Public libraries as literary gatekeepers

I don’t have time to write anything lengthy today, but I wanted to share two enormously interesting articles about public libraries and the gatekeepers who determine what the library should and should not stock. Both of these are about Anne Carroll Moore, the first children’s librarian at the New York Public Library, who absolutely loathed quite a few children’s books that we now regard as classics.

This piece is on Moore’s hatred of Goodnight Moon, and how her decision to withhold her blessing prevented that book from being a commercial success. I can’t say that I knew much about Margaret Wise Brown before, but apparently she had quite a progressive attitude about children’s intellectual development.

This piece gets into Moore’s upbringing and her problems with Stuart Little.

There are a lot of different philosophies regarding what libraries should stock and whether activist librarians should attempt to shape the values of their time. This is especially true for children’s librarians, who are perhaps the only ones working with clients that remain impressionable.

Moore was insistent that children should only have access to the very highest quality of literature available. And she had clear standards regarding what she considered quality literature. She did not want to stock books written by authors who tried to situate themselves within the emergent psychology of children.

Nowadays, we have gatekeepers with the opposite standards as Moore – they promote overtly political books, usually written at the lowest reading levels, lacking in vocabulary words, and often offering contrarian narratives about historical events.

Outside of all of this, there are people who believe that libraries should be full of whatever could be potentially appealing to anyone at all. If kids want to read treacly books recounting their favorite television cartoons, they should have those. If women want to read soft-core porn romances about Amish people, they should have those.

I find this an endlessly fascinating topic.

What I am reading these days (a lot of history!)

I asked for a bunch of history books for Christmas (in addition to the world’s coolest garden hose) and received quite a haul.

My favorite periods of history are the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. I already had the Landmark Thucydides, but wanted the entire collection. So my husband gave me the Landmark Herodotus, Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Landmark Arrian Campaigns of Alexander, and my in-laws gave me the Landmark Julius Caesar. These are going to keep me busy for a while! I love having resources like this around the house for when Elise gets older too.

Before the holidays, I started two books that I would highly recommend. The first is Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. The second is Philip Matyszak’s Sparta: Rise of a Warrior Nation.

(I love Sparta and stories about Sparta. When I was younger and in far better shape, I used to participate in endurance sports, especially running. I’d have my husband drop me off in a nearby town with a CamelBak of Powerade and a credit card in case I needed food, and I would then spend all day running back home. No joke, it was nuts. Anyway, we had many inside jokes about Sparta during those days. When we were buying a new house, we had a meet-and-greet with our real estate agent, who asked in a very chipper voice, “And what kind of neighborhood do see as your ideal place to live? I just want a vision of what you are going for.” To which my husband replied, “Her ideal neighborhood is ancient Sparta. Do you have any properties there?” I can only imagine what personality category our realtor put us into.)

My husband also gave me Cicero’s On Living and Dying Well.

I recently read an outstanding biography on Cicero by Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. I would highly recommend it in general, but particularly to any cultural conservatives out there who are worried about how our social institutions are going to hell. Cicero experienced many similar events during the Roman civil wars that played out during his boyhood. He retreated to his family’s country home and spent all of his time preparing himself for a political career once life in the city sorted itself out. He studied history, the law, and rhetoric intensely and avoided getting into trouble with the increasingly mad crowds. This strategy served him very well, obviously.

One of my all-time favorite writers is Plutarch. I have been working my way through Plutarch’s Essays lately (see my earlier post, Do you hear what I hear?) My husband gave me copies of Plutarch’s Makers of Rome, Rome in Crisis, The Age of Alexander, and On Sparta. I really love the Penguin Classics editions of these books, as the translation is very clear and enjoyable, as Plutarch was meant to be read.

Also in the stack is the Complete Sophocles, Volume I and Volume II.

Somewhat related to all of this, I find it incredible the books that public libraries are getting rid of these days. Our library here has a bookshelf in the foyer of books that anyone can take and keep for free, as many as you like. I have found the most unbelievable books there. And it’s not like the library is throwing most of them out because they already have the books on their shelves and do not want duplicates (though that is certainly the case for some of them). They simply don’t want to keep them on their shelves.

