Thursday, May 29, 2008


I don't know how I missed this when it happened in real time, but I just learned the Library of Congress recently acquired -- from an anonymous donor -- the original pages from Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man.

The Library's press release is here, and there's an official LOC blog entry on it here. I gotta admit to getting a chuckle out the blogger's surprise at the "excessively exclamatory" remarks kicking off the first Spider-Man story, though. That sort of stuff is only par for the course for Stan Lee.

Speaking of . . . Stan Lee is one of the true innovators in comics, and remains Marvel's greatest cheerleader and promoter. However, Spider-Man wouldn't have been Spider-Man without the glorious pencils and inks of artist Steve Ditko. Click on the pic above to open the larger image -- which includes the first time Peter Parker ever donned the familiar red and blue suit -- and be dazzled. Great stuff.

Kudos to the Library of Congress, and to the anonymous donor, for preserving this extraordinary piece of American culture.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

First Books: Ramona the Brave

Beverly Cleary's Ramona the Brave opens in the middle of a conflict, with Ramona trailing along after her sister Beezus, storming home from the playground steaming mad because some boys taunted her with calls of "Jesus Beezus!" Later, first-grader Ramona runs across a plagiarizing classmate who copies her paper owl, encounters a mean dog, braves the dark of her own bedroom, and defiantly informs her parents that she is going to say a bad word.

I was hooked, and I wanted more.

Fortunately, there was more. Lots more. My mother had given me the hardcover of Ramona the Brave -- shown just up there on the right -- on its release in 1975, as I was starting third grade. I went to the librarian at my elementary school with a copy of the book and asked her, "Are there more of these?" Together, we looked through the card catalogue (and they were really on cards in those days, kids! And a steak only cost a nickel! Now get offa my lawn!) and she steered me over to a shelf lined with other books by Beverly Cleary. It was the First Time I Was Hooked By A Series With Continuing Characters.

And what characters there were: the humorless Howie Kemp and his bratty baby sister, Willa Jean; spoiled pretty-girl Susan Kushner, with the curls Ramona can't help pulling with a satisfying boing!; Davy, Ramona's kissable crush; even Ramona's parents were fully-realized characters, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Oh, and there was also Henry Huggins, who had initially been Cleary's star attraction throughout the 1950s and 60s, until Ramona -- like Jaime Somers stealing the spotlight from Steve Austin -- surpassed him in popularity, relegating him to Special Guest Star/Cameo Appearances thereafter.

I quickly caught up on all of Cleary's books over the next year -- even reading the books that were outside of the Ramona continuity, like The Mouse and the Motorcycle -- and continued to read the Ramona books as they were released over the next nine years. As a junior in high school, I even checked the newly-released Ramona Forever out of the library on the sly, so I could catch up on the latest goings-on on Klickitat Street.

To this day, I remain a hardcore admirer of Beverly Cleary (now a spry 92-year-old, living in California), and I'm delighted to have shared her books with my own daughter -- who, when she saw me watching her as she stood in line with some of her friends the other day, grinned up at me and pretended to pull the ponytail of the girl in line in front of her and mouthed the word boing!. Each of us laughed in appreciation of the shared joke, and Beverly Cleary's imagination lives on in yet another generation. As it should.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

JD Talks About WI

...and I'm back from the long weekend to find that uber-blogger and friend of this blog Josephine Damian has a thoughtful -- and very nice -- review of Washington Irving over on her blog, Josephine Damian. The direct link to her review is here.

I love knowing what readers think, and I especially like knowing what they're still thinking about once they've snapped the book closed for the last time and put it away. And Josephine says something very astute -- and interesting -- in her review:

By painting such an intimate portrait of the vicissitudes and triumphs, the chronic doubts and sudden successes of Washington Irving’s process and progress as a writer, Mr. Jones allows the modern day writer to draw their own personal analogy to his or her self, and they are all the more engaged as readers because they see their own course, experience and struggles reflected in Irving’s.

