What Do We Read that Isn’t the Book?

ET—The Extratextual
(image by vnwayne fan, via unsplash)

We talked yesterday about all the stuff that publishers wrap around “the thing” that a writer makes, in order to turn it into the cultural event that we’ve come to know as a book. But publishers aren’t the only people involved in telling us what a book is, and all of those other messages are also co-read along with the poor, innocent thing.

Bookstores are beautiful or grungy, nicely arrayed or heaped and mounded. But they also work in category systems, the most obvious of which is genre. Fiction and nonfiction, sure, (or as one bookstore has it on their wall posters, True and Made-Up). But then fiction and nonfiction are each subdivided into dozens of bands, geographically segregated, partially predigested before the reader ever encounters it. Is it cultural affairs or memoir? Is it historical fiction or romance? Those terms will be differently magnetic for different receivers.

Aside from genre, though, there are areas of the store called some variant of “New and Notable,” consigning everything else to being either exhausted or mediocre. Even after a book leaves the New table, it’ll be shelved face-out instead of spine-wise for a while, marking books that some staff person has taken a particular interest in and wants us all to notice. The others… well, good luck to you, you’re on your own. And then lonely, unpartnered books slowly migrate to some discount area of the store, a last half-price pause before they’re returned for credit.

Each of those booksellers’ decisions influence what we think, before we even have a chance to think at all.

There are lots of external folks who tell us what to think, too. Reviewers pass judgment on manuscripts that the rest of us may not yet have access to. Publishers have a whole mechanism of advance reader copies (ARCs) sent out to magazines and famous writers. That allows reviews to appear just in advance of the book’s actual release, like movie teasers put up before another Marvel explosion-pic.

Prizes and awards constitute further predigestion, a book or an author being lauded by The Serious People, a little gold star stuck to the cover of each subsequent copy. The Nobel and Pulitzer, the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, the Caldecott and the Newbery Medals, the Walter Scott (historical fiction) and the Orwell (political fiction) and Lambda (LGBTQ fiction). Within genres, the Dagger (crime and mystery), the Hugo (science fiction), the RITA (romance). Depending on how important the prize is, a book or writer needn’t even win it. Being a finalist is notable enough. Being “long-listed” for the Booker or National Book Award, meaning among the 20 books that the jury paid any attention to at all, provides some traction in a crowded literary market.

Maybe the book is part of a book club, and we find it because of our celebrity fandom. Oprah Winfrey, Reece Witherspoon, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jenna Bush Hager, Emma Roberts, Emma Watson, Shonda Rimes, all of them happy to tell you what you should read next in order to be a current, with-it fangirl. (Any celebrity book clubs sponsored by male celebrities? Umm… Jimmy Fallon? Former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck? That’s about all I can find.)

Your friends will tell you what to read, too. Some of them become trusted guides, and we’ll read whatever they put in our hands. We like it before we start, because those people have steered us right before.

And then there’s the one that’s most live for me right now, which is co-reading the book along with knowledge of the writer. A book written by someone not known to us can be experienced more independently than a book written by someone we know, or think we know. A book by Rachel Maddow carries all of our experience of watching her show for ten years. A book by your friend carries questions of alignment between the factual life you know (or think you know) and the fictional lives portrayed. How does he know that? we wonder. Maybe he’s spent time in prison himself, if he knows that much about it. I’ve had friends ask me if I’ve raised an adopted child, if I’ve been in seminary, if I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve had friends diagnose a book as being about Nora’s and my careers and choice of places to live. It’s an array of paratext I’d never considered before my “things” became books and flew the nest into the hands of friends. I guess it’s a testament to my work’s believability that people ask, but I don’t always like it.

Words, characters, stories are all pre-read, co-read, counter-read in the context (another word for paratext, of course) of a vast array of subtle commentary. Writers’ things are not isolated acts once they leave thing-ness and become books; they fall into a broad range of ongoing conversations, which is both a strength and a hindrance. The book can be lifted beyond its own power to rise; it can be misshapen through unintended adjacency with other ideas.

And the writer has control over absolutely none of that. Those are all external actions undertaken by innumerable others, all of which are beyond our influence. It’s a humbling, surprisingly powerless place to be. We have total control over the thing, no control at all after the thing is released to its independent life.

Fly free, little ones. I hope you’ll find new friends of your own.

