Monday, February 29, 2016

High School Reading - Challenging Kids with Challenging Texts

According to one group of public school critics, high school students are predominantly reading material at about a fifth grade level. If that is true, then the criticism of public education and failing literacy is certainly apt. However, the data reading appears at closer glance to be a considerable oversimplification.

Renaissance Learning has compiled an analysis of the reading lists for high schools across the nation, and the titles run from classics such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird to contemporary young adult fiction such as the Hunger Games. From the list, Renaissance has declared the average reading level for high school choices to be 5.3, or fifth grade/third month. That is certainly disturbing.  The analysis tool for these rankings is the ATOS Readability formula, and it focuses on line length, word length, vocabulary difficulty, and other "qualities" which, of course, provide no context for the literary value, rhetorical strategies, historical allusions, and other elements that basically define literature.

I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the study - appreciating comments in the intro from Dan Gutman about students reading what they want. However, when I began to work my way through some of the rankings and saw Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies ranked at a 5th-grade level, the study quickly plummeted in credibility. Anyone who has done style and literary analysis of these works knows they are of great complexity, to the point that they are still worthy of graduate level analysis. Just take Mockingbird off the shelf, ask a fifth-grader to read the first three pages, and then begin a discussion. If the fifth grader actually identifies the allusions to the Battle of Hastings and correctly interprets the significance then .... then you have a fifth grader who is reading at a high school level.

It's not simply about line length and complexity of vocabulary. And any study that rests on that conclusion has no real business making statements about education. Now, I will assert that the Hunger Games is a really low level book - and probably fifth grade. And, I certainly hope no college prep kids are reading that in high school. But to rank it as the same quality in rigor as Mockingbird or Flies is downright absurd.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Trumpification - 21st Century Political Satire

Trumpification: The Greatest Political Satire of the 21st Century

Is “the real Donald Trump” for real?

Or is The Donald pulling off an incredibly brilliant feat of political satire designed to expose the darker side of human nature simmering beneath the Republican Party.

The idea was first posed to me last month by a college freshman majoring in political science and philosophy at CU-Boulder. When I asked what he thought of Trump and the GOP primary, his immediate reaction was, “I think he’s a satirist. I have to believe that he is rattling off all this crazy stuff about immigration just to mess with people.” Granted, many critics would certainly hope so. And, knowing Trump’s ego and flair for the dramatic, it wouldn’t be all that far-fetched. It may even explain why Trump first came out as a birther regarding Obama’s citizenship. If it were truly a political sting, it would explain why someone like Trump would have waded into that messy conspiracy theory in the first place. Trump is “the best builder,” after all. And, with his similar attacks on Ted Cruz’s citizen status, this ruse would be the construction of the grandest façade in a world drowning in political chicanery.

Could it be that Donald Trump is out-Colbert-ing Stephen Colbert and forcing the Grand Old Party to confront the more sinister side of its politics, cultivated by Sean Hannity and Roger Aisles for the past decade? Despite the intriguing possibilities, I hadn’t seriously entertained the idea, even as Trump’s staying power became evident and his poll resilience continued to mystify political pundits. However, in January Denver radio host and writer Ross Kaminsky made his predictions for 2016, and I had to seriously re-consider the possibility that “Donald Trump drops out of the presidential race and says that his whole campaign was a bet with Michael Bloomberg about whether Trump could really fool gullible Republicans into thinking he had suddenly become a conservative. Kaminsky posited the possibility that a man like Trump who trades in “barbs and insults” could actually become the standard bearer for the GOP. Such a bait and switch would be quite a prize for a liberal like Bloomberg. And, with recent news of Bloomberg’s interest in third-party run for the Presidency, the satire conspiracy becomes even richer.

Certainly, the idea of a Trump spoof has not escaped the speculation of many pundits and campaign watchers. The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher has been scrutinizing the news of the Trump phenomenon for months now, and he is considering the possibility that Donald Trump is actually a spy or a plant for the Democrats. It’s not such an outrageous idea, considering the history between Donald Trump and the Clintons. Of particular interest is the investigative work of reporter Noah Rathman who has noticed a potential pattern of times that Trump’s actions have conveniently taken media attention off of Hillary when she was under scrutiny by media and GOP pundits. Truly, the GOP leadership and moderate Republicans across the country have watched, bewildered, as Trump has grabbed control of the headlines, making a mockery of many debates and distracting the press and the other candidates from hitting at Hillary’s record.  With news that Donald Trump spoke at length with Bill Clinton prior to launching his campaign, the idea of a faux campaign seems plausible. More than likely, it was an attempt by the Clinton’s to sabotage the GOP primaries – an action that may actually work against them.