Thank you, and well played. When I sat down for the first time with Kate Johnson, Curator of Historic Hudson Valley, she said almost the exact same thing: "Everyone seems to see themselves in Mr. Irving." And I would agree; I saw a lot of myself, both good and bad, in Washington Irving, and I think (and hope) other readers will, too.

Thanks for your thoughtful review and kind words, Josephine. I appreciate it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Cloud of Witnesses

I'm traveling over the long weekend, and therefore won't be around to post this on Memorial Day proper. So I'll say it now, before I leave.

To all those who served, and are serving, our country -- whether you saw action or not, and regardless of whether you spent your time working in the motor pool, patrolling a border, or just "piloting a desk" making sure everyone got paid . . .

Thank you.

That's it. Just . . . thank you.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


Fifty years ago -- so I am told -- there was an enormous man-made lily pond in our backyard. Even had I not been told this, I would have known. The crumbling remains of the stone wall that lined the edge of the pond are still poking up through the grass in our yard, making a semi-circle under the shadows of the chestnut trees. Several years ago, while clearing away brush, I discovered the buried casing that used to house an underwater light. But there's a sturdier, more stubborn reminder of the Lily Pond That Was: two thick patches of bamboo.

Oh, it's lovely stuff, I'll give you that -- tall, leafy, and green almost year-round. Even the slightest wind hisses as it passes through, making the evenings sound warm and exotic.

But it grows everywhere. Its root system -- which looks like a human spinal cord -- dips and turns and tangles and snakes its way through my yard, weaving between tree roots to shoot up a pencil-thin bamboo shoot at the base of our Japanese maple. It erupts through the cracks in the low stone wall, and spurts up a row of prison bars in the middle of the lawn.

And it grows fast. The morning after a rain storm, I'll find three-foot stalks of bamboo hunkered together in the corner of the yard. If I catch it fresh, I can usually kick them over -- the thicker stalks make a satisfying hollow whonk! as I punt them with my boot -- but if I don't cut it down within the first day or so, the trunks quickly thicken up to the point where I either need to run over the thinner shoots with my riding mower, or cut the thicker trunks down with tree loppers.

It's a war of attrition, and after several years of fighting these little skirmishes, I've actually managed to clear away the largest patch in the middle of the yard -- the patch that had forced one chestnut tree and the Japanese maple to twist their branches away from the thick mess of bamboo for over thirty years. I've lopped and sawed down over a hundred bamboo trees, leaving behind stumps that gradually became rock-hard stubs that twist ankles and bust lawn mower blades. Only now have they just started to decay enough that I can force them and their stubborn root balls out of the ground by whacking them sideways with a sledgehammer. In this area, at least, they don't appear to be coming back.

It's a different story down in the corner of the yard, where a thick patch of the stuff still stands there in exotic defiance. Like Sisyphus pushing his rock, I'll continue to mow down new shoots each week, only to have them erupt anew, thicker and greener, the next wet day. It would almost be therapeutic, if it wasn't so frustrating.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Begin At The Beginning

"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

At a recent booksigning, I was asked by a very nice fellow—who’d apparently spent the last several years researching a 19th century figure and was now ready to start writing—about the "right" way to begin a biography. "Should I begin at the beginning of his life?" he asked, "or pick a pivotal event and start there? Or should I start at the end, and tell the book as a flashback?"

It’s a tricky question, and I’m not certain I have a good answer for it. But I know for sure I don’t have the "right" answer for him -- because I don’t think there is a right answer. All I can give you, and him, is my opinion. So, here goes.

Those of us who deal in non-fiction have different narrative issues than those of you who write fiction, mainly because we have the hassle—or the luxury, depending on how you want to look at it—of having the story plotted out for us in advance. No matter how much we might wish Aaron Burr hadn’t turned out to be such a skunk, or want Clarence Darrow to win the Scopes trial, that’s not the way it happened. Nor can the North win the Civil War because of the involvement of space aliens, or Jack the Ripper speed away from the scene of a crime in a Ferrari, no matter how cool that might be. We have to be true to the events we’re reporting.

