offer.

Monday, December 19, 2011

New Yorker Fiction 2011

This year the magazine published 48 pieces of fiction, of which I read 24. Here are my favorites, in chronological order. Not all of them are available online, but I have linked the ones that are:

The King of Norway, by Amos Oz (1/17)—an aborted romance on a kibbutz in Israel

Axis, by Alice Munro (1/31)—a great story about how lives can turn profoundly on a single moment; it just occurs to me now that this story would be an interesting companion to Margaret Atwood's "Stone Mattress," a sort of feminist "Cask of Amontillado" published in the final issue of the year

The Other Place, by Mary Gaitskill (2/14)—a disturbing story about men and violence

Paranoia, by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh (2/28)—an eerie parable of race and class in America

The Trusty, by Ron Rash (5/23)—a convict attempts to escape from the chain gang

Home, by George Saunders (6/13)—a war veteran's struggles

Gravel, by Alice Munro (6/27)—a childhood trauma

Reverting to a Wild State, by Justin Torres (8/1)—tracing, in reverse chronological order, the devolution of a relationship

Tenth of December, by George Saunders (10/31)—a moving iteration of one of Saunders's favorite fictional structures: two characters, lost in their own worlds, who encounter each other out in the world

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander (12/12)—a take-off on Raymond Carver's famous story, this time about two Jewish couples, one ultra-conservative, the other quite secular

If you're curious, here are my favorites from 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Monday, December 5, 2011

More Talk About Raymond Carver

Nathan Englander, in an interview about his new story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank," with an interesting comment about the differing versions of Raymond Carver's stories—the ones with and without the editorial cuts of Gordon Lish—which I wrote about here and here:

I did follow the debate, but from afar, taking it in with a sidelong I’m-already-decided kind of glance. I’m a compulsive re-drafter, and I’m pretty religious about the idea that in the end a story will find its final true form, and when it has found that form, that’s what the story was meant (in some fated way) to be. I did not read “Beginners,” but I do remember—and this is probably when I was studying in Iowa—reading “The Bath” after reading “A Small Good Thing,” Carver’s original exploration of the story. I just see them as two different works. They’re not in conflict to me. “A Small Good Thing” with its “Small Good Thing” ending cut, is a totally different experience. It’s not a different version of the same story, it’s a different story. I’d say the same feeling would apply to the other stories of Carver’s which have also been published in what Tess Gallagher calls, in The New Yorker article you reference, their “true, original” form. Simply, anything that puts more Carver stories into the universe, makes for a better (if more depressing) universe.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Confessions of a Musical Philistine

Recently a Facebook friend of mine posted a letter she had written in which she extolls the virtues of vinyl records—their longevity, their physicality, their ability to evoke the times and places in which they were listened to. Along with the text, she also posted photos of herself holding up various LPs she was giving away to a young man as a Bar Mitzvah gift. Merely by looking through the photos, I got a taste of the pleasures she was describing in her eloquent letter.

Though I spend a sizable portion of my own leisure time listening to music, however, and have a constant mental soundtrack playing in my head most of the time, I've never been a vinyl guy. In my earliest memories, I can recall listening to a couple of my parents' records: the soundtrack from Grease, the Steve Martin album with the King Tut song on it. I had quite a few read-along records, 45-rpm sized, but that's about it.

When I first started listening to music in earnest, it was on tapes. I didn't get a CD player until I was a senior in high school; and now, mostly, I listen to music on my iPod and my computer. I don't have a particularly nice speaker system. I rarely patronize record stores anymore (particularly since there's virtually none within the city limits)—I buy music from Amazon. In these ways, then, I am anathema to audiophiles, a gauche consumer of tunes without the refined habits of the connoisseur.

Yet, in my own perhaps debased way, I have had something of the experience my FB friend describes. I thought of it a few months ago when R.E.M. announced their final dissolution, and I was moved to pull down from the closet shelf all my old R.E.M. tapes. I took a photo of them and thought of writing a blog post about what R.E.M. had meant to me., but I never got around to it.