Undoubtedly, Donald Trump has an enormous ego and inflated sense of self-worth. And, becoming president would certainly feed that need. Yet, an even greater accomplishment might be to secure the GOP nomination only to turn around and intentionally derail an entire political party. Even if he fails to succeed through the early primaries and caucuses, he could save face by claiming he never wanted to be President, and he would have done lasting damage to the GOP while once again elevating his own persona. Certainly, the argument that Trump never was a true Republican or conservative was bolstered in last month’s National Review which seeks to expose the Donald Trump farce in a series of commentary on Trump’s lack of conservative credentials. While Trump dismissed the article with his usual snide shrug, he may secretly be chuckling inside about just how right they are. Undoubtedly, Trump is a bit of a rogue candidate for the GOP, as he has proudly held many positions that run counter to Republican and conservative ideals. And, his popularity has consequently exposed uncomfortable splits in a Republican party with significant ideological extremes. Whether he intended to or not, Trump’s statements and popularity have undoubtedly satirized the establishment of the Republican Party.

If Donald Trump – a businessman with no political background or governing credentials – were to become President it would be a historic coup in contemporary American politics. If he were to eventually come out as a satirist, having mocked the Republican Party into an egregious mistake, it might be one of the single greatest feats of political gamesmanship the contemporary world has ever seen. Once Trump passed a seemingly unfathomable line with his assertion that “I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” it seemed the last hope for a dignified country that he had to be kidding. For many, Trump as satirist is the only possible answer. He has to be kidding because the alternative – that he really believes what he says and is still so popular – is just too difficult to accept. However, others speculate that he is not actually satirizing the GOP and the political process as much as he is simply pulling off the greatest stunt in political media history. According to a report in Politico, Trump’s campaign is actually a spoof, or a fraud that he dreamed up years ago. The goal was to simply upset the process and prove he could successfully market himself into taking over a political party and even winning the Presidential nomination, if not the White House. To this point, he’s been proved right, as the media has more than happily contributed to the hype, and the GOP establishment has been helpless to stop it.

People on both sides of the political aisles are desperately hoping that Trump’s popularity and apparent staying power in the Republican primaries is merely an aberration that will quickly evaporate once actual votes go to the polls. And, if he truly is playing us all, columnist Andy Ostroy offered ideas about what Trump is really up to. Following his withdrawal from the race, Trump would explain: I pulled off the greatest social experiment in American history. In the end, it wasn't Donald Trump whose behavior was shameful, it was yours.  You've got a lot to work on, America. And you can thank Trump for exposing it." Were Trump to come out with such a statement, it would be a legendary moment in American politics. But considering the extremes to which he’s gone already, it may be more legendary for such a man to actually secure a major party nomination. And, many suspect that should Trump actually begin to fade in the polls, or simply not continue to win primaries or caucuses and fail to secure the nomination, Trump may at that point claim that he never wanted the job in the first place.

So, Trump may very well be kidding. Or he may not. As the country moves on from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Caroline toward Super Tuesday and beyond, it appears anything can happen, and the pundits have practically given up trying to predict it. And, while it’s doubtful that Donald Trump is intentionally spoofing the GOP in order to defeat it, it was also doubtful that he ever had a chance in the first place. Truly, Donald Trump’s bombastic personality and extreme statements have shocked a nation and have in many ways already made a mockery of the country’s politics and electoral process. Thus, in moving from a controversial but entertaining reality TV show star to a serious candidate, Donald Trump may be a brilliant satirist or a dangerous demagogue.