That’s not to say that we don’t have considerable leeway in how we tell our stories. David McCullough, for example, begins John Adams in January 1776, with the 40-year-old Adams riding on horseback through a snowstorm on his way to Philadelphia, while David Michaelis starts Schulz and Peanuts with Schulz leaving for the army following the death of his mother, long before he ever drew a Peanuts strip. We can tell our stories through flashbacks, or on a straight, chronological track. What we can’t do, however, is tell our stories in ways that seem unnatural or forced. Every story has its beginning—and after doing our research, it's our job to find it.

That doesn't mean it's always easy. In fact, I have a rather tumultuous relationship with my beginnings. I usually know structurally how I'm going to start, but I have a heck of a time with that "once upon a time..." clause that I need to kick the whole thing off. So I have an odd in media res approach to working in which I start writing the middle of the piece first-- whether it's a speech or article or what have you -- and go until I have one of those Eureka! moments where everything falls into place, and I know where I'm going and how I'm getting there.

Even then, I still usually save the very first pages for last. By that point, I know exactly where I've been in the narrative, I know my structure, and I generally feel that, after having "lived it" for so long, I know the best way to kick things off. And yet, sometimes I still don't get it quite right on the first try, usually because I've somehow ignored my own advice on writing the beginning that works for my story.

In the first draft of Washington Irving, for example, I wrote what I called my Cinematic Opening. It was artsy and theatrical and beautifully written, and I loved it. I even knew exactly the way it would look on film: We open with a tight shot of Irving, already the most famous man in the world, writing letters at the round table in his parlor at Sunnyside. The camera pans slowly up and moves forward—in a prolonged crane shot—through the window of the parlor and out onto the Hudson River, then makes its way downriver to New York City. As the New York of 1847 bustles away, a special effects shot slowly fades the city backwards through time until it reverts to its Revolutionary War-era face of 1783, and we begin to tell the story of Irving’s life.

It was lovely and very Merchant-Ivory and, ultimately, very terrible, because it wasn’t true to the story. It felt too forced, too dramatic, and my editor summed it up nicely with one word: "No." Out it went.

She was right, and I knew it. I was trying to be clever and cinematic and beautiful, and that wasn’t really my story. It didn't work. So I started over, and this time I began at the beginning—my beginning, the one I knew was there all along.

That’s the best advice I can give, then: Begin at the beginning of the story—your story—then go on until you come to the end, and then stop. There really is no "right" way, but there is a way that works best for you and the story you want to tell. Trust me, you'll know it when you see it. Find it, listen to it, then write it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

First Books: The Crows of Pearblossom

Mr. and Mrs. Crow have a problem: they want to raise a family, but every time Mrs. Crow lays eggs, Mr. Snake comes along and eats them. Desperate for help, Mr. Crow approaches the wise Mr. Owl, who recommends they stoop to a bit of subterfuge. On Mr. Owl's advice, then, the Crows paint two big rocks to resemble crow eggs and place them in their nest. Mr. Snake slithers up and (predictably) eats them, but as he glides away, he's struck suddenly with a massive stomach ache. Moaning and twisting with pain, he stretches himself between two branches, ties himself in knots, and expires. Victorious, the Crow family goes on to successfully raise a nest full of little crows -- and as we turn to the last page, Mrs. Crow is seen happily hanging laundry across the outstretched body of the dead snake. And all is right with the Crows of Pearblossom.

Aldous Huxley's (yes, that Aldous Huxley) The Crows of Pearblossom is the first book that terrified me. Not in a Monsters-Under-The-Bed sort of way; it's more like a Can't-Look-Yet-MUST-Look sort of thing. Written as a gift to neighbor's daughter during the darkest days of World War II, The Crows of Pearblossom can certainly be read allegorically, with the Nazi snake consuming the innocent Crows of Europe. But when paired with Barbara Cooney's deadly serious illustrations, Crows becomes Aesop as channeled through Tim Burton -- and at five-years-old, I found the combination of story and images to be perfectly and deliciously terrifying: Snake eats the Crows' eggs -- the Crows' children! -- while singing a funny song, and as he slithers sneakily away, eyes slitted with snakely satisfaction, the two eggs make visible humps in his middle. Later, after the Crows work their vengeance on the snake, his dead body stretches between the forks of two branches, his head hanging limply downward. Brrrr.