Looking at these tape covers, holding the little plastic boxes, I do recall all the time I spent listening to them—working on math homework at my desk down in the basement of the house I grew up in, or hooked into headphones in the back seat of my family's van as we drove somewhere. I remember going to the Streetside Records on Watson Road to buy many of these.

Let's face it, though: tapes aren't the same as vinyl LPs. The cover art is shrunken; the recording material is not as durable; the listening experience is less sensual, and less convenient as well—it's harder to go directly to the song you want to hear.

So maybe it's not surprising that I've become a musical philistine. I never had much of a chance, coming of age in a world of tapes, never having had that formative emotional experience with vinyl. As Huck Finn says, "it warn't no use for me to try to learn to do right; a body that don't get started right when he's little ain't got no show—when the pinch comes there ain't nothing to back him up."

It may be that eventually all my CDs will deteriorate and my MP3s get corrupted. I certainly won't have fond memories of the fleeting moments I spent buying music online (or downloading my free weekly songs legally from the library). I know that I'm settling for a less beautiful life as a music listener. But, honestly, I don't envision ever changing my ways.


An interesting series of covers (with accompanying article) for Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, a collection of stories about Auschwitz by an author who was there.

Saturday, November 26, 2011


The first paragraph of Timothy Noah's review of Paul Starr's Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle Over Health Care Reform is striking:

Barack Obama achieved more significant change in domestic policy during the first two years of his presidency than any president since Richard Nixon has over the course of four or eight. That’s because in 2010 Obama signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. We don’t know how this story will end, but there’s now a law on the books that, for all its many shortcomings and unpopularity, will extend health coverage to most of this country’s uninsured. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the share of legal nonelderly residents who have health insurance will rise from 83 percent to 94 percent. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, some unquantifiable number of people will live who would otherwise die.

As are the final two sentences:

Should the Supreme Court chuck Obamacare, health policy will be back to Square 1, and Obama’s presidency will be instantly transformed from a substantive success to a substantive failure. I fear that Justices Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Alito and Kennedy may find that possibility too tempting to pass up.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


The provocative opening to Martin Amis's review of Don DeLillo's new collection of short stories:

When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?

Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Anchored Down

It occurred to me the other day that Michelle Shocked's classic 1988 song "Anchorage" is now a period piece, kind of like the old Marvelettes tune "Beechwood 4-5789"—made quaint by the evolution of communication technology.

For example:

1) The first lines: "I took time out to write to my old friend ... mailed my letter off to Dallas." Who writes letters anymore? Who mails them?

2) Later in the song, the speaker's friend writes back: "Hey girl, it's about time you wrote me. It's been over two years you know, my old friend." Today these two would obviously be friends on Facebook.

3) Near the end of the song: "Tell me, what's it like to be a skateboard punk rocker? Leroy says send a picture. Leroy says hello. Leroy says, As keep on rockin' girl. Yeah, keep on rockin'." In the song, these lines speak of Leroy's yearning for a window into a world beyond his drab workaday existence with the speaker's old friend in Anchorage, Alaska. Nowadays, he'd just Facebook stalk her and look through the albums of photos she'd post of her skateboard punk rock life in New York.

4) I hate to say it, but would it be possible to write a song about Alaska now without making at least a humorous reference to Sarah Palin?

Ah well. It's still a great song.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Revival of Laughter

A nice bit from a review of a posthumous collection of John Updike's essays:

His own word-pictures — of events remembered, books read, pictures seen, games played, loves grasped and relinquished — are among the gifts of our literature. “Perhaps,” he writes in an essay on humor, “one reason we laugh so much in childhood is that so much is unexpected and novel to us, and perhaps fiction revives that laughter by giving us back the world clearer than we have seen it before.”

