Reading


Since finishing my last book, I have moved on to a book I have wanted to read for ages, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As a parent of a child with autism, I have heard interesting things about the fact that this story is written from the point of view of a person who has autism and speaks frankly about it. I can’t speak directly to how an autistic person sees the world, but I think that the way Haddon approaches the writing is very authentic, and it is written with first-hand experience of autistic individuals: Haddon had worked previously with autistic children. It’s a very compelling work; I started it today and am already about 75% done with it.

So far, two very interesting topics have jumped out to me. The first is a literary issue, concerning metaphors:

The word metaphor means carrying something from one place to another, and it comes from the Greek words μετα (which means from one place to another) and φερειν (which means to carry), and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word metaphor is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining an apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person is talking about.  (p.15)

And shortly thereafter in a footnote concerning the sentence “It looked as if there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils”:

This is not a metaphor; it is a simile, which means that it really did look like there were two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, and if you make a picture in your head of a man with two very small mice hiding in his nostrils, you will know what the police inspector looked like. And a simile is not a lie, unless it is a bad simile. (p.17)

Forgiving some obvious errors – the phrasing “a pig is not like a day” indicates a simile, which is explicitly not problematic according to the narrator Christopher, and “the apple of my eye” is not so much a metaphor as an idiom – I find the evaluative distinction between a metaphor and simile to be fascinating, mostly because both are examples of figurative language, language that is explicitly not meant to be taken literally. (Of course, one can reliably assume that an autistic narrator will be prone to errors of hyperliteralism; it’s a stereotype. Christopher in particular is also very opposed to lies in general, so bringing out this point isn’t surprising.) It should give us pause, however, in our own language use to consider those disadvantaged groups that may have problems with comprehension: language learners and those with linguistic delays or deficiencies.

(I also had never really thought about the etymology of the word metaphor: it is definitely very meta.)

The second is more contemplative, which is Christopher’s musing on prime numbers:

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them. (p.12)

Dead on, in my opinion.

I don’t even have to finish reading this book to tell you, faithful reader, that you should read this book if you haven’t already. If nothing else, it will give you some insight into a more diverse way of seeing the world, and you will find yourself entertained in the process.

I finished the book I’ve been reading this week earlier today, Why Do We Gotta Do This, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by James Nehring, and I have to give it my highest recommendations for any junior high or high school teacher (although it will be more topical for the latter). It is a very compelling book, equal parts narrative and commentary but all contained within a narrative framework that is very approachable. Nehring does a great job of telling the story of education – not a history, but the way things are. I say “are” because I don’t think things have changed a whole lot in the 20 years since this book was written and published; in fact, if you replaced all instances of “Walkmen” with “iPods,” there would be virtually no dissonance with the reality of education in 2009.

There is much that can be said about Nehring’s commentary – perhaps the most important part of the book, although the narrative is entertaining and engaging – but I want to return to that dreaded question that I wrote about a few days ago*.

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I have actually been on somewhat of a roll with my personal reading lately: in the past three weeks or so, I’ve finished the novel A Separate Peace – which was excellent – and read through Dave Barry’s History of The Millennium (So Far) (a fake history in Barry’s normal vein of humor – absolutely hilarious) and Ernest Hemingway’s early short story collection In Our Time, which contains a number of Nick Adams stories. (Both of these were, coincidentally, bargain buys at a local Waldenbooks.)

Why do we gotta do this stuff, Mr. Nehring?: Notes from a Teachers Day in School

Tonight, I started reading a book that came to me by way of a rummage sale, something that my mother (who is a fanatic about these kinds of things) picked up for me because it’s about teaching and…well, you probably know how mothers can be.

The book is “Why Do We Gotta Do This Stuff, Mr. Nehring?”: Notes from a Teacher’s Day in School by educator James Nehring (now an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell), published by Fawcett Columbine in 1989. I’ve read a couple of books by teachers about their experiences (most notably Educating Esme by Esmé Raji Codell, a fine read from an elementary teacher’s perspective), so I thought I knew what to expect.

But I have to admit that this is the first book of this sort that I’m reading as a full-time teacher, and it struck me when I started reading the first chapter that I have a much better point of reference now. For example, the major controversy in this first chapter (and keep in mind the time): kids having Walkmen.

It has to be said – Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (For those of you who, like me, don’t speak French: The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

I’ll keep you posted as I read through this book.

Faithful readers: What are you reading? Anything good?

Note: This piece contains details of sexual anatomy and gender-related issues.

My most recent excavation into the seldom-visited realm of “reading for enjoyment” (“seldom” because I generally have to keep up with other reading professionally or other work) was Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex. I had originally run into this title in an issue of English Journal (see here for more discussion of the EJ issue in question), and I was curious despite some initial skepticism after seeing that Eugenides’ last published novel was The Virgin Suicides. (In truth, I shouldn’t have judged his work based on the title of one book, just like it would be unfair to judge Salman Rushdie on The Satanic Verses.) When I found a hardcover edition on sale for approximately $7-8 at my local chain bookstore, I decided to jump in.

It was a good move.

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