What Do We Read When We Read?

Go ahead, judge a book by its cover. That’s why it has one.

What is a book? If we slow down and dig into it, it becomes a pretty interesting question.

For the most part, writers don’t deal with books. We deal with words and stories and ideas. And we don’t really have a great term for what the thing is while it’s emerging. It’s not really a manuscript until it’s done and sent away for consideration. It’s not really a piece—”I need a five-hundred word piece on the hottest bands in Cleveland”—unless someone else commissions it. (It’s called a piece in the artistic trades because the editor or curator or theater director needs it as a piece of their larger vision.) And while it ferments on my hard drive in Microsoft Word, it absolutely is not a book. It’s a thing, I guess.

The thing only becomes a book after somebody else bolts some other stuff onto it, what literary analysts have come to call the paratext. The Word file gets redesigned into a page layout, with typefaces and line spacings and margins set to something other than the 8.5×11 that office supplies default to. (You NEVER see an 8.5×11 book anymore, just some leftover hippie things from the 1970s that started their lives at Kinko’s.) The “trim size” of the finished book is its own graphic question, unique to every book, which is why your bookshelf doesn’t align evenly.

Once we know what the pages look like, we then need to decide on the paper we’ll print on, and the binding method that replaces the high-school staple in the upper-left corner. The number of pages determines the thickness of the spine, which we’ll come back to in a minute.

But we’re not done with the body of the thing yet. If nothing else, there’ll be an inner page (recto, or on the right side when the book is open) that reiterates the title and the author, and then usually the back of that same sheet (verso, or on the left side) known as the title page, that includes the book title, the author, the publisher, the ISBN and the Library of Congress call number and the copyright date and the current edition and any necessary disclaimers about accuracy or verisimilitude. (This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.)

The title page is the statement that this thing is now A Serious Book, which has become part of The Permanent Record.

And then we have the cover. Jhumpa Lahiri, in her marvelous little book The Clothing of Books, has covered most of the important ground here, about the ways that the author has lost control of the storytelling, that the graphic artists and marketers have turned the words into a product that fits into the expectations of “similar” products. About the ways that the author photo (alas) weaves the anonymous words into a personal relationship with a writer alternately young, middle-aged, old, female, male, nonbinary, pretty, homely, serious, amusing.

But a self-published writer (an abysmal term that sounds just as masturbatory as the practice may in fact be) gets more control over the wrapper. We still adhere to some of the conventions, though, we know the visual rhetoric from having consumed so many books ourselves. We choose or design a graphic that isn’t an illustration of a scene from the book, but which attempts to set an emotional tone. The abandoned factory acting as a shorthand for an entire crushed city. A disco ball to suggest the plasticized artifice of nightclubs and the era of the 1970s. An endless scatter of papers reflecting the way we feel when we contribute our own leaf to the unraked lawn. The cover is doing evocative rather than narrative work.

The title is bigger than the author’s name, because the author is an unknown whose name isn’t going to sell anything. Wait until you’re John Grisham or Janet Evanovich to blow up your name, hero. So there’s the title, the work of which is also evocative, emotional. Of all the things I’ve written, their titles fall into a few camps:

  • A single word (Leopard, Slush, Red)
  • A single word with an article (The Host, The List, The Test, The PhDictionary)
  • The ___ of ___ (The Abbot of Saginaw, The Opposite of Control)
  • Adjective/noun (Misplaced Persons, Trailing Spouse, The Adjunct Underclass, The City Killers)

It’s an art form that demands economy.

The back cover is also visual and evocative, but it oughtn’t to just be a repeat of the front, that’d be a lost opportunity. So it becomes its own independent graphic design question, its own visual enticement. But that graphic design is now put to service of some more overt promises about what the reader will encounter. That can take a couple of forms. One is the two or three paragraph summation, the pitch that introduces the character, the setting, and the problem. The other is the stack of blurbs, the collective hysteria that urges us to join the mob.

And then, there’s the spine. Book spines are under-appreciated in the lay world, but they do a vast amount of work in a tiny ribbon. When the book is on a shelf, whether at home or in a store, the spine is doing all the work there is to be done. It acts as identifier, as mnemonic aid (I think it has a green cover), and as bait all at once.

It usually carries over the graphic language of the front cover. Here’s an example, from my most recent book & Sons.