Monday, November 7, 2011

Word of the Day

My day has already been made: by David Remnick's use of the word "callipygian" (look it up) to describe Kim Kardashian in his Comment in the upcoming New Yorker.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Nod to Bob

Today I downloaded some early Bob Dylan tunes (legally!) that I'd previously had only on tape. Listening to them, I became curious about the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, about Suze Rotolo and Joan Baez. Eventually I ended up on the Wikipedia entry for Dylan, where I found this funny little nugget:

In the late 1970s, Dylan became a born-again Christian and released two albums of Christian gospel music. Slow Train Coming (1979) featured the guitar accompaniment of Mark Knopfler (of Dire Straits) and was produced by veteran R&B producer, Jerry Wexler. Wexler recalled that when Dylan had tried to evangelize him during the recording, he replied: "Bob, you're dealing with a sixty-two-year old Jewish atheist. Let's just make an album."

Friday, November 4, 2011


From a review of a new biography of Kurt Vonnegut

Mr. Shields provides a good assessment of misconceptions about Vonnegut’s writing. Those impressions persisted throughout his later life, perhaps because the books that followed “Cat’s Cradle,” “The Sirens of Titan,” “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and “Slaughterhouse-Five” became increasingly unreadable.

“On the strength of Vonnegut’s reputation, ‘Breakfast of Champions’ spent a year on the best-seller lists,” Mr. Shields writes of that 1973 disappointment, “proving that he could indeed publish anything and make money.”

Huh. Should I be embarrassed to admit that Breakfast of Champions has always been perhaps my favorite Vonnegut novel?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Know Who You Are

In my adolescence I read a lot of Stephen King. I haven't read anything more than a short story or two by him in years, but I do tend to pay attention to what he's up to.

His new novel—a time-travel story about a guy who tries to prevent JFK's asssassination—is being marketed as a new kind of Stephen King novel. Whether it is or not, I found this Wall Street Journal article interesting and this anecdote amusing in particular:

Mr. King recalled a woman who approached him in a supermarket in Florida, where he has a winter home.

"She said, 'I know who you are, you're that writer, you write those horror stories, and I said, "Yes, ma'am, I guess," and she said, 'I don't read that kind of thing. I respect what you do but I don't read those. I like uplifting things like that 'Shawshank Redemption,' '' Mr. King recalled. "I said, 'I wrote that one, too,' and she goes, 'No, you didn't,' and she just went on her way."

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Slavery and Shaw

Here's a piece I've got up at the Occasional Planet today about a memorial to slaves who attempted to escape from estate of St. Louis's own Henry Shaw.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saunders Does It Again

George Saunders is one of the writers who can make me cry. He did it again with this new story, "Tenth of December"—in which, as he did in "Escape from Spiderhead," Saunders seems to be working through his feelings about the suicide of his friend and artistic compatriot David Foster Wallace.

A teacher of writing at Syracuse, Saunders is also a reliably perceptive commentator on his own work and on the craft of fiction. This Q&A with Deborah Treisman is no exception. Here's a nice bit:

I think fiction isn’t so good at being for or against things in general—the rhetorical argument a short story can make is only actualized by the accretion of particular details, and the specificity of these details renders whatever conclusions the story reaches invalid for wider application.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tell Tale Charts

Colin Gordon, a professor at the University of Iowa, wrote a book called Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, which I wrote about in St. Louis Magazine.

Now Gordon has put together a series of remarkably illuminating short films about the American economy. About three minutes long apiece, they're narrated graphs that illustrate basic facts and trends related to topics like the minimum wage, Social Secuirty, and the current recession.

They're well worth checking out. You can watch them here.

