Literacy Class: Learning the Language of Love

This past week, I taught my last English class for quite some time. Three years ago, I moved to my new city in the Midwest. Almost right away, I started teaching literacy to people (mostly women, mostly older, all East African refugees) who have been denied access to education.

The levels of trauma, displacement, oppression, and prejudice contained in that single educational qualifier “non-literate” are hard to explain. I taught in the corners of crowded libraries, classrooms, computer labs. I taught inside of makeshift police offices and elder housing complexes. I learned about the housing crisis in Minneapolis, I met large families who lived in homeless shelters, I learned of the cracks in the system, how gaping and wide open they turned out to be. [Read more...]

Kissing Sideways

kiss“I want to write,” people often tell me, eager to talk about the myriad ways that this happens in our mysterious, internet-driven world.

Writing means different things to different folks: “I want to get published,” or “I want to be seen,” or “I want to be heard,” or “I want to change the world.” This last one, so full of hubris and hope, is especially dear to me, and the trap I fall into the easiest.

I try and encourage others the best I can, mindful of the journey I have been on, and how I am only at the beginning. But the best thing I can say to anyone who wants to write is this: you have to be a reader, and you have to be a generous one.

[Read more...]

All I Needed to Know I Learned from the Phonebook

Sing in me, O Muse: That like Navin R. Johnson—the “I was born a poor black child” character played by Steve Martin in the 1979 film The Jerk—I might cry aloud: “The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!”

Time, of course, to cue the requisite twenty-something hipster joke:

What is a phonebook?

I have been a longtime phonebook reader, from way back when I first began to read—a reflection of either the value or detriment of a childhood marked by lots of free time and/or boredom.

With a hometown of only about 10,000, the phonebook was tiny, perhaps six by nine inches, neatly divided between the white residential pages and the yellow pages in the back. This was before the practice of including government listings in blue pages in the middle, but I do remember the standard instructions that applied to types of phone calls that existed back then: party lines (my aunt who lived on an isolated cotton plantation had one), operator-assisted calls, and, most mysteriously, station-to-station calls, which conjured up—for me at least—the idea of connecting to other worlds. [Read more...]

In Praise of the Printed Book, Part 2

By Warren Farha

Guest Post

Continued from yesterday.

An increasing torrent of books and articles reflect on the Internet as The Great Distraction, and I’ve had the opportunity recently to read a few. The first I’ll mention is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein.

Bauerlein is not saying that millennials—youth who’ve grown up in the Digital Age—are less intelligent than their predecessors. He is saying that due to the digital environment in which they live and move and have their being, they are working with a much smaller store of acquired knowledge, contrasting the dizzying quantity of information available online with that which has actually been embraced and mastered.

Bauerlein collaborated with former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia on the influential NEA reports Reading at Risk and To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, which combined careful research and a sense of urgency about the rapid decline of reading in all age groups in the United States.

The omnipresence of screens and immersion in texting and social media have steadily pushed aside time devoted to reading or attendance to serious music, theater, and fine art. Bauerlein warns: [Read more...]

In Praise of the Printed Book, Part 1

By Warren Farha

Guest Post

Note: This post and the one following it have been condensed from an address given by the author.

I’ve been charged today with the task of explaining in some coherent form “why books?”—that is, paper and ink between covers—rather than “books” in some digital format. This is a visceral issue for me and not just because my vocation is the selling of conventional books. It touches me at points of my development as a human being.

The very first book I remember reading is as a four-year-old who could not yet really read, narrating the story as best I could by looking at and interpreting the interspersed illustrations (wood-cut engraving style drawings). It was one of the small bookshelf of books my family owned called The Real Book about the Wild West, by Adolph Regli.

I remember hours lying on our green-carpeted living room floor with this book, in my initial stages of reading. There were of course hours more with this book after I really could read, absorbing the engrossing narratives and unconsciously developing a love for history. [Read more...]