Summer Reading Project

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project Wrap-Up

In my time, I’ve learned that whenever you finish something you find yourself looking back, especially to where it started. My declaration that I was going to take on a “reading project” of books that involved travel started with a clearance rack at Borders Books and Music. It kind of started earlier than that because every year during my teacher career, I’ve resolved to read something interesting during summer vacation (for instance, the summer I read The Grapes of Wrath), but this particular project started when I saw a copy of William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways on clearance, and decided that since I’d always been interested in reading the book and it was available on a deep, deep discount (I think I got it for five bucks), I’d go for it.

I was a few chapters into it when I was reading it on my planning period and a colleague who’s always good for a book recommendation even if his tastes are sometimes completely different than mine walked into my room to ask me a question and said, “That’s such a great book.” And I wholeheartedly agreed–I was really enjoying it. At some point after that, I decided that I wanted to read more travelogues. So I started pulling books off the shelf at home and piling them up. I thought I was going to go with straight-up travel writing at first and pulled Cross-Country and other books that seemed very much like Blue Highways.

But then, things went off on a bit of a tangent. There was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy left in my classroom. My advanced sophomores were assigned Life of Pi for summer reading. A student recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Seeing Prometheus made me want to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The pile got bigger as I went off in more than one direction, although I never felt it went off the rails. Maybe the only down side was that as I was heading into July and August of 2012 I made a conscious decision to finish things up because I wanted to move on to a couple of other books I had in my reading pile (I just finished Leaping Tall Buildings, a great book about comic book creators), but that’s not much of a down side. Even the fact that I feel that On the Road was time I’ll never get back (Huck Finn, you have a companion in that list) didn’t take away from how rewarding this was. It kind of made me want to write my own travelogue … maybe one day, I guess.

What’s funniest about this whole project is that the more and more I read, the harder and harder I found to write about what I was reading. The entries I’ve done under this category of “Summer Reading Project” haven’t been setting mine or anyone else’s world on fire (though I did get a few great comments on my diatribe concerning On the Road), and I kind of want to apologize for that, although to be honest I didn’t pick up the “project” for the purpose of blogging about it. I picked the books I read because … I wanted to read them? I think as a teacher and as someone who likes to be informed, I sometimes lose sight of the fact that you can read something for entertainment and not have to break everything down and find deeper meaning in it. My students do this sometimes, too. I’ve had quite a few who say the same thing that I’ve said quite a number of times: I am so busy reading “for work” that I forget to read for fun. I realize that I’m partially responsible for this–after all, I am an English teacher–and I don’t want to go on some rant about how English teachers destroy the love of reading or what have you, because there is true value in the discussion of literature. But yeah, even I just want to enjoy a good book sometimes. Anyway, this was fun. I highly recommend checking out some of the books I’ve read during the past couple of years.

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2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: At Home

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When I started my summer reading project last year, I knew that I was going to wind up reading Kerouac’s On The Road and my plan was going to be that I should end with that–after all, it was supposedly some “ultimate” road book. But last Christmas, my sister bought me Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life>, and as I wound my way through trip after trip, I thought that it would be wholly appropriate if I finished … well, at home.

I’ve loved Bryson’s writing for a good decade now, after a friend loaned me A Walk in the Woods (which I left off my reading list because the library’s copy is perpetually out and by the time I got around to consider buying it, I wanted to finish this project and therefore didn’t feel like adding another book), so I was looking forward to a book wherein a writer known for his travelogues spends time not going anywhere except through different rooms in a parsonage in the English countryside that he and his wife now own. It doesn’t disappoint. Through his examination of each room of the house, Bryson gives a pretty thorough history of domestic life, even going as far as to give the very gross details of how sewer systems came about in Victorian England, as well as give a background on the invention of the door. I know, it doesn’t sound that interesting, but Bryson’s easy style and natural curiosity really do make it interesting, even if he does get a little long -winded or goes off on tangents that are pretty exhausting. But as uninteresting as this post is (I started writing this at 9:00 this morning … left, came back, left again … it’s now 3:10 p.m.), I recommend it because of the way it piques your natural curiosity. I’ll be back soon with a post that kind of wraps up this whole project when I am feeling more eloquent.

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: On the Road

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When I sat down sometime last year with my copy of Blue Highways and decided that I was going to begin a reading project that would be all about traveling (in one way or another), I knew I was going to save one particular book for the end, and that was On The Road. Anyone who actually knows me probably won’t be surprised that I had never read Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, and also won’t be surprised to hear me say that I wouldn’t have ever read it had I not committed to reading it for this self-imposed project.