The illustration of the rusting galvanized sheets with riveted seams carries over from the front cover, as does the unobtrusive typeface (Didot) for my name, and the “fancy” typeface for the book title that would have been used by a sign painter in the midwest for the family business, Barrows & Sons. As was true for the cover, the title is reduced to semi-transparent so that some of the rust marks show through it, as they would with a painted name on a silo or a truck door. That little band, five-eighths of an inch across, has some pretty mighty responsibilities.

After all that—the page layout, the cover, the printing, the spine, all of it—the thing has become the book in our hands. Its corners hard and sharp, its pages die-cut to riffle like a deck of cards. For the first time in the thing’s life, the logic of moving forward through the story becomes that of turning pages rather than scrolling on a screen.

But we’re not done pre-reading it yet. More paratext tomorrow.

The Things Not Meant for You

Maybe not time yet
(Nicholas Bartos, via Unsplash)

We find inspiration in strange places, and at times we could not have predicted. Nora sent me an editorial from Saturday’s New York Times, written by Penn Jillette: an homage to his friend Bob Saget, who recently died at age 65. I wouldn’t have thought that an editorial written by half of a famous comedy-magic team, about another comedian whom most people know from a ’90s sitcom and a 90’s video-clip show, would have been so moving.

Jillette has always been known as the abrasive and transgressive half of Penn and Teller, the loud giant paired with Teller’s small and silent fall guy. And this editorial starts out as a praise of the abrasive and transgressive, but moves gently toward something generous.

Real art, beautiful art, is always a scary act of trust. We look to art to see another person’s heart. That human connection is all that matters. For me, it is a reason to live.

And then, after that elegant pronouncement, he reverses course on himself, and talks about the ways in which that connection can fail. Jillette’s own kids didn’t like Saget’s comedy, exactly because it felt disrespectful to them.

I have heard some thoughtful arguments against the transgressive comedy that I love. One problem is that it is often the same groups of people who are being asked to take the joke. I never heard Bob insult people who were marginalized, but other comedians do, and I don’t think that’s really fair. Even if everyone is equally fair game for comedy, our culture makes these jokes land unevenly. I see that. I don’t have the right to say to someone else: “It’s a joke. Get over it.”

And in the end, Jillette says that he hopes what he learns from his kids about respect can be balanced with what they might learn from him about trust.

Those of us in the arts may not have thought in precise terms about the occasional tension between respect and trust, but it’s there. And it’s there for a bunch of reasons.

It’s there because we are imperfect people, who think sometimes about untoward things, who reflect our own limited experiences and our own innate biases and our own unspeakable dreams.

It’s there because we cannot know every other person’s lived experience, and so may step on a trip wire that we didn’t know existed.

It’s there because our politics or our religions or our families or our ethnic ties may place us on opposite sides of some fence, both believing our own cultures to be “common sense” or taken for granted, no alternatives possible.

It’s there because the harder we try to be kind and generous, the more fully we recognize those moments where we’ve come short.

And it’s there because the things we care most about may just be boring, or irrelevant, or indifferent to lots of other people.

What Bob Saget practiced was emotional stage diving. He would fall face-first into the audience’s arms. If the audience didn’t trust him enough to catch him with their laughs, it would be worse than smashing onto a concrete floor.

When we write or paint or act or dance or whatever it is that we do, we do it for ourselves. We do it because we have something at our core that drives us to make, and then to share. I am going to show the world who I am, and I trust that someone will understand.

So, to pull a number from the air, let’s say I’m one person of a hundred who’s interested in writing about X. Whatever X is. And further, on the other side of the internet or bookstore, there are one person in a hundred who are interested in thinking about X. That means that an awful lot of people who might come into contact with my work won’t like it, and might even find it objectionable.

That’s fine. Set it aside and move along. But know that I’ve made it with respect (for both you and for me and for the work itself), and given it to you in the trust that you will take what’s meant for you and leave the rest for others. That you will, yourself, trust that there must be others who are receptive to this.

I have to write with respect, knowing all the while that the work occasionally won’t feel respectful to some reader or readers. But readers also have to begin from a place of trust, believing that a writer has done her or his best to be attentive and caring, and that errors might actually be errors.

