Category Archives: books

Author Farley Mowat, “a passionate polemicist,” dies at 92

I just learned of the death, at age 92, of Canadian author and environmentalist Farley Mowat (“Never Cry Wolf,” and many others). I was sorry to hear it, having grown up with his books. NPR described him as “a passionate polemicist who blurred the lines between fiction and facts to dramatize his cause.”

Yeah… that’s a delicate way of putting it. About that:

The Curious People

Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.

young MowatI read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.

Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”

Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new…

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A Year in Walden (Walden 1)

Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau's sister Sophia. Via Wikipedia

Original title page of Walden featuring a picture drawn by Thoreau’s sister Sophia. Via Wikipedia

One should not read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden quickly. It’s a book that benefits from a leisurely pace. This book can change how you look at the world and improve your enjoyment of life. Even if you live in a city and like modern technology, as I do.

That’s why for the next year I’m going to blog about Walden — quoting it, commenting on it, amplifying and arguing with it. It’s like a book club that meets four days a week (new posts on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday), but the readings are mostly a good deal shorter than this post — just a few minutes out of your day. And though I hope you’ll read the book for yourself, you don’t have to do so to follow these posts. I’ll quote as much as I need to for the post to make sense.

Just remember: Walden isn’t something to finish and check off your list. It’s something live with, a companion. I can think of very few books that stand up to that kind of use, but this is one. Continue reading

Why we all need countercultural education

Here’s another way of looking at the role of education. The author is thinking of schools but I have something broader in mind. More about that below. First, here are the opening paragraphs of “Unplugged Schools” by Lowell Monke, which appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion:

“Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, ‘Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.’ Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, ‘That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.’

“Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.

“I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.” Continue reading

Waldo, it’s not all about us: Where Emerson’s “Nature” goes wrong

bald eagle

Bald eagle, via Wikipedia

I want to talk about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1836 essay, “Nature,” and why one of its central ideas is dead wrong, but first I’m going to tell a true story about a bald eagle. The two thoughts are related.

A long time ago when I was still in school, I was at a religious retreat when someone from the church brought a live bald eagle for us to look at. As I recall, this person volunteered at some wildlife rescue organization. The eagle had been injured and was no longer able to fly. This was back before the bald eagle population had recovered from the effects of DDT. This was only the second one I had seen; I wouldn’t see one in the wild for another decade. The bird was wary but not agitated, and we all kept a respectful distance.

I remember that it was obvious to me at the time that the man had no particular reason to show us this bird. It was just something he wanted to do. But we were at a church retreat, and a pretty conservative church at that, and so after telling us about the species, he made several analogies to spiritual subjects and basically wrapped the whole thing into a Sunday School lesson. He probably even quoted the “They will soar on wings like eagles” verse from Isaiah.

He ended his talk this way, I think, out of some sense of moral or spiritual obligation. The eagle wasn’t allowed simply to be a wonderful being in and of itself. To be truly worthwhile it had to represent something higher, something abstract. Even at the time, that bothered me. Continue reading

How to erase civilizations from history books

So you’re walking through a wilderness preserve near your city when you discover ancient ruins of a lost city built by a long forgotten but highly sophisticated civilization. You realize with a start that this ‘wilderness’ is simply what grew up after the civilization came to some mysterious bad end.

This sounds like the premise of any number of fictional stories, but essentially it’s the real life story of the so-called New World, which wasn’t nearly as new as its European settlers assumed. I’m going to talk about two books here, both bestsellers, one relatively recent and the other now so obscure that you’ve probably never heard of it — though it contains an unintentionally enlightening surprise for modern readers. Continue reading

Walt Whitman gazes into the future

Brooklyn ferry boat, latter nineteenth century, via Wikimedia Commons

Brooklyn ferry boat, latter nineteenth century, via Wikimedia Commons

It was just a ferry crossing, nothing out of the ordinary. People used the Brooklyn ferry all the time, and it was not normally an occasion for imaginary time travel. But writers are weird that way, and poets are the oddballs among writers, and Walt Whitman was an oddball among poets.

Whitman takes a remarkable flight of fancy in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which is why it is one of my favorite Whitman poems. I’m only going to quote a few bits, but the full text is here.

He begins:

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!

Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!

On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose,

And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose. Continue reading

Why you must read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars”

TFIAS jacketYou must read this book. I realize it’s been out for a while and is already being made into a movie, and as usual I’m late to the party. But if you haven’t read it…

OK, this is a book about teenagers with cancer. Terminal cancer. This could have been a depressing book, but I didn’t find it so — though it certainly has its share of sadness. Even the dust jacket warns you:

“Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”

You’ve probably heard it said, “Young people think they’re immortal, and that they’ll never grow old.” (The last part is true enough in Hazel’s case.) And today’s generation of young people, just like every recent generation before it, is often dismissed as spoiled, narcissistic, shallow, and lazy. If that’s true, why is this smart, unflinching story so wildly popular with said young people? Why does a book for teenagers deal with the issues of mortality more seriously and more intelligently than most of what you find in the adult world? And this isn’t an anomaly. Both the Harry Potter books and The Hunger Games trilogy face death pretty squarely. (I can’t comment on Twilight — I haven’t read those.) Continue reading