The author of RAMS English, an education blog read by seventeen teachers (eventually), is a creature of habit: “I bookend my days with reading, from the breakfast counter at 5 a.m. to reading in bed at 9:30 p.m.” The New York Times recently caught up with him for this quick interview — an exemplar for yesterday’s Idea of the Week.
What are you reading right now?
I’m typically a one-book-at-a-time guy, but right now I’ve got four in the air: The Literacy Cookbook, Charles Simic’s New and Selected Poems, 1962-2012, The Disaster Diaries, and one whose title escapes me, but it’s a history of the Jesuits, a rather interesting bunch invented by Loyola College (wait, that can’t be right). Anyway, I’m not doing a very good job of finishing any of them, I fear — and when I’m done, they’ll probably tour together as the new Motley Crue, but there you have it.
What was the best book you read last year?
Wilderness, a debut novel by Lance Weller. I’m a writer’s writer kind of reader, and this guy writes poetry in prose’s clothing. It goes back and forth from a Civil War battle in the Wilderness Campaign to the 1890s, when the Confederate soldier is an older man trying to scrabble together a living in the Pacific Northwest mountains. From wilderness to wilderness, this guy has an unfortunate habit of running headlong into man at his worst.
Any favorite teacher books that you’ve recently read?
I liked quite a few, though the one that influenced me most was Jeff Zwiers’ Academic Conversations. I read it and said, “Wait a minute — students can talk like that?” My students this year are paying the price. More than once I’ve shut up and forced them to do all the heavy academic lifting. Heck, I’ve been talking literature for twenty years. It’s time they got more practice at it.
How about of all time?
Teacher books? Come on! That’s a no-brainer: St. Nancie of Atwell’s In the Middle, running away! My copy is autographed by the legend herself. It also has a lot of squished gnats on the pages from summer reading on a dock in Maine.
When and where do you like to read?
I bookend my days with reading, from the breakfast counter at 5 a.m. to reading in bed at 9:30 p.m. If the morning paper is late, I’ll read the back of the cereal box. If I’m desperate, I’ll even read the egg carton ten times over easy. You can’t beat the plot! Sometimes, when I cannot sleep and wake early, I’ll just sit with a coffee and read for two hours in the kitchen. It’s got to be the most peaceful hours in anyone’s life, the darkness before dawn. A book makes good company (and a lousy short order cook, alas).
Has a book ever made you laugh out loud or cry?
I’ve never been driven to tears, but I’ve laughed out loud a few times. One of the funniest books I’ve read is Brendan O’Carroll’s The Mammy, about an Irish mother bringing up a big and trying (and funny) family. It’s not great literature, but it has some surprising lines, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s funnier if you grew up in a semi-Irish family like me….
Who are your favorite authors?
My holy trinity: Leo Tolstoy, Ernest Hemingway, and J. D. Salinger. I named my dog after one in Anna Karenina, a high honor for Tolstoy (he told me one day while riding his bicycle). Hemingway is a popular whipping boy, but he’s a classic case of keeping your eyes on the prize — the writing — and not less important things — the writer’s personality. As for Salinger, I lived and died The Catcher in the Rye as a teen. When I got to teach it in a New Jersey high school, I was shocked — shocked! — that the majority of kids found Holden a loser and a whiner. I wanted to hand out F’s, all around, but I reconsidered. The next year I taught it as a banned book and it went over much better. Students got defensive on old Jerome David’s behalf.
How about authors you loathe?
Do you have the space? I mean, “all the news that’s fit to print” only goes so far. I’m no fan of a lot of highly-regarded authors: William Faulkner, Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf (Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Me!), Henry James, Jack Kerouac — and that doesn’t even get us to the modern guys. I was once part of a teacher site where certain posters got all worked up about any English teacher who didn’t appreciate ALL literature. They said we should be run out of town on a rail. Needless to say, I did run out, only of my own volition. If English teachers aren’t allowed to be critics, even of literary institutions, I want off the bus.
Paper or electronic?
My Kindle is in the corner with the dust bunnies. I couldn’t get into “clicking” pages after a lifetime of turning them. Plus, it just seems wrong to read stuff as beautiful as Knut Hamsun’s on a screen. Give me the smell of old paper and ink, thank you!
What was your favorite book as a child?
It was a series. Something about Mushroom Planets by a woman named Eleanor Cameron. These two kids built a spaceship and visited planetary fungi without ever being late for school. Amazing. I also read The Good Earth at a ridiculously young age. Now I only recall that it was Wang Lung’s wedding day. That and how cool it was that the Chinese were named after vital organs.
If you could require President Obama to read one book, what would it be?
What? Assign the president homework and give Alfie Kohn reason for a press conference? OK. Nothing political, that’s for sure. Maybe something poignant like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All those grotesques. All those ordinary people living lives of quiet desperation — kind of like us. It’s a microcosm of American sadness, something he should empathize with as a leader.
What about a literary dinner party? Who would you invite?
Mark Twain. He was a one-man monologue and pretty darn funny, from what I’ve read. I’ve visited his house in Hartford, Connecticut, so often that I feel like I’ve bumped into his ghost a few times, especially up in the billiards room on the top floor. I still reread Huck Finn every three years or so. Hemingway was right about American literature starting and ending with that book.
What are your students reading this year?
A hot title lately is Robison Wells’ Variant. That and its sequel, Feedback. The boys have been plowing through Andrew Klavan’s Homelander series and the graphic novel Watchmen. One interesting thing with the girls this year is no one’s reading Sarah Dessen — up until this year a perennial favorite. I’m guessing it’s because they all read her in 7th grade or something. Veronica Roth’s Divergent and its sequel Insurgent have been switching hands quite a bit, though.
Do you enjoy reading Young Adult literature?
Very much so. They’re quick, enjoyable, and often quite good. Some adults look down their noses on the genre, but a lot of YA literature is on a level with the stuff grown-ups read. Think about books by Laurie Halse Anderson (Chains, Speak) and M.T. Anderson (Feed, Octavian Nothing). Think of books like Zusak’s The Book Thief and even neo-Gothic books like Rick Yancey’s The Monstrumologist. Great, great stuff! Compared to the slim pickings when I was a kid (Tommy Scores a Touchdown!), these are salad days for YA lit.
Are there any classics you’ve never read that are on your current to-be-read pile?
Are you kidding? My reading résumé has more holes than a gopher’s condo. I just bought a new translation of Les Miserables. It’s waiting patiently (considering it’s French) in the well of my bedside table. I also have Ulysses S. Grant’s Autobiography down there, Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov, and a collection of Rumi’s poetry.
Any advice to teachers who say they have no time to read because they’re too busy?
Yeah. Make time. Exchange an hour of Twitter or Facebook time, or add up some check-your-cellphone credits and redeem them for quality time with a book. You burn more time than you think — you just don’t smell the smoke!