I picked up five books from Harvard University Press’ series on antiquity, Early Greece, The Hellenistic World, Democracy in Classical Greece, The Roman Republic, and the Later Roman Empire. I also found hardback copies of Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (part of Oxford University Press’ incredible History of the United States series) and Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex. And a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. And The Penguin Opera Guide, M. Owen Lee’s The Operagoer’s Guide: One Hundred Stories and Commentaries, and The Metropolitan Opera Encyclopedia. I plan to use those books for a homeschooling unit on opera at some point.

The library was throwing out all of those extraordinary books. I don’t know what to think about what is happening at public libraries these days, to be honest. They exist to serve the interests of taxpayers and to provide a place for the community to gather. If ordinary people are legitimately uninterested in reading content like this, maybe libraries should stuff their shelves with mindless crap that they do want to read. At least they are keeping people basically literate, right?

I do sort of fear, however, that we are watching a new battleground in the culture wars play out. Many professional associations of librarians have been taken over by left-wing political activists (just take a look at what they are posting on their Twitter pages, and the fact that some libraries now host events like Drag Queen Story Hour). The children’s library where we lived before moving to Florida was unusable, as the shelves were fully stocked with identity politics-oriented fare instead of quality children’s non-fiction. (I’ve always found it amusing that books written by political actors tend to be written at an early elementary reading level. There is quite seriously nothing to be gained from consuming such nonsense, except perhaps some bizarre emotional catharsis.) So perhaps that is what I am seeing here, too, such that Harvard’s series on Ancient Greece and Rome is destined for the dumpster. If so, what a shame.

At any rate, if you are looking for a way to build your personal library on the cheap, I highly recommend checking out what your local library is tossing. There are some treasures in there.

As our DD7 is going to be studying American history in the upcoming academic year, I thought I would get back into American history for a while.

I like for my own pleasure reading to overlap with what she is studying. It helps me to make our lessons more interesting if I have engaging stories and digressions from the period to share with her that are not in her own books. A sort of educational synergy if you will. It also sends the message to her that I am not being compelled to study this topic, but I am still delighted to learn about it and find it fascinating. It reinforces the notion that education is not something with a state-mandated beginning and end, but the project of a lifetime.

(For more observations along those lines, see my earlier post, Modeling being a lifelong learner for your children.)

To that end, I am going to be reading soon Down the Santa Fe trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin 1846-1847 and Hampton Sides’ Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West.

American History for homeschoolers (elementary)

I am in the process of preparing for our daughter’s upcoming academic year. For us, that begins in April – a totally arbitrary date that corresponds to when we relocated to Florida. We are planning on switching to American history from world history this year.

We have covered world history in previous years using Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World series and activity books. I think these are excellent resources for world history for very young children when supplemented with top-notch children’s literature. While she does address American history in the series, it absolutely is not a quality substitute for studying American history (and your state history!) in depth.

I have had reservations about recommending SWB for other reasons every time I mention what we use to homeschooling friends. Frankly, she went so deep into social media mob identity politics on her pages that I couldn’t stand following her anymore. You don’t find much of that in SOTW – perhaps because identity politics is such a new fad, and she hadn’t discovered it yet – but I would hesitate to buy a revised copy of Well-Trained Mind (her homeschooling companion book) or any new version of SOTW, if they ever get around to issuing new editions. Just my two cents.

After reading about what a disinformation campaign the New York Times 1619 Project – which is being directed at K-12 education programs – has become, I am making an extra effort to research the backgrounds and potential agendas of any author I include in our homeschooling curriculum. Fortunately, most revisionist history children’s authors love to write about their political agendas on Twitter. (What a time to be alive.) It’s not that I only want to supply our daughter with resources I “agree” with – to me, contrarian perspectives are an opportunity to discuss why we believe what we believe. But I do want content that is accurate and based on primary sources.

A History of US (Oxford University Press)

Oxford University Press has published a children’s series for American history by Joy Hakim called A History of US that is excellent. It’s a relatively pricey set, as far as children’s books go, but it is quite exhaustive and written in language that children can easily process. I was surprised to learn that Oxford is getting into children’s books, but I’ll take it.

I think to use this as a bona fide history spine, you’d need to read small chunks and devote two academic years to it. Maybe do American history through Reconstruction one year and then work until present-day in the next year. Kind like a college course, but drawn out for children.