Not having read it was probably also reason enough to turn in my “English teacher card”; after all, isn’t On The Road up there with The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Beowulf, and the works of William Shakespeare in the canon of Books Every English Teacher Has Read and Memorized? But not to worry, I remedied that issue by going to my local public library and checking it out (I could have downloaded it to my Kindle, which would be much more “21st Century Skills,” but the library is free), then set out to read it while I was on vacation in Virginia Beach for a few days. I was looking forward to it because I was checking a “vital” book off of my list, I was reading another book wherein people traveled, and I was finally going to see what the big deal is.

I barely got through it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I see what the big deal is about On The Road. It encapsulates the spirit of the Beats and has the feel of the consummate free spirit; it’s one of the most important works for a creative non-conformist to read and know. But it’s a complete train wreck. There’s not much of a plot, and the point seems to be that there isn’t really a point. Which I get, and that’s not my problem with the novel (and shouldn’t be–how many movies do I like where there really is no point or plot?).

The problem is that it’s not a very likable book. Kerouac’s narrator is Sal Paradise, who clearly is supposed to be himself, and he chronicles a few years’ worth of traveling back and forth across the country as well his encounters with several people, many of whom are stand-ins for important Beat writers. Sal, as a narrator, is a Nick Carroway to the Jay Gatsby that is Dean Moriarity (IRL Neal Cassaday), a free-wheeling guy who has women on each coast and seems to be all about throwing caution to the wind. Much like Gatsby, Dean is completely full of shit and we as an audience can see right through him, whereas our narrator cannot. Unlike Nick, Sal isn’t very likable. He doesn’t seem to have the voice of a common observer or make any effort to ground us in any sort of reality.

And seriously, he’s a schmuck. So, by the time I got to the point where he realized that Dean was full of shit, I simply didn’t give a shit. That’s probably pretty harsh and maybe my evaluation of this book has less to do with its quality and more to do with my being the wrong age and having the wrong mindset for this sort of thing–more mindset than age, because I never had such a pointless view of things. Thankfully, I’m not ending the reading project with this book. There’s two more entries left and one more book to read.

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life

When I got my Kindle about a year and a half ago, it wasn’t long before I went about looking for stuff to add to it that wouldn’t cost me much or anything at all. Amazon’s free Kindle store was my first stop, and I’ve managed to find a few classics among the self-help and tacky-looking erotica. My second stop was Project Gutenberg, the open source library that features books mostly available in the public domain. I was less successful with what I found there–mostly old poetry collections and the occasional novel–but I did come across Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life. It wasn’t very long and I figured that since I was in the middle of reading a couple of books that were about traveling through that part of the country (in fact, I think I was in the middle of Cross-Country when I downloaded it), I decided that this would fit in nicely with my little project here (which, after this particular post, has only two books left).

The book documents two months in 1846 which Parkman spent on the Oregon Trail, which was the famous 2,300 migration route from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon that thrived through much of the 19th Century. He goes west with a hunting expedition and spends much of the time during this expedition hunting buffalo with a band of Ogala Sioux. And … that’s pretty much it, really. It’s less of a journey and more of what he says the book is in its subtitle: sketches of prairie life. Parkman is pretty descriptive, especially in his detail about the hunting of the buffalo and the relationships his party has with the Indians. He even seems to make the people in his hunting expedition seem like they are characters in a novel, giving the book a little more narrative flair than letting it simply be a recollection of experiences he had along the trail. However, I have to say that I didn’t find it very engaging and by the time the last half of the book was rolling around I was more committed to finishing it than reading it. I did, however, walk away with three things …

First, it took a little while for me to not be jolted by Parkman’s view of the American Indian. He definitely spoke down to them, and seemed to convey the idea that we were conquering them for their own good. Maybe this is just my hangup as someone raised in the late 20th Century who also possesses what I guess you’d call “liberal” political views when it comes to certain parts of American history (i.e., I don’t necessarily see state-sanctioned genocide for the sake of a land grab as a positive note of our history), but I had to try not to be offended. At first, anyway. Then, I kind of read those passages as a historical curiosity of sorts–a gateway into a particular way of thinking that is of a certain time and while that way of thinking is wrong, at least is an accurate illustration (in a way, anyway).

Second, I think that I would have been more into the book had it actually been a full journey down the Oregon Trail instead of his going about 1/3 of the way, hunting, and turning around (according to Wikipedia, even Herman Melville complained that the title is a bit misleading). I got the sense of what it was like to travel, but had this been a recount of a pioneer family or of a group that was determined to reach the west coast, it would have been, to me at least, a little more comprehensive and maybe a little dramatic. Third, and most importantly … I could not stop thinking about the video game. If you were born any time in the 1970s or 1980s, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And if you don’t, well …

Not exactly the most exciting thing in the world, yet one of two incredibly awesome educational computer games from my childhood (the other being Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) and one that everybody seems to have played. I’m not going to go on about Oregon Trail for another 1,000 words (mainly because it’s 9:15 on a Sunday night and I want to post this thing so I can cross it off my “posts to write” list), but I will direct your attention to two great essays about it (that are more fun to read than Parkman’s book … which isn’t bad, just works better if you’re studying that era than if you’re looking for a good read). The first is from Will Leitch and his now-defunct “Life as a Loser” column on The Black Table (“Life as a Loser #170: Oregon Trail“):