Monday, September 5, 2011


Today I've been gobbling up Randall Kennedy's book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. Among many great insights, this statistical point, made in a footnote and drawn from Nate Silver's blog FiveThirtyEight, struck me as particularly startling:

In 1980, nearly 98 percent of Ronald Reagan's voters were white. In 2000, 91 percent of George W. Bush's voters were white. In 2008, 89 percent of John McCain's voters were white.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

I'll Fly Away

In honor of last night's fantastic Gillian Welch show—which featured an electrical malfunction (the lights and A/C at the Pageant both proved unreliable), a wardrobe malfunction (one of the straps of Gillian's dress apparently failed, causing her to disappear off stage for a while, leaving David Rawlings to entertain the crowd with a solo version of "Big Rock Candy Mountain"), and a lyrics malfunction (Rawlings momentarily blanked on the words of the eighth or ninth verse of "Sweet Tooth" before bringing the song to a rollicking close)—here's Alec Wilkinson on the guitar playing of Rawlings, from Wilkinson's 2004 New Yorker profile of the band:

Rawlings is a strikingly inventive guitarist. His solos often feature daring melodic leaps. He uses passing tones as signal elements of a solo rather than relying on them merely to bridge chord changes, and there is an obstinate, near-vagrant quality of chromatic drifting to his playing--of his proceeding with harmonic ideas at a different pace and perhaps even in a different direction from the song's changes. He uses double and triple stops and open strings for dramatic effect. Often, he leaves an open string ringing as a drone against which he plays a note that conflicts with the chord the drone refers to. He likes to go as far out on a limb as he can before figuring out how to get back. In Carrboro, he played a solo that seemed as if it were going to skid right off the pavement and recovered itself only at the very last moment. The crowd applauded the simple audacity, and a woman beside me, clearly familiar with his playing, began laughing and shaking her head. "Of course he ends it there," she said to her companion. "Why wouldn't he?" In the dressing room afterward, I asked Rawlings how he would describe his playing, and he said that he simply has a fondness for certain notes and he finds ways to play them. When I asked which notes they were, he shrugged and said, "The ghostly ones."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Remnick on Obama

It's been a long time since I've last posted, but what better way to get back into it than with an excellent Fraction from David Remnick, from his fine piece on Libya, Obama, and "leading from behind":

The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America’s power and the affirmation of its glory. In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy. Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What I've Been Up To

From my graduate school days, I recall a quotation from Nietzsche, an exhortation: "Obey in a single direction."

Regular readers of this blog (a small but distinguished group—and you know who you are) may have noticed that my posts have been trailing off lately. I suppose it's because I've been trying to follow Nietzsche's advice. Pulled in a number of directions by my responsibilities as a parent and by some other projects I've been working on (including this one), I've let the blog go for a while in an attempt to focus my energies.

Currently, I'm in the midst of another NEH Summer Institute, this one on jazz, Motown, and American culture from 1959 to 1975. It's been a great experience so far.

For those who may be curious about what I've been doing in that Institute, or who may be experiencing the unpleasant symptoms of Corresponding Fractions withdrawal, here are three posts I've written for the Institute's blog:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Stone Walls Redux

Not too long ago I did a little post about some stone walls I noticed on a bike ride through the south side of St. Louis. Today I went riding again and ended up in Carondelet, where I saw this interesting example at the intersection of Iron and Michigan:

In this case, the extensive stone wall remains even though the houses that it once framed are gone.

The wall rounds the corner, on which stands an unkempt in-fill home that is largely shrouded by dense tree cover.

As I rode around today, I was struck by how many beautiful and well-kept houses there are, even in areas of the city that would probably be considered sketchy by prospective home-buyers. The admirable people who stick with these houses and these neighborhoods are quixotic in their commitment to these beautiful places that have been bypassed by highways and real estate trends.

The stone wall above is an example of the sheer abundance and wealth of St. Louis's architectural past. Despite all that has vanished, there's so much that still remains—and much that retains its glory.

A couple examples:

(Boathouse in Carondelet Park)

(at Livingston and Holly Hills)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Last Words

I've got a new piece up at The Millions today. It's an idea I've been kicking around for a while, but just last week at tennis my friend Ben told me a story that was the final piece of the puzzle.

You can read it here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Covenant of Pathos

From an interview with George Saunders about his story in the current New Yorker, a passage that I think crystallizes what I love about him (i.e., his humanity toward his characters):

Deborah Treisman: You seem, ultimately, to have a lot of sympathy for Mike, despite whatever it is that he has (or hasn’t) done, and the violent urges that keep surging up in him. Why is that?

