A writing teacher’s reading around ELA

Reading nonfiction is probably the best—and certainly the easiest and cheapest—means of lifelong learning.

Such reading is obligatory for writing teachers.

We have to prepare our students to write in whatever fields they enter, and it’s hard to do that if unless we know what kinds of writing and what kinds of topics are used in other disciplines.

Below are brief summaries of my nonfiction reading for the third quarter of this year.

Trespassing Across America by Ken Ilgunas

Trespassing Across America cover shows man with backpack balancing on a pipeline

Ken Ilgunas was working as a dishwasher in an oil camp in the Arctic Circle when he got the idea to walk the 1,700-mile length of the Keystone XL pipeline. He wanted to see the land that the pipeline was going through and test his personal limits.

He wasn’t athletic, hadn’t hiked before, and, although he considered himself environmentally conscious, had no political agenda.

This literate but easy reading narrative by a guy who sounds as ordinary as most of the guys in my English classes ought to appeal to those guys.

His stress on the importance of being polite to people ought to appeal to teachers.

Rust: The Longest War by J. Waldman

Rust's cover features photos of rust by Alyssha Eve Csük

Ilgunas had his book organized for him by the path of the Keystone XL pipeline. Jonathan Waldman had to devise a way to organize his examination of rust, “the great destroyer,” “the pervasive menace,” “the evil.” He chose to organize it in terms of stories about men and women whose life work is fighting rust on surfaces as diverse as The Statue of Liberty, bridges, and beer cans.

To balance his narratives about rust fighters, Waldman tags along with Alyssha Eve Csük as she climbs over a chain link fence into the closed Bethlehem Steel Works in Bethlehem PA to take photographs of rust. The granddaughter of a steelworker, Csük makes her living photographing rust, including the one on the book’s dust jacket.

Waldman can not only make technical material understandable, he makes it fascinating and often funny. Rust is a marvelous nonfiction book to make available to your students as an exemplar of expository narrative.

Jane Austen’s England by R. & L. Adkins

Cover of Jane Austen's England shows child-like drawings of ship, hanged man, a fire, a chimney sweep, a house, a horse-drawn carriage.

Roy and Lesley Adkins focus their panoramic history of Jane Austen’s England (she lived from 1775 to 1817) on domestic matters arranged by topic rather than chronology.

The topical approach makes the book convenient pick-up reading, which is fortunate because Jane Austen’s England won’t be many people’s choice for cover-to-cover reading.

However, chapter titles such as “Wedding Bells,” “Fashions and Filth,” and “Dark Deeds” might tempt a teenager to thumb its pages. Once inside, the content is quirky enough to get students to read a page or even a chapter.

The End of White Christian America

White on black, all-text cover of The End of White Christian America

In this unusually readable book of survey research, Robert P. Jones examines the impact of demographic and cultural changes since 1900 on current American religion and on American politics.

The first paperback version of The End of White Christian America (published  July, 2017) which I used, includes an afterward in which Jones discusses how the election of Donald Trump in 2016 fits into the pattern of changes he wrote about prior to the election.

In those changes, Jones finds an explanation for why America’s white protestants have passed over candidates whose values matched their own, supporting instead candidates whose values seem a direct contradiction of theirs. The explanation is fear. With their declining numbers, white protestants see the loss of political clout and of their vision of America.

Explaining survey data so it is understandable and meaningful is an art. Jones is a master of it.  Students could learn a lot from this book about how to explain technical material for people who aren’t particularly techie.

Failure: Why Science Is So Successful

Black cover with Failure and Stuart Firestein printed in green to indicate positive side to failure.

Failure is a book about how scientists do science, which author Stuart Firestein, himself a scientist, says isn’t the way the public thinks science happens.

Firestein’s thesis is that science is less rule-driven and methodical than the public supposes, and that “failures” advance science at least as much as successes.

Firestein is scholarly without being stuffy, but the topics he discusses are not for for folks whose science education ended with high school physics.

Failure is more a collection of essays than a book that must be read as sequential chapters, which makes it a good addition to a writing teacher’s classroom bookshelf for those few rare students (and perhaps some of the teacher’s colleagues) for whom this little book will be a pleasant challenge.

The Vanquished by Robert Gerwarth

Robert Gerwarth’s subtitle reveals his focus: Why the First World War Failed to End. 

Cover of the Vanquished is photo of soldier seated on ground,head on knees, hands on back of his neck, picture of misery.

While we think of WWI ending with the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918, the process of negotiating peace treaties went on for five years. During those years, European nations already weakened by war, famine, and disease fell victim to revolutions, pogroms, and mass expulsions.

The conditions of those five years gave rise to new states and extreme political movements. All that was needed for the cumulative after-effects to ignite another world war was the fuel provided by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

While Gerwarth writes well, he’s not writing for an audience of high school and community college students. To appreciate his work requires more than a general knowledge of the WWI era and the ability to grasp sentences than can run 5-8 lines long.

I learned a great deal from his book, but I had to work at the learning.

My other reading

During the third quarter I also read at least two novels a week, most of them bestsellers of the 1970s. Reviews of those books will be posted at GreatPenformances.com before the year’s out, if they aren’t there already.

Summaries of my earlier nonfiction reading are posted on this blog. Here are links to the list for first quarter and the list for second quarter.

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