Category Archives: Reading Habits

Pop-up Bookstore(s)

During the past few days, I have handled hundreds upon hundreds of books.

I am the person who manages the book orders for the many classes we offer to our more than 500 high school students. I have a lot of help from department chairs, teachers, and the very patient representative at the online company that secures and sells the books we and our students use. But it’s still a lot to keep track of.

I like the challenge, though. Not just because I like books, which I obviously do, but because I like how they are still completely essential to who we are and what we do as a school. Historian Barbara Tuchman famously said, “Books are the carriers of civilization.” And, in many ways, books are still the lifeblood of education.

Last week, my office was transformed into a pop-up bookstore. There I sorted and distributed to faculty 70 copies of Jessica Lahey’s The Gift of Failure, 20 copies of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 12 of The Buddha in the Attic, and 14 copies of Netherland among others. In addition, I handled countless single copies of carefully chosen and dedicated books to be bestowed to our top scholars in an awards ceremony on Thursday and at graduation on Friday. The local pool just opened for the season but I haven’t made it there much at all — I have been swimming in books.

As if that wasn’t fun enough for me, my husband emptied out a huge bookshelf at our house. Lining the fireplace until last night were stacks and stacks of our children’s books, which I finally hauled upstairs into the study where there was, no surprise, no room for any more books. The books are sitting in somewhat neater piles now, waiting for me to find the time and the space to file them away. I’m anxious for the weekend, when I’ll have time to thin the stacks and organize things on to shelves. A patient pile of books in disarray exerts a subtle pressure: pick me up, read me, put me in order.

Yes, book publishers have had to reconceive their business models, and ebooks are likely here to stay. Some booksellers have unfortunately gone out of business. But it’s no accident that after all the fanfare of moving bookstores to online settings, itself is considering buying 400 brick-and-mortar bookstores according to Greg Bensinger’s February 2 report in the Wall Street Journal. I can’t think of too many places as pleasant as a peaceful bookstore — only maybe the peaceful pages of a book.

Near the end of last week, I had a few extra copies of the books I had ordered, so I invited faculty to stop by and take what remained. The first two takers were math teachers, and the extra books were gone by the end of the day. My office is mostly back to normal; the pop-up bookstore is closed. Until the next time.

Literacy & Numeracy

Mathemagician_bookAs a student, I was not the biggest fan of math. After learning about probability from playing epic rounds of Backgammon in 7th grade pre-algebra, I considered myself a pretty decent math student. But once I passed geometry and algebra and entered calculus, I was in a pretty constant state of treading water amid the infinite variations on the theme of parabola and the inscrutable formulas that indicated which way those curves opened up, and in which quadrant.

When I got to college and there was no math requirement, I piled my humanities courses high and never looked back. Immersed in reading narratives and writing analysis, I was confident I wouldn’t need to worry about what is now called numeracy. And I really didn’t — until I had to take the GRE in order to get into graduate school. Then, I deeply regretted never really mastering math. The GRE was, for me, a humbling experience of not being able to garner a halfway decent quantitative score despite the fact that the math concepts on the test are actually somewhat elementary.

I was thinking about my experience with math as I read Andrew Hacker’s “The Wrong Way to Teach Math” in a recent edition of The New York Times. It was such a relief to read his argument in favor of teaching math as just another kind of literacy. Hacker writes, “What’s needed is a different kind of proficiency, one that is hardly taught at all. The Mathematical Association of America calls it ‘quantitative literacy.’ I prefer the O.E.C.D.’s ‘numeracy,’ suggesting an affinity with reading and writing.”

For years, I felt that I had failed to learn math as a result of a deficiency in my capacity to understand the nature of numbers and what they represent. However after reading Hacker’s article, I now think that the deficiency may have been in how I, a reader and a lover of language, was taught to think about math. I am delighted with the idea that one can become proficient in math in part through proficiency in reading. I also agree with Hacker that we need to become proficient in math, and soon, because “ours has become a quantitative century, and we must master its language. Decimals and ratios are now as crucial as nouns and verbs.”

I remember the wisdom of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, a wonderful book published in 1961 in which a boy named Milo comes to consciousness as a student when he journeys through the Kingdom of Wisdom. There, a war is on between two brothers, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, over which is more important —  letters, the domain of Azaz, or numbers, the domain of his brother.

Rhyme and Reason, their adopted sisters, insist that letters and numbers are equally important, to which the brothers grudgingly agree by the story’s end. Little did they know that the two seemingly distinct domains would be so closely tied just over 50 years later.

