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Trying to Turn English, Reading, & Literature Into a Numbers Game

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

North Carolina County Celebrates Banned Book Week By Banning Invisible Man

Book banning always struck me as a special kind of terrible. Not necessarily because of direct harm done — a student forbidden from reading, say Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not a different end result than just not having that book on the syllabus — but because of the principle. There’s no greater insult to the very idea of education and to the discerning capabilities of young minds than to say, “You students can’t handle this book. You need to be protected from it.”Captainunderpantscover

Once a year, the American Library Association hosts Banned Book Week (Sept. 22-28 this year), a way to spread word about which books are being challenged or removed as a way of informing the public about its ongoing battles against censorship. The ALA will compile a list every year of books with the most objections. The “winner” for 2012? That great spoiler of childhood innocence, Captain Underpants.

Last week, a North Carolina county school district decided to start the celebrations early by pulling Invisible Man from the curriculum and the shelves. Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a man struggling to find his identity in a world intent on using and abusing him as a tool for personal and political gain, not H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an invisible man.

Invisible_ManInvisible Man would unquestionably make my personal list of top ten favorite novels. It’s a book that has proven itself more meaningful each time I’ve returned to it. It pulls off the nearly impossible feat of perfectly representing a specific moment in history (racial tension in the mid-20th century) while asking universal questions about defining oneself as an individual, not just as a part of a uniform group or ideology. This is all achieved through a lightly surreal lens which makes every magically realist metaphor indelible.

So needless to say, I think this is a pretty worthwhile book for high schoolers to read. It has the potential to carry a lot of personal significance, as it did for me, for young people looking to define their role in the world. It’s an easy book to digest with a lot of meaning to unpack, depending on what you bring to it.

It’s also a book about which one North Carolina education board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”

If you can’t find literary value in Invisible Man, you have no right to be ruling on what students should or shouldn’t be reading. It’s a criticism that I simply don’t believe. There’s no chance that board member actually took issue with Invisible Man‘s literary value, this was simply a matter of objectionable content. The book has sex, violence, and racism. You might be able to get away with one or two of these, but all three? Forget it.

The challenge to the book’s “literary value” is a cop-out. What good is literature if it can’t address difficult topics like racial violence and sexual politics? What good is education if you’re shielding 18 year olds from discussing these sorts of painful real-world issues through the lens of literature, where it can be analyzed and discussed in a structured setting?

 

Five Books We Want To See As Movies

oryx-and-crakeOryx and Crake — Margaret Atwood

The premise: In a post-apocalyptic world, one of the only remaining survivors reflects on how his best friend brought about the end of civilization.

Why film it? Look at The Hunger Games. Dystopian sci-fi is in. Look at The Walking Dead. Apocalyptic sci-fi is also in. With Oryx & Crake, you get it both ways: a frighteningly believable and self-destructive future society and a planet after a disaster rapidly being reclaimed by animal and plant life. Plus, while the book can stand on its own just fine, there is a sequel (The Year of the Flood) and a third book due out later this year. And movie studios love franchises.

Who’d make it? It would be great if somebody like Terry Gilliam could make it. Despite the bleak material, the books are pretty funny at times and it would need a director who would be comfortable with some of the more unhinged parts. But there’s no chance a studio looking to make a franchise would let someone that out of control near it, so my guess would be Alfonso Cuaron, who brought a lot of visual flair to another more down-to-earth sci-fi movie, Children of Men.

What are the odds it’ll happen? 5/10 — There’s a chance nobody wants to touch this series until they see how it wraps up when the last book comes out this year. There’s just as good of a chance that nobody wants to touch this series at all since the last film adaptation of a Margaret Atwood book, The Handmaid’s Tale, was pretty poorly received.

YiddishpolThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union — Michael Chabon

The premiseA noir detective tale set in an alternate history where, instead of Israel, a Jewish state was established on the island of Sitka, Alaska.

Why film it? The plot more or less follows the expected template of a detective story like The Big Sleep or Chinatownbut the setting is wildly imaginative and begging to be put on screen by someone with a knack for atmosphere. The book’s definitely out there, but it’s out there is in a very approachable way.

