History and What Makes You Not a Buddhist

What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

A guide to Buddhism for Westerners that's chock full of very hip, timely examples that will date the book within a year. Until I finished the book and was ready to drop it like a hot potato with its judgmental ending metaphor--that not believing the 4 noble truths is like reading a medicine bottle and not taking the medicine--I had not noticed the implicit judgment in the title itself. It actually tells the reader up front that you are not a Buddhist. This guy is to Pema Chodoron like kayaking the Colorado River rapids are to canoeing on a placid lake. I don't trust his take on emotions. I find this with a lot of men who write about Buddhism. They treat emotions like annoying children that just need discipline rather than potential sources of wisdom.

History: A Very Short Introduction by John Arnold

This couldn't be shorter, but it's chock full of good insights about why and how to do history. My favorite story within the book was about the multiple versions of Sojourner Truth's famous Ain't I a Woman speech, which appeared in both standard English and dialect versions. The dialect version captured the public imagination, but historians believe the standard version was more likely to be her actual voice. This begs all sorts of interesting questions about the appearance of authenticity and the question of accuracy. My favorite metaphor was that of history as a "foreign land," because I think this is how I orient myself to my historical work. I look at the past for moments when things changed, and then try to understand as best I can what happened in the "country" of the past such that the shift I've identified occurred.

Storytelling and a novel

A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink
Pink believes that the world of work is undergoing a shift, as we enter a "new age" that will require more right-brained work, as opposed to traditional left-brained approaches. He says that "high concept" and "high touch" skills are outstripping analytical thinking in the changing occupational landscape.

"High concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new. High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interactions, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuite of purpose and meaning." (p. 2-3)

All good things, I think. And it's a fun roller-coaster of an argument, zipping from laughing clubs to video games. I think it's right that the best librarians have empathy with their clientele. But it's a slick little book that really doesn't offer much beyond general economics to back up Pink's main argument, that the work world is changing. It also takes for granted a level of wealth/consumerism and therefore luxury lifestyle that isn't the case for all people.

Of all he wrote, I most enjoyed (and xeroxed for possible future use in the storytelling class) the chapter on Story. He gives a snappy and pretty right-on summary of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
"The hero's journey has three main parts: Departure, Initiation, and Return. The hero hears a call, refuses it at first, and then crosses the threshold into a new world. During Initiation, he faces stiff challenges and stares into the abyss. But along the way--usually with the help of mentors who give the hero a divine gift--he transforms and becomes at one with his new self. Then he returns, becoming the master of two worlds, committed to improving each." (p. 103)

Some of his story exercises are good enough that I'm going to adapt them to the storytelling class, probably as forum postings. "Write a mini-saga" (p. 117-118) is one of those (thanks Carol T. for pointing this one out!) and "Play the Cartoon Captions Game" (p. 202) is another.

My Summer of Southern Discomfort by Stephanie Gayle
It has been years since I picked a book by its jacket description from the new book shelves of the public library and took it home to see what I could see. This was a lovely read, great for bedtime except for a few gruesome bits. Natalie is a lawyer who, after a devastating affair and professional betrayal, transplants herself from New York to Macon, GA. She makes all the wrong moves socially, as a nervous northerner who considers all smalltalk invasive. She works for the DA on a capital case which shakes her to the core, as she is opposed to capital punishment. There's a love interest, but the book focuses on her own process of coming to understand the Southern culture and the specific people around her.

I liked this description of the guy who will become her love interest:
"He is thirty-three, thus age appropriate, and one handsome Gentile: blond hair, blue eyes, and a great smile. Unfortunately, he is plagued by a need to make sure that everything is operating as it should. I cannot remember a time I felt things were operating as they should." (p. 16)
I occasionally fall victim to that same plague.

things I read in summer 2003

I've had many unsuccessful attempts to track what I was reading. Among them, a little notebook covered with fish. These entries are from there...

The Lovely Bones by Sebold
Haunting story (literally) narrated by the ghost of a girl raped and killed in the opening scene. The rest is her view from heaven...
"A fourteen, my sister sailed away from me into a place I'd never been. In the walls of my sex there was horror and blood, in the walls of hers there were windows." (p 125)
Anyone who has even had a friend who told them about sexual trauma can relate to an aspect of this quote.
Great last line: "I wish you all a long and happy life."

Straight Man by Russo
College professor in a small town, only moderately successful, starts talking out loud by accident, when he thinks he's not speaking. People talk back. He melts down slowly, until one day he threatens to kill a duck a day until he has a budget for the English department.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
(I hope she will write more novels...)
Small, elegantly written book, interweaves a story of a present-day marriage in trouble with past recollections of a girlhood friendship. Amazing use of imagery, of prose as poetry. Set in a French Canadian town called Horsehearts.