Folk Songs

One of my goals for the new year is to work more songs into our homeschooling routine (folks songs, hymns, and so on). I have been searching and searching for collections of American folks songs from the colonial period to the early 20th century with lyrics. You’d be amazed at how difficult that is. If you do searches for books and audio of folk songs, most of the time you are going to get hippies singing about smoking weed instead of When Johnny Comes Marching Home.

My mother sent us Wee Sing America, which has a lot of great songs and the lyrics so children can follow along. This is great for very young children. I’m luckily at the point where our daughter is young enough to enjoy a silly chorus of children but intellectually advanced enough to appreciate a serious consideration of historical events. The authors have some other collections of folk music and Bible songs, which we will probably buy too.

If anyone knows of some good, traditional folk music collections, please send them my way. Wee Sing doesn’t have some songs I wanted to include, like Oh Shenandoah, but I can probably find nice versions on YouTube.

One series of children’s books I have found that I love are the “If You Lived…” series. These books focus on the details of everyday life during certain periods and among certain groups of people:

If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620

If You Lived in Colonial Times

If You Lived in Williamsburg in Colonial Days

If You Grew Up With George Washington

If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution

If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution

If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon

If You Were a Pioneer on the Prairie

If You Lived at the Time of the Civil War

If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America

If You Traveled on the Underground Railroad

If You Lived With the Iroquois

If You Lived With the Sioux

If You Lived With the Hopi

If You Lived With the Cherokee

If You Lived With the Indians of the Northeast Coast

If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln

If You Lived 100 Years Ago

If You Lived When Women Won Their Rights

If Your Name Was Changed on Ellis Island

If You Lived at the Time of MLK

If You Lived at the Time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake

Some books with projects for kids in them:

Great Colonial America Projects You Can Build Yourself

Colonial Kids and Activity Guide to Life in the New World

History Pockets – Explorers of North America

History Pockets – Colonial America

History Pockets – The American Revolution

History Pockets – Moving West

History Pockets – The Civil War

Great history picture books:

A More Perfect Union: The Story of Our Constitution

Thomas Jefferson: A Picture Book Biography

Duel! Burr and Hamilton’s Deadly War of Words

Conestoga Wagons

Dandelions

A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of a Pioneer Family in 1840

Locomotive

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin

Samuel Morse and the Telegraph

Wanted Dead or Alive: The True Story of Harriet Tubman

Walking the Road to Freedom: A Story about Sojourner Truth

A Man for All Seasons: The Life of George Washington Carver

More than Anything Else (About Booker T. Washington)

Duel of the Ironclads: The Monitor vs Virginia

Drummer Boy: Marching to the Civil War

Coming to America: The Story of Immigration

Grandfather’s Story

The Keeping Quilt

The Story of the Erie Canal

The Story of the Titanic for Children: Astonishing Little-Known Facts and Details about the Most Famous Ship in the World

Children of the Great Depression

Children of the Dust Bowl: The True Story of the School at Weedpatch Camp

Six Days in October: The Stock Market Crash of 1929: A Wall Street Journal Book for Children

World War I for Kids: A History with 21 Activities

World War II for Kids: A History with 21 Activities

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11

Ken Burns Documentaries and Other Movies

I have also been thinking about using Ken Burns’ documentaries in our lessons, though I am going to have to re-watch some of them with a kid’s eye first (for mature content):

Lewis and Clark

The West

The Civil War

Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio

Brooklyn Bridge

Statue of Liberty

Congress

Jazz

The Dust Bowl

Johnny Tremain (Disney)

The King’s Highway

A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation

American Experience: The Pilgrims

American Experience: Murder of a President

Lincoln at Gettysburg

Lincoln and Lee at Antietam (the single bloodiest day in American history)

The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt

The Gilded Age

Westinghouse: The Life and Times of an American Icon

Florida History

For any Florida homeschoolers out there, the State of Florida has a ton of resources for kids:

Florida history

A list of books on Florida history to check out

Seminole history

The official page of the Seminole tribe

Florida governors

Quick facts about Florida

Florida state symbols

The Capitol

Reading lists and podcasts

As my family and friends know, I am a bibliophile in the extreme. Our house is so cluttered with books that it would give Martha Stewart or Marie Kondo a nervous breakdown. And I have more or less been that way since I was a young child.