Who’d make it? For awhile there was a rumor that the Coen brothers wanted to make this movie, and really, I can’t think of a more perfect match.

What are the odds it’ll happen? 4/10 — The film rights were purchased over a decade ago, before the book was even written. Yet nobody’s touched it. If it ever gets made, it would have to be a passion project by the creators. And those creators would have to be someone like the Coens, who have enough pull as creators that they can get away with weird and ambitious projects.

WhatisthewhatbookWhat Is The What — Dave Eggers

The premiseStory created from the memories of real-life Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of genocide who fled on foot from Southern Sudan to Ethiopia, eventually making his way to the United States.

Why film it? It’s topical, it’s based on a true story, and it’s about atrocities most people are shamefully unaware of. The hero of the story is put through hell, yet remains incredibly likeable, relatable, optimisitic, and human throughout.

Who’d make it? Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, half of Cloud Atlas) has already expressed interest in making this into a movie. He probably wouldn’t have been the first name to jump to mind, but I liked Cloud Atlas a lot better than everyone else did, so I’m going to say that this is a good thing. Also, I guess the hero runs a lot, so there’s your Run Lola Run connection.

What are the odds it’ll happen? 9/10 — For whatever reason, I find it easier to not dismiss this as a rumor because, unlike the Coens with Yiddish Policemen’s Union, that doesn’t sound like the first idea a fan trying to start a rumor would come up with. The fact that South Sudan has now become an independent nation would put a nice coda on a story that otherwise has a fairly open-ended conclusion.

HSBHillHeart-Shaped Box — Joe Hill

The premiseAn aging rock star, fascinated with macabre collectibles, buys a ghost in an online auction.

Why film it? It’s an original idea for a horror film. If there’s one genre of movies that’s desperate for original ideas, it’s horror. Plus, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and as filmmakers eventually inevitably adapt all of King’s books, they’ll need to expand to new sources.

Who’d make it? Someone who understands horror and hard rock, which naturally makes me think Rob Zombie, but the book redeems its hero too much for a Rob Zombie movie. So instead I’ll suggest David Cronenberg. If nothing else, he’d effectively render the festering infections each major character gets as the haunting gets worse.

What are the odds it’ll happen? 7/10 — Joe Hill’s second book, Horns, will get a film treatment later this year, directed by Alexandre Aja and starring Daniel Radcliffe. There’s a reason Horns was adapted first: It’s a better book. No doubt Heart-Shaped Box‘s fate as a film is directly tied to how well Horns does.

174598_178829328821235_7853221_nSuper Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart

The premise: In a hyper materialistic future, a romance between a middle-aged Russian-American man and a young Korean-American woman is told through his journal entries and her text messages.

Why film it? Because, unless you count The Social Network, there are no good movies focused on social media. For something that takes up such a large portion of our modern culture (and such a huge portion of our time every day), there aren’t too many writers out there really trying to get a handle on it.

Who’d make it? My dream pick would be Edgar Wright. He’s funny, he’s hyper-kinetic, he gets the current generation, and he’s capable of finding a way to replicate the feeling of something without directly copying it.

What are the odds it’ll happen? 2/10 — Trying to adapt a book that’s half told in text messages is a hard sell.

15 Examples of Insane Textbook Writing

Writing textbooks has got to be pretty tedious work. So you can hardly blame the writers when they slip in something that seems a little bit… off. My theory is that one of three things happens:

#1. The writer slips something in to see if anybody notices.

A word chart that says "OMG WTF STFU PWN3D"

Best optometry chart ever.

A word problem with the heading: "When am I ever going to use this?"

The heading asks a very good question that the problem doesn’t really address.

A picture of a family posing with somebody in a Spongebob Squarepants suit. Caption: "Here is an American nuclear family comprised of mother, father, and two children. Please note that the large yellow kid with the poor complexion is not a member of this nuclear family."

Just don’t tell Spongebob he’s not a member. He’ll be crushed.

"This chapter might have been called 'Introduction,' but nobody reads the introduction and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either." Whoever wrote this is my hero.