The best part about the game was that five people went on the trip with you, and you could give them the names of your classmates. Typically, I would name myself head of the family and whatever four girls happened to be sitting around the computer my “harem.” (I’d learned the word on an episode of Nova my parents made me watch.) “We’re all mormons!” I’d say, mixing and matching religions to my whims. And we would plod across the country, stopping in St. Louis (“Go Cardinals!”) to trade for goods and services. And we’d watch while each of them died. Emily was the first to go, from “exhaustion,” a disease we would giggly decipher as code for “too much masturbating.” Others would die along the line, until eventually the head of the family would die, and the game was over.

The other is the essay “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day” by Sloane Crosley from her book I Was Told There’d Be Cake (a book that is through-and-through absolutely hilarious):

A game of moderately tough choices and rawhide, Oregon Trail wound its way through the late 1980s in a very un-’80s-like fashion: subtly. Unlike BurgerTime or Tetris, high-speed programs structured around multiple levels, Oregon Trail slowly moved toward a singular goal. It also had a distinct masturbatory quality. Here was something millions of preteens did, only you wouldn’t find out until much later in life. Something one could do over and over again, with no diminishment of rewards. Apparently many children learned how to play it at school, which strikes me as just plain illegal.

Or if you don’t feel like reading anymore and just want some good video, you can check out this “trailer” for the Oregon Trail “movie”:

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: The Great American Road Trip — U.S. 1 from Maine to Florida

The end of Route 1 in Key West, Florida.

So with all of the virtual road trips I’ve taken by reading these books, one of the things I have found the most fun has been seeing how these writers get to meet people in addition to visiting places over the course of their journies. Each of them takes the time to describe those they talk to and capture their personalities, even if they do not necessarily agree with their political views. They are attempts to capture America at that specific time, to give the reader a full portrait of the country and to show a common thread (in a manner of speaking). Peter Genovese’s The Great American Road Trip: U.S. 1 from Maine to Florida is no exception.

Genovese, a journalist based in New Jersey, spent a significant amount of time (two years, I believe) traveling Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida and chronicled his journey in the way a journalist would–observing the nature of the highway, visiting attractions and other places along the highway, and also spending a decent amount of time with people. The result is the only “coffee table”-sized book I’ve read for this project, as he divides his travel up state by state (including the District of Columbia) and includes both black and white and color photographs of the people and places he encounters. It’s a pretty thorough trip down a highway that he admits doesn’t get a lot of recognition for being important because it’s not as noteworthy as Route 66 or Route 40 (aka “The Lincoln Highway”), even though during the course of the trip he passes through most of the major cities along the east coast. Stops include a roadside motel in Maine; The Bronx Zoo; a wax museum dedicated to African-Americans in Baltimore; the headquarters of the National Enquirer; and plenty of bars, junkyards, hubcap dealers as well.

I remember first coming across this book in the early 2000s, when I read Sarah Bunting’s two-part chronicle of her own trip down Route 1 in 1998, a trip she considered turning into a book but wound up posting on her site, Tomato Nation (“U.S. Highway One: Straight No Chaser” Part 1, Part 2). I bought my copy of Genovese’s book a few months later, and at the time, the book had been out for a couple of years, so it wasn’t easy to find, but my copy says that it had been marked down to $16.95 from whatever the cover price was, so I bought it used, but where I can’t remember (probably eBay). It currently sits among other “important books” that involve travel or places on a shelf in my living room, and even if I wasn’t rereading it, I certainly would have enjoyed flipping through it.

Then again, I always enjoy the idea that a person could take one highway and really experience it to its fullest like this. I’ve also always been the type of person who wonders where the road I’m on keeps going — and no, I’m not speaking metaphorically here, I literally want to see the beginning and the end of a particular road. Since I lived on Route 1 for a few years in my twenties (in Arlington, Virginia), I feel some sort of connection to the highway … which is what piqued my interest in a book about it. And thankfully, there is a sort of “drama” to the beginning and end of Route 1, as it starts in specific places where you can, if you’d like, stop and savor the moment, unlike many interstate highways, which begin and end when they merge with other highways or parkways (this, by the way has always been my beef with the Northern State Parkway on Long Island. Every other parkway ends at a state park, but the Northern State just … ends randomly. If I were still living on Long Island, I would drive out there, find it and take a picture, but alas I am not. One day …).

