Books in General

How to Get Your Mind to Read

29 November 2017

From The New York Times:

Americans are not good readers. Many blame the ubiquity of digital media. We’re too busy on Snapchat to read, or perhaps internet skimming has made us incapable of reading serious prose. But Americans’ trouble with reading predates digital technologies. The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these. When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.

. . . .

In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

That implies that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Posterity

27 November 2017

Another reader in the family.

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Amazon 1999

27 November 2017


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Thanks to Christina for the tip.

When is stress good for you?

25 November 2017

From Aeon:

Stress pervades our lives. We become anxious when we hear of violence, chaos or discord. And, in our relatively secure world, the pace of life and its demands often lead us to feel that there is too much to do in too little time. This disrupts our natural biological rhythms and encourages unhealthy behaviours, such as eating too much of the wrong things, neglecting exercise and missing out on sleep.

. . . .

The psychologist Jerome Kagan at Harvard University recently complained that the word ‘stress’ has been used in so many ways as to be almost meaningless; he suggests it’s warranted only for the most extreme circumstances or damaging events. But my decades of experience suggest another approach. The insidious power of stress to ‘get under the skin’ was the focus of a MacArthur Foundation Research Network that I joined more than two decades ago, uniting me with social scientists, physicians and epidemiologists around a common problem: how to measure and evaluate stress from our social and physical environments. Our collaboration, continued under the auspices of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, has shown that stress acts on the body and brain, profoundly influencing health and disease.

Our findings are nuanced, starting with the fact that not all stress is the same. ‘Good stress’ involves taking a chance on something one wants, like interviewing for a job or school, or giving a talk before strangers, and feeling rewarded when successful. ‘Tolerable stress’ means that something bad happens, like losing a job or a loved one, but we have the personal resources and support systems to weather the storm. ‘Toxic stress’ is what Kagan refers to – something so bad that we don’t have the personal resources or support systems to navigate it, something that could plunge us into mental or physical ill health and throw us for a loop.

Now let us put these three forms of stress into a biological and behavioural context by invoking ‘homeostasis’ – the physiological state maintained by the body to keep us alive. It is through homeostasis that we maintain body temperature and pH (alkalinity and acidity) within a narrow range, keep our tissues perfused with oxygen and our cells fed. To maintain this steady state, our body secretes hormones such as adrenalin. Indeed, when we encounter an acute perceived threat – a large, menacing dog, for example – the hypothalamus, at the base of our brain, sets off an alarm system in our body, sending chemical signals to the pituitary gland. The pituitary, in turn, releases ACTH (Adrenocorticotropic hormone) that activates our adrenal glands, next to our kidneys, to release adrenalin and the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Adrenalin increases heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies; cortisol increases glucose in the blood stream and has many beneficial effects on the immune system and brain, among other organs. In a fight-or-flight situation cortisol moderates immune-system responses, and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes, as well as signalling brain regions that control cognitive function, mood, motivation and fear.

Biochemical mediators such as cortisol and adrenalin help us to adapt – as long as they are turned on in a balanced way when we need them, and then turned off again when the challenge is over. When that does not happen, these ‘hormones of stress’ can cause unhealthy changes in brain and body – for example, high or low blood pressure, or an accumulation of belly fat. When wear and tear on the body results from imbalance of the ‘mediators’, we use the term ‘allostatic load’. When wear and tear is strongest, we call it allostatic overload, and this is what occurs in toxic stress.

. . . .

Failure to turn on cortisol when needed is bad, leaving the door open for the body’s inflammatory response to compensate in an imperfect way. Too much inflammation can kill us as in septic shock. Failure to turn off cortisol after the stress is over produces negative effects too. Among the consequences are an increase of fat production, leading to obesity, diabetes, depression and eventual heart disease – all contributors to allostatic load.

Given our need for a robust cortisol response in the face of stress, the second misunderstanding about cortisol is the notion that it’s the ‘bad guy’. Rather, cortisol has a normal physiological role; it helps us adapt to stressors and coordinates our metabolism with daily activity and sleep patterns. We would not live very long or well without our cortisol! As my former student Firdaus Dhabhar, now a neuroimmunologist at the University of Miami, found, the early morning rise of cortisol, along with the stress response, activates immune function so that we can fight an infection or repair a wound. Likewise, the normal ‘morning awakening’ rise of cortisol that helps rouse us and makes us hungry for breakfast enhances the body’s response to immunisation if administered in the morning. The body’s response is like an orchestra involving many players working in harmony.

Link to the rest at Aeon

PG notes the holiday season can be an occasion for heightened stress.

