So much time and energy is spent debating whether or not reading is worthwhile and whether or not the book is doomed. Even in public education, there is a movement to stop teaching novels. But, of course, among those of us who love reading and writing, there is no need to debate. Film was going to kill the book. TV was going to kill the book. The internet was going to kill the book. It’s still here. People are still writing them and people are still buying them. In recent weeks, I’ve come across two books, each dealing with a different end of the process.
Don’t Forget to Write for the Secondary Grades comes to us from the people at the wonderful non-profit writing center 826 National, and thus, indirectly, from the folks at McSweeney’s. I picked it up because after teaching creative writing 475 times, I felt like my material was growing a bit stale and needed to be livened up a little. Well, what a wonderful book for it.
DFTW covers every imaginable form of writing. College admissions essay? Check. Fiction? Check. Poetry? Check. Songwriting? Check. Journalism? Check. And even better, all of the lessons are good. Oh sure, they won’t all work for your class (if you have a class that is), but they’ll all work in the right class. I have a pretty diverse bunch of kids this year and I’m using something from this book in all of my different courses. Oh, and did I mention the people putting these lessons together are often very well known authors like Tom Perotta and Dave Eggers? It certainly gives the whole thing more than a little credibility.
It is, perhaps, a bit odd to take a half a post to review what is, effectively, a teaching supplement, but it’s so good, I had to. Also, any money spent on it goes to helping kids learn how to write. Certainly a nice side effect.
We started with kids writing, now let’s move to an old man with lots of books. I can’t remember how I heard about Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet, but I’m glad I did. This slim volume (133 pages) is nothing more than the chronicle of a book lover’s thoughts. Bonnet owns tens of thousands of books. It is a near-universal truth that the people with the most interesting thoughts about something are those who have spent the most time thinking about that thing.
Bonnet has spent a lot of time thinking about books, and he often comes out with surprising insights. One chapter makes a rather effective argument that characters are more real than authors because we know about the characters. They’re right there. We can see them. Whereas, the lives and tendencies of the people who create the characters are often little more than conjecture. It certainly doesn’t help that authors can be reclusive people.
But don’t think this book takes itself too seriously. Bonnet understands the absurdity of owning so many books. He knows that his library will live only as long as he does and he knows the whole thing has gotten a little out of hand. Love, of course, is often at its best when it gets a little out of hand.