Second Grade Stories

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As I child, I loved being read to and still love it today. When I’m too tired to read to myself but I want to hear more voices and stories than my eyes will allow, I ask my husband or daughter to read to me from whatever they are reading. To me, there’s nothing quite as nice as hearing the soothing flow of someone else’s words.

Some of my happiest memories involve being read to — snuggling up close to my grandmother to listen to Blueberries for Sal; sitting on the green couch with white flowers next to my sister while she read me a chapter of Pippi Longstocking; listening to my mother read to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses — these are some of the best memories I have of being little.

Beyond being read to, I love catching people reading to each other, especially if one person is quite a bit older than the other. Today in school, I caught some high school boys reading stories to kids in the 2nd grade. A tall boy read A Fine, Fine School. Another boy read one of my favorites, Not Norman.

The children sat in a loosely clumped circles around the high school boys, like rings around the center of a tree, and listened. 

For a few minutes, the bigger boys forgot that they were in Public Speaking class, lost in both the memory of 2nd grade and the new experience of being in the teacher’s chair. Meanwhile, the adults in the room quietly looked on, assured of a certain kind of continuity brought about by the sharing of stories.

Outside, rain quietly fell.

Reading and the Brain

This week, I have been absorbed in the world of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, set in a fictional town in Colorado. My friend Anna gave the book to me for my birthday and told me I would love it. I really did. The writing is flawless and the stories of different people living in various states of abandonment (being left, leaving, being pushed away) and homecoming are going to haunt me for a long time.

Readers who count this book as one of their all time favorites will have a lot of different opinions about which character’s story is the most compelling. But for me, it is the story of two brothers deep into their bachelorhood who take in a pregnant teenager whose mother has thrown her out.

They are hesitant to take her in not because they judge her predicament harshly, but because they are so unaccustomed to caring for anyone other than themselves. The humble, unconditional love they almost immediately feel for her is so surprising and so permanent that it compels the reader to question what she herself would do — and makes clear the power of empathy.

The girl, Victoria, needs the protection of these virtual strangers very much. So does the child she’s carrying. And the brothers embrace an opportunity to demonstrate unyielding care to a total stranger.

A recent study out of Emory University looks at the neural effects of reading and supports what so many of us already know and believe: that reading stories not only helps children to become literate, but also develops their empathy and sense of self. Says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

To read more about the study, visit

Short Stories, Lasting Connections


Yesterday, on the plane from Charlotte to New York for a family wedding, I found myself with an idle half hour. My children were listening to music and watching videos. My husband was sorting through the contents of his briefcase and looking over a long and tedious document.

In my haste to get out the door at 6:30 in the morning, I hadn’t brought my usual lifeline – a book. But there at the bottom of my bag was a rumpled New Yorker. Relief spread over me as I began to look over the table of contents and found a short story by one of my favorite authors, Alice McDermott. That would surely pass the time.

I love the New Yorker for many reasons, one of which is the way the editors pair visual images with text. But the photograph accompanying McDermott’s haunting story was not easy to make out at first, and the story, about a suicide, a nun, and the small, private rebellions people commit, was equally difficult to understand.

Indeed, the story’s title, “These Short, Dark Days,” was hardly beckoning to a traveler on an airplane cutting across a blue sky. I looked over at my family members to see if anyone had any interest in talking to me, but they were happy just where they were.

So I tried again to get into the magic of the words on the page, and on the third attempt, I was in it completely and began to see its meaning. A young man took his life, leaving his pregnant wife alone and impoverished. An old nun on her way home from a day of begging entered the building that the man had nearly exploded, to give aid that was not asked for.

And then, in a eureka moment that made me exclaim out loud, I saw the tendrils of James Joyce’s Dubliners running like golden threads through McDermott’s tale. I flipped back to the black and white photograph and saw what I hadn’t seen before – the black and white of a devoted Sister’s habit.

Joyce’s stories about everyday citizens in a Catholic community, stories that had challenged and amazed me in college and graduate school, came flooding back to me in a wave of recharged meaning. Through reading and rereading – the same stories and different stories, old and new – I had made a highly satisfying connection.

My husband turned a quizzical eye on me to see me smiling. “It’s an homage to Dubliners,” I said. The glow of that connection carried me all the way to a smooth landing in New York.

More Beautiful Questions

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There are all kinds of questions. Those that, when answered, hold us accountable: what town does a character in a book live in, what color are his shoes.

There are questions that, when answered, show that we are more than attentive to details — we are thoughtful. For example, Marie Laure in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See is bereft of both literal and symbolic things – blindness, certainty – and in observing that, we reveal ourselves to be engaged, reflective, even empathetic.

