2016 in Books


I hesitated calling this post “2016 in Books.” It’s difficult to admit that I didn’t read that many books this year, again. I should be reading a book week, not less than a book a month. Perhaps it’s because I’m afraid the one or two people who read this post will judge me: “She must be frittering away her waking life on social media and Amazon Prime Video.”

Well, I have spent some time on the latter, much less on the former. My favorite shows this year, in almost no particular order:

Mozart in the Jungle
Schitt’s Creek

Thanks to Amazon, I didn’t watch much on the actual TV, except “60 Minutes.”

Another thing I did instead of reading more books was read my phone. Before the presidential election, I read the New York Times app, every day that I commuted. The day after the election, I deleted the app from my phone. I know I shouldn’t be ignorant about the news. But the New York Times was so sure Hilary would win. It was like saying the Titanic would never sink. I was lazy enough to believe it and allowed myself to settle into one of the Times‘ deck chairs. I do miss the mini crossword.

My other big time suck was and continues to be my guitar. This whole thing started when I received a ukulele on Christmas day, 2014. I call the uke my gateway drug to the guitar. I bought a used guitar (a Playmate) at Zaborski Emporium in Kingston, NY on Columbus Day in 2015. My second guitar (Taylor Mini GS-e) arrived six months later, purchased at the Grateful Guitar in Key West in April 2016. I rush home from work and play the guitar. Weekends, I play the guitar. Sometimes I still play the uke, especially in Key West– at the Grateful Guitar!

The good thing about deleting the New York Times app is that I now read more books during my commute. The New York MTA is so fucked up that I have lots and lots of time to read on my commute, which should take no more than 30 minutes on a bad day, but usually lasts an hour. It’s longer on days when I have to leave the broken down subway or bus and complete my commute on foot–the point here being that I can’t read.

Related news: I recently joined a book club.

2016 in Books

From the Land of the Moon
Milena Agus
I didn’t love this book. The protagonist’s obsession with the past and her relationship with her husband were largely reported, not analyzed, by the narrator. I guess that analysis supposed to be the reader’s job, but it would have been more interesting to me if the author had delved into her mother’s issues a bit more.

The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It
Leonard Cassuto
Yup, it’s a mess but you should still get a PhD if you want one. You’ll be a better person for it. Of course, there are other ways to become a better person, too–so read this book before you decide. Much of it was published in the Chronicle of Doom, I mean the Chronicle of Higher Education, but Cassuto expands on his ideas here. He’s an elegant writer and thorough researcher.

The Fold
Peter Cline
Good science fiction is hard to come by, and this one had enough dystopian apocalypse to keep me interested to the end.

All the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr
Wonderful, suspenseful book “about a blind French girl and a sensitive German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”

As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner
After The Sound and the Fury, I think I’ve read this Faulkner book the most times. The occasion for this particular reading was the new production of a play based on As I Lay Dying. The writers/directors/producers asked me to be their literary consultant for the play. Of course I said yes, and so far their production looks wonderful.

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
Rebecca Goldstein
Loved this book! Goldstein takes Plato’s major ideas and places them, and Plato, in contemporary contexts.

And the Mountains Echoed
Khaled Hosseini
One of those books everyone reads because they’ve read The Kite Runner, which I haven’t read. The exotic setting, tortured characters, and lovely story that stretches across generations is well done. Don’t be put off by the parable-like chapter at the beginning of the book.

The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemison
It must be nice to have a brain that can produce this type of book. It’s resonant with today and yesterday’s social, environmental, and economic issues, and set in an exotic world, populated with driven, powerful, and sensitive people. Will read the next installment.

Howard Jacobson
This book took me almost 365 days to read. I made it a point not to let it follow me into 2017. The reason I even own this book is because I was flying home in early January 2016. My plane was delayed. The Hudson News was in the process of switching magazine suppliers. They were selling the Economist and magazines on the subjects of crafting, weaponry (yes, at the airport!), and electric guitars (yes, I bought one, but I don’t play an electric guitar [yet]. Visually, electric guitar magazines are music’s equivalent of porn magazines). Nowhere to be found was Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, or even Time and Newsweek. The books on sale were the kind I just don’t read–mysteries, thrillers, stupid sci-fi, and non-fiction about business. But, strangely, in the middle of it all, there was J by Howard Jacobson, previous winner of the Man-Booker prize. This dark, slow-moving (obviously) book describes what happens when the world has tried to blot out memories of the past and forbidden most artistic pursuits and pleasures.

The Code of the Woosters
P.G. Wodehouse
Now I can say I’ve read P.G. Wodehouse. I wonder if there is a gay subtext involving Jeeves and Bertie. Bertie’s profound and overt misogyny gave the book substance.