Some years ago, I was at a writers’ conference in a session led by the poet Patricia Smith. During that session, she said (in paraphrase), Every writer has to be free to write about anything that they care about. But then they have the responsibility to stay involved in the conversation that their work has opened. That’s where trust and respect come together, in acknowledging that we’re all walking difficult landscapes as best we can. We can support one another and learn from one another, or we can knock one another down in our fear of injury or in our drive to victory.

And sometimes trust is unwarranted. As Penn Jillette also noted, Trolls don’t seek to demonstrate and celebrate trust; they strive to destroy it. The troll does not want to use offense as a tool to get to shared humanity. There is no bravery.

The more we hang around in troll culture, the more wary we become. Our trust muscle atrophies, our defensive reflexes grow strong. We are less willing to read with trust, because that trust has been so often violated by people of ill-will who intentionally work without respect, without care.

So, friends, make bravely. Write bravely. But also, read bravely. Read in a way that allows you to grow, to trust that the writer has worked from a place of respect. And if the work feels disrespectful or uncomfortable, trust that the writer can hear that if correction is offered from respect as well.

And if the work isn’t meant for you, if the work as a conduit between two hearts doesn’t flow, remember that the disconnect isn’t remotely surprising. It takes a long time to find work that matches our puzzle-shaped hearts. Treasure it when you find it, and set the rest aside with love, knowing that it might match someone else.

Navigating the Contested Curriculum

First time here. Fifty miles an hour. Hundreds of other cars. No GPS. How’s your confidence level?
(Image by Annie Theby, via Unsplash)

About ten years ago, the writer Louis Menand wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Live and Learn,” the subtitle of which revealed its true topic: “Why we have college.” In it, he differentiated between two and a half substantially different reasons why college should exist in the first place, and why the fact that we don’t talk about those motives makes it almost impossible to do any of them well.

Mission A is “expos[ing] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.” It is an exercise in enculturation, in curiosity, in social norming. In this view, college education “takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste…. Ideally, we want everyone to go to college, because college gets everyone on the same page. It’s a way of producing a society of like-minded grownups.” This is the function praised by the “great-ideas” people and decried by the “indoctrination” accusers, both of whom are kind of right, as we all are.

Mission B is sorting and ranking, of knowing who’s better than whom. In this view, “College is, essentially, a four-year intelligence test. Students have to demonstrate intellectual ability over time and across a range of subjects. If they’re sloppy or inflexible or obnoxious—no matter how smart they might be in the I.Q. sense—those negatives will get picked up in their grades. As an added service, college also sorts people according to aptitude. It separates the math types from the poetry types. At the end of the process, graduates get a score, the G.P.A., that professional schools and employers can trust as a measure of intellectual capacity and productive potential.” This model is laudable in its clarity, though it furthers the gender and race and class divisions that students arrived with in the first place. If you were born on the goal line, you’re automatically closer to a touchdown than someone born outside the stadium entirely.

And then Mission C, which Menand touches on only peripherally and only because his own students drag his attention toward it, is that college is intended to be technical training for a particular kind of job. Under this view, “…advanced economies demand specialized knowledge and skills, and, since high school is aimed at the general learner, college is where people can be taught what they need in order to enter a vocation. A college degree in a non-liberal field signifies competence in a specific line of work.”

There are clusters of colleges aimed closely at each of these three motives, and yet other colleges that try to be a little bit of all things to all students. But if we never actually say these things out loud, we’ll never actually know what kind of college we’re providing, because we won’t know why we’re doing it.

About that same time, the school I was working at was going through one of its innumerable disciplinary accreditation processes, the work of the home office making sure that all of its franchisees provide more or less the same product. In this particular instance, we were trying to ensure that we could talk about how the current curriculum met all of the expectations of the professional community for what a bachelor’s-degree-holder should know. That accreditor worked every year or two to administer a questionnaire asking professionals what students should know at the moment of graduation, what they should learn as young pre-licensure professionals, and what they probably wouldn’t know until they’d been in the profession for a few years. At no one’s surprise, the results were that all graduating students should know almost all of it, except for the business strategy parts—the grown-ups would take care of that, leaving their army of highly trained drafting monkeys at work in the back office.