And then there are those questions that we can’t so easily dispatch. Classic literature like The Scarlet Letter provides infinite examples. Why does Hester Prynne protect the identity of Pearl’s father even though doing so only adds fuel to the fire of Salem’s disdain? Further – is she a victim of love, or naivete, or a person in control who chooses a noble course of action, or something completely different? And, further still, is the desire to protect another’s reputation above one’s own a universal human striving, or something unique to certain people or societies?

These are the questions we don’t know the answer to until we compose them. And sometimes we don’t know what these questions are really about until we hear other people try to answer them. But one thing is for sure: our answers to such complex questions reflect much more than our knowledge of a set of facts – they show who we are and what we believe.

In a few months, I and two other teachers equally fascinated with the art of questioning will be presenting at a state conference on how to elicit more profound questions from students. We are reviewing Warren Berger’s inspiring A More Beautiful Question, which explores the importance of critical and active questioning in entrepreneurial and educational settings.

In the meantime, I am revisiting a realization I have had time and again as both student and teacher – that the deepest and most gratifying learning comes from moments of true confusion coupled with curiosity, moments when all we can do is ask question after question as we attempt to clarify what it is we really want to know.

After that, the hard work begins: looking for answers that we can verify, articulate, and live with.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

I have been trying for about a week to write a post about Harper Lee’s new/old/real/fake book, Go Set a Watchman. Each time I’ve tried, however, I’ve come up short. My writing has gone off the rails.

Why has this happened? What is so unique about this topic that it’s caused my mind to keep looping in search of possible resting places for days?

Yes, of course I have always revered Atticus Finch. In many ways, I have loved him as if he we were real. To me, he is a rosy but distant childhood memory, a trusted adult who was mannered in the face of rudeness and intelligent in the face of ignorance, with crinkly eyes and patient, thoughtful ways and words.

I met him when I was 12 and he made me feel safe because he was in the world, making it better in ways that I didn’t completely understand or even want to. He couldn’t keep Tom Robinson alive, but he could stand up beside him, and in doing so he taught his children important lessons about how the world was and should/could be.

From the perspective of the adult teacher I have become, Atticus is the father who knows best but doesn’t make his children feel bad for not knowing as much, or knowing the things that matter most. He is the champion of social and racial justice, he is the dependable family man. He is the opposite of Huck’s abusive father; he is not kin to the wealth-thirsty Gatsby; he is not cowardly like the secretly passionate Arthur Dimmesdale.

I think I can’t decide on what I want to say about Go Set a Watchman because, adult or child, I simply don’t want to think about Atticus Finch in any other way than the way I already think about him. And that’s got to be ok. Just because another book is out featuring this character doesn’t mean the original book is obsolete, or the lessons therein discredited. It doesn’t matter that Lee herself may have written this second book any more than it would if another author had done the same.

For me, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird will always be exactly himself, as presented within the pages of that book. Just as the Mona Lisa will always smile at some viewers and frown at others, we get to decide what we see in a single work of art.

Books I’ve Loved Recently

My friend Lindsey writes a blog ( where she shares things she’s loved lately.  I thought I’d take a page out of her book and share some recent books I’ve loved lately.

You may think that I only read highbrow, but it’s not true. I read anything that’s well-written, honest, or entertaining. I sometimes push myself to read things that I think I’m not interested in because I know that’s one way to continue to grow, but in general I read voraciously within my preferred genres: fiction, historical fiction, literary journalism, true crime, adventure, sci-fi, poetry. I can’t help but read like a teacher, though; I’m always looking for that book that will push people to connect — with characters and cultures in books, or with each other as readers of a shared text. Here are a few that I think accomplish this well:

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is so good. I did have to start it three separate times, though, because the chronology is so confusing at first. A child, Ursula, is born on a terribly snowy night in England and depending on the page number, she either lives to become an astonishing variety of adult women, or dies at any number of points in time within her infancy and childhood. Atkinson’s creativity, her ability to immerse readers in so many different scenarios, all of which feel like “the true story,” is remarkable.

Ursula is a strange character because she lives outside of linear time and remembers events from the past; this makes her appear odd and somewhat of a loser to the world around her that doesn’t understand why she takes certain actions, like pushing a maid down the stairs in order to save a family from catching influenza. But given that in one of her lives, she kills Hitler before he has a chance to effectuate the Holocaust, we can’t help but cheer her on.

Alice McDermott’s Someone is the kind of book that puts you in a particular mood; it follows a girl and her brother through pretty simple lives in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century. The writing is so beautiful, though, and there are countless moments when you think, yes, this is exactly how life is sometimes. Marie has trouble with her vision, loses her father and ally, and is raised by her mother in a religious household.