The New Yorker
The New Yorker is a magazine and I read it every week. I read it first, then I read my book. That has to count for something.

2015 in Books

I keep track of my most of my reading with the Goodreads app. Searching the app for titles and marking them “read,” “reading now,” and “to-read” is one of the ways I fill the time on my commute, aside from reading. The app should have another category, “abandoned,” for books that are started but not finished.

Some people think it’s terrible to not finish a book, as if they’re not “real” readers if they don’t read everything from cover to cover. Please. So many books, so little time. I abandoned two this year. One by choice, the other by circumstance.

2015 in books in no particular order (and not including the books I forgot to add to Goodreads, and whose titles are now forgotten):

The Announcers: Darkness Before Mourning, Volume 1. Greg Perkins. Greg is my friend, and ever since I’ve known him, since 2004 or so, he’s been working on a very long. He finally published the first book, and it was wonderful. I even wrote a review of it on Amazon (a first). Here’s the review: Greg Perkins is a skilled writer; his literary father is clearly William Faulkner, but unlike early Cormac McCarthy (whose literary father is also Faulkner), he has his own, distinct voice. It is not easy to write about emotional and physical pain without sounding maudlin or contrived. Perkins is neither. For example, the father’s pain from knowing he would not live to see his son grow up was understated, though that pain permeated the book. Similarly, the father did his best to keep his physical pain hidden from his children, yet he felt it constantly. And the tension of the son’s knowing and not knowing what exactly was going on with his father was exquisitely wrought. I look forward to the next installment.

The Silo Effect: The Peril of Expertise and the Promise of Breaking Down Barriers. Gillian Tett. The introduction was the most interesting part; Tett describes her background in anthropology, which gave her insights into how people develop certain blindnesses. The elephant silo in the room she never mentions: Our political parties.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In. Roger Fisher. Read this 20 years ago and it was time to read it again. Aside from the gender stereotyping, which felt anachronistic, book remains relevant. Biggest takeaway: Know the other side’s perspective, and you’ll have a stronger argument. Some of the book’s negotiating strategies are not going to be very effective if the other side is not willing to play along according to the formula.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory, 2nd Edition. Michael Miller. See my post, Simple Gifts, for thoughts about music theory. I like this book better than the music theory MOOC I took with Coursera this year. According to Goodreads’ metrics, this was the least popular book on my 2015 shelf, with only 6 other people reading it.

Hacking the Academy: New Approaches to Scholarship and Teaching from Digital Humanities. Dan Cohen. A classic text on just what the title says.

Bel Canto. Ann Patchett. This book reminds us that terrorists are humans, too. However, the book ultimately simplifies terrorism in an almost quaint way. Her terrorists are not the kind of terrorists we’re dealing with these days.

Outlander. Diana Gabaldon. I’m one of the last people on earth to read this book, to enter the amazing world created by Gabaldon. Too bad it’s incredibly homophobic. No plans to read more into this series. According to Goodreads’ metrics, Outlander was the most popular book in the short stack of things I read: 457,998 others read it in 2015. No surprise there.

The Night Circus. Erin Morgenstern. Here’s a world I loved being immersed in. Creative, if far-fetched, premise. Intriguing characters. Sorry to have it end. According to Goodreads’ metrics, The Night Circus was the second most popular book in the short stack of things I read: 366,304 others read it in 2015.

The Story of America: Essays on Origins. Jill Lepore. The essays in this book are morsels of intelligence, wit, literature, history–all in an American context. How could anyone not like this book?

Average page length of books read (according to Goodreads): 386 pages. Longest book: Outlander.

American Gods. Neil Gaiman. I didn’t check this one out of the library on my iPad. Rather, I bought it, since I knew I would never finish before maxing out the renewals. It’s just easier to have it on the iPad. I dug this book until about 3/4 of the way through, when they’re in the House on the Rock in Wisconsin. The book began to feel like it needed to end already, just like House on the Rock, only more so. Like The Adventures of Hucklebury Finn, it turns episodic and the narrative collapses.

Lucky Us. Amy Bloom. Randomly checked this one out of the library. It has an MFA-writing program feel to it, if you know what that means. However, the characters were fully drawn and crazy enough to keep me going. Unfortunately, it came due before I could finish, and expired from my iPad. I have not had motivation to check it out again. There’s always another New Yorker to finish reading, first.

Read lots of the New Yorker, New York Times, and a magazine about swimming. My main book purchases this year, however, were for ukulele and guitar instruction. Coffee Break French, a Scottish podcast, was a major attention suck for the first six months of the year. I also completed Music Theory, a Coursera MOOC.