As a kid, I read this book more times than I can remember -- and while elements of the plot have disappeared into age-induced fog, I'm still haunted by that snake and the creepy-casual way he ingested the Crow children. I was fascinated enough by this book as a child to make my own set of drawings, which I then rolled onto dowels and ran through slots in a box to make a primitive slide show. I can't recall drawing the crows all that well, but I distinctly remember drawing those two humps in the middle of the snake, each one marking the spot where an unhatched little crow met his or demise.

Reader opinion on the Crows seems to be split down the middle -- one reviewer calls it a "horrid little book" -- but The Crows of Pearblossom earns a sentimental spot on my list of favorites as the First Book That Really Truly Creeped Me Out.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Will Elder (1921-2008)

Will Elder, whose "chicken fat" style of art defined the look and attitude of MAD magazine, died yesterday at age 86.

Elder's style was gloriously and vibrantly cartoony, and always crammed with wacky details and winking side jokes that made every panel worth a second, third, or tenth look. Plus, he could ape almost any other style -- his parodies of cartoons like Archie or Mickey Mouse were dead-on -- without losing his unique sense of self. Whether he was doing Disney or Bushmiller, or lampooning Dragnet ("How's your Mom, Ed?") or Sherlock Holmes, there was never any doubt whose pencil it was.

Part of what made Elder so much fun was that nothing was sacred. Everything was fair game. That got Elder - and MAD - in trouble every once in a while, though often for baffling reasons. (His parody of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," for example, earned the wrath of conservative critics for daring to lampoon an American institution.) David Hajdu does a nice job with Elder in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, and I'll quote a bit of it here:

The sound of his name to those who knew him well, such as his former schoolmates and fellow cartoonists, Al Jaffee (who met Elder in eighth grade, when they were both being tested for admission to the High School of Music and Art), John Severin, and David Gantz, was a cue for grin and a round of 'Crazy Willy' stories: the time, when he was a kid in the Bronx, when Elder took discarded pieces of beef carcasses from a meat-processing plant, arranged them in old clothes on the railroad tracks, and started screaming that his friend Moishe had been killed; or the time, when he was in high school, that he smeared chalk dust on his face and pretended to be hanging in the coat closet; or, when he went to lunch with some friends from EC [Comics] and tried to pay the cashier with leaves of lettuce that he had in his wallet. His humor was almost aggressively madcap, startling, often dark, and silly.

Thanks for everything, Will. The world is a little less silly today, darn it.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

First Books

"Every reader has his first book, one book among all others which in early youth first fascinates his imagination, and at once excites and satisfies the desires of his mind..." -- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

While I almost always take Longfellow at his word, in this particular case, I’m going to disagree—mainly because I can’t narrow it down to just one book.

I’d argue that throughout our lives as readers, we have any number of "first" books. There’s the first book we read "without pictures." There’s the first book that scared us, or the first book that made us laugh out loud. There’s the first book of poetry. There’s the first book that made us say, "I wish I could write like this" and maybe there’s even one that made us say, "I think I want to write one." All of them, in some way, fascinate the imagination, as Longfellow says.

There are any number of first books, but all of them have one thing in common: somehow, they all made a lasting impression. Maybe the book that “excites and satisfies the desires” wasn’t even necessarily a great book—but the fact that it’s one of your "firsts" usually makes it a favorite. Mine are that way. I wish I could say that my first books were classics or sophisticates like Robinson Crusoe or Tom Brown’s School Days, but as you’ll soon see, they usually weren’t. They were certainly solid enough—and many are still read today—but mine fall more within the "sleeper" category. Some may indeed be classics. Still others may flat out stink.