She asks her brother, a top scholar destined for the priesthood, who will ever love her. “Someone,” he says. “Someone will love you.” And someone does, a good guy who gives her a family and a comfortable life. Yet there is never a sense of total contentment or happiness, for Marie or for her brother, and again, that just rings true to me.

Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls seemed to call to me from the bookshelf just this week. I don’t usually pick up graphic novels for young adults, but this one just wanted me to buy it. And I’m glad I did, even though the story was tough for me to read. Conor is losing his mother to cancer and so angry and confused about it that he lets himself be bullied and turns against his only true friend.

The book’s short, perfectly written chapters tell the story of Conor’s coming to terms with the truth of his mother’s illness as well as the truth within himself. A Monster, a timeless being that comes walking when called, pushes Conor to face all of what’s inside his heart. The Monster tells Conor that he’ll give Conor three stories, and expect one in return at the end. The only rule is that the story Conor tells has to be true.

Ness’s four stories within the overarching book are masterfully told, with the voice of the Monster so wise and harsh that Conor has no choice but to give into the inevitable storytelling he himself must do, and the acceptance that comes with that truth telling. Illustrated by Jim Kay, this little book is quite powerful and definitely not just for kids.

I always love to hear what other people are reading, so please send word. Happy summer!

Seasoned Language

Anthony Lane, in a brilliant review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s recent book on Lewis Carroll’s life and work, featured in the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker, poses a great question: what is the difference between knowing about something and knowing it firsthand?

Lane uses Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to explore this question, and as one who has always loved the story of Alice, but has never actually read Carroll’s book from start to finish, I was completely swept up in Lane’s argument in support of consuming original books whole in addition to summaries, reviews, or homages.

In the past, says Lane, anyone who could read had read the story of Alice in a topsy-turvy world. But today, Lane points out, most of us know Alice through what he calls “cultural osmosis” — she has been talked about and featured in such a variety of media that we may even believe we have read the book about her, when in all likelihood we have not. And he points out that the need to do so is “more urgent than ever.”

Why? It’s not that Carroll’s work is so life-changing that without reading it, we can’t be complete. Certainly there are some disquieting aspects of this book and its author. The point Lane is making is that there is no substitute for firsthand experience of marvelous language like Carroll’s. Lane aptly describes Carroll’s style as being “peppery” and “brisk,” “impatient of folly” and “alive to the squalls of emotion that we struggle to curb.”

Original language seasoned with a dash of brio or a pinch of flair grabs our attention and pushes us to expand our own ideas and expressions. But don’t take my word for it; read Lane’s peppery review of Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for yourself.

Once Upon a Time

Last weekend, I visited Atlanta with two of my best friends, both former English teachers. Susan and Laura have always been like big sisters to me, giving me great advice throughout our 15 years of conversation. We try to spend one weekend every year together, and no matter where we are, we always end up at a bookstore, where we furiously ask each other who has read what, what we need to read next, and what we should leave on the shelf.

This past weekend was no different. The bookstore was Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA. We tore through the place, looking for titles the others had not yet discovered. My older daughter and Laura’s daughters were with us, and it was fun to see them being as active in their competition to suggest the best books as we were. We all left the store with more books to read than time to read them in.

It wasn’t until we returned home to Charlotte, though, that my daughter and I noticed the paper bag that our books were loaded into back in Decatur. The front side was plain enough, light blue with a yellow outline of a book and a chair. But the back, we quickly discovered, was both plain and brilliant.

“Chapter One,” it began, “Once upon a time, fairy tales were awesome.”

Densely packed type that was easy enough to read covered the bag’s entire backside, listing many of the most famous first lines in the history of literature.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“All this happened, more or less.”

“I am an invisible man.”

“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

There are doubtless hundreds of links to lists of “Top Ten Famous First Lines from Literature” being passed along the social media power lines as I write this blog. But seeing these famous lines packed in tight print on the back  of the bag holding our heavy stack of books nearly took my breath away.

Happiness filled my heart — I knew where these lines came from, and so did the person who designed this bag, and so did my friends, and so will our children.

For me, the idea of slipping six news novels onto an e-reader that fits neatly in my handbag has never been terribly appealing. I will always want to see and to hold tangible artifacts like books and the bags we use to carry them. I will always need them to do what only they can do: prove our existence, strengthen our relationships, and secure our legacies.

My daughter’s and my books are waiting patiently on our respective bedroom floors and bedside tables for us to pull them into our laps and minds. The bag sits on the floor of my home office. I’ve already reread it. I think I’ll reread it again now.

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