Every profession is increasingly complex, in software and in policy and in diversity of available materials and tools. If we expect 21-year-olds to be competent young employees the day they graduate with their BA or BS, we’re just going to have to stuff more knowledge and technique into that undergraduate experience. But state and federal departments of education appropriately want to make sure that they aren’t paying for increasing seat time beyond the standard of 120 credits in four years, and that students aren’t incurring even more loan burden to get a degree that now takes five years, or six years, or eight. So the curriculum becomes a zero-sum game, in which innumerable forces each work to claim some share of the 120-credit landscape. As former college president Jill Ker Conway once wrote, the curriculum is the battlefield upon which intellectual wars are fought.

Now imagine again, as we did a couple of days ago, that you’re sixteen years old, a junior in high school, trying to figure out this opaque landscape even as you’re hurtling toward it. Everybody’s haranguing you about how important college is, but they haven’t done any meaningful thinking about why, or about how it might be appropriate for YOU and for your individual life trajectory. Nobody around you has experience with lots of different types of colleges, so you’re left to rely on shouted brand names (Ford! Chevy! Berkeley! Stanford!) or affordability and convenience.

Nobody tells you about the bitter fights that have gone on over that 120-credit landscape you hope to inhabit. Every inch of it was a contested decision, but now it’s presented to its potential consumers as logical to the point of inevitability. What does your get-ed consist of? Why are you doing it? How has the discipline divided your courses into methods and knowledge and underlying principles and theories of its future? You can’t take any of these programs for a meaningful test drive, it’s like buying a car from the brochure. Just shut up and get in, okay?

I’m serious. Put yourselves into that imaginary sixteen-year-old’s head, worried about issues of boyfriends or girlfriends, worried about issues of identity, engaged in a high school that’s doing whatever the state wants, worried about whether Dad’s going to be laid off or Mom’s going to be transferred to Dayton. And then imagine this flurry of garbled, unreliable information, a collegiate blizzard of half-truths pouring down upon you from which you’re expected to snatch exactly the right snowflake.

We have GOT to do better.

Voyages to the Unknown

Not sure where we’re going, but we’ll get there.
(Image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, via Unsplash)

Yesterday, we talked about the mismatch between what academic majors and disciplines are, and students’ folk knowledge of what majors and disciplines are. And it is true that we all embark upon future paths that seem appealing but which are, in detail, entirely unknown. That’s what everyday life is, a series of predictions about how today builds tomorrow. And as the physicist Neils Bohr once said, “It is very difficult to predict, especially about the future.”

How might we do better at it? How might we lead eighteen-year-olds, from a vast diversity of backgrounds and privilege, from a vast diversity of cultures and family structures, to have a reasonable chance of using college to become?

I can tell you how I wouldn’t do it.

I wouldn’t do it in “intro” courses with 25 students, or 50, or 300.

I wouldn’t offer my most vulnerable and least affiliated teachers to my most vulnerable and not-yet-convinced students.

I wouldn’t frame the concept of self-discovery in terms like “general education,” which everybody instantly and demeaningly crushes down to “gen-ed,” knowing how little it matters. Or “breadth education,” the finishing-school notion that prepares us for a diverse array of pleasant conversations at the country club. Or “the great books,” the reading list that privileges one form of rigor above all others, and one cultural heritage above all others as well, declaring firmly that some things (and some people) exist on the serious and enduring side of the fence and all else is inadequate and temporal.

So, if I wouldn’t do it the way that almost every college in America does it, what other options might be available? Well, you’d have to peel away a lot of constraints.

About thirty years ago, The Big Picture Company embarked on the development of a new high school in Providence, Rhode Island, called The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, universally known as “The Met.” They developed a curricular model of three parts: close relationships with a single advisor (in groups of twelve students), meaningful internships in the local professional community, and a self-designed project from each student each semester. Here’s the bet they made: Give us some money, and get out of our way. If you do, we promise that our graduation rate will be way, way higher than the Providence city schools, and that 100% of our graduates will be accepted to a four-year college. If we can do that, you keep quiet. If we can’t, we close, because we don’t deserve to be open.

There’s some chips on the table. As they say in poker, “all in.”

There are no courses or curriculum or exams or teachers or credits. There are, instead, students and their advisors and their internship supervisors and their parents, who come together occasionally to look at what each student has done and to think carefully about what each student might do next. As one of my colleagues once described it, “You’ll love it. Every question you’d normally ask about school doesn’t apply to them.” For instance, a question like “what time is the 10th grade math class?” relies on four unspoken assumptions: grade levels, disciplines, classrooms, and course schedules. None of those existed at The Met.