Either way, America loses. The joke is clearly on us.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Three-Line Poem

Continuing my opening salvos in my AP Language & Composition class about effective word choice and editing, my class moves from a three-word poem to a three-line poem, again requiring several drafts and commentary analysis.  The three-line poem is not an overwhelming assignment for the creation of poetry, as I have never been a fan of forcing kids to be creative and poetic.  The goal of the assignment is command of language and understanding effective word choice and structure for effect.

The lesson begins with an introduction of imagism, the style of poetry developed in the 20th century and popularized with the Lost Generation poets like Ezra Pound.  The conciseness of the genre makes it accessible and less intimidating to students while also encouraging tight command of language and the concept of le mot juste.  We read Pound's In a Station of the Metro, and discuss his word choice and structure.  The word "apparition" is key noting the suddenness of the appearance, as is the use of the colon to reveal meaning through analogy.  The faces are fragile, delicate, diverse, and vulnerable "petals on a wet black bough."  The simplicity of the poem creates its impact, which is meant to be immediate and momentary, rather than expansive and drawn out.  Imagism captures a moment, intending it for observation, much like a painting or sculpture.

The class then looks at several additional imagist-like poems I received in a book of poetry from an American-Buddhist monk named Joe Wagner, whom I met years ago in Taiwan.  Joe's study of poetry was linked to his meditation and intention to live deliberately, self-aware and in the moment.  From Joe's perspective, "poetry has the ability to stop the reader from thinking about life and directly experience it instead."  That is one of the most insightful comments I've learned about poetry, and I appreciate the meditative quality.  In pursuing effective language in the three-line poem, Joe develops a philosophy of poetry which seeks brevity as a goal.  For if a poem is too long, it risks losing the reader to the inevitable wanderings of the restless mind.  And if the goal is to affect and impact that mind, the poem must be able to stop the reader from thinking too much about it.

I share several examples of Joe's poetry, and I reveal them on an overhead (or a Power Point), slowly and one line at a time.  It enhances the effect.

The sadness of eating
On Christmas Eve

Out of the young
Chinese mother's head
A gray hair

Classroom quiet
The children
Take a quiz

Raising one finger
An old man
Stops the bus

Each of these poems produces insightful and enlightened nods and murmurs in the classroom.  The kids get it.  And, of course, we do what most poets hate, which is analyze and discuss the poetry and the word choice and the structure and the impact and the theme or meaning.   Then, I ask the students to create a three-line poem.  They are also required to submit an analysis of their process.  While I don't require numerous drafts, I do expect that their analysis paragraphs reflect an idea of revision and editing.  These poems are also "presented" to the class.  However, unlike my three-word poem, these poems are simply recited and received with no comment or analysis in class.  Many of them produce great reactions, from gasps to sighs to laughter.

The Three-Line Poem is a great exercise in command of language.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Operation Desert Storm Turns 25 - Gen X War Memories

As I've been noting lately, 1991 was a pivotal year for the rise of Generation X consciousness. It was the year that saw the release of Douglas Coupland's seminal "voice of a generation" novel, the premiere of Richard Linklater's avant garde film Slacker, and the rise of grunge with the dropping of Nirvana's Nevermind that hit MTV like the raucous guitar chord progression of "Smells Like Teen Spirit." These seemingly unrelated, but beautifully linked, moments of generational angst reflected a time and place of confusion and frustration, and the pivotal world event of that year mirrored the feelings. On February 24, 1991, roughly three weeks before Generation X was released, the United States began the invasion of Kuwait/Iraq in Operation Desert Storm.

Being a 21-year-old college student at that time, I felt the ground swell of protest and saw people marching across campus with some pouring oil on the American flag. It was a confusing time, with the United States beginning a military campaign against an ambiguous threat - an all too familiar concern for a generation that came of age politically with the withdrawal from Vietnam and the resignation of a President. (Wait, what? the President is quitting? What do you mean quitting? Can he do that? And why does he seem so happy walking to the helicopter?) And, then the military action seemed to be over almost as soon as it began. It was an impressive - and somewhat terrifying - show of military might. And, it appeared that the wrong had been righted?

Except for that military base in Saudi Arabia - the "infidels in the Holy Land" that sparked the interest ... and deadly ideology of Osama bin Laden and the rise of Al Qaeda.

