Things I finished reading this week:
- Mostly Harmless, by Douglas Adams
- The Little Nugget, by P. G. Wodehouse
- Three Men and a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome (audiobook)
- How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees
- The Man Upstairs and Other Stories, by P. G. Wodehouse
- The Unreal and the Real, Volume Two, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The current state of the things-to-read shelf
The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin
Small Beer Press
I usually tear through books, fast. At the end of the week, I’m startled by how many I have read even when I feel like I haven’t had enough time for reading. This week, though, I’ve spend nearly all of my time immersed in this one book.
I don’t know why I haven’t read Le Guin before, now. Her sentences are beautiful. I liked several of the stories in volume one, but volume two is the book that really enthralled me.
Can I mention “Solitude?” It described a world inhabited by introverts, who make a powerful distinction between ‘people’ (which they most definitely are not) and ‘persons.’ I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it before. The point of view of a young woman of two worlds, the gradual unfolding of how the persons of Eleven-Soro understand themselves and their world, is something I’m going to come back to again and again.
“Poacher” startled me and delighted me at the same point, when I realized that I was reading a familiar story without recognizing it.
It’s not hard to understand why I’ve heard of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” even though I haven’t read it before, and it’s not hard to understand how it has made its way into a variety of classrooms.
I will keep both volumes of this collection, but volume two is the book I think I’ll be rereading soonest. I had no idea this was what Le Guin was like, and now I feel a little silly for having failed to read her before. I’ll likely be reading one of her novels in the not-too-distant future.
I don’t know anything about reality, but I know what I like.
How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening
I am a junior high school teacher, which means that pencils, and the sharpening of them, is a large concern for me. At my school, as in most public schools, students take a truly shocking number of standardized tests. Every year, there is the year-end state standardized test, a high-stakes test. High-stakes for the school, that is, which stands to lose reputation and funding depending on scores. There are no stakes at all for the students taking the test; there is no reward for doing well, no penalty for doing poorly- indeed, the test does not even appear on a child’s report card.
In addition to the year-end test, there are three pre-tests, administered at the beginning of the year, just after Christmas vacation, and about a month before the state test. These are as long as the state test itself, and take about three days to administer- more than a week, when one includes the make-up testing of students who are absent.
In addition to those, there are ‘benchmark tests.’ These are shorter tests, which take only one full class day to administer, and they are given once a month.
That’s a lot of number 2 pencils.
There is a nationwide move toward computer-based testing, which is coming in with the Common Core Standards. However, my school, like so many public schools, but unlike most businesses, is ill-equipped to supply every person with a functional computer. So the tests, for now, still use number 2 pencils. Many, many number 2 pencils.
In the past, I have used an electric pencil sharpener. But the heavy use by hundreds of tweens is too much for any electric pencil sharpener in a public school teacher’s budget. The sharpeners break quickly, and cannot be repaired. They are expensive to replace. Electric pencil sharpeners are also noisy, and get much louder as they approach the end of their miserable life. They are not, I think, a good solution for my classroom.
In the wall of my classroom there is a small piece of wood. It is clearly meant to be the installation point for a hand-cranked pencil sharpener. However, the construction of the building used up all of the budget, and my school, when deciding how to furnish the building, had to do without such luxuries as pencil sharpeners, clocks, and American flags. So my flag-stand stands empty, and the wood pencil-sharpener base remains sharpenerless, and many of my students, accustomed to cell phone displays, are unable to read an analog clock.
Small things matter.
If this book has a purpose beyond humor, it is to remind us that there is pleasure to be taken in small things, and that, the closer we pay attention to anything, the more important it becomes. There really is an aesthetic pleasure in a simple wooden pencil, well-sharpened, and it’s a pleasure that I rarely enjoy, with my Pilot G2 pens and my mechanical pencils.
I enjoyed reading this book. It made me smile. It also taught me a few things I did not know about pencils and their sharpening.
Inspired, I have installed a small hand-held single blade sharpener in my classroom. Its manufacturer intended it to be used as a key ring, but I have attached a chain to it and hung it near my trash can. It is virtually silent. It will last for years. It cost less than $5. As far as I can tell, it is superior to my long line of loud, short-lived electric pencil sharpeners in every way. I feel proud for having solved a minor problem so neatly.
I liked Roger Ebert’s The Pot, which is about cooking with a rice cooker, and M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, which is about eating reasonably well on little or no money (specifically, during the era of World War II food rationing). Using them, I have developed a weight loss/ money-saving eating plan. If you follow my plan, you will lose weight, be healthier, and spend very little money on food. The one problem is that you may need to give up the idea of getting pleasure from food, but life has many pleasures, doesn’t it?
At the beginning of the week, in a large pot or rice cooker, cook up a big batch of brown rice. As it’s cooking, add a bag or two of frozen vegetables and one cut-up sausage. Mix it all together thoroughly. When it’s done, measure it into half-cup servings and put it in the freezer. Viola! Healthy, cheap food for the week.
Now just eat that. Two or three times a day, whenever you’re hungry, take one or two out of the freezer and microwave it. Put some bottled sauce on it to make it more palatable if you like.