Conceiving of a school like The Met requires a lot of things. It requires bravery, for sure, but more importantly, it requires us to think seriously about what’s at the core of the endeavor, and what’s just the surrounding mechanism. And it’s no surprise that a core value of the Big Picture Company is, and has always been, “one kid at a time.”

Turning our attention to college, and to the specific task of helping young people know themselves and their desires, it’s tempting to make recommendations. “During the first two years…” or “Class sizes should be limited to…” The hard work is to not go there yet, to sit with the dilemma and think for a long time about what we hope will be true rather than being all businesslike and efficient and figuring out a fix. If we can come to some core principles, I trust that my colleagues can create innumerable interesting and effective mechanisms to get there.

So here’s some core principles I’d propose for the endeavor.

  • We have no control over what came before, and we can’t whine about it. We can’t blame students’ difficulties on bad schools or tough neighborhoods or language learning or insufficient families. I mean, if you’re going to say that you only know how to serve wealthy students from important families from elite high schools, then just accept your limitations, call yourself Princeton and be done with it. This kind of program has to meet every single young person exactly where they’re at. In fact…
  • The diversity of students’ backgrounds is a core feature, through which each student will learn something about the enormous breadth of the world. This implies, of course, that we ask students to engage seriously with one another, and that we provide the tools of mediation and interpersonal relations that allow difference to be opportunity rather than threat. If we imagine that our students are libertarian free agents whose success is through at best ignoring others and at worst competing with others, then we will produce people who, in the words of David Foster Wallace, are “the lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” We are, always, mutually and collectively responsible for our wellbeing.
  • Growth cannot be fully predicted or tightly scheduled. Through our whole lives, all of our learning is a series of spurts and plateaus and setbacks and streams that don’t pan out. There should be regular moments where we check in and evaluate, but there will be no such common schedules or sequences of “achievement” or “attainment.” One of the most common principles of martial arts, for instance, is that students do not ask to move up to the next belt level, nor do those promotions come at set durations in the program. Promotion comes at the judgment of the sensei. But this is like any workplace, in which we get promotions not because of simple seniority but because our skills match some next task. The core questions are always “what have we done?” and “what might we do?”
  • The program’s work is enthusiasm, opportunity, and challenge. Enthusiasm for good ideas and interesting questions. Opportunity through recommending interesting next paths, opening doors that might not have been seen, finding colleagues who know more about something than we do. And challenge through continual expectation that the next thing we take on is just a little bit harder than we think we’re ready for.

If this doesn’t fit with the practices of our registrar’s office or our financial aid systems, doesn’t fit with our business model or our tenure and promotion guidelines, then we’re left to ask which are the means and which are the ends.

One more pass through this tomorrow.


Architecture 101, my home.
(Google Streetscapes screenshot)

It is not unusual for students to come to the university with conceptualizations of disciplines that are out of sync with academic reality… a lot of entering freshmen assume that sociology is something akin to social work, an applied study of social problems rather than an attempt to abstract a theory about social interaction and organization. Likewise, some think psychology will be a discussion of human motivation and counseling, what it is that makes people do what they do—and some coverage of ways to change what they do. It comes as a surprise that their textbook has only one chapter on personality and psychotherapy—and a half dozen pages on Freud. The rest is animal studies, computer models of thought, lots of neurophysiology. If they like to read novels, and they elect a literature course, they’ll expect to talk about characters and motive and plot, but instead they’re asked to situate the novel amid the historical forces that shaped it, to examine rhetorical and stylistic devices and search the prose for things that mean more than they seem to mean. Political science should mean politics and government and current events—nuclear treaties, trade sanctions, the Iran-Contra scandal—but instead it’s Marx and Weber and political economy and organizational and decision-making models. And so goes the litany of misdirection. This dissonance between the academy’s and the students’ definitions of disciplines makes it hard for students to get their bearings with material: to know what’s important, to see how the pieces fit together, to follow an argument, to have a sense of what can be passed over lightly.

Mike Rose, Lives on the Boundary, 1989 (191-92)

When I was in high school, I was a bland and mediocre student who’d risen to near the top of my class because I read a lot and I was polite and obedient. But that was enough to be considered college material. No one in my family had any experience with college, and I’ve written elsewhere about having absolutely no tools with which to choose the colleges I applied to, nor to then choose from among the three that were foolish enough to accept me.