Now, it's a quarter of a century later, and Generation X is (somewhat un-) comfortably settling into middle age. And the Middle East mess of a Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS is the standard measure of that pivotal year 1991. What seemed like a quick and successful military might ultimately destabilized an entire region. And the ambiguous sense of ennui that framed much of Gen X's coming-of-age is every bit as vivid and pertinent as it was then. This is our world now - despite the saturation coverage of Boomers and Millenials. We are in the driver seat of a world in a strange bit of turmoil, which is basically how it's felt for our entire lives.

February 24, 1991. Generation X's memories of war.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Teach Inherit the Wind - It's Important

**This post is a reprint from my English blog**

English teachers are more than teachers of reading, writing, and grammar - they are purveyors of culture.  Much of the "character education" that is desired and promoted by people seeking to reform education can be served through the stories that have defined our society.  From the darkness in man's heart of pieces like Lord of the Flies to the breaking down of prejudice in To Kill a Mockingbird, the stories that we tell define our civilization.

Thus, I was intrigued - and of course baffled by Senator Marco Rubio's recent comments to GQ Magazine in which he claimed to have no knowledge of the age of the earth because he's "not a scientist, man."  Beyond that Rubio - in a conflicted conservative's troubled attempt to have his feet in both camps on the science vs. faith divide - claimed that the age of the earth is "one of life's great mysteries."  Actually, Senator, it's not.  And while many people rushed to defend Rubio's comments as simply "politician speak," it is troubling that the issue of evolution, climate change, and the relevance of science is not a big deal to one of our senators who may aspire to the office of the Presidency soon.

Thus, I dusted off my copy of the classic Jerome Lawrence and Robert Lee play Inherit the Wind.  Perhaps no work of literature better addresses the issue of politics and religion messing with education and freedom of thought than this fictionalized work based on the historical Scopes Monkey Trial.  We often learn much more through stories and drama than through simple informational texts, and for that reason I like to promote the teaching of Inherit the Wind.  In the words of Henry Drummond (playing a thinly veiled Clarence Darrow), it's all about one "man's right to think."  In the past I have taught this to high school students, and I am always amazed at how enlightening it is for kids.  It doesn't destroy their faith, but it does get them to think.  And that should be our goal.

So, in an era where the War on Christmas makes the headlines, but the War on Science is more troubling, it's worth taking a week and examining Inherit the Wind.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Creepiness Factor - Teaching Huxley's Brave New World

Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World is one of the most significant and alluded to literary works of the contemporary era.  Huxley's satire of a technology and consumerism is a powerful reminder of the fragile nature of individuality in a world of increasing control by both business and government.  As such it is commonly taught in many high schools, and it remains a popular work with teachers and with students.  However, it is a creepy novel to say the least, and teachers should make certain to handle it delicately and professionally with an eye for potentially uncomfortable situations in the classroom.

The most obvious and potentially creepiest component of the novel is the hyper-sexualized nature of the World State. With a society containing such standards as "erotic play" for young children and an "Orgy-Porgy" of sexual hysteria at the culmination of the society's "religious" service, teachers must prepare students for these potentially awkward and confusing references.  Arguably, this book is more well suited for the high school level, and most aptly at the upper levels.  However, my school has taught this work at the honors freshman level for years with little conflict.  The key is preparation.

Contemporary teens are not aloof to the hypersexualized nature of their own world, and thus can most likely handle Huxley's satirizing of it.  But it doesn't hurt to prepare them for it.  In doing so, I spend the  introductory day telling the kids "this is a creepy novel."  In referencing it as satire, I introduce the terms horation and juvenalian to prepare them for the dark sinister side of satire.  It's helpful to give them some examples of a dark satire - I like explaining some elements of the movie Fight Club.  The scene where Tyler Durden explains making soap from the fat in a liposuction clinic is a pretty vidid one, and they get it.  Students should also know the terms "erotic play" and "Orgy-Porgy" before they encounter them in the text.

Brave New World is undoubtedly a great piece of literature and a significant one for any study of literature.  But it is creepy, and students need to be prepared for that.