Just for fun, then, I’m starting a feature I’m so cleverly calling "First Books," in which I’ll talk about books that, for one reason or another, are burned into my memory, or made some sort of lasting impact on me. It might be the first book I can remember reading with the flashlight under the covers, or the first mystery that truly impressed me. It might be the first horror story I ever read, or even the first comic book I can remember reading. They might be books you like . . .or then again, they might not.

Stick around.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Analog Dialogue

When I began working in the Congress in 1990, part of my job—and this was a task that always fell to the last person in the door—was to manage my Senator’s mailroom. For about an hour every morning, I opened constituent mail, date-stamped each letter, and sorted them into issue-related piles to ensure they were routed to the correct staffer for a draft response. The draft response would then be approved by the Legislative Director—or, on particularly touchy issues, the Senator himself—then would be routed back through the system, where it would be logged into the databank, printed, signed, and mailed back to the constituent. In a given week, our office received about 2,500 letters, but even with that volume, when the system worked correctly—as it did 95 percent of the time—constituents received a response within about two weeks of their letter being received. A good turnaround time.

Today, I work in the office of a county official where we receive about a 500 e-mails a week from constituents. As a staff, we sort through the e-mails, draft and vet responses with each other, and send an e-mail back. We try to respond within a week. That’s also a good turnaround, given both the volume of e-mail and our staff size (counting our Councilmember, there are five of us). But any gap of about three days between receiving the constituent e-mail and a response from us often results in an angry follow-up e-mail, usually accusing the Councilmember of being non-responsive or, better yet, of "ignoring" their e-mail.


I like e-mail. I like dashing off a line or two to a friend or colleague, punching "Send," and knowing that even just that line or two we’re sharing means we’re staying in touch. But e-mail also makes us careless. In the old days, you could scribble out a hotheaded note (or a response to someone else’s hotheaded note), and by the time you got done writing it, typing it, printing it (or whatever), then stuck it in an envelope and wrote the address . . . well, by the time you found a stamp, you’d probably come to your senses and realized that sending your remarks was going to be a mistake. The sheer amount of time and effort required to send a "snail mail" was, in a sense, your first and best editor.

Nowadays, I regularly see e-mails—both from constituents and government officials—that make my eyes bug and my mouth hang open in disbelief. Forget basic spelling and grammar—when anger is in play, those all go out the window—what’s astounding is the complete lack of civility. There’s name-calling, impugning of reputations, wild accusations . . . anything goes. And the responses to such missives can be just as terrible. Many times, it’s clear a response hasn’t been vetted or approved by anyone. (We always keep in mind a "front page" policy, in which we ask How would you feel if your response was printed on the front page of the newspaper?) E-mail, quite simply, has no filter. It's ready, fire, aim.

While the ability to write and fire off an e-mail has certainly brought us all more in touch than ever, I think it’s also removed some civility from both public and private discourse. There’s something to be said for sitting down and writing out a letter—even if it’s on your computer and printed out—and sticking it in the mail. I like getting mail. I like that someone has taken the time to write a note, address an envelope, stamp it, and send it. It means a lot.

Maybe it’s just me, though. I love writing notes. I have beautiful correspondence cards with lined envelopes with my address already printed on the envelope flap. I write notes in fountain pen—and I have two boxes of different colored inks to play with—and I seal my envelopes with wax and press my initial into it before it cools. It feels ancient and interesting and elegant. It feels right.

But I’m even the kind who doesn’t keep my schedule electronically. I still carry a calendar with me, and I write my appointments and other details in it, all the way down to confirmation numbers and directions. I was on the phone scheduling some meetings with my editor one afternoon, and joked that I was so determined to make a certain meeting that I was writing it in my appointment book "in ink!"

"An appointment book?" she laughed. "My, how analog of you!"


Now, I'm certainly not encouraging us to become Mennonites. I like my DVDs, my satellite radio, my computer, and iPod too much. But there are times I long for the days of written correspondence (and the biographer in me shudders at the loss of written record in favor of unsaved e-mails). At the very least, I wish there was a better way of bringing some sort of decorum to e-mail. Apart from the smiley faces and the "No All-Caps" rule, I mean.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Reviews in Brief: The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America by David Hajdu

I think I brought too much to the table for this one.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Hajdu’s book, because I did—I liked it quite a lot. The problem, at least for The Comic Nerd in me, is that there was very little in it that was unfamiliar.