But a second dilemma that I’m considering today (because of reading Mike Rose yesterday) was the question of what I might major in. And really, who among us at the age of sixteen had any sense at all of the adult paths available to us, aside from simple labels like lawyer or salesman or mechanic? We knew what our parents did, and I knew that I was unlikely to be either a factory worker or a telephone operator. We knew what our teachers did, and there’s no kid in their right mind who’d choose a job THAT stupid. So really, how do any of us decide on what turns out to be a mighty and momentous declaration?

And that’s what it is, a declaration. We “declare” a major, which is to say that we pledge some form of allegiance to a way of thinking and to a body of concerns and to a possible adult way of engaging with the world. It has close secular relations to religious practices of confirmation and bar/bat mitzvah, some half-awake seventh-grader making a public declaration of faith because the calendar said it was time. I mean, they won’t let us drive a car until we’re sixteen, won’t let us vote or enter into contracts until we’re eighteen, and won’t let us drink until we’re twenty-one, but at age thirteen we can stand in front of our parents’ friends and declare our perpetual allegiance to some faith and community? Please…

The problem on the table today is similar. What body of life experiences would it take to make a meaningful declaration of our adherence to sociology, or to engineering, or to history, or to any of the dozens of other life paths available at even the most meager regional college?

I can tell you that I was not the right model to follow. I had decided, when I was in eleventh grade, that I wanted to go to school for architecture. What body of evidence did I marshal on behalf of that choice, having grown up in a town where the smokestacks were far taller than any building or steeple, where factories were the most sophisticated building type on the landscape? What experience did I bring to that decision, having grown up on a block of shop-floor workers and telephone linemen and branch-bank managers and septic-tank excavators?

A) I lived on a block of identical houses, all the same floor plan, oversized Monopoly houses one per lot along the 3300 block of Lemuel Street. But I came to see that individual families had modified those houses in the twenty years since their construction after World War II, from trivial choices like paint and plants to significant decisions of reorganization and addition. And I vaguely understood that family and house decisions were related, not merely logistically but through values and aspirations and life histories.

B) In eleventh grade, I took a high-school course in mechanical drafting. And I was completely captivated. I loved the use of the t-square and the triangles and the circle templates. I loved the geometry of the projections that allowed accurate translation of top view into front view into side view, the faint guidelines that we used to align our vision across perspectives. I loved the idea of rotation, of seeing a couple of faces of a machine part and understanding how the other four faces would be represented, what would be seen if we turned it this way or that. I loved the simple feel of the tools: aligning and taping down the paper, sharpening leads just so, using line weights to represent meaning and legibility. I loved that we had a title block for each drawing sheet, bearing name and assignment title and date, a junior analog to the maker’s marks of master craftsmen worldwide. I was doing four or five assignments in the time others took to do one, carrying my completed paper up to Mr. Salisz for his review like a dog with a stick, waiting for him to please dear god throw me another one so I could chase it down again.

C) The factories themselves were important. Or, more accurately, the ghosts that inhabited factories left behind. Four stories tall and four blocks long and a block wide and all the windows shot out and weeds grown up through the parking lots where thousands of men parked for each of the three shifts of the day. They were somber and grave, industrial mausoleums marking the unspoken contributions and the lost aspirations of three generations of workers.

So what I knew at the end of high school was some inarticulate blend of A+B+C. And friends, I am here to tell you today that A+B+C ≠ architecture. At least, not in alignment with the academic discipline of architecture. As architecture professor William Hubbard explained in his 1996 book A Theory for Practice: Architecture in Three Discourses, those inside the profession and discipline carry interests in the work that are unlike those of other viewers. He differentiates between buildings as statements of values about good living, buildings as instruments toward some array of outcomes, and buildings as experiments in order and composition. All three of those were represented among the faculty in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, for instance, and those communities hated one another. The tribalism of the studio faculty, the history and theory faculty, and the building technology faculty erupted often into open mockery, in full view of their students. The motives of one classroom were not allowed in the classrooms of the others, were declared not merely ineffective but heretical. (Nowadays we’d have to contend with a fourth tribe of design computing as well.)