Being a Bookworm in Skyrim

25 November 2017

From Bookriot:

As of this November, it’s been six years since Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out, and it’s still a staggeringly popular video game. I love Skyrim, as well as the other Elder Scroll games, and have wanted for a while to talk about my favorite thing about Skyrim. And it’s not:

  • The Nordic-inspired fantasy environment
  • The fun, quirky, and thoughtful quests
  • The endearing NPCs
  • Freaking dragons
  • The freedom to follow whatever path I feel like

(Those are all nice, though. Don’t get me wrong)

It’s the hundreds of books you can read in the game, “written” by authors from Tamriel. And that’s not even including the numerous journals and diaries characters leave around their houses!

THERE IS A LOT TO READ

Okay, technically, most of the “books” are more short stories. But it’s still impressive what a humongous amount has been written for the games.

Link to the rest at Bookriot and thanks to Zander for the tip.

The Desolate Wilderness

23 November 2017

An annual Thanksgiving piece from the Wall Street Journal:

Here beginneth the chronicle of those memorable circumstances of the year 1620, as recorded by Nathaniel Morton, keeper of the records of Plymouth Colony, based on the account of William Bradford, sometime governor thereof:

So they left that goodly and pleasant city of Leyden, which had been their resting-place for above eleven years, but they knew that they were pilgrims and strangers here below, and looked not much on these things, but lifted up their eyes to Heaven, their dearest country, where God hath prepared for them a city (Heb. XI, 16), and therein quieted their spirits.

When they came to Delfs-Haven they found the ship and all things ready, and such of their friends as could not come with them followed after them, and sundry came from Amsterdam to see them shipt, and to take their leaves of them. One night was spent with little sleep with the most, but with friendly entertainment and Christian discourse, and other real expressions of true Christian love.

The next day they went on board, and their friends with them, where truly doleful was the sight of that sad and mournful parting, to hear what sighs and sobs and prayers did sound amongst them; what tears did gush from every eye, and pithy speeches pierced each other’s heart, that sundry of the Dutch strangers that stood on the Key as spectators could not refrain from tears. But the tide (which stays for no man) calling them away, that were thus loath to depart, their Reverend Pastor, falling down on his knees, and they all with him, with watery cheeks commended them with the most fervent prayers unto the Lord and His blessing; and then with mutual embraces and many tears they took their leaves one of another, which proved to be the last leave to many of them.

Being now passed the vast ocean, and a sea of troubles before them in expectations, they had now no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of the country know them to be sharp and violent, subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search unknown coasts.

Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men? and what multitudes of them there were, they then knew not: for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to Heaven) they could have but little solace or content in respect of any outward object; for summer being ended, all things stand in appearance with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hew.

If they looked behind them, there was a mighty ocean which they had passed, and was now as a main bar or gulph to separate them from all the civil parts of the world.

This editorial has appeared annually since 1961.

And the Fair Land

23 November 2017

An editorial published annually at Thanksgiving by The Wall Street Journal:

Any one whose labors take him into the far reaches of the country, as ours lately have done, is bound to mark how the years have made the land grow fruitful.

This is indeed a big country, a rich country, in a way no array of figures can measure and so in a way past belief of those who have not seen it. Even those who journey through its Northeastern complex, into the Southern lands, across the central plains and to its Western slopes can only glimpse a measure of the bounty of America.

And a traveler cannot but be struck on his journey by the thought that this country, one day, can be even greater. America, though many know it not, is one of the great underdeveloped countries of the world; what it reaches for exceeds by far what it has grasped.

So the visitor returns thankful for much of what he has seen, and, in spite of everything, an optimist about what his country might be. Yet the visitor, if he is to make an honest report, must also note the air of unease that hangs everywhere.

For the traveler, as travelers have been always, is as much questioned as questioning. And for all the abundance he sees, he finds the questions put to him ask where men may repair for succor from the troubles that beset them.

His countrymen cannot forget the savage face of war. Too often they have been asked to fight in strange and distant places, for no clear purpose they could see and for no accomplishment they can measure. Their spirits are not quieted by the thought that the good and pleasant bounty that surrounds them can be destroyed in an instant by a single bomb. Yet they find no escape, for their survival and comfort now depend on unpredictable strangers in far-off corners of the globe.

How can they turn from melancholy when at home they see young arrayed against old, black against white, neighbor against neighbor, so that they stand in peril of social discord. Or not despair when they see that the cities and countryside are in need of repair, yet find themselves threatened by scarcities of the resources that sustain their way of life. Or when, in the face of these challenges, they turn for leadership to men in high places—only to find those men as frail as any others.

So sometimes the traveler is asked whence will come their succor. What is to preserve their abundance, or even their civility? How can they pass on to their children a nation as strong and free as the one they inherited from their forefathers? How is their country to endure these cruel storms that beset it from without and from within?