Articles on storytelling, storytimes

"Storytime Model for Large Groups" by Amanda Williams, in Children and Libraries v5 n2, p. 27
Pithy article that gives a template for best practices in such storytimes, based on her dissertation work, which in turn was based on about interviews with practicing librarians. What she writes holds true in my experience, but it's one of those dogged old difficulties with programming: the joy is in the spectacular presence of one's self with one's audience. Boiling this down into a template of best practices drains all that interactive joy, even when Williams spells out that this is a "guide" and needs adjustment for specific situations. Good article, very helpful for new practitioners especially and for those without a performance background who might feel overwhelmed with large groups. And yet the heart of the storyhour, its basis in storytelling practices of audience interaction even when the materials themselves are entirely print-based and no actual storytelling is occurring, is missing from this piece.

"The Digital and Traditional Storytimes Research Project" by Lauren Collen, Children and Libraries v4 n3, p. 8
I wrote about this one before, but it belongs here too because, like the article above, it's missing fundamental ideas about storytelling that make the storytime what it is. In this case, there's an egregious gap in the comparative methodology, so that children being read a story by an adult in the front of the room (visually interacting with a real person) are compared to children sitting along side an adult looking at a screen (interacting with a screen). You could make an argument that the 2nd version decenters the classroom, as it were, but I think it's deceptive to say that. Of course children talk less to the screen, as the finding indicate. A screen doesn't talk back, and so is inherently less interactive for preschoolers than a live person talking to them. Again, useful for days and a really important beginning in the literature of children and media in storyhours, but it's missing an understanding of storytelling.

"Using technology for storytelling: tools for children" by Lesley Farmer in New Review of Children's Literature and Librarianship v10n2, p155 (based in the UK)
Nice list of tools and lesson plans, but the word "storytelling" is never defined. Yes, narrative is good for children (p.1), but what does children's own storytelling have to do with that? There are tons of questions to be asked about how, when, and most especially why children need digital storytelling. There are excellent arguments for this, that include going beyond the consumer-level attitude towards technology and towards producer-level knowledge, making children writers as well as readers of online texts. But those arguments aren't made here, so it reads as another in a long line of "cool" ideas without pedagogical justification.

"The Enchanted Imagination: Storytelling's Power to Entrance Listeners" by Brian Sturm, School Library Media Reseach v2, 1999
This article is outstanding in that is complements writings by storytellers about best practices in that artform with research on why elements like visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning are relevant to this oral art form. Sturm's claim that listeners experience an altered state of consciousness is interesting and the research is persuasive, although I wonder how those who say we are "always telling stories" would respond. It raises questions too about how cultural expectations of attentiveness during story and other performances (theater, music, etc.) contribute to the experience of states of consciousness. If the researcher was looking for d-ASC (discrete altered states of consciousness) and the people are expecting the same at such events, then while it's still a compelling paper it's perhaps less surprising than it might be. Since no differentiation was made by age, this leaves many questions about how children are enculturated into such events.

I know others will argue that storytelling is the most natural method of communication, and to be honest I ride the fence on this one. Is it nature or nurture, and what does it mean if it's one or the other? Or both? I don't think understanding a storytelling performance requires nearly the same level of enculturation as, say, understanding a Beethoven symphony performance (don't clap at the ends of movements!).

Shirley Brice Heath in "What No Bedtime Story Means" found that there were different cultural norms concerning how books were read to children, how adults interacted with children about books, in different home-based cultural settings.

However, Sturm said he meant to raise questions, and he does so while also presenting some really striking findings about the "reader response" of storytelling audiences.

Agassiz in The Metaphysical Club

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

Subtitle is "A Story of Ideas in America," and indeed that's what it is, a big honking book, some of which I skimmed. The most interesting bits to me relate to my own research, including the resurgence of John Dewey's ideas after the demise of the cold war (discussed in the conclusion) and chapter 6, which is devoted to William James' involvement with Louis Agassiz. Here's the most compelling bit about Agassiz, who I'm curious about because of Caroline Hewins' Agassiz nature study club, founded in about 1878. Basically, I'm interested in the intersection of the growth of scientific ideas with the growth of children's literature in the late 19th century, which nonfiction books were strongly promoted by librarians as the best reading for children (I presented on aspects of this topic twice last year in different venues, once at the Education in Print Culture conf. in Madison and once at the Children's Lit. Assn. conf.). (It's my blog, I can abbreviate if I want to...)

Menand is contrasting Darwin with Agassiz, and comes up with a great succinct description of the ontological problems with Agassiz's work. (Agassiz was also profoundly racist, which was another of his problems.):
"When we look as Agassiz's work we think we are seeing a confusion between science and belief. But what we are really seeing is a disjunction between those things. This is what Asa Gray had meant when he said that Agassiz had no scientific explanation for the phenomena he observed; for Agassiz had only his observations on one side and his theory on the other. His science wasn't theoretical and his theory wasn't scientific. His ideas are edifices perched on top of mountains of data. Darwin's ideas are devices for generating data. Darwing' theory opens possibilities for inquiry; Agassiz closes them." (p. 141)

Hewins was of her time, and certainly ascribe to the Victorian idea of the finite, knowable universe, which is consonant with Agassiz's ideas. Agassiz was also a rock star at the time, giving sold-out lectures in Boston to thousands... who can blame a children's librarian of the 1870s for getting caught up in the frenzy?