Who among us, at sixteen, knows that? What high school kid knows what a doctor does all day, much less that there are hundreds of different ways of being a doctor? What high school kid is prepared, in any meaningful way, to declare that they want to be an architect or a nurse or an assistant regional marketing director for Kroger?

More tomorrow.

The Fuel that Runs It

Who will help?
(Image by Lukas Rychvalsky, via Unsplash)

My writing group was talking about the inherent difficulty of the first chapter of a novel. You can’t put everything first, so you have to help people be reassured that the things they don’t know yet will ultimately be revealed. And Nathan said something interesting, something that feels true: “The first chapter of a book teaches you how to read the book.”

Our neighbors lent me a copy of a book, Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I read it on New Year’s Eve afternoon, picking up speed the whole way through. Indeed, the first thirty pages or so of that book taught me how to read the book. It’s a book about stupid, belligerent people. It’s a book about being the victim of stupid, belligerent people. It’s about a young boy who learns over the next decades to repeat every single one of his stupid, belligerent father’s failings. The first thirty pages set that tone perfectly, so that all I had to do thereafter was skip twenty pages forward, read half a page to determine that indeed everyone was still stupid and belligerent, skip forward another twenty, confirm once again, and so on to the end. The first thirty or forty pages took an hour; the subsequent 450 about the same.

I got two emails yesterday, from two different friends who don’t know one another at all. One of them had just finished reading my book Leopard, and called it a “wonderful, loving story.” The other had read a recent pair of blog posts, and said “Thank you for all that you give to us with such generosity!”

Nora and I were talking yesterday morning about a piece of music I shared with her, a duet by the guitarist Ross Traut and bassist Steve Rodby. Rodby’s been the bass player with Pat Metheny for decades, and has a substantial career as a music producer and sideman, but I knew almost nothing about Ross Traut. I mean, the guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, and he’s a hell of a player. So I googled “Ross Traut guitar,” and found that he has a gallery of Navajo arts in New York City. His homepage says I’ve been playing guitar since the beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in ’64, starting with air guitar and moving on from there. I’ve had a good run as a professional guitar player for the last 40 years and there is nothing that beats playing. However, looking at Navajo rugs is like listening to music. I imagine the creation of a Navajo weaving like a jazz improvisation only a lot slower. 

Anyway, we looked at Google Streetscapes to see the building he’s in, one of those Manhattan midrises filled with unknowable lives. And Nora said, “I wish you’d go back to that book you were working on about all the tenants of the office building. I know it didn’t exactly float your boat, but it’s such an interesting idea.” (Of course, we’re both academically trained in a field that collects and displays stories about people in their places.)

So after dinner last night, I went back and read the 93 pages that exist of the novel The Story Box. And that opener, which has done the work of teaching us how to read the book, showed itself to me in a completely new light. Cassie, the lead character, is an interesting person with an interesting array of problems. I can easily imagine spending time trying to figure out more about her. The other characters in the other office suites are compelling, all of them coming to terms with some major thing in their lives. And the idea of seeing the stories inside all of these cubes of leased space remains interesting.

What’s missing is the fuel of generosity. What’s missing is a character who’s vulnerable enough to admit what they need, and a character who hears that need and does her or his best to address it. In fact, the commercial worlds portrayed in the story have systematically trimmed away everyone’s opportunities for generosity, have pruned each of the four main characters back to their root. Maybe they’ll be able to flower again some day, but I’m not seeing it.

And that realization became two realizations. One is that generosity is indeed the fuel that has powered all of my stories, that we become greater through our work on behalf of others. But the other is that in almost every case, that generosity had to be exercised through something other than the character’s workplace. They all have jobs, of course, some of them pretty interesting jobs. But mostly, those jobs had to be overcome in order to do the real work of loving their friends.

How many of us are fortunate enough to be able to exercise generosity through our work? The notion of profit is not a generous notion. The forces of standardization and compliance are not generous forces. The drive to self-interest is not a generous drive. If we are generous people, that generosity may seep through gaps in the foundation, but the foundation itself is designed to be anti-generous, to be rapacious or defensive, each for ourselves against all others.

And in fact, as I was writing that last paragraph, a message came in, forwarded from a friend:

So, as we begin a new year, I’ll invite you to do a little meditation on the notion of generosity. What would it mean to truly see others, to be invested in their well-being, to help them to thrive? What opportunities do each of us have to do those things? And what stands in our way?