Genovese does his best to convey this feeling, especially since the beginning of the road is rigth near the Canadian border and the end of the road here is pretty much at the literal end of the east coast, in Key West. There’s no majesty to the trip, per se (after all, quite a large amount of Route 1, at least from my experience driving it in Northern Virginia, involves strip malls and fast food joints … but I do give him props for visiting the Krispy Kreme in Alexandria, which is always a stop of mine whenever I’m up there), but I think that’s what I like about it. It’s kind of hard for an experience on a road like that to feel artificial and you do get the feeling that there is some of the “real America” that John Steinbeck and so many others were looking for when they set out on their various trips (as well as the “real America” that so many moron politicians attempt to pander to, especially in an election year). As I mentioned, it’s not the easiest thing to get a hold of the book. A new copy on Amazon will cost you nearly $40, but it is on Kindle for $14.99. But if you ever find this while wandering through a used book store, pick it up.

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Killing Yourself to Live

If Assassination Vacation showed how premature death made at least two presidents notable (I think Lincoln could have lived to carry out his second term and been well-remembered, don’t you?), then Killing Yourself to Live is what you want to read if you want to know why some of the most famous rock and rollers are famous — for dying young. Chuck Klosterman, whose Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs was one of my favorite books of the previous decade, spends this book on a trip around the country where he will be visiting the places where several important rock and pop artists met their untimely demises and other rock-oriented tragedies, all under the auspices of researching an article for Spin.

During the summer of 2003–the same year Vowell was looking into assassinations–he visits the club in Rhode Island that was where a concert by the band Great White led to the deaths of 100 people; the intersection where Duane Allman crashed his motorcycle; the field where the plane carrying The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, and Buddy Holly crashed; the apartment where The Replacements’ Bob Stinson died; and the site of Kurt Cobain’s suicide, among others. During his trip, Klosterman also writes about the trip itself, mostly about the women in his life, with whom he’s trying to reconcile or dump or maybe both at one point or another.

He also writes with an easy yet intelligent style that allows his readers to shift from reflections on his relationships to topics such as a deep examination as to whether or not certain artists are famous because they died young. His ruminations on the fame of singer Jeff Buckley, for instance, are spot on, as he wonders if Buckley’s drowning at a young age inflated the critical value of his album, Grace. Now, I’ll say I am a little biased to this part because I once made this observation on a listserv and got completely taken to task for it … so it kind of felt like validation.

ANYWAY, what I love about Klosterman’s writing (I have read all of them up to and including Eating the Dinosaur, which I intend to reread at some point because I didn’t really like it and want to give it another chance) is that he assumes that his audience is smart, yet doesn’t come off as patronizing or condescending to those who might not be. He’s not a snob (at least outwardly) and is certainly not a hipster, and he works with the same sort of analytical mind that I can really relate to.

Unfortunately, as much as the subject matter of this book is great, it’s not one I would recommend to students. Scratch that. It’s not one I would teach, because I have recommended it to students in the past, but those students were already reading one of his two prior books (the aforementioned Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Fargo Rock City). In fact, one of my students had kept it and read it for so long that she returned the dog-eared copy in a gift bag as her graduation present to me upon her graduation. Smart ass. But for students of pop culture, it’s a must-read, and for those who like travel books it’s a nice left turn (pun intended) away from what we’re used to seeing on bookstore shelves.

2011-2012 Summer Reading Project: Assassination Vacation

It is amazing how much the reading list for this particular project has expanded since I first sat down with Blue Highways a little more than a year ago. Some of that is due to my coming across books that I owned and wanted to reread (as you’ll see with my next entry on Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live) and others, such as Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation, have been kind of serendipitous. While I had known about this book’s existence for quite a number of years but never really showed that much interested in reading it, I had more or less completely forgotten about it before the day I was at my local branch of the public library checking out Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and putting Kerouac’s On the Road on hold and happened to spot it on a bookshelf.

I picked it up, read the jacket copy and said, “Heck, why not?” I was neck-deep in Jules Verne, which was taking an inordinate amount of time to read, and I was pretty sure that it would be a refreshing break from long-assed tomes. Thankfully, I was right. And not only was it a quick read, it was a very nice and very fun read. Vowell plays amateur traveling historian, visiting sites that are important to and recounting the stories behind the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley. She goes into the motivation and psychology behind each president’s assassin as well as the feeling of the time and the reaction of the public to each death. And she does it in a way that’s engaging and entertaining while also being informative. Which I honestly wasn’t expecting, btw, because of Vowell’s association with NPR, which I … well, I kind of share Patton Oswalt’s view on that particular brand of radio: Anyway, I know I’m not doing it very much in the way of service with such short an entry, but the way that Vowell investigates the three assassinations (as well as mentioning the Kennedy assassination, which in itself is probably worth another book) might make this a book worth reading in U.S. history class, especially the way that she references what were current events at the time (the book was written in 2003 so there is a lot of discussion of the tropes of the Bush era), kind of showing that there is “living history” even in death.