Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letting Go, or Breaking Up is Hard to Do

April 25, 2010
I'm a little out of control as a collector of books. I've got hundreds of them, on bookshelves, in boxes, in my classroom. I've got books I've read again and again, and books I've read and would love to read again sometime, and of course I've got stacks and stacks of books that I heard about or read about or grabbed my attention in a bookstore at one point or another.

The problem, besides the obvious storage issue, is that I probably have more books in my possession that I can realistically read in my lifetime. I love to read, but I'm no speed reader, so even if people stop writing interesting books for me to buy or borrow RIGHT NOW, I'm not going to make it to all of my books. I've got to prioritize. For awhile, I rotated genres to help me decide what to read: first I'd read a classic that I hadn't gotten around to yet, and then a teen fiction piece (to help me make recommendations to my students), and then a contemporary modern novel. Often, as a matter of fact, I have all of these going at once---I pick one up according to my mood. I've gotten away from that particular system, but I still follow it loosely. I also throw in some non-fiction every now and again, but those aren't the ones I tend to be drawn toward.

For many years, I never picked up a book I didn't finish. I somehow felt that if I invested time in starting the book it would be somehow wasteful if I didn't follow it through. I'm an optimist, too, so I always wanted to give the authors the benefit of the doubt--if it got published, it was bound to get good eventually. Not so! Sometimes, they start off badly, and they just stay there. I recognize that some books get off to a slow start, having to set up an in-depth back story or highly descriptive setting integral to the plot that will eventually unfold. In some of these books, once we meet our key players and discover the journey they are on, we don't mind so much the hard work we trudged through in the introductory exposition to get to them. If, however, the characters are flat or unsympathetic or simply don't connect with the reader, you never forgive them that dry and uninspired trek at the beginning.

Five or six years ago, I ran into three such consecutive books, causing me to re-think my 'never put down a book once you begin it' philosophy. These were all highly received books by many people's standards; I was SUPPOSED to be able to appreciate them. And yet, there was nothing about these books that made me feel I'd gained something in persevering through--I only felt I had wasted my time. I read, in succession, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Anne Proloux's Shipping News, and Frank McCourt's 'Tis. I had never read anything by the first two authors, but they were book club recommendations and I really tried hard to like them and to have something of significance to share with my group. I got nothing, and couldn't bring myself to like or care about the characters in the least, despite having gotten all the way to the ends of their books with them. And Frank McCourt I already had a connection to, because I read and completely loved Angela's Ashes. 'Tis, it seemed to me, was a lazy capitalization on McCourt's previous success and name recognition; the novel had very little to say and all but undid the fondness and admiration I developed for his character in his first novel. Ultimately, I realized that I have far too many books on my shelf to devote time and energy to the ones that become a chore for me. It's not unlike a relationship whose time has passed; when it's not a two way street, and you're not both contributing to the relationship, sometimes the best thing to do is to part ways.

So how do you know whether the book is eventually going to draw you in? I advise my students to give it at least fifty pages in before they abandon a book they're reading for pleasure. If, by that time, the characters have not made their impression, you are not likely to care about them in another three hundred pages. There are so many characters and worlds and lives to explore; I have given myself permission to set aside the characters that are better suited to someone else's acquaintance. It's okay to let go.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thinking in Pictures--Temple Grandin

April 20, 2010

Temple Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures, is one I really wanted to like, because its subject is important to me. It's a non-fiction narrative about a highly successful woman whose expertise in her field (she has a Doctorate in Animal Science and has developed mechanisms for humane cattle handling that are widely used across the United States) is likely because of her autism, rather than in spite of it. Her unique way of processing information allowed her to visualize the way in which the animals she was working with would respond to certain stimuli, and therfore enabled her to see ways in which she could make changes to the big business of cattle handling (dairies, for example) that would make the cows calm and compliant in processing.

With her expertise, and using as her examples her experiences in the cattle industry, she gives her readers a glimpse into the different ways people with autism and Asperger's process information. She doesn't just focus on her own particular way of thinking, but on several. These different ways of thinking, if we are aware of them, can help us learn to communicate more effectively--whether it be in education or simply in social situations--with those who have autism or Asperger's. I think awareness is her key impetus here, especially since she has encountered in her lifetime opposition and misunderstanding, depsite her obvious intelligence and determination. Because she had a mother and a couple of key teachers who understood her way of thinking and encouraged her, she was able to capitalize on those differences and succeed.

The book is at times a bit disjointed and often repetitive, but I suppose that it's somewhat illustrative of the very thing she's talking about--this idea of seeing in pictures, or snapshots, or images. Sometimes when we flip through a photo album, we see we may have taken several that are quite similar, with the only variance being a slight shift in the body or a shade of change in the brow or the curve of the mouth. Rather than melding them all into one general description of the picture's subject, Grandin painstakingly describes each photo in her mental album, each image she sees, to detail her unique perspective. Unfortunately for the reader, it is often without segue, or without an explanation for how or why each photo is different, when it seems so similar on the surface. I suppose in that way we can see a little more clearly how her brain processes information. It did, however, make it a bit difficult for me to wade through the book (that, and my general lack of interest in cattle), being not possessed of a brain that processes information in this way. This, too, gives us insight though, as we get a little glimpse of how different it must feel for those with autism or Asperger's to make their way through each and every day in a world not geared towards their ways of thinking.