“This chapter might have been called ‘Introduction,’ but nobody reads the introduction and we wanted you to read this. We feel safe admitting this here, in the footnote, because nobody reads footnotes either.” Whoever wrote this is my hero.

Crying: (def) what you feel like doing after writing statistics textbooks.

This explains every other entry on this post.

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Sad News: Jurassic Park Proven Scientifically Impossible

The triceratops scene from Jurassic Park, with a tear added to the dinosaur's faceI have news that’s incredibly disappointing to my younger self, age 3 to 9. Sadly, we’ll never be able to build a real-life Jurassic Park, because the half-life of DNA strands only lasts 521 years.

While it’s been generally assumed that DNA would break down after a long enough period, proving it would require large samples of theoretically DNA-rich material. A group of Australian scientists found the right test materials in bones of the now-extinct moa, an emu-like bird  from New Zealand that looked a little something like this:

The extinct bird, the moa

These bones were hundreds or thousands of years old, not millions, but it gave the scientists enough information to conclude that it takes 521 years after cell death for the bonds that hold together DNA to dissolve completely. Even under perfect conditions (for example, protected inside mosquitos preserved in amber like in Crichton’s book and Spielberg’s movie), there is no way the DNA would remain intact after the 6.8 million years that separate us from dinosaurs. The team’s best estimate for the oldest potentially readable DNA under perfect conditions is 1.5 million.

So no Cloneosaurus in our future. Though with that 521 year half-life bearing down on us, we still might be able to make a cloned Christopher Columbus if we hurry.

Gallery

Ten of Our All-Time Favorite Book Covers

If you couldn’t tell from the name of our company, we’re a teensy bit book-obsessed at Bookbyte. And despite how the old saying goes, we’re always judging books by their covers.

Some of you might not know this, but over at Bookbyte Digital we help self-publishing authors turn their manuscripts into books and ebooks through editing; formatting; distribution on Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble; and, of course, good cover design. Sometimes authors give us their own covers and sometimes they ask us to design one for them, but one thing is always true: Good covers sell books.

Here are a few of our all-time favorite book covers, and thoughts on what makes them so great. Of course, this is all just in one blogger’s opinion, so definitely tell me in the comments about all of my glaring omissions.

Click image to open up full gallery.

A Better Title for Cloud Atlas

Yesterday, the trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas hit the web. If you haven’t read it, don’t expect the trailer to do anything but completely baffle you.

At the same time, I get an email from the editor of the always hilarious Better Book Titles, which slaps different (better) titles on the covers of classic literature, asking if he could use a submission I sent in a year ago.

Alternate title for Cloud Atlas: The Kevin Bacon Game

At this point, you’ve either chuckled lightly or said, “What the hell is he talking about?”

Ray Bradbury Loved and Hated the Future

Last week, legendary science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. If you’ve only read one of his books, it was probably Fahrenheit 451, but if you read more, they’d probably include Something Wicked This Way Comes or a few of the hundreds of short stories he published in his lifetime, such as There Will Come Soft Rains. Or maybe you’d be more familiar with the screenplays he wrote for The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

To say he was an influential writer is a pretty massive understatement. It would be better to say that he bridged the gap between classic and modern science fiction. He was equally comfortable with the wildly imaginative (strongly influenced by a childhood full of L. Frank Baum, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs) as the psychological and personal. He wrote apocalyptic and distopian fiction, pure fantasy, noir, dark comedy, and sometimes two or three of these at the same time.

Last year, Ray Bradbury made a few headlines when he finally agreed to let Fahrenheit 451 be distributed as an ebook. He was a long hold-out against the technology, saying:

Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

To be honest, I’m a little confused about his complaint against portability, when that’s exactly what ebooks are supposed to offer. And I’ve also never understood why “smell” always comes up as an argument about ebooks. (I guess because it’s the sense closely associated with memory.) But I’m not criticizing Bradbury or his viewpoint at all. If I ever make it to 91, I’m going to hate whatever fancy new garbage inventions my grandkids come up with.

