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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
After last week’s post in I asked why writing teachers should read, a reader of this blog asked if I would post a list of the nonfiction I read over the summer.
I have a blog about 20th century bestselling fiction, but I don’t often get to talk about my nonfiction reading outside of education. I appreciate me this opportunity to share some of my enthusiasms.
Since this is my education blog, I’ve drawn out some of the elements of each book that have relevance to teaching writing or more broadly to education. I often find I learn more about how to teach from books totally unrelated to teaching than from education books simply because I encounter the ideas in a new context.
FYI, I purchased each of the nine books profiled below from my preferred online book source Alibris.com.
Happiness for All by Carol Graham
The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right according to the U.S. Constitution, but it happiness equally available to all today? Graham writes about America as a county divided not only in terms of income distribution and opportunities, but also in terms of hopes and dreams.
Carol Graham’s book isn’t easy reading—I’d had to take her statistical analyses on faith; they’re beyond my comprehension—but when she steps back from her data to look at the people, she writes engagingly about why her findings matter.
Many of the correlations she pulls out, such as the strong correlation for lower socioeconomic status kids between “soft skills” and their success in life, raise questions that any teacher or administrator ought to consider.
This is a book I’ll dip into again to reread those sections with particular relevance for educators.
Carol Graham. 2017. Happiness for All. Princeton University Press.
Glass House by Brian Alexander
This book’s subtitle, The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town, sounds more formidable than Carol Graham’s book, but Glass House reads like fiction.
Brian Alexander went back home to Lancaster, Ohio, a town celebrated in a 1947 Forbes article as the quintessential American town, a model of “the American free enterprise system” before the 2016 election brought southern Ohio to the national spotlight.
He weaves together the story of the town, once home to the headquarters of Anchor Hocking glass, with the stories of the town’s residents, whose good, no-higher-education-required jobs disappeared though mismanagement and private equity slight-of-hand, leaving in its wake a trail of shattered hopes and heroin addicts. Anyone who reads a national newspaper will
recognize names of some of the culprits. (One of the firms that helped dig Anchor Hocking’s grave had a part in the bloodletting at one of the major employers in my area.)
Alexander is a superb writer. He cares deeply about his hometown and makes readers care.
This is a book I will read again because I got carried away by the people story and missed significant parts of the business story.I found myself turning pages hoping everything would turn out all right in the end, but, alas, Alexander has given cold, hard truth instead of heartwarming fiction.
Highly recommended reading.
Brian Alexander. 2017.Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town by St. Martins Press.
The Great and Holy War by Philip Jenkins
In this century, World War I is often described as the war that “marked the end of illusions, and of faith itself.” Philip Jenkins argues that “The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.” Without acknowledging the war’s religious dimensions, he says, we fail to see how it redrew the religious map and gave rise to the religious conflicts we see on every day’s newscasts.
The emotion and passion that marks Alexander’s book is missing from Jenkins’ text. Because he’s presenting an argument, he’s focused on presenting his case clearly without bringing emotion into it.
That doesn’t mean the text is dry.
Jenkins writes a scholarly text that’s easier to read than most daily newspapers. He’s not writing down to readers: He’s writing simply enough that readers can come up to the level of his analysis. For example, he often includes that chapter’s thesis in some form in each paragraph of the chapter’s introduction. It’s subtly done; unless you stop to analyze the text, you’d probably not spot it.
This is a book I will read again, probably more than once. I’ve already made a list of fiction Jenkins mentions that I want to read.
Philip Jenkins. 2014. The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. Harper One.
Great War Britain by Lucinda Gosling
This book takes a look at World War I as it was experienced by the upper class, female readers of the popular magazines of the era.
When the war wasn’t over by Christmas, the magazines switched their focus from balls and Paris fashions to photo stories about duchesses’ fundraising efforts and dowagers turning their stately homes into convalescent hospitals.
Lucinda Gosling studied history and worked in the picture library industry. She backs up her text with illustrations—there are many—without which it would be rather dull. Gosling is not a great writer.
Also many of the people mentioned in the text, whose names would be familiar even today in Britain, wouldn’t draw a yawn on this side of the pond.
