Bookbyte Blog

Posts tagged ‘literature’

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.

The Bad (But Fun) Science of John Carter

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Source: Walt Disney Studios

In Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book A Princess of Mars, and in the film adaptation John Carter, out this week, I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say that the story takes a few liberties with science. Turns out Mars isn’t populated by nomadic tribes of green people and the atmosphere is not safe for shirtless men.

In the story, Carter — already a natural warrior — becomes super-powered on the Martian surface because the lower gravity decreases his mass. That’s the justification for him besting Martians in one-on-one combat, bounding across deserts, and, as seen in the above picture, whipping boulders at giant space hippo-gorillas.

So I guess it’s good that none of the sequels take place on Jupiter, because then Carter would be screwed.

The gravity rationale sums up the book and film’s approach to science very nicely. It feels as if Burroughs (and subsequently director Andrew Stanton) paid just enough attention in physics and astronomy to hear something that sounded cool, but didn’t stick around to hear it get ruined by qualifiers.

(Side note: Siegel and Schuster, the creators of Superman, liked Burroughs’ low-gravity-equals-superpowers idea so much that they used it as the original explanation for where Superman gets his strength. Originally, Superman couldn’t fly, just leapt great distances… just like John Carter.)

But even if it seems like the story is taking a half-ass approach to science, that’s not exactly true. It’s just taking an obsolete approach to science, one that didn’t seem completely unreasonable when Burroughs initially wrote about it. Burroughs was inspired largely by the writings of astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent night after night in his Arizona observatory, making educated guesses about what he could see on Mars. He believed that he could see evidence of canals on Mars, which indicated the presence of a civilized life form.

It’s easy to laugh at him for guessing, but keep in mind, Lowell’s book Mars and Its Canals came out in 1904. He couldn’t exactly send a probe up there at that time to verify his speculations. All he had to work with was a telescope, whatever knowledge of mathematics and physics he had, and imagination.

So even though Lowell was not exactly highly regarded by his contemporaries, since he was guilty of imagining way, way too much, his ideas ultimately found a new life in science fiction, a realm that’s much more rewarding to wild speculation.

If you see John Carter this weekend and have trouble accepting some of the more ludicrous science remind yourself of the hundreds of incidences of bad science you see in just about every movie and TV show. Cars that fall off cliffs don’t explode. Silencers on guns don’t reduce a gunshot to a whisper. Lasers don’t fire little bolts that go “PEW! PEW! PEW!” You can accept a handful of ridiculous science as just part of the fun but reserve scorn for the special few that seem to be playing in a universe with completely different rules. (See Armageddon. No I’m sorry… please do NOT see Armageddon.)

So which is more important in your view of science fiction — the science or the fiction?

(If you want to read a few John Carter novels before seeing the film, check out e-book version, which collects the first five books in the series, along with artwork and a glossary, available for $1.99.)

What College Does to Your Casual Reading Habits

My best guess is that I spent around 40 percent of my college education reading books. Another 25 percent was spent writing, another 25 spent in the art studio, and around 8 in classes. I’d mark two percentage points as “Other,” which includes pseudo-educational experiences like seeing pretentious indie films, hanging out at the campus radio station, or getting into a religious conversation with a Rastafarian shop clerk. I’m leaving out the large number of not-particularly educational experiences like re-watching Arrested Development and Chapelle’s Show on DVD for the 50th time, using cafeteria trays as makeshift sleds, and various anecdotes that I probably shouldn’t write down if I ever want to pursue an elected office.

Point being: I read a lot, for just about all of my classes. At any given point, I’d be reading three different things at once — a Shakespeare comedy, a nonfiction history of the Ottoman Empire, and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. Check in with me a month later and I’d have moved on to a biography of Marcel Duchamp, King Leopold’s Ghost, and a handful of short stories written by other Creative Writing students. Four years of reading, four years of needing to constantly switch gears.

Immediately after graduating, I barely read. It wasn’t that I was burned out. I just had spent so much time totally focused on assigned reading that when it suddenly ceased, I wasn’t really sure where to start again. I carried around a copy of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger on a few plane rides, but it took me much longer than it should have to complete that fairly short book.

Like every new graduate, if I was going to expend energy, it was toward finding a job. With my free, non-social time, I mostly just played guitar and caught up on one- or two-year-old video games I didn’t have time for in college, like Shadow of the Colossus.

I landed my first real, serious, full-time job in September after graduating in May. It was at a magazine and I worked in production. That meant my primary responsibility was to be available to do my part as the writers and editors finished up their job. If it was a slow week, and I could stay on top of everything, I’d sometimes be left with a good chunk of downtime.

So I started reading again — first slowly, then voraciously. My old habits came back. I burned through the rest of King’s The Dark Tower, alternating each book in the series with something completely different. Then at a co-worker’s insistence, I started George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. I ate it up, but I maintained the alternating schedule. Following up the gritty high fantasy of A Clash of Kings with the narrative of a dispassionate English butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day worked as a very effective palate cleanser.

Eventually — inevitably — I got my hands on an e-reader. I’m frequently asked if having an e-reader changes my reading habits, specifically, if I’ve given up on paper books. The answer is no, I haven’t given up on print. All that having an e-reader has done is to encourage me to carry around and read two or more books at a time, one print and one digital. I’m straddling multiple books at once, just like I did in college. My reading habits have reached their logical conclusion.

Sure, this is just a case study of my personal experience, so there’s no saying if this exact thing will happen to you. But, even if it’s not about reading, don’t be surprised if you find yourself circling back towards old college habits and interests years after graduation.

We spend so much of our lives as students that by the time we reach our early twenties, most of us are all too eager to move on to the next stage. But your education will stick with you whether you want it to or not. Even if you never take another class, write another paper, or stay up all night working on a project again, curiosity will creep back up on you, and you’ll find yourself approaching the real world with a student’s mind.

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