What’s important to take away from the story is that Bradbury felt there were certain more intimate aspects of human interaction that couldn’t be replaced by technology, as much as technology was going to try. You can see that viewpoint running through all of his books. There Will Come Soft Rains tells the story of the gadgets in an automated household running through all their daily motions long after the human inhabitants have died. Fahrenheit 451 includes a subplot about protagonist Guy Montag’s wife, who’s addicted to a wall-size interactive television, which provides her with a virtual version of a social life. That’s a powerful image, probably even more so today in a world with social media sites and video games that primarily serve as social settings, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft.

(As an aside, director Frank Darabont has long been saying he wants to release an updated film version of Fahrenheit 451. If it ever gets made, I wonder if those sort of details from the book will be updated for a modern view of the future.)

But while it’s easy to think of Bradbury’s prescient fiction as condemning future tech and attitudes, that’s really not the case. He was critiquing, not condemning. No one who becomes a science fiction writer can be a complete technophobe. Bradbury clearly loved the promise of exploration that came with the future. Shortly before he died, he even stated that he wants his remains to be entombed on Mars. (And proving how much he wasn’t intimidated or threatened by new technology, he said this on a podcast.)

I want to be buried on Mars. I don’t want to be the first live person to arrive there. It’ll be too late. But I want to be the first dead person that gets there. I want to arrive in a Campbell’s soup can.

Anytime Bradbury did express caution about technology, whether through his fiction or through interviews, the theme was always the same. There’s never any reason to be afraid of progress. We should just always be aware of the weaknesses of human nature. Another great quote:

I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.

Bradbury both loved and hated the future and that conflict is precisely what made him such a brilliant writer. His voice was perfectly poised between excitement and trepidation. He was fascinated with the creations of humanity’s progress, and terrified of how they could be twisted and exploited.

Amazon Now Making Movies: Promises Original Stories, Instead Gives Us ‘Zombies Vs. Gladiators’

Amazon is launching a film studio. The idea is to make it in the same sort of egalitarian spirit as what they’ve done for self-publishing. Anyone can submit a script and if something really stands out, Amazon will greenlight it. The writer will make a flat salary of $200K if the film is made, but that number triples if the film is decently profitable. Like self-publishing, this promises a revolutionary world without the traditional gatekeepers, where anyone can get any story out to the world without going through the traditional channels, and where content creators can have greater ownership over their works. Of course, also like self-publishing, critics will argue that by making so much content available, there will be no way to truly separate the wheat from the chaff, and the only things that get noticed will be the ones driven by cynical marketing tactics rather than with true creativity.

Well, Amazon decided to prove its critics right by greenlighting a film called Zombies Vs. Gladiators. So I guess I’ll be (indirectly) talking about zombies for the second blog post in a row.

The whole story is equal parts promising and embarrassing. To be honest, I actually like the idea behind Amazon Studios. I really do. Amazon has proven itself capable of gathering and utilizing creative talent, by developing systems where writers truly feel that they are being rewarded for their work. If it worked for books, why not make it work for film? The promise of the Amazon Studios is fantastic. It’s common knowledge that Hollywood is notoriously risk-averse, to such an extent that half-baked ideas will be bought and sometimes even filmed before a script is finished, just so a studio can fill a hole in their release calendar. The best thing about Amazon’s idea is that puts all the weight on the script, at least in theory. That promises more creativity, more risks, and more originality, again, in theory.

That’s why it’s painfully embarrassing that the first widely reported title in pre-production is freaking Zombies Vs. Gladiators. Here’s the premise (in case the three-word title didn’t make it clear enough):

The story follows a gladiator who must stop a zombie infestation in ancient Rome. (Yahoo! News)

Got it? Good. Didn’t want to lose you there.

It’s ludicrous to me Amazon would lead off this new project with such a ridiculous idea. And, to be honest, I’m not even all that opposed to the story, thin as it may be. I can get behind the premise of Spartacus of the Dead (which, for the record, would be a better title). If nothing else, the idea of fighting off the living dead with only ancient weaponry should make for gory fun. My problem is that leading with this project sets such a terrible premise for the whole studio. The movie represents all the worst laziness of Hollywood (relying on proven concepts instead of new ideas, never taking risks) and all the worst laziness of self-publishing (a dumb-as-dirt title, mixing popular genres to boost discoverability) wrapped up into one package.