Of course the stranger cannot quiet their spirits. For it is true that everywhere men turn their eyes today much of the world has a truly wild and savage hue. No man, if he be truthful, can say that the specter of war is banished. Nor can he say that when men or communities are put upon their own resources they are sure of solace; nor be sure that men of diverse kinds and diverse views can live peaceably together in a time of troubles.

But we can all remind ourselves that the richness of this country was not born in the resources of the earth, though they be plentiful, but in the men that took its measure. For that reminder is everywhere—in the cities, towns, farms, roads, factories, homes, hospitals, schools that spread everywhere over that wilderness.

We can remind ourselves that for all our social discord we yet remain the longest enduring society of free men governing themselves without benefit of kings or dictators. Being so, we are the marvel and the mystery of the world, for that enduring liberty is no less a blessing than the abundance of the earth.

And we might remind ourselves also, that if those men setting out from Delftshaven had been daunted by the troubles they saw around them, then we could not this autumn be thankful for a fair land.

This editorial has appeared annually since 1961

Updates and Improvements

21 November 2017

PG hopes no one is worrying due to the lack of postings for the last couple of days. All is well.

An unanticipated break in access to the Internet should be remedied in full tomorrow – Wednesday – and posts will appear as quickly as usual considering the Thanksgiving holiday.

 

Stoop Stories

18 November 2017

From Aeon:

So I’m posted up, sharing a sandwich and a cigarette with a friend in one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods in America, and my phone buzzes. On the other end is one of my old professors asking me to tell one of my wild childhood stories at the Stoop Storytelling Series, at Center Stage in downtown Baltimore.

A stoop show, I thought: kind of like what I do on the corner in my own neighbourhood every day. I’m always surrounded by stoops, Baltimore stoops made of cracked and chipped marble steps where all we do is tell street stories: who’s getting money, who’s going to jail, who murdered who, whose album is hot, who is that girl, who’s driving what, and who’s coming home from jail.

This would be easy, the same thing, but in someone else’s neighbourhood. I agreed to it like I agreed to the last 15 opportunities that fell in my lap. I’d recently written ‘Too Poor for Pop Culture’, an essay that went viral and made me semi-relevant on the internet and the man to know on the local scene. I’d learnt that exposure and platform are key, so I looked forward to the event.

The day of the show rolled round and I was backstage with my fellow cast members and storytellers. These guys were Easter-sharp, with starched button-ups and wingtips; the women matched them in pumps and flashy adult versions of their prom dresses.

Obviously, I missed the dress code memo because I walked in wearing a black hoodie and some black Air Jordans.

. . . .

The hostess gave me an amazing intro and welcomed me to the mic. I walked up and said: ‘This ain’t the stoop I’m used to. There’s no pit bulls, red cups or blue flashing lights, but I’ll make it work!’ I paused, took a look at the crowd and honestly felt like I wasn’t in Baltimore.

My black friends call it Baldamore, Harm City or Bodymore Murderland. My white friends call it Balti-mo, Charm City or Smalltimore while falling in love with the quaint pubs, trendy cafés and distinctive little shops. I just call it home.

Link to the rest at Aeon

Boston Is a Literary City Too

18 November 2017

From Publishers Weekly:

Imagine that your city hosts a book festival that attracts authors of international acclaim and readers of virtually every genre. Exhibitors representing publishers, writing centers, universities and colleges, writing groups, and booksellers (not to mention the best local grilled cheese company) fill a beautiful, historic square in town, and their booths have lines throughout the day. Tourists mix with locals walking, biking, and popping out of the subway stations nearby. Most events—whether in a church, a hotel, or the historic library; whether featuring a bestselling YA author or a scholar-activist—are standing room only.

The next day, you open your city newspapers and see nothing about the festival. Did it happen? Was it just a book lover’s dream?

The Boston Book Festival took place in Copley Square, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, for the ninth time on October 28. Around 200 authors appeared throughout the day, and attendees filled around 18,000 seats and standing room, to boot. Speakers included Geraldine Brooks, Daniel Handler, Chris Hayes, Lisa Ko, Dennis Lehane, Claire Messud, Eileen Myles, and Jacqueline Woodson.

Local media in Boston primed the pump ahead of the event, with pieces in the Boston Globe and on NPR, but once it happened there was radio silence. I suspect many people who participated in it in whatever way, like I did, are frustrated, as I am.

. . . .

How often can a fan of the stylish New York Review Books’ reissued paperbacks meet someone in marketing from the company? In what other space can writers watch agents consider new work, as they do at the massively popular Writer Idol event held each year at the Festival? Not covering this unique space sustains the myth that the walls between readers, writers, and gatekeepers are high and getting higher.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Although PG doesn’t live in Boston, the spine-tingling adventure of watching agents consider new work isn’t a compelling draw for him. Perhaps the newspapers felt the same way.

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