However, for most readers, the material in this book will be new territory—and that's what makes a book like this worthwhile. The story of the great comic book debacle of the 1950s—with its colorful cast of characters and a story that’s so far out it would seem ludicrous if it weren’t true—is one that deserves to be told, and Hajdu tells it elegantly. While comics-related journals and magazines have been telling these stories for decades—it’s the comics community’s very own Vietnam—there have been very few publicly-accessible books written about it (most are written by comics fans, for comics fans). So it’s nice to have the story dressed up so nicely for its first appearance before a mainstream audience.

My problem, though, was that my expectations were too high—and that's my fault, not Hajdu's. I kept waiting for a deep-drill analysis, but Hajdu was too busy running out his characters and telling their stories. And rightly so, because what stories they are.

At the dramatic core of the Plague lies the conflict between upstart comics company EC Comics (with its unconventional publisher, Bill Gaines) and the United States government. Waving the banner of Saving The Children—and armed with the psychobabble of Dr. Fredric Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent—an aggressive Senate subcommittee goes looking for a scapegoat for the alleged rise in juvenile delinquency, and trains its fire on the enormously successful comic book industry.

An annoyed Gaines eventually rises to the bait and, against the advice of colleagues, makes an ill-advised appearance in front of the subcommittee. Trying his best to defend horror comics, free speech, and the subjective boundaries of "good taste"—and coming down off of a Dexedrine-induced fog—Gaines implodes on the stand, providing the do-gooders with the villain they need. Defeated, the comic industry bows to a self-imposed (and completely lame) code of good taste, consigning itself to a long creative and commercial decline from which it would take nearly forty years to recover.

Hajdu chooses to focus mainly on the assault on crime and horror comics, but there are times when I wished he would have focused a bit more on the attacks directed at superheroes as well. Dr. Wertham was at his most annoying—and creepiest—when looking for perversity and hidden agendas in superhero comics (Batman shares a cave with a young boy! Wonder Woman might be a lesbian! Superman is a fascist!). Hajdu touches briefly on a few of these charges, but it would have been fascinating to learn how such ludicrous claims were being received at National (DC) Comics at the time.

Finally, Hajdu never really seems to deliver the goods he promises in the second part of his subtitle: How It Changed America. There is some discussion of the fallout from the controversy—and Hajdu includes in his appendix a fascinating list of hundreds of comics writers and artists who never worked in comics again after the implosion—but Hajdu never gets much further than describing some changes in the distribution system for magazines and the lingering presence of the comics code. Instead, he argues persuasively that comics were really just the next big boogeyman for the Establishment to wring its hands about until television and rock and roll replaced it.

Still, I enjoyed The Ten-Cent Plague very much. Hard-core comics enthusiasts may not find much that’s new, but that's okay—this book isn't written for us. And there’s something to be said for having such an important story told so well. Hajdu does his topic justice, writing with a journalistic verve that gives even Charles Biro's gloriously trashy injury-to-the-eye-motif-laden comics a proper tragic heft.

Four stars (out of five).

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Kids Are Reading

In today's Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews highlights a new report from Renaissance Learning titled "What Kids Are Reading: The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools." And it's fascinating stuff.

Jay Mathews' Post story is here, and the full report can be seen here. Watch out, the file is a biggie.

Data is broken down in a number of ways -- by grade level, geographic region, gender, and so on -- but for the most part, the same books keep rising to the top. For those of us who haven't read "kid's books" in a long time, it's nice to see so many familiar faces on the list, from Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume to S.E. Hinton and E.B. White. My Brother Sam Is Dead makes an appearance, as does To Kill A Mockingbird. And there are plenty of fun relatively new faces, too, like Louis Sacher and J.K. Rowling, along with sturdy new favorites like Lemony Snicket and Captain Underpants.