Monday, February 15, 2016

See Emily Ting's "Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong"

In the early 1990s, my wife and I lived in Southeast Asia, teaching English in Taiwan, and one of our favorite places in all our travels was the cosmopolitan gem of Hong Kong. We visited several times because it was so accessible, and we always planned to return. With this month's release of writer/director Emily Ting's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, we've been given the best opportunity, short of buy a ticket. Ting's storyline is a bit of an homage to a familiar Gen X plot - the expat life seen through chance encounters that was developed by Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong shares the story of Ruby, a young fashion designer visiting Hong Kong on business, and Josh, an American expat who walks her through the Hong Kong night after she gets separated from friends. There is, no doubt, an immediate connection between the two, complicated by their personal lives. The story cuts away after their first brief night together, and then reconvenes a year later to finish the story.

While the story of Josh and Ruby is central to the plot, which is mostly dialogue-driven, another star of the movie is the city of Hong Kong. The skyline features prominently throughout, and the backdrops are more than just scenery. The story also carries somewhat of a Lost in Translation vibe, as the couple comes together in a foreign city which leads to their connection, but is also central to their separation. Emily Ting's dialogue authentically captures the spirit of the city and essence of the moment. My wife and I enjoyed the movie so much, we started it again as soon as it finished.

For a great night in a great city, check out Emily Ting's Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Brock Osweiler Should Prepare to Take Less Money

Peyton Manning has the perfect opportunity to walk away from the game of football with his legend intact. And, that will open up a slew of decisions for the Broncos management as they seek to re-capture the lightning next year. With a some big free agent signings on the agenda - including their third-year rookie backup QB Brock Osweiler - Denver GM John Elway will see the financial resources stretched. And the only uncertainty is, really, who will be under center.

Von Miller is an absolute no-brainer - the most dominant defensive player in the league is an absolute game-changer, and he should be offered whatever money he wants. Write the huge franchise check to MillerLight58. Next in line: the Broncos must re-sign D-lineman run stuffer Malik Jackson, and he gets big cash, too. And, of course, Elway's team has to keep linebacker and great open field tackler Danny Trevathan. These are must-haves on the defensive side of the ball because there is no doubt after SuperBowl 50 that "DEFENSE wins championships."

That leaves Brock Osweiler.

For a young player in Brock's position, the market might offer as much as $12 million+ for about four years. Less capable QBs have got that.  But Brock is  dreaming if he thinks the team in Orange will give him that. Brock, while he played a valuable role in this year's drive to the world championship, is simply not an elite quarterback. He's not mobile like Cam or Aaron or even Big Ben (who's not that slick, but still tough to bring down). And Denver won't make the mistake of giving Brock elite money like the Ravens did with Flacco. Flacco is a really good QB - but not remotely worth his money and not the reason his Ravens teammates have a ring.

So, Brock is going to get an offer based on "whatever money is left over." And, if that's 3 or 4 years at about $8-10 million per, then he should take it. If he needs more, then he should go shopping. But that means he'll have to cherish the one and only ring he'll ever own.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Class Levels - Basic, Average, Honors?

Accommodating students of various skills, interests, and levels of motivation is, perhaps, one of the most challenging tasks in public education these days. Far too often, teachers are met with vast canyons of difference in the abilities and work ethics of large classes. And, far too often they are simply told by administrators and coordinators that they just need to "differentiate instruction."

Ah hah! Differentiate. That's what it is. I'll just ... differentiate .... for all my students .... for all my lessons ... and assignments .... hmmmmm.

At the high school level, especially, the key breakdowns are for kids who are deficient, proficient, and advanced. And there are all sorts of terms, and I've probably offended some with my breakdown - so, I'm sorry. But it's basically three levels of ability and/or motivation leading to levels of success and class performance. Additionally, there are extremes of disability that can lead to special education designations for students who simply can't perform at the mainstream classroom level.

While my school long had "essentials," "college-prep" and "honors" English, a few years ago we eliminated the essentials level. In reality, many capable students were less motivated to take the class for which they were proficient - CP English - because they just didn't want to work as hard. However, we've maintained a "essentials of reading/writing" class for students who need extra support. And truly low-performing students are most likely in need of special education. This policy contrasts the social studies department which maintains an "essentials" level in freshman world history, but offers no honors level.

While there is justification for offering support for lowest performing students and differentiating in a single class between proficient and advanced, I'm more in favor of offering truly advanced classes for kids who excel while offering support in a college-prep class for kids who are struggling.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Graphic Novels as ... Literature?