Photos aside, for American readers, I think the novels of the WWI decade provide as much insight into WWI Britain as Gosling’s text.
I’m not likely to read this again, but I may look at the pictures again.
Lucinda Gosling. 2014. Great War Britain: The First World War at Home.The History Press.
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
Made to Stick is a book about communication. Its premise is that if you can understand why some ideas persist—even fake, screwball, and totally repulsive ideas—then you can use your knowledge to make your own communications sticky.
The Heath brothers are each involved in a different aspect of education, and, although the book is far more widely applicable than education, they frequently use education related illustrations and applications. Their discussion about the need for relentless prioritizing struck a chord with me because I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain to teachers why they have to jettison vast stacks of lessons if they expect students to learn.
The Heaths write well, with a friendly tone and humor. Having discussed how the military makes plans as a way of thinking about situations rather than expecting the plans to work, the Heaths provide a education riff on the military truism no plan survives contact with the enemy: “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.”
Every teacher on the planet needs to read this book.
Most of us ought to read it every year.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath. 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House.
The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda
John Maeda is a visual designer, graphic artist, and computer scientist working at MIT. His book takes some of the same ideas of Made to Stick and applies them to visual communication, product design, and how we can have a better quality of life in a fast-paced, quickly changing world.
Maeda is a smart guy and his writing reveals that. He’s not pedantic, but he’s far from engaging. Also, perhaps because he set out to say all he wanted to say in 100 pages, some of the text that summarizes essential points ended up in go-get-the-magnifier size type.
If you read this book, take its chapters like multivitamins, one a day.
If you teach writing, you might read the Heaths’ book first and compare their six principles to Maeda’s 10 laws, not only in what they say but how they are presented. It would be an instructive exercise.
The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. John Maeda. 2006. MIT Press.
Grouped by Paul Adams
Paul Adams knows a thing or two about the social behavior on the web. He worked for Facebook as Global Brands Experience Manager and for Google where he worked on Gmail, YouTube and Mobile.
He also knows a thing or two about writing off the web. Adams writes well. His prose has the directness and simplicity that comes from years of disciplined writing.
Instead of having consecutive chapters (old fashioned!) Grouped is a series of sections: Pick and choose at will, just as if you were visiting a website. The sections include quick tips that zero in on some super-important point in the already brief chapters and a summary—think: short, shorter, shortest—and resources for further reading.
The diagrams in the book have a hand-drawn appearance that underscores the idea of the importance of small, informal groups.
Grouped is a book about social behavior and, although the main audiences is businesses with products to sell, is relevant to teachers with lessons to pitch and administrators with budgets to pass.
Paul Adams. 2012. Grouped: How Small Groups of Friends Are the Key to Influence on the Social Web. New Riders.
Hug Your Haters by Jay Baer
Jay Baer is a marketing guy, but not the sort who try to push products on customers. His approach a public relations approach. He responds to customers, particularly if the customers are complaining, in order to keep that person as a customer.
Baer shows why ignoring criticism is bad for business (even if the business is a not-for-profit organization or government entity). He distinguishes between complainers who want a solution to their problem and those who were disappointed by how the business treated them and are seeking an audience to share their indignation. Baer shows how to deal with both groups.
Baer writes well, and includes a lot of material that’s funny. He won’t let you get bored.
There’s plenty in this book that is useful to teachers, administrators, and school board members. For example, Baer points out how today’s best businesses are shaping how parents and community members on whom the school depends expect to be treated by the school. If your school experiences a problem and delivers an Equifax response, you can bet your bottom dollar, its community stock will have an abrupt drop.
Jay Baer. 2016. Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers. Portfolio/Penguin.
Logotype by Michael Evamy
A logotype is a brand identifier made from type—letters, usually—and designed not to be read the way words are read, but to be read as a symbol. For example, if you see a certain fat F shape, you identify that logotype as meaning Facebook.
This is an entire 336-page book of such logotypes with short blurbs about the business or organization that owns it and a sentence or two about how the logotype reflects its owner.
This is a fascinating book for people fascinated by such things. If you happen not to be one of them, you won’t like this book at all.
Michael Evamy. 2016. Logotype. Lawrence King Publishing.