If nothing else, please, please, please change the title. The last thing the world needs is another movie titled _____ Vs. _____. Has there ever been a good one?

Are Our Fictional Futures Too Bleak?

Screen shot of Fallout 3

Author Neal Stephenson has decided that we all need to stop being so negative. He complains that modern science fiction — books, movies, etc. — is overstuffed with the apocalyptic and the dystopian. He thinks that what the world really needs is an optimistic vision of the future, one that can give the world’s inventors a little inspiration.

And, well, he’s not wrong. The Hunger Games made dystopian novels a hit among the young adult audience. Thanks to games like Fallout and movies like The Book of Eli (or even The Road Warrior, if you want to go further back), pop culture now has an established visual shorthand for a post-nuclear apocalypse. (See the picture above.) The most recent novels from Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, The Road and Never Let Me Go,  took a more “literary” approach to apocalyptic and distopian fiction, respectively. And how many recent sci-fi stories involve the world falling apart because of  zombies (The Walking Dead, World War Z, Zombieland, 28 Days Later, Resident EvilPride and Prejudice and Zombies, just to name a few)?

In fact, there are only two major science fiction universes I can think of that are as positive as Stephenson wants. The first is Star Trek, which has already helped imagine the creation of things like cellphones, flat screens, and bluetooth headsets. The second is Mass Effect, a series of games that are basically the spiritual successor to Star Trek, in that they also imagine a future of more-or-less peaceful interaction between alien races, a UN-like central alliance between powers, and major technological leaps forward (not just in terms of warfare).

If there is a tendency for writers to always lean towards the bleak, I can understand it. After all, everybody loves a scrappy underdog hero. Since science fiction gives its writers the freedom to imagine any universe they want, why not imagine one where the odds are impossibly stacked against the hero? Make the hero face off against an oppressive autocratic government, overpowered alien invaders, swarms of the living dead, or a dying planet. You’ve immediately established the high stakes of this life-or-death universe. You can fill an entire movie or book just following the hero’s fight to survive. Then you can save toppling the government, driving back the aliens, curing the living dead, or rescuing the planet for the sequels.

But I do want to slightly qualify Stephenson’s complaint. I don’t think you necessarily need a bright and shiny vision of the future to help inspire. Inspiration can come from the darkness as well. While McCarthy’s The Road details the day-to-day struggles of a man and his son after an unnamed event has spoiled the planet forever, I actually found the whole thing much less of a downer than, say, Blood Meridian, McCarthy’s surreal and gory tale about bounty hunters on the Mexican border. That’s because The Road was primarily focused on the father-son relationship. That sliver of gentleness and hope, however slight, softened the rest of the story. It’s inspiring in its own way, even if it’s not imagining a bright future.

I think Stephenson’s real complaint isn’t so much the lack of optimism, but the lack of imagination. The problem with a glut of zombie stories isn’t that it’s depressing, it’s that it gets to be tiresome. The story can still be worthwhile if it tries to do something different. World War Z works because it takes a worldwide view, seeing how society (rather than a handful of survivors) responds, adjusts, and contains the outbreak. The book uses the idea of a specific genre as a springboard for bigger ideas. It creates a thought experiment and tries to reason out how society would work through it. Even if the book isn’t imagining futuristic advancements per se, it’s still imagining progress of a kind, theorizing how the world would react to a giant-scale viral outbreak.

That’s probably the most important role of science fiction — asking questions and imagining big. H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds had the “big” idea of a powerful and advanced army being wholly unprepared for Earth’s microbial invaders. Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot had the “big” idea of establishing a moral code for artificial intelligence. Philip K. Dick’s We Can Remember It For You Wholesale imagines technology that can implant memories, then, with a few clever plot twists, illustrates how impossible it could be to tell fiction from reality. I don’t know if I’d call any of these stories “optimistic,” but I think they still accomplish what Stephenson is asking for.

If that’s what he’s saying, then I’m on board 100%. I fully support allowing science fiction to be as open-ended and freely imaginative as it can be.

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