Several years ago, I listened as a colleague presented a graphic novel version of Beowulf to our department coordinator, hoping to incorporate the text into our college prep classes.  The catch was that she wanted to replace the Burton Raffel translation of the epic poem, and use the graphic novel in place of the original text, which many believe is just too complex and overwhelming for the average reader.  The department had to say no, of course, as the substitution of "a comic book" for the thousand year old classic poem simply wouldn't fly with our community.  However, there is not necessarily anything wrong with a supplement.  It could be used in addition to the text - though costs can prohibit such luxury.  That wasn't the only time graphic novels came up in regards to the traditional high school curriculum.  A colleague mentioned a graphic novel as an addition to our AP Language and Composition class.  It was similarly dismissed by more veteran teachers who worry that the strict expectations of the curriculum and the "Lang exam" precluded such innovative and multi-genre approaches to literature - and literacy.  That concern, however, may be changing.

With the rise of the common core standards, teachers are finding it easier to expand the definition of literacy.  The graphic novel is becoming an accepted - even a respected - genre, and that may enable it to work its way into the curricula of English departments across the country.  Certainly, there is something admirable and viable about the art form of graphic novels.  While the truly pedantic and elitist will continue to dismiss its significance, others who opened up the the literary nature of popular culture years ago have come to accept its place.  Certainly, as my department noted years ago, the graphic novel should not replace the novel or poem or play.  But it can take its place aside the classic forms.  Graphic novels can be truly insightful and intricate in the way they blend the oral, written, and visual.  And we should not dismiss their ability to engage reluctant readers in great narratives.  They do require a skill in appreciating the message and the medium, and they can be analyzed critically.

So, it's not a bad thing for the English classrooms to "embrace the graphic novel as a learning tool."

Monday, February 8, 2016

Allusions & Archetypes in Stranger Than Fiction

I know I've posted earlier about using film as part of my existential study in CE Intro to College Literature, notably with the classic Bill Murray/Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day.  However, another excellent contemporary film that can serve the existential lesson plan - Stranger Than Fiction As Harold Crick slowly grows to understand how to live the life he has always wanted, or, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "live the life he has imagined," his understanding of life, fate, choice, and meaning becomes increasingly clear.  Many quotable lines from the film reveal the existential dilemma.  However, repeated viewings unlock other gems for English instruction.  For one, it has the added benefit of a great explanation of literature that could be used in class for a brief introduction to archetypes and allusions.

The lesson is delivered by Professor Hilbert, an English prof and lifeguard, who is tasked with helping Harold Crick deal with his literary existential dilemma.  Harold seeks out an English professor after attempting to convince a psychiatrist he is not schizophrenic.  Thus, because he appears to be in a story being narrated, the doctor posits that his problem might be better solved by a literature teacher.  And, with that the film transitions to a great subplot of literary deconstruction in a role played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman.

In attempting to determine Harold's situation who is "playing the lead character in his own life," Professor Hilbert devises a series of questions from literature to determine which story Harold is living.  He rules out all the classic characters, including "the Gollum," and from there seeks to determine whether Harold is living in a comedy or a tragedy.  In a classic bit of summation, the professor notes, "In a tragedy, you die.  In a comedy, you get hitched."  It's a great bit of dialogue that would make any English teacher smile.  However, beyond that, it's a scene that could be used to engage students in the analysis of literature in a way they might not have fathomed before.

So, from a Mazenglish standpoint, Stranger Than Fiction is an excellent source for witty literature discussion.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Early Chill of the Infinite Winter of Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is a novel of infinite discovery and infinite rabbit holes and infinitely complex plotlines woven into what can only be deemed a Magnum Opus of the most gifted writer from Generation X. While we readers of the Infinite Winter are officially only into the first fifty pages or so, the discussion forums - of which one has spoilers for those who know the book and another for the novices just beginning to piece together the poetry - are already running strong with speculation and observation ... and some hints of desperation. But the giddiness many feel at even attempting this literary Everest is palpable, and the community will urge us onward.