I have started a project to check off the major books in the Western Canon in my possession and then purchase what I don’t have. (Thankfully, I have a lot of them, so this is not as expensive as it sounds.) I would like for our daughter to enter her teenage years with a solid home education in the humanities, as I share Harold Bloom’s concern that such a thing does not exist at universities anymore. Hopefully, that will change.

At any rate, I have been working from several lists that I thought I might share:

Harold Bloom’s list of books in the Western Canon

Mortimer Adler’s reading list (from How to Read a Book)

List of Penguin Classics

Oxford University Press World’s Classics

While I am at it, here are some podcasts on history, philosophy, and whatnot that you all might enjoy:

Hardcore History

The History of Rome

50 Things that Made the Modern Economy

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Do you hear what I hear?

Folks who know me know that I have a deep love of Greek and Roman literature. Lately, I have been on something of a Plutarch kick, and I am working my way through his Essays (Penguin Classics). I forgot how wonderful they are.

Plutarch, much like Montaigne, was gifted at communicating impressive ideas in a simple, succinct form. I think that is one of the things I love most about classical literature – seeing how phenomenally intelligent our human race was even thousands of years ago. Of course, to have that sense, you either have to have an excellent translator or be able to read Latin and Greek. Hence, I am teaching our young daughter to read Latin, and hopefully Greek will follow.

Today, I have been re-reading Plutarch’s essay On Listening. If you have never read it, you should. And Robin Waterfield is such a brilliant translator, for those who care.

For Plutarch (as I read him, anyway), being an excellent listener has two components.

One involves the art of listening to someone who intends to persuade you on some point. This means being able to follow reason (and not necessarily the person who intends to persuade you). To Plutarch, the ability to reason is a divine gift. To follow God and to follow reason are one and the same, he explains.

The other involves allowing someone to articulate a complete thought. This means showing proper respect to someone who is trying to make a point and can make it well, even if you do not agree with them. When I was younger, this would have been called collegiality (a word of medieval origin, taken from the Latin collegium, a community, society, or guild).

Both, really, are totally lost in modern American society. Though, to be fair, trying to be polite to a parrot is an exercise in madness.

I love this passage:

It goes without saying that a young man who is denied all instruction and never tastes any rational discourse not only remains barren and unproductive of virtue, but also might become marred and perverted toward vice, producing plentiful mental weeds from his unturned and unworked soil, as it were…

There are, in short, no exceptions to the rule that for a young man silence is undoubtedly an adornment; and never more so than if he listens to someone else without getting worked up and barking out a riposte but – even if the comments are distinctly unwelcome – puts up with them and waits for the speaker to finish and, once the speaker has finished, instead of immediately answering back, leaves an interval, as Aeschines says, to see if the speaker wants to add anything else to what he has already said, or to make any changes or to take something back. Immediately to lash out in retaliation, however, and neither to listen nor be listened to, but to speak while being spoken to, is scandalous; on the other hand, anyone who has acquired the ability to listen in a self-controlled and respectful fashion is receptive and retentive of any remarks that are useful, while any that are useless or false are quite transparent to him and easily detectable, because he is – as is obvious – aiming at the truth rather than winning an argument, and does not pitch in head first for a fight.

Can you believe that this was written in the first century? Yet this is the exact behavior social media (and the news media) conditions people against developing.

Unlike Plutarch’s generation, people are not especially interested in being persuasive anymore. There are basically three styles of argumentation being taught/learned nowadays: (1) if someone disagrees with you, insult their character, background, or livelihood; (2) shout louder than someone; (3) parrot corporate media talking points until your interlocutor is reduced to a coma. Even the people who pass as eloquent in American society are not gifted listeners, but more subtle bullies. They certainly aren’t aiming at truth or dispensing wisdom.

Of course, there are times when calling into question someone’s intentions is necessary. But it should not be a default.

Sometimes I wonder if the art of being persuasive even works nowadays. Plutarch’s time was dominated by virtue ethics. That does not seem to exist much anymore, except within certain religious communities and institutions.

