Who Needs to Read Anymore?

High pile of hardcover booksAt the community college where I teach—actually in the state capitol two hours away—a massive overhaul of the English curriculum is underway. As I understand it right now, a diagnostic test will determine student placement, and three levels of developmental reading and writing are being added for those with low scores. Those students will be taking nine credit hours, almost two hours a day five days a week, of developmental reading and writing.

Faculty members are groaning—two retired the week the changes were announced—but what I haven’t heard is anyone saying there isn’t a problem with student proficiency. I remember the essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” in The Atlantic some years ago, in which a professor claimed many of his students were close to being functionally illiterate. [Read more...]

Wearing God: A Conversation with Lauren F. Winner, Part 2

lauren winnerContinued from yesterday.

Image: A lot of history makes its way into your new book Wearing God, especially American history. Could you talk about what you think makes a good history book, the kind you like to read?

LW: Two things come to mind, and they don’t always show up in the same book. Some historical episodes lend themselves to almost novelistic writing, and in the last twenty-five years there has been a lot of interest among historians in taking craft seriously, experimenting with narrative form. You see it in writers like John Demos and Simon Schama.

That said, there are plenty of excellent, interesting history books that aren’t so much narratively interesting as they are interesting because of the argument they make or the evidence they’ve uncovered. I have always enjoyed so-called microhistories, where instead of writing a monograph about crime in early America, someone writes a case study of one infanticide in seventeenth-century Braunschweig.

I often enjoy this kind of history the way I enjoy a short story or novel. A favorite of mine is A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, which is essentially an exegesis of the diary of a midwife on the frontier of Maine at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ulrich’s book turned out to be quite helpful when, in writing Wearing God, I turned my attention to the Hebrew Bible’s likening God to a midwife. [Read more...]

I Belong to Jesus

Today we are happy to welcome back former Good Letters blogger Sara Zarr as a regular contributor once again.

3768063540_5c7235b957_z In the church of my childhood and adolescence, we had a tradition at church retreats and evening services of forming a circle, joining hands, and singing, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” (It was the seventies, okay?)

These retreats were held in relatively remote areas, at centers with names like Mt. Hermon and The Lord’s Land, where believers would gather in A-frame buildings to learn and share.

Though my memories of being surrounded by cool adults wearing bellbottom jeans and sporting macramé guitar straps are special for me, I eventually felt a need to put distance between those days and who I am now. [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...]

Girl Meets God in the Classroom, Part 2

Rembrandt-The_return_of_the_prodigal_sonContinued from yesterday.

On the first day of my class “Spiritual Autobiographies: Theirs and Ours,” a few students shared that they weren’t “spiritual people.” Why, I wondered, did they sign up for this elective class?

Some of them, I would learn later in the semester, had been deeply wounded by religion. A few said that religion had been forced on them by their parents.

At this moment of emerging adulthood, it was time to turn away, to turn another way. Neither the students nor I realized, as class began in mid-August, that some of their wounds, whether exposed in speech, writing, or—to anyone paying attention—in silence, would become sites of inquiry and that inquiry itself might begin a process of healing.

[Read more...]


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