What I know so far is IJ is a post-modern epic about entertainment and addiction, and much of the plot will center on a young, brilliant tennis prodigy - and probable addict - named Hal Incadenza who is enrolled at the Enfield Tennis Acadamy (founded by his father). The number of characters who weave in and out of the early chapters is mesmerizing - from Hal's brothers (Orin and Mario) parents (The Moms and Himself (as in "the man Himaself" (ha!))), his uncle, poor black youth like Clenette and Wardine, a professional burgler named Don Gately, to a (Saudi?) medical attache who is clearly addicted and engulfed by what I suspect is the "movie you can never stop watching."

Got it?

What makes this read engaging and what makes a reading community like the Infinite Winter supportive (but also a little overwhelming unto itself as you struggle to keep up with the book while also keeping up with the ever-growing feed of reader's comments on Reddit which you don't want to miss ... which in some way seems similar to the movie the medical attache can't stop watching because you don't want to stop reading the book but you want to check the reader forums which you also don't want to stop reading ....) is the fabulously intricate nature of the story and the true art in the crafting of each sentence. As an English teacher (of style analysis in AP Lang & Comp), I want to dwell on the implications of words and syntax like the beginning "I am ..." which is potentially bookended later in the chapter with the words "I am not."  But I am also just digging on the story which I cannot wait to figure out how it relates to the Great Concavity and the Quebecois Separtist Movement.

That said, #InfWin reader "Bill Gaddis" (Ha! Really?) has posted links to two great articles - one from 1996 and one celebrating the 20th anniversary. They are worth the read, but tread cautiously, lest you learn more than you already know before you want to discover it. (ie. the articles can't help but contain spoilers ... but they are also helpful readers guides by indicating some general wisdoms and structures to look for)

First, is "The Alchemist's Retort: A Multilayered Saga of Postmodern Damnation and Salvation" which is a beautifully crafted review in The Atlantic by writer Sven Birkerts

But these more outré materials combine to form what is finally a thematic second tier. The foreground of Infinite Jest features three basic plot systems. At the center of one is Hal Incandenza, an adolescent tennis star attending Enfield Tennis Academy (ETA), which his family founded, and which has been administered by his mother and uncle since his father, James, who was also an experimental filmmaker, ended things by putting his head in a specially rigged microwave oven. Hal, who is compulsive and brilliant, shows his damage obliquely: he cannot walk the orthogonal paths of ETA with an unaltered mind. “Hal likes to get high in secret,” we read, “but a bigger secret is that he’s as attached to the secrecy as he is to getting high.” An intriguing filtering presence, and a fine departure point for Wallace’s various divagations into Incandenza family lore, Hal does not himself do much besides play tennis and, late in the book, try to stop smoking pot.

And, the other is "Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest at 20" which is a wonderfully insightful reflected published this year in the New York Times by writer Tom Bissell.

How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive? Theory 1: As a novel about an “entertainment” weaponized to enslave and destroy all who look upon it, “Infinite Jest” is the first great Internet novel. Yes, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson may have gotten there first with “Neuromancer” and “Snow Crash,” whose Matrix and Metaverse, respectively, more accurately surmised what the Internet would look and feel like. (Wallace, among other things, failed to anticipate the break from cartridge- and disc-based entertainment.) But “Infinite Jest” warned against the insidious virality of popular entertainment long before anyone but the most Delphic philosophers of technology. Sharing videos, binge-watching Netflix, the resultant neuro-pudding at the end of an epic gaming marathon, the perverse seduction of recording and devouring our most ordinary human thoughts on Facebook and Instagram — Wallace somehow knew all this was coming, and (as the man himself might have put it) it gave him the howling fantods.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Infinite Winter Has Begun

So, if you haven't heard yet, there is a large online group reading of David Foster Wallace's epic masterpiece Infinite Jest going on. January 31 was the first day, and the reading schedule is roughly 75 pages per week. So far, I'm about 65 pages in ... and it's pretty amazing. The problem, of course, is that there is so much going on I just want to take a three-month sabbatical, go sit in a coffee shop with my book and my laptop, and read. The book is an infinite challenge and requires infinite patience and engagement, but the growing discussion forum on Reddit also offers infinite support and insight. So, check it out.

As soon as my very busy week eases, I'm hoping to blog some early thoughts.