2014 in Books

Late Autumn, Ulster County, NY | (c) RobertGoldwitz.com
Late Autumn, Ulster County, NY | (c) RobertGoldwitz.com

What’s notable about this list is that for the first time in many years, most of these books were read for pleasure. This means I didn’t have to take notes on what I read. Also, late last year, I discovered how easy it was to check out ebooks from the library and put them on my iPad. The Nashville Public Library and New York City Public Library have kept me well-stocked. Also listed here are books I didn’t like and didn’t finish. Thank goodness for GoodReads, because it makes it easy to keep a list of books I’ve read and plan to read. In a somewhat chronological order:

1. Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches

2. Terry Pratchett, The Long Earth

3. Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877

4. Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night

5. Max Barry, Lexicon

6. Max Barry, Jennifer Government (unfinished)

7. Hugh Howey, Half Way Home

8. Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

9. Orson Scott Card, The Lost Gate (Mither Mages #1) (audiobook)

10. Donovan Hohn, Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them (stopped reading)

11. Orson Scott Card, The Gate Thief (Mither Mages, #2) (audiobook)

12. John Shelton Reed, Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s (one chapter; took notes)

13. Katherine Hayles, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis

14. Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

15. Lev Grossman, Codex

16. Vicki Croke, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

17. Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

18. Cathy Marie Buchanan, The Painted Girls (must finish!)

Not a lot of books, actually. With the onset of a renewed research project, I have read no new books in the past two months. If it wasn’t for the New Yorker, I would be adrift.

Idea Factory: Here, Now

NYC at Night (c) robertgoldwitz.com

This semester, I’m giving the students in my course, “Tales of Gotham: New York City in Fiction,” the responsibility of leading the class and teaching each other. In the past, I’ve required students to lead discussion using PowerPoint and contribute to the class blog. On most other days, it was up to me to direct discussion or activity in the class. Students had to write a couple of papers that many perceived as a school chore with little bearing on their real lives.

That all sounds kind of dull and twentieth-centuryish compared to what I’m planning this semester. Students will still blog. They will still lead the discussion (using Prezi). But they’ll be collaborating on projects that aren’t necessarily paper-based. They might make a video. They might do some mapping. Maybe they’ll mash and mix. Use social media. Create videos, podcasts, timelines. Discover new digital tools designed (or maybe not designed) for reading and writing. They will reflect on all this using words, image, sound. I’ll reflect back to them in similar ways. I’m leaving it up to them to figure out what they want to do with the texts we’re reading. This class will be as much an experiment for them as it is for me. We might all be a tad nervous (at least I am) about this shift in classroom dynamics and responsibilities, but I think we will have fun doing this together. For some more details about the course, the syllabus can be accessed on the Course page.

Many insightful people who generously shared their insights online and with me in person have brought me to these current teaching methods. Here are links to several sources that I find encouraging and inspirational:

One thing I did was hack my syllabus (somewhat) after reading and following the links in Jason B. Jones Chronicle article, “Creative Approaches to the Syllabus.”

Cathy Davidson is on the cutting edge of reimagining the college classroom. Her book, Now You See It, bursts with ideas and supplies a discussion of how she came to her approach to education. An important premise of the book is that education still prepares students for a twentieth-century world requiring people to show up at a desk in an office building and pretty much work at a specific task. School is like that: A class in a specific subject occurs at a specific time. Students perform activities for a grade. Teaching students to value their unique strengths and take an interdisciplinary approach to ideas and learning are among the things she writes about. At Duke University, she teaches a course in which students choose many of the texts. Then they lead the discussion and create the content. Students also take responsibility for assessment.

Tanya Sasser‘s blog, Remixing College English, provides much inspiration for me. Sasser, who writes about her successes and challenges in the college writing classroom, is an endless font of ideas. Her most recent post describes her current remedial* composition class. Her students will use the blog format to create a digital newspaper, with a theme of their own choosing, that they work on for the entire semester. This approach, she hopes, will plunge them into writing that will challenge them and is pertinent to their education. It will avoid writing assignments meant to improve writing skills but whose content is essentially pointless.  *Why “remedial”? Why not Composition I? People don’t take Remedial Algebra. They take Algebra I.

Suzie Boss wrote “How to Turn Your Classroom into an Idea Factory” for K-12 educators, but it applies to all teachers. I think students should read it, too. Most educators agree that we need to cultivate students’ abilities to be innovative and creative. They need to learn how to identify and solve problems. Sharing knowledge, often in public ways, with others is also crucial. How do we make all that happen? Boss makes several suggestions. “Welcome authentic questions” from students. Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. And not just students with other students, but students with teachers, mentors, and members of the community. Gaining experience with failure and bad ideas is also crucial. Boss offers eight tips in total for “reinventing yesterday’s schools as tomorrow’s idea factories.” However, I’m not waiting until tomorrow. The idea factory is here, right now.