Instead most forums are dominated by people with what one might call “therapeutic” ideals. They respond well to confessional storytelling and hierarchies of grievances. That is definitely not something the Greeks and Romans would understand or support. Being persuasive assumes you have worked to achieve some position of strength. People who fail are not persuasive. There’s a reason the ancients taught science and logic before rhetoric. Logic is not taught in K-12 public schools, but identity politics is. And our discourse reflects that.

A person who is trained in logic can attempt to reason someone through their thinking nowadays, but that generally makes their interlocutor cling to the position they have staked out publicly even harder. You are, in short, wasting your time.

This is absolutely true in talking about politics, government, and economics these days. I have given up try to persuade anyone who gets into how they “feel” about public policy. They don’t seem to want to work out a practical solution to problems, which involves caring about details like how resources are limited or laws on the books already. They just want to emote. They don’t want a good argument from you, either. They just want to pass judgment on whether you have “proper” emotions too.

I don’t want open borders but I also don’t want there to be punishments for people who come into the country illegally, because that seems mean.

I don’t want to spend yet another decade and another trillion dollars in Afghanistan, but I also want there to be a government in Afghanistan that is fair by western ideals and respects the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.

Blah blah blah. You can listen politely all you want, but the fact is you are talking to an irrational person who hasn’t and won’t invest any serious thought into a real-world solution to these problems. You aren’t going to give them the civic education they never received,even though they likely have an undergraduate degree. That ship has sailed. The Greeks and the Romans, however, were absolutely obsessed with civic education.

Virtue (of the sort that has a metaphysical foundation) has been replaced with attention as a form of social capital, and squawking and bullying is an easier way to get attention than trying to persuade someone. Of course, you will never bully someone into believing something that they did not believe already. No one in the history of mankind has been publicly shamed into a new perspective. But that’s increasingly not the point of discourse. For a not insignificant portion of society, silencing someone is as much of a victory as persuading them. Because that’s the best you can achieve when all you have is an arsenal of emotions.

Hegel, Michael Pollen, and gardening with children – what it means to feel at home

The German philosopher Hegel wrote about Heimatlichkeit, the sense of being at home, as a way of knowing. Europeans had taken this concept from the Greeks, who also believed that knowledge was a sort of feeling comfortable with one’s situation. It was the goal of parenting and citizenship in the ancient world to raise children who could feel in their bones what it meant to be Greek, to know they belonged in their city-state.

In contrast, someone feels alienated when nothing in their environment makes sense to them. The worst punishment in the ancient world was to be expelled from the community by the exact same forces that helped give someone a sense of home. To live in exile and lose one’s sense of home was worse than execution. If you have ever lived abroad, you likely know that homesickness can feel like physical torture.

I think about Heimatlichkeit a lot these days. Many people look at elements of our society, feel acutely alienated by them, and develop a passionate longing to return to a time where they felt at home in the world. That’s not really a story about change being difficult, so much as a falling away from the constellations of beliefs and practices that have real meaning to us. Civilizations can navigate and endure all kinds of disruptive events if they feel like they are defending a home. (It was the Heimatlichkeit of Americans and Europeans that took down Hitler as much as bombs.) But there’s no political vocabulary that offers an effective substitute for Heimatlichkeit.

The ideal held up by self-proclaimed elites nowadays is a sort of un-Heimatlichkeit. They talk incessantly about being a “citizen of the world.” That’s a nonsensical phrase. No person can feel at home everywhere, unless their own life is a vacuum. A hipster from Los Angeles may feel like he is a “citizen” of Europe because he went backpacking and toured some art museums, but that’s not a sense of real belonging. You only get to this perspective by diminishing the place where you originally belonged. And that’s exactly what they want you to do.

I think I can say confidently that I have very little in common with the author Michael Pollan now. But I used to. This is someone who used to grok Heimatlichkeit.

When he became a popular proponent of organic agriculture and clean eating, I read several of his books. I’m not sure I gleaned anything spectacular from them, mostly because I already agreed with those principles. I was buying locally-sourced, organic foods before they were easy to obtain and I never put pesticides on my own gardens or lawn. Not from any sense of moral superiority, but because these things are a way to be happier. In fact, one of the things I loathe the most about living in suburbs is the amount of poison people dump into the ground for no other reason than they are too lazy to pull weeds. (Again, where is your sense of home?) It’s a struggle for me not to point this out to my neighbors when they ask me how I achieve such massive blooms each year. The answer is simple: I respect that soil is a living thing and I don’t try to murder it. Really kind of simple, if you think about it.

