Writer’s Desk: Getting Boys to Read

boyreading-LOC

It’s one of those not-so-secret secrets in education and the publishing world that when it comes to making books for kids, it is much much easier to do so for girls. Why? Compared to their feminine counterparts, boys just don’t read, and when they do, their reading comprehension lags. According to the Brookings Institute:

Reading scores for girls exceed those for boys on eight recent assessments of U.S. reading achievement.  The gender gap is larger for middle and high school students than for students in elementary school.

What to do? Since it’s education, there is advice aplenty. But perhaps the best idea proposed so far has come from Nick Hornby (High FidelityAbout a Boy):

I have boys, and boys are particularly resistant to reading books. I had some success recently with Sherman Alexie’s great young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part-Time Indian – I told my son it was highly inappropriate for him, and one of the most banned books in America. That got his attention, and he raced through it.

Now, take that advice out of its parental and educational context and think about how you would apply it to your writing. Channel your rebellious inner middle-school kid who doesn’t want to be told what book they can read.

Writers’ Desk: Future Library

Trees into books ... eventually.

Trees into books … eventually.

Because there is apparently no end to the inventive riches of Scandinavian literary culture, we now have the Future Library Project.

They are planting a forest of 1,000 pine trees in Norway north of Oslo that will be harvested a century in the future and used to print an anthology of writing. In the manner of a literary time capsule, the pieces for the anthology are being written now at the rate of one per year and held in secret until publication in 2114.

Margaret Atwood, who knows a few things about future writing, is the first contributor, with a piece about which only the title is known: Scribbler Moon. According to Atwood:

There’s something magical about it … It’s like Sleeping Beauty. The texts are going to slumber for 100 years and then they’ll wake up, come to life again. It’s a fairytale length of time. She slept for 100 years.

Fellow quasi-futurist David Mitchell (Cloud AtlasBone Clocks) is next up.

It’s a fascinating thing to contemplate, writing something that won’t be read until well after one is dead. The advantage? No worries about reviews. The downside? No adulation.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the next time you sit down to your next writing assignment. Pick up a book from the 1910s and see how much the language and underlying societal assumptions have changed since then. Then, taking that into consideration, start writing with an eye for timelessness. Who knows? Somebody may pick it up in 2114, on a screen or yellowed paper, and you want to make sure that they will know what you are talking about.

Readers’ Corner: Collecting Rare Editions

Trarebooks1here are book lovers who don’t care about condition, they will take books in any kind of format: split-back hardcover, old 50-cent Bantam paperback with yellowing pages slipping out of the binding. It doesn’t matter: just gimme.

Then there are the book collectors, many of whom are still book lovers, but who are also entranced by the physical thing itself, the heft and weight of the paper and the delicate tracery of an embossed slipcase from the previous century.

You would think the latter type would be slipping into obscurity. But according to the Wall Street Journal (and they should know), book collecting is still a strong business in the ebook age:

Take JT Bachman, a 28-year-old architect with Rockwell Group in New York. He gets his news from digital sources but prefers printed material when reading for pleasure and says he has become a recent convert to book collecting. Mr. Bachman says he has about 100 new, used and out-of-print titles on his shelves, including the architectural tome “Herzog & de Meuron: Natural History” by Pierre de Meuron and Jacques Herzog, and plans on buying more.

Of course, it’s best if one doesn’t get into the business looking to actually make a quick buck:

Annette Campbell-White, the founder of venture-capital firm MedVenture Associates, in Emeryville, Calif., says collectors should be driven by their interest in books, not by the prospect of financial gain. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone looking for a quick profit to turn to book collecting,” she says. “If you make money, it is incidental.”

Reader’s Corner: Great Library Reading Rooms

The library at Paris's La Sorbonne (Zantastik).

The library at Paris’s La Sorbonne (Zantastik).

Even in our brave new online world, libraries are still one of the best repositories for research and reading. Yes, most things can be gotten online, but there are times when the physical proximity of materials provides new insights that strictly electronic pursuits do not.

They are also simply great places to read. The good folks at Read It Forward have presented here nine of the greatest and grandest library reading rooms from around the world. Some are beautiful enough that it’s hard to imagine not being too distracted to even turn the page.

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

In Books: ‘All the Light We Cannot See’

German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)

German soldiers march through Paris, June 1940 (German Federal Archive)

allthelightwecannotsee1Sometimes it can just take you a while to get around to that book that everybody has been reading. Anthony Doerr’s fairly beloved novel All the Light We Cannot See has been hanging around on the bestseller lists pretty much since it was published last summer, and for good reason. It’s not just the France-during-the-occupation setting or the gorgeous language, though both of those attributes help, of course. It has a magic to it, plain and simple.

All the Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover everywhere, with a paperback edition scheduled for this December; my review is at PopMatters:

Like many great novels of the Second World War and other epic clashes of civilizations, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is a story of the grandeur of terror. At least it begins that way. It’s August 1944 in Saint-Malo, a venerable seaside town on the northwestern coast of France. The Allies have landed and are steadily punching their way out of Normandy. The war is nearing another crescendo of death…

In Books: The Best Nonfiction of 2014

oldbooks1

(image by pepo)

After PopMatters published their best fiction of 2014 feature earlier in the week, they ran the (perhaps more serious in tone, but still somehow more fun) compilation of the awesomest (yes, that’s a word) nonfiction titles that came out last year.

greilmarcus1Doing my part, I wrote about:

  • Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Pikkety
  • The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs, Greil Marcus
  • The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, Rick Perlstein
  • The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing

You can find the feature here.