I can’t think of any reason that this wouldn’t work to make a person healthy and fit while costing a laughably tiny amount of money.
You’d just need to make the choice that you were going to find your pleasures in other things, and when you eat, you’re just going for nutrients to keep you from dying.
No, I’m not planning to adopt this plan at this time. But it’s nice to know it’s an option if times get hard.
- My Antonia, by Willa Cather. Enjoy it as a tale of female pioneers, or as a pseudoautobiographical, crypyolesbian novel.
- The Hunting of the Snark, by Lewis Carroll. I’m assuming you have read Alice in Wonderland, but have you read Carroll’s other great work of nonsense?
- Departmental Ditties and Barrack Room Ballads, by Rudyard Kipling. Everybody enjoys a good Kipling poem, don’t they? Do you know about Michael Longcor’s Norman & Saxon? It’s a collection of Kipling poems set to music.
- Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomerey. If you don’t already love the spunky, imaginative, redheaded orphan, you’ve missed an important part of your teen girlhood. You can catch up now.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Everyone learned in history class about the role this sentimental melodrama played in the Civil War, but have you actually read it? You might be surprised at how well it reads. You can’t start a war with a boring book, in general.
Things I read this week:
- Life, the Universe and Everything, by Douglas Adams
- Quilting for Dummies by Cheryl Fall
- The Folk of the Air, by Peter S. Beagle
- Greater Britain: A Record of Travel in English-Speaking Countires during 1866-7, by Charles Wentworth Dilke
- Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, issue 28
- Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith
- Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
- A Little Dinner Before the Play, by Agnes Jekyll
- The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin Volume One: Where on Earth, by Ursula K. Le Guin
- So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, by Douglas Adams
- The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith
- Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
The current state of the things-to-read shelf
Volume One: Where on Earth
I made my way through the first four stories in the collection growing gradually more bored. I’ve never really read LeGuin before, I think, although I’m aware of her reputation. I’ve heard that she is a beautifully skilled writer, a little inclined to be preachy but still worth reading and important to anyone who wants to be a well-read science fiction reader. I don’t really know anything more than that.
I recognized from the first paragraph that she was a master of craft at the sentence level. I have a lot of respect for anyone who can put a really good sentence together- it’s a skill that sometimes gets a little lost, even by people whose plots are first-rate. But I couldn’t quite see the point of the first four stories. I’m sure I was missing something, and maybe when I try them again I will be illuminated by them, but this time, I was left with, “Yes, those are very pretty words… so?”
But then I got to “The Diary of the Rose.” And I was … I was profoundly immersed in the story, both the character and the ideas. It’s about a doctor who uses a technology that looks inside a person’s mind. She thinks of herself as a healer, but a patient gradually shows her that she is also the tool of a deeply corrupt, totalitarian state. She heals, but her work is also used to harm. I related deeply to this story, because I felt a connection to my work as a public school teacher.
When I focus on the day-to-day work I do, I feel that my work is meaningful, that I do something truly useful in the world. I feel good about what I do. But when I think about the larger picture, about American public education as a whole, I am filled with doubts. Right now, the system is a mess, with America’s children, especially its poorest children, used as pawns in political games that have nothing to do with the country or the well-being of its smallest citizens and everything to do with political power and corporate profit.
What is the ethical choice? To stay, and try to do good in a system that is broken on levels so high my voice can’t be heard no matter how loudly I shout? To fight? To leave? And what is the practical choice? I have to make a living, to pay the mortgage and feed the cats and keep myself supplied with books, and teaching is the work I know how to do and can do reasonably competently.
“The Diary of the Rose” made me think of all of that. I suppose almost everyone who works, works within systems that are evil and corrupt in one way or another. Don’t they? Is there any kind of work in which a person can be useful and contented and not be part of a machine that harms others? Teaching is supposed to be one of the pure, idealistic professions; if I’m not the one with that job, who has it?
I’ll bet it pays poorly.
Of course, I don’t have to be a middle-class professional person. I could quit. “Drop out,” as the kids used to say. Live cheaply, and flip burgers or join an assembly line or something. But even those jobs are part of big, complex systems that hurt people.
Am I just a cynic? It can’t be true that the human race is just corrupt on a systemic level, can it?
So the solution is to try not to think so hard about the big picture. Within my own classroom, I can teach tweens to read and write better than they do now. I can introduce them to the idea that wisdom and information are both found in books, and that ideas matter. I can provide 45 minutes in which no one is shouting at them or threatening them, and free their parents to earn money to feed and clothe them. Maybe the system is broken, but it’s what we have, and there’s room in it for happiness and for growth, if I focus my attention on what I can do and let go of the things I don’t control.
But that isn’t what Dr. Sobel decides. And maybe she’s the one of us who is making the right choice.
Most of what I just wrote wasn’t really about “The Diary of the Rose.” But that’s what I was thinking about while I read it. Someone else, with a different life, will have different thoughts. It’s that kind of story. I think that it might have been worth the $24 I spent on the book, all by itself.
I’m not finished reading The Unreal and the Real yet. I’m not finished with volume one yet. I just finished that one story, just now, sitting in my classroom monitoring students who are taking mind-crushingly tedious standardized tests, and had a head full of thoughts I wanted to write down.