But my agreement with Pollan pretty much stops with soil. I could never follow him daily because his progressive politics is eyeroll-inducing to me, and don’t even get me started on how he’s become an advocate for legalizing psychedelics. Whatever good he has done in reforming the food industry he’s cancelled out with the harm he’s helping inflict upon the social fabric of great American cities.

All that said, I have been reading his book Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education and I am enjoying it immensely. It’s a reminder of how much I liked Pollan’s early writings.

Pollan takes a David Copperfield approach to talking about gardening in the book. That is, he starts with what are literally his first memories of “working” in a garden. In his case, that was climbing behind the lilac and forsythia branches in his parents’ suburban yard as a preschooler. You can appreciate how a child perceives scale from his description of his first “garden,” under those towering shoots of blooms. There he would spit out watermelon seeds, and then triumphantly one day realized a watermelon plant was growing out there. He had made that happen, there in the margins ignored by the adult world. He picked the melon and ran with it to tell his mother, but the melon went splat on the back porch, since it was being hauled by a young child with little agility. As you can imagine, tears were involved. (I wanted to tell him that I have shed real tears over plants as an adult.)

The first serious gardener he knew was his grandfather, one of the first real estate developers on Long Island and thus a very wealthy man. His grandfather had a professional gardener to assist him in keeping decorative trees and flowers, but his own domain was a half-acre vegetable garden. His grandfather maintained his gardens with military precision, waking up to hoe his vegetable garden every day and not letting a single weed survive in his beds.

The man could afford any luxury, but he lived in the dirt. His wealth came from the dirt and that’s what he put his wealth back into.

You are left with the impression that this is why he lived well into his 90s. He was a passionate man with a passionate sense of home. He had a reason to wake up each day because of it. Even when he moved to a condo in his last years, he had a container garden on the patio to tend.

His memories of his grandfather’s immaculate gardens stood in sharp contrast to his own father’s refusal even to mow the lawn of their suburban plot, much to the humiliation of his wife and children. His father became persona non grata in their neighborhood, and when the neighbors finally confronted him about the fact that his grass was so high that it had gone to seed, he responded by getting out his lawnmower and carving his initials into their suburban meadow. Pollan says it was a “fuck you” to their neighbors, but I think it was as much a “fuck you” to his wife and kids. Fuck you having a sense of home.

In reading that, I felt like I understood Pollan’s own behavior as an adult better. Imagine the pathology of growing up with someone who doesn’t want to make things beautiful for their family. Who cares so little about their home that they will go out of their way to manufacture outsider status for their children. His kid likes ingesting toxic mushrooms, you say? That’s just depressing. But at least he had his grandfather, who thought like a good Greek citizen and modeled it for the kids whether they were wholly receptive of it or not. Pollan did not grow up entirely without an aesthetic, which would have been tragic.

The more I read about Pollan’s accounts, the more I started to think about how I garden with our daughter and the significance of the memories we are creating. How she will probably remember even the smallest details about being out in the garden with me because gardening is such a big part of my own identity. This is what her mother loved to do and this is how she acted while she was doing it. This was how we made a home and it was important.

From Pollan:

In both our eyes [his and his grandfather’s], this was a landscape full of meaning, one that answered to wishes and somehow spoke in human language….

One of the things childhood is is a process of learning about the various paths that lead out of nature and into culture, and the garden contains many of these. I can’t imagine a wilderness that would have had as much to say to me as Grandpa’s garden did: the floral scents that intimated something about the ways of ladies as well as flowers, the peach tree that made legible the idea of fruit and seed, the vegetables that had so much to say about the getting of food and money, and the summer lawns that could not have better expressed the hospitality of nature to human habituation.

He recounts how, as a teenager, he proudly built his own garden on an especially small plot of land. His parents, after the lawn incident, moved into a new, more posh neighborhood with the intention of having their yard professionally maintained, as his father was entirely too lazy and uninterested in being outside to push a lawnmower back and forth or dig a hole for something beautiful.