George Saunders: Well, yes—I think that’s one of the fundamental goals of fiction, and its most efficient modus operandi: as a writer you’ve got to keep trying to “de-Other” your narrator until you’ve established him as basically you but on a different day. (I mean, that’s not the only way, but it is a way that, for me, can have the effect of making the narrator non-negligible, i.e., of minimizing the possibility of authorial slumming/puppeteering.) There’s this funny thing where the technical stuff (trying to make the voice convincing and compelling; operating at a sufficient level of detail; trying to keep the reader emotionally with the narrator) will dovetail with the moral valence of the piece—that is, technique leads to sympathy, or maybe, the appearance of sympathy.

I may have to pay the Art Institute a commission for these quotations I’m nonchalantly dropping in here, but here’s something the German artist Ludwig Meidner said that seems relevant to this question: “Do not be afraid of the face of a human being. Don’t let your pen stop until the soul of that one opposite you is wedded to yours in a covenant of pathos.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Stone Walls in South St. Louis

On Memorial Day I took an afternoon bike ride around the South side of St. Louis. On this particular ride I found myself noticing stone walls, starting with this one on Oak Hill:

These ornamental but functional walls speak of a more glorious era of craftsmanship in the city. Unlike the generic retaining walls that tend to get built these days, stone walls give neighborhoods a sense of place and history.

Notice how the stone walls frame the entryway up to this stone house, also on Oak Hill:

This modest home on Ulena is given a touch of charm by the stone wall bordering its front lawn.

And the long expanse of stone wall on both sides of Macklind as it approaches Gresham frames the street beautifully and uniquely.

The city is full of these treasures which, though they may belong to individual homeowners, seem to emanate from a more public-spirited notion of how architecture can create community space and aesthetic pleasure for all to enjoy.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Risky Business

From a very interesting Louis Menand article about the value of college in America:

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

Menand goes on to point out that business is the number one major in American colleges, accounting for 22 percent of bachelor's degrees.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Writing Roundup

For the past year or so, my blogging pace has slowed a bit, but I've been trying to do around eight posts a month. This month I'm lagging behind and might not make it. I've been stymied partly by my own sloth and partly by the demands of the final weeks of the school year.

I have been doing some writing in other forums, however. For example, today I have a piece up at the Occasional Planet entitled "Racial Politics and Obama: A New Era?"

Having finished War and Peace at the beginning of the month, I've also written a couple posts about Tolstoy's ideas of freedom: one focuses on Tolstoy's ideas about history and freedom; the other focuses on his ideas about freedom and individuals.

If you're feeling cheated by this month's dearth of Corresponding Fractions, I'd be honored if you checked out one or more of these pieces.


Saturday, May 21, 2011


Today as I took out the recycling to the receptacle in the alley, I stopped to notice the weeds that inevitably grow up in the little strip of soil between the pavement and the retaining wall in our backyard.

It's so ordinary that it often goes unnoticed, but it's wondrous that life is so persistent, isn't it? That something will find a way to live in any little bit of dirt that gets watered by the rain?

The spiny specimen above seems well-suited for its inhospitable environment. As if it knows it's unloved and unwanted, it bristles menacingly, threatening to sting those who might casually try to pluck it.

Meanwhile, this weed, an unauthorized occupant of a more privileged space (the elevated flowerbed atop the retaining wall), gamely emulates the florid attractions that earn other plants the right to be there:

And these intrepid leaves poke up through the barest crack in the concrete, scrabbling out a photosynthetic subsistence:

Life, inexorably it seems, seeks to thrive wherever it can—just as the human mind, perhaps just as inexorably, seeks to make meaning and metaphor out of whatever comes into its purview.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Don't Bury Me 'Cause I'm Not Dead Yet

Some say that blogging is on its deathbed, overtaken by quicker forms of cyber-communication like Twitter.

