Category Archives: Reading

The Ignorance of Our Outrage: Thoughts on The 1619 Project

I’ve been pondering—and cringing at—a high school memory provoked by the online chatter over the past few days about the imminent publication of “The 1619 Project” in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

I think it happened during my junior year, 1970–71, when an exchange student visited my English class. I don’t remember his name, but he was from South Africa, and our teacher asked him to explain a little about apartheid and how it worked.

“Apartheid”? We-—good (white) college prep students in an excellent suburban California school in a world still a few years away from the international divestment movement—had never heard the word before. We were even more baffled when the teacher and the exchange student between them managed to explain what apartheid was. How could that be, we asked? Even segregation in the American South was on its way out, so South Africa’s complicated racial categories seemed archaic, ridiculous, and outrageous.

My remembered outrage is what makes me cringe today. We had not earned our outrage. I learned the American public school system’s traditional mythologized version of American history: the Founding Fathers were uniformly wise and noble men who created a nearly perfect governing document in the Constitution. And what little we learned of the Civil War involved a few battles between the Blue and the Gray, and a bit about how railroads and modern industrial production benefitted the Union side. About Reconstruction, we heard about carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of and corrupted the new integrated state governments imposed by the victorious Union, and how that corruption and incompetence led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of more traditional Southern white-controlled governments.

There’s a slightly different memory, too, from sometime in junior high, of wondering how my civics textbook could point out the differences between the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and the less idealistic way the Soviet government really worked, and fail to note similar discrepancies between the ideals of our own founding documents and our government as it was and is.

Those occasional little glimmers of skepticism, though, never make much headway against our perpetual desire to believe the stories we white people tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s not enough for us to be the aspirational nation, the imperfect people always striving to live up to our ideals. We’d rather be the always-perfect nation, the people who already know best how to live and govern and show the rest of the world our shining example, even if it means we have to ignore most of the damage we have done becoming what we are.

I’m working my way through a long To Be Read list to remedy my ignorance—Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, David Blight’s Frederick Douglass, new U.S. histories like Jill LePore’s These Truths and Alan Taylor and Eric Foner’s American Colonies, Foner’s authoritative Reconstruction, Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and countless more. The history is there, if we will only look.

I’m astonished, yet not at all surprised by some of the reaction to The 1619 Project. The New York Times is stoking racist animus in order to sell more papers. Or bringing to light the less admirable parts of our past (and present) is unpatriotic and only damages our standing in the world. But just like Nikole Hannah-Jones in her inspring opening essay, I believe wholeheartedly in that aspirational nation, the one we can all work to make more perfect, the better nation we can create—if we have the clear sight and wholehearted courage to see what we have done to become who we are. Only by recognizing and acknowledging all our people, all our flaws along with all our virtues, do we have a prayer of reaching toward those ideals we are so proud of.

NOTE: The Pulitzer Center’s collection of curricular resources for The 1619 Project includes a downloadable pdf of the NYT Magazine issue itself.

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Filed under Just Because, Learning, Politics, Reading

My First (& Favorite) Celebrity Author

In the late ’70s, I worked in a tiny, family-owned independent bookstore in downtown Sacramento. Founded in 1924, it was the sort of place that publishers like Alfred A. Knopf and Bennet Cerf used to visit on their West Coast trips. Levinson’s only reluctantly carried paperbacks; the broad selection of classics in hardcover was a point of pride.

One particularly slow afternoon, the lone customer, an older silver-haired gentleman, asked me why we didn’t have a copy of the then recently published Essays of E. B. White. We had it, of course—just not where he was looking (because it had gone immediately to our “General Literature” section instead of sitting on a mere bestseller table)—and I pulled out a copy for him.

When he came to the counter to pay for the book, he admired our 1906 hand-cranked NCR cash register and started to pull out a credit card.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We don’t take American Express.”

“That’s the only card I have,” he said. “Will you take a check?”

“Of course. I just need to see your driver’s license.”

He hesitated. “That could be a problem. I don’t have a license—I don’t drive. I’m just walking around town while I wait for the Zephyr to Chicago.”

“Hmm . . . maybe you’ve got something around here,” he said, looking around. Then he picked up a little mass-market paperback from a stack sitting on the counter next to us. “Would this work?”

The black-and-white author sketch on the front cover of the book was an exact match for the man standing in front of me. I laughed, surprised that I hadn’t recognized him earlier, and put the copy of Fahrenheit 451 back on its stack, next to the short stacks of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine, all lined up there on the counter, all with the same distinctive sketch of their author.

I took his check.

And it still makes me happy that the first famous author I met was one of the writers who turned me into a reader in the first place.

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Filed under Just Because, Reading, Writing

It’s That Time of Year Again

No, it’s not quite time for the first North American Cup of the 2011–2012 USA Fencing season.

It’s time to celebrate reading and the First Amendment and subversive ideas all at once: Banned Books Week (September 24−October 1, 2011) starts tomorrow.

You can find web badges and a lovely brochure listing this year’s banned or challenged titles (many of them mystifying) at the Downloads page of the ALA Banned Books Week site.

Some of my favorite books are perennials on those lists.

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Filed under Families, Just Because, Reading

OK, maybe just one more cool app before I get back to work

When my iPad came, my friend Dianna said, “And we’ll never hear from her again.” (She has one, too, so she knows.)

I keep meaning not to check the App Store or Engadget or TUAW to see if there are any more nifty apps I should add, but somehow I always manage to ignore the plaintive call of my current book draft. Somehow there is always another app I absolutely, positively must have—and then, of course, I have to play around with it for a while, just to rationalize having downloaded it.

My app mania does seem to be subsiding, though. I think I’ve got pretty much all I need (for the time being, at least). Weirdly, part of what’s letting me get back into my normal routine is the last app I bought: Instapaper Pro.

Why didn't I ever find Instapaper before?

I can’t believe I never got around to checking out Instapaper before I got the iPad. You see, I’ve always been a fan of good nonfiction writing, but more and more recently, I’ve found that I just don’t read long articles on the web through to the end. Maybe, I thought, it was my deteriorating vision or even that shortening of the attention span that technology doomsayers lament.

It turns out, though, that I’m just irritated by the time it takes to stop and load the next page of a multipage article. (I have the same problem with eInk devices like the Kindle—the time it takes for each page to load is just long enough to be distracting.) Instapaper does away with all that—when I find a long article I want to read later, all I have to do is click on the “Read Later” bookmarklet in my browser’s bookmark bar, and Instapaper concatenates all the pages into one long file and saves it to my Instapaper app. (It also saves it to my account at the Instapaper website, so it’s not iPad dependent at all.) It’s been lovely rediscovering how much I enjoy reading long-form articles free of all that web-distraction.

And that focused feeling I get reading in Instapaper actually puts me in the mood to get seriously down to work. How can I argue with that?

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Filed under Reading, Science & Technology