They would only concede a corner of the yard that was completely out of sight for their son to plant vegetables. He was older, but still working along the margins of the adult world.

Pollan did many right things in setting up his garden. He ordered quality soil and organic materials. But he planted the vegetables in a jumble to maximize his small space. They were mixed together as they could fit, and were not in his grandfather’s neat rows. And he was certainly less religious than his grandfather in weeding.

He was rewarded for his efforts, however, with bushels of vegetables. He considered the garden a great success and convinced his grandfather to come see it. Of course, all his grandfather saw was a mess that reflected his hippie grandson. To him, the fact that his grandson could not maintain a simple vegetable garden with any sense of order mirrored a wasted generation of young people who weren’t going to be good for anything. And he let young Pollan have it. That was the end of Pollan maintaining a garden for a long time. Pollan got his driver’s license and spent as much time away from home as he could. You can’t work on your gardening skills if you are never at home.

Gardening with children can be really frustrating, especially if you have a talent for gardening yourself. Gardeners are hypnotized by order, even the ones with strategically messy cottage gardens. Their calendar revolves around the first frost and the last frost-free day. Full sun and shade. Flat and sloped. They plant according to what will not shock plants, which can seem like some unintelligible primitive ritual to the uninitiated. They can look at the plants and tell you what specific elements are keeping the soil from perfection. Gardening is about management and control.

Children, on the other hand, learn about boundaries by testing them. This applies both to what they can and cannot do to make things grow and how far they can go before exhausting all of your patience. Working with them can seem like deliberately introducing chaos into the order you’ve worked so hard to obtain. And the stakes can be high. Have you ever set a kid to work planting bulbs only to realize they’ve planted 50 tulips upside down? Trust me, it’s time to give up and fix a martini at that point. The plants will do their own job and find the Sun.

The only way to get past all of this is to multiply the time you spend with your children. Much like education, you have to introduce children to order gently and over time. You aren’t going to have much success dictating to your child how things must be. They will learn from your example and from their own successes and failures that if they want to create something beautiful themselves, they have to work deliberately.

You are helping them build an aesthetic. You are helping them understand what belongs, and a big part of that is helping them understand that they belong.

Chick-lit authors pile on a college student who dissed content at a junior high reading level

I don’t know if this story should restore my faith in humanity or nuke it altogether.

An article was published in the local newspaper for Aberdeen, South Dakota (population 28,388) about the Common Read program at Northern State University, a small regional school (enrollment 3,622).

It was something of a human interest story, praising what sounds like a pretty cool program:

The first Common Read book at Northern State University — “The Routes of Man” by Ted Conover — was picked because of a budget and a phone call.

“So I Googled speakers’ reps, and I found a guy and I called him and I said, ‘Who’s your best person for $3,500?’” said Erin Fouberg, professor of geography and director of the honors program. “And he said, ‘Absolutely, hands down Ted Conover.’”

The next couple of books were picked by Fouberg and Jim Smith, president at the time, she said, often with budget in mind.

But as the program has grown and evolved, the books are selected by committee — a committee that anyone can be on, Fouberg said …

At first, the only students required to read the book were Fouberg’s freshman honors students, but it eventually became required reading for all first-year students once freshman seminar was moved from a one-credit class to a two, she said. But it also grew to a campus-wide event, and quickly beyond.

In 2013, the selection was “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls, which was also a popular book club book, Fouberg said.

“People who were in book clubs saw that she was coming to speak, and they showed up, and they have just trusted us ever since,” Fouberg said. “I’ll get stopped in Kessler’s as soon as March and people will be asking, ‘What’s the book?’

They started off with a small group of students reading a book together and talking to the author. People loved the book discussion so much that the program was extended to everyone on campus and then members of the community started joining in as well.

That sounds amazing, right? They have the whole city now reading the same book and getting together to discuss it. Maybe literacy isn’t dead after all.

The article goes on to explain the various motivations students at the university had for joining the committee that selects the books. Remember that this a committee that anyone can be on. Anyone.

One former student said she joined the committee to improve the caliber of books being selected. It would seem some wanted a young adult book to be the common read. She thought pop fiction written for teenage girls was not appropriate for an adult academic environment. They ended up reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a nonfiction book about wrongful convictions, instead of Sarah Dressen, who writes books with 8th graders as the target audience. And they had the opportunity to speak to a man who experienced being wrongly convicted.