Pshaw, says Chris Mattarazo, in this eminently sensible piece:

The content of blogs is so diverse that to say they are “dying out” is almost to say that people are going to stop saying diverse things in a free medium that offers instant world-wide publication. What are the chances of that happening?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Obama, Bush, and Osama

Over the past few months, I've re-worked some of my Corresponding Fractions posts into more fully realized pieces that I've published in the friendly confines of the Occasional Planet. You can check some of these out in the list entitled "Integers: My Writing Elsewhere" on the right side of this blog, underneath the "Favorite Fractions" list.

Last night, watching coverage of the President's announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, I started writing a post in response to what I was seeing and remembering. Halfway through, I decided I would send it to the OP when it was finished. You can read it here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What a Story Can Be

Some wisdom from the great George Saunders, at the end of this interview:

I like the idea that a story—well, that we don’t really know what it is, exactly. And that this is actually the purpose of every story: to find one more active, breathing example of what a story can be.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Newsweek's Revival, and a Mind-Boggling Fact

For no apparent reason, several months ago we started receiving Newsweek magazine. It seemed pathetically thin of substance, and I was under the impression that it was on its last legs.

Then I heard that erstwhile New Yorker editor Tina Brown had taken over and had been charged with bringing the magazine back to life.

Now I'm wondering if part of her strategy is to try to hook as many New Yorker subscribers as she can.

Newsweek's cover story this week is by Peter J. Boyer, a great journalist who's long been associated with the New Yorker. And the magazine features illustrations of some of its contributors by Grafilu, who also did the distinctive portraits of last summer's 20 Under 40 fiction writers in the New Yorker.

It's not a bad strategy, if indeed it is Brown's strategy: start by throwing free magazines at New Yorker subscribers; then improve the magazine's content and make it more New Yorker-ish, in appearance, contributors, and article topics.

Case in point: an interesting article about Henry Louis Gates (himself a sometime New Yorker contributor), who's got a new PBS special airing soon called Black in Latin America.

I found this little tidbit blogworthy:

Black in Latin America was inspired by one mind-boggling fact. Of the 11 million Africans who survived the middle passage between 1502 and 1866, only 450,000 arrived in North America. The rest landed south of the border in places like Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil, which have their own, largely unexplored histories and legacies of race and racism.

Startling, isn't it?

Anyway, now that Corresponding Fractions has taken notice of Newsweek's revival and added to the buzz, I believe Tina Brown's marketing strategy is complete!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Inverted Capitalism

Bill Moyers interviews David Simon. I've seen this type of argument made before (John McWhorter says some similar things in this piece), but Simon puts it especially vividly here:

Bill Moyers: I did a documentary about the South Bronx called The Fire Next Door and what I learned very early is that the drug trade is an inverted form of capitalism.

David Simon: Absolutely. In some ways it’s the most destructive form of welfare that we’ve established, the illegal drug trade in these neighborhoods. It’s basically like opening up a Bethlehem Steel in the middle of the South Bronx or in West Baltimore and saying, “You guys are all steelworkers.” Just say no? That’s our answer to that? And by the way, if it was chewing up white folk, it wouldn’t have gone on for as long as it did.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Bechdel Test for Gender Bias

My wife was reading Tad Friend's recent New Yorker article about Anna Faris last night, and she quoted this interesting passage to me:

The Bechdel Test, established in 1985 by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace, is a way of examining movies for gender bias. The test poses three questions: Does a movie contain two or more female characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man?

Bechdel, incidentally, is the author of Fun Home, one of my all-time favorite books. She's also an old college buddy of Kathleen Finneran, the author of The Tender Land, which may be my absolute favorite book of all time.

In any case, I found the idea and the simplicity of this test striking. It occurred to me that none of the books I teach to my freshmen would pass: The Odyssey, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Huck Finn, or Romeo and Juliet. (Not to mention O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

It's startling to realize not only how many movies, but also how much of classic literature fails to pass this test.

Must give this issue more thought.