I'm delighted to see what kids are reading -- and to see that a lot of my old favorites are still being read today. My 11-year-old would probably argue for the inclusion of Peter Abrahams and his Echo Falls series, and I was hoping to see Beverly Cleary make a stronger showing, but you can't have everything.

It's discouraging, however, to see the average number of books read by students drop precipitously as they move into high school. Students read voraciously in the early grades -- averaging as many as 46 books per student in second grade -- then gradually sputter down to a pathetic 4.5 books read per year, per student, by the twelfth grade. And that number, I would guess, probably reflects the number of books students were required to read as part of their school curriculum. Once outside the reach of the classroom, students don't appear to be heading to the library, or to Borders, in search of entertainment or enlightenment. But when another recent survey showed that 53 percent of American adults don't read anything at all, do we really have the nerve to act surprised?

Read Renaissance Learning's report -- or at least read Jay Mathew's summary of it -- then tell me: What books were you surprised to see on the list? What were you surprised to not see? And what do you think can be done to keep kids reading into high school and beyond?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Working With Distra . . . Look! A Chicken!

I was watching my 11-year-old daughter the other afternoon as she did what 11-year-old girls do: multi-task to the nth degree. All at once she was reading, listening to music, chatting on instant messenger, and still paying some peripheral attention to me as I asked her what she wanted for dinner and where she hid the Hershey's Kisses. And it occurred to me: I can't do that any more.

I mentioned in an earlier post how I'm not one of those writers who, like Dickens, can work while there's a party going on around me. I can't write at a Starbuck's, or sitting on a park bench -- and it's not because I need my Own Place, necessarily. Rather, it's because I just can't shut out noise and external stimulus all that well.

I used to be able to. In high school and college, I could read and study and talk and listen to music and have the television on and I never had any trouble focusing. I could read Chaucer with Huey Lewis and the News throbbing on the stereo (What? This was 1988, remember!) or write a term paper with the television blaring all night.

It's different now. When it's time to write, I have to close the door. I like a wee bit of music, but I have to turn it down very low -- and even then, the music can't have any vocals. Mostly I play old jazz and blues over my computer speakers, using either the shuffle function of iTunes or tuning into Sirius Pure Jazz on line. But that's the extent of the external stimuli I can take.

That's not to say I can't work with noise. For most of the ten years I worked in the U.S. Senate, I shared an office with three, and sometimes four, other people (despite what you might see on TV or movies, life in a Congressional office is decidedly unglamorous). The Senate floor played on the television at all times. Every phone conversation was held in the open, every colleague's chat with another staffer occurred six feet away. The din and distractions were constant, and yet I had no problem writing speeches or memos, talking with constituents on the phone, and generally doing my legislative duties.

And yet, nowadays, as soon as it comes to writing, I've gotta reduce my distractions. Perhaps part of it is age -- I find that as I've gotten older, I can't even read a book with the television on. As my wife and I are getting ready for bed each evening, she likes to turn on Law and Order to help her wind down, and I generally sit back with a book. Despite my best efforts, my eyes keep flicking from the page up to the television, my ears keep trying to tune into the dialogue, and I soon find I've read the same paragraph thirty times so I just pack it in and watch to see if either Sam Waterson or that annoying blonde attorney is gonna blow a slam-dunk case in court again. (*glunk glunk!*)

Where was I? Oh. Right. I just made my own point.

I am getting better, though, I suppose. I did some of my background reading for Washington Irving while sitting in airports, for example, or while waiting for my car to be serviced, so I guess I'm not a total loss. And I can work right next to a window without finding excuses to gaze out of it for hours at a time (Stephen King in On Writing says a window near your workspace is a big no-no for that very reason).

Still, I doubt I'll ever be one of those people who can sit in a cafe or park and pound happily away while I . . . hey, look! That dog has a curly tail!

So how about it, folks? What are your distractions? And how do you beat them?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

And the Winners Are...

Time magazine just released its fifth annual list of the World's 100 Most Influential People.

I'm not on it.

Carry on.