A couple of days a week I work at my favorite bookstore, and last week I started one of my favorite projects: building the summer reads table for kids and teens. This got me thinking about all the research reading I’ve done over the last couple of years, the things I’ve learned since that weren’t part of my middle and high school education–discoveries of history, science, math, information theory, literature that I was lead to by people and projects I’ve met and worked on in my post-student years. Some of these subjects are things that I don’t think I would have looked up if not for those people and projects. My husband, for instance, frequently browbeats me into reading things he thinks I’ll like, oftentimes having to overcome heavy reluctance on my part before I’ll finally make space on my TBR pile. A prime example of this was when he finally got me to read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books. I had absolutely no interest in starting them, but Nathan is, shall we say, persistent. And lo and behold: I LOVE THOSE BOOKS. Love them, love them, love them.
Anyway, long story longer, I got to thinking about these latter-life surprises, especially in subjects like math, which I stopped being good at in 7th grade and feared for the rest of my school days but which I love to read about now. I started thinking about whether my experiences in math, chemistry, physics–even history and literature, which I always loved–would’ve been different if I’d been introduced to some of these books earlier. Would they have opened my mind to aspects of those subjects that would’ve given me different ways to access them, to understand them, to find a reason to care about them even if I wasn’t good at them? For that matter, might I have discovered that struggling with math didn’t mean I couldn’t be good at physics? What if I had discovered something of the poetry of math back before I started to think I wasn’t good at it?
So with that in mind, a couple days ago I started making a special summer reading list of books that have changed my mind or showed me something fascinating where I didn’t know there was fascination to be found. Then the list started growing, so I think this may turn into a couple of posts rather than just one. These are books I think would be fantastic reads for teens, and in my wildest dreams I imagine some of them would be so cool to use in the classroom. I could be wrong; I’m not a teacher–but its summertime and I am going to indulge my wild imaginings. And here they are.
For this first week of June, we’re going to start off with a super-fun mishmash of some of my favorites, loosely clumped together sort of along the theme of the creative spirit.
Social Studies: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder by Lawrence Weschler
Imagine that you are walking past a strip mall and you spot a vaguely odd-looking storefront. Imagine that you step through the door and find yourself in, of all unexpected things, a museum. Imagine that, as you are wandering through the museum, which is filled with bizarre things like artwork made from insects’ wings or carved from fruit pits, the skull of a horned woman, and a display about a spore that infects an ant. The spore drives the ant to climb to the top of a plant as the spore slowly grows out of its head like a horn, until at the peak of its climb the ant-host dies and the spore releases its airborne offspring to infect more ants and drive them upward to death. You might begin to wonder what kind of a place you have found yourself in. You might begin to wonder if what you’re seeing is true, real. But then you think to yourself that it must be. This is, after all, a museum, isn’t it? Wechsler’s book introduced me to this place, Culver City, California’s Museum of Jurassic Technology. The museum, and more overtly, the book, asks questions about history and art, collecting and curating, science and the dialogue between artifact and viewer–and, of course, truth and accuracy and what makes something real. Go there, if you can; either way, read this book and visit the museum’s website. (Extra credit field trip: The Museum of Jurassic Technology)
History: Phantasmagoria by Marina Warner
If you are one of the five or six people who actually visit this blog, you probably already know I like weird stuff. You could call this a history of a specific kind of weird stuff–the sort of stuff that walks uneasily along the lines of the uncanny. Waxworks, photography, mirrors, film, even clouds. And yet it isn’t precisely a history, either. It’s more of a discussion about things that have captured the imagination throughout humanity’s interaction with them and how they have influenced our view of the tangible and the intangible in the world around us. The subjects of Warner’s study are all examples of the uncanny–things that are familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time, things we view with unease and attraction at the same time. There are things here like film and photography that we take for granted today, and things like spiritualism and the ether that have fallen from favor but which were widely accepted phenomena at their time. (Extra credit: read paired with The Uncanny by Sigmund Freud)
Science, Technology, and Art: Edison’s Eve by Gaby Wood; Einstein/Picasso by Arthur I. Miller
First of all, it’s high time we start talking about art alongside science. It really is. Both attempt, in one way or another, to make sense of the world we live in, to find ways of discussing it, viewing it, representing it, experimenting with it, sharing it and ultimately (maybe), understanding it or at least making some small kind of sense of it. By telling the parallel histories of how Einstein came to the conclusions that resulted in the theories of Special and General Relativity and how Picasso came to paint the Demoiselles at Avignon, Miller discusses two searches for the same thing: a new mode of seeing and understanding the universe at a time when old models seemed to have outlived their usefulness. Wood’s book chronicles a history of automation and the search for, as the subtitle of the book puts it, mechanical life, from early automata (HOORAY!) to twenty-first century advances in robotics and what this ongoing, very human drive to re-create ourselves through technology tells us about ourselves. (Extra credit abounds: read E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Automata; see, or read, Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin; field trip to the Morris Museum’s Musical Machines and Living Dolls exhibit)
Literature: The Idea of Order at Key West by Wallace Stevens; The Circus Animals’ Desertion by W.B. Yeats; On Rigor in Science by Jorge Luis Borges
The Idea of Order at Key West is, I think, my favorite poem, and to me it’s a little bit about creation and the interaction with the world that inspires it and a lot about witnessing creation and art, and what it means to try and understand and experience it fully. It also touches on something a little harder to verbalize: the ache of witnessing something beautiful, whether natural or created (or, as in the poem, a combination of the two), of wishing to partake of it fully, to be a participant in some way more than by simple witness. The Circus Animals’ Desertion speaks to me about the need to create, the search for a tale to tell, the fear of only having old stories to tell again rather than finding anything new, and how a story grows from seeds. It ends with this kick to the gut:
…Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
As for On Rigor in Science…well, it’s a fragment exactly a paragraph long, purporting to be a piece of a centuries-old document by someone else, about the art of cartography in an empire that produced a map of a province that took up the whole province. In my edition of Dreamtigers (the Spanish title of which is El hacedor, or the maker), On Rigor is the first entry in the third section of the book, tantalizingly called Museum: Mr. Borges’ Cabinet of Wonders, in which we are asked to meditate on the nature of art and verisimilitude and reality. (Extra credit: read all of Dreamtigers by Borges instead of just On Rigor)
This concludes Part the First of my imaginary curriculum of summer reading. If you are still with me, I thank you. Happy reading, all.