During her junior year, Brooke Nelson said she fought hard against a Sarah Dessen book being selected.

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

That was the year they ended up picking “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson.

“It was incredible, so that became the book I supported,” Nelson said, who majored in English and is now working on a master’s degree in Florida. “That’s how I sort-of inadvertently joined the Common Read Committee.”

That was Katie Olson’s favorite Common Read book.

“Not only was it an extremely moving book that spoke about the injustice that can occur within our justice system through the stories of real people, but personally meeting and hearing from one of the individuals we read about was an especially powerful experience,” wrote the senior art education major.

The subject of the book, Anthony Ray Hinton, rather than the author, came to speak that year, Fouberg said.

Now, you might not think the suggestion that college students should be reading books at an adult reading level would be controversial. Sure, if you are in the university’s School of Education, you should be reading young adult books as a study of how to teach them to young people. But that’s not what we are talking about here.

I’m not sure how this became a larger news story than Aberdeen local news, except perhaps that the young adult lit author Sarah Dressen probably Googles herself every day and lost her mind when she discovered that people in flyover country think she writes unserious stuff.

Dressen summoned a posse of chick lit authors on Twitter, including Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult to rant, rant, and rant some more about how a young female English major is oppressing them and suffocating the voices of teenage girls everywhere. They made sure to talk about her directly, to shame her for expressing an opinion and invite their followers to join in the harassment, which from the looks of their feeds is pretty much what these female authors do on social media all day long. Apparently it is lost on the chick lit crowd that we are talking about a college and not junior high school here. (And, honestly, I would hope junior high kids are reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird instead of the bubble gum drivel any of them write.)

I want to talk about this. Not only does it suck because @sarahdessen is one of the loveliest women you’ll ever meet, and because she has been a guiding force into the love or reading for thousands of kids including my own…but because this implies something more sinister. /1 https://t.co/JLnVgN90MO— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

This suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous. This kind of thinking is what leads to gender discrimination in publishing/2— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

It’s why there are more shows on Broadway with male leads than female ones. It’s why there aren’t many female directors. Even though the majority of book buyers and ticket buyers are women./3— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

Got that? If you are a young woman who thinks reading about criminal justice reform is more important than chick lit written at a junior high school reading level, you are doing the work of the patriarchy. Your actions are sinister. You are the reason why there are more male actors than female actresses on Broadway. (Not sure what Broadway has to do with a book club in South Dakota, but okay.) It’s like I always say, if you want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you need to read beach romances so you can talk competently about the needs and aspirations of women.

I don’t read chick lit, never have, but I had no idea that chick lit authors were so mental. I’m starting to get the sense that it’s a prerequisite for the genre, however.

A middle school teacher chimed in, again apparently oblivious that we are talking about college students here, to let everyone know that chick lit is the most circulated content at their school library and the coed critic is probably just jealous the author. In case you wanted another reason to feel sorry for kids in junior high.

I’m a recently retired middle school librarian(and teacher)and Sarah’s books were among the highest circulated books in our library ALWAYS…she was and IS an important voice in YA literature. I personally loved each of her books…any negativity must be jealousy pure and simple.— Bookchick 53 (@JuliaBo53) November 13, 2019

Author Jennifer Weiner thinks this is a #MeToo moment, because not reading young adult books is obviously like rape:

And I will piggyback in what Jodi said, with a reminder: when we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less — or not at all — there are real-world consequences. https://t.co/WlYoALXW9H #MeToo https://t.co/stYfTJd0qZ— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) November 13, 2019

You’ll note that she’s upset that teenage girl drama is not being taken as seriously as a black man being being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The struggle is real, y’all.

And then there was this, which Weiner seems to have deleted, perhaps when someone pointed out to her that anyone can serve on the committee, no one is turned away:

Weiner even went to the news article to comment, saying that it was sad the college student had “internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by ‘teen girls.'”

If I were the young woman being mentioned, I’d take some screen shots of these comments for my C.V. Getting dog-piled by people like this should be worth something. Cheers to college students who have standards for what the kind of books they want to consume.