Saturday, September 29, 2007

How To Grade A Paper



My students have now begun to receive papers back from me with comments and grades, so they ask questions about how the grade was compiled, and just what do the comments written in the margins and between the lines mean.

Unlike a set of math problems, or a vocabulary test on word definitions, writing is not an exact science. The word “essay” is derived from the word “assay,” and means “to try.” Often, whether or not the “trying” is successful is a matter of opinion. Still, when I look at a student’s paper, there are some matters that can be evaluated objectively.

To get an A grade on a paper in my class, the grammar and spelling must be flawless. I should be able to read and understand every sentence. Grammar and spelling are not subjective matters, and therefore, are concrete in nature. A word is either spelled correctly, or it is not. If the paper is typed at home, there is no reason why a word should be misspelled. The student has had time to review drafts and make changes. The editing is assisted by the computer which checks for spelling errors. I find that the grammar check in most word processing programs is not reliable. However, a student can often hear the errors when rereading the paper. Having a parent or peer read the draft before turning it in can also be a help in catching grammatical or syntactical errors.

Some other areas that are non-negotiable are handwriting and formatting. Papers that are handwritten by students, say a timed writing in class, must be handwritten clearly. If I cannot read it, I cannot evaluate it. Students often complain to me that this is unfair. “I got an F because of handwriting?” they wail. Yes. Would you buy a cell phone that does not allow you to hear the other party? If I cannot understand the brilliant ideas in a paper because I cannot read the handwriting, the ideas never made it through the storm of illegible scratches embedded on the page. I do allow my students to write in cursive or print, whichever is clearer. At ninth grade, it is really too late to teach proper cursive. Plus there are more important fish to fry.

As for formatting, I give very specific guidelines the first day of class. They are part of a packet called “Guidelines For Writing” drawn from the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) Handbook For Writers of Research Papers (Sixth Edition). “Any writing completed for class in handwriting must follow these format guidelines: Write in blue or black ink. Use college-ruled lined paper not ripped from a notebook. On the first line, against the left (usually pink) margin line, write your name. On one line each immediately below your name, write the course title (English II Honors) and date (name, course title, date=three lines). If there is a title to the assignment, center it on the next line in the middle of the page. Skip one line, indent, and begin your essay. Do not skip lines, but you must indent each new paragraph. Do not skip lines between paragraphs. Write on both sides of the paper, unless the ink bleeds through; if the ink bleeds through, write on one side only. Use cursive or printing based on what is clearer to read. Understand that unreadable handwriting or printing means that the paper fails to communicate the ideas adequately and will be awarded a failing grade. Any sources quoted or used in the essay should be listed at the end of the piece.

“Any writing completed for class on the computer must follow these format guidelines: Choose a standard, easily readable typeface such as Times New Roman and type size, such as 12 point. Use black ink only. Do not justify the lines of your paper at the right margin. Use a good printer with plenty of ink so that the print is clear and crisp. Print on one side of the paper only. Keep a back up copy of your paper on disk and in hard copy. Use only 8 ½ -by-11 inch paper of good quality. Margins top, bottom, left and right should be one inch (this is default on most word processing programs; you do not need to change it). Indent each new paragraph by pressing the TAB key once. Double-space your paper throughout, including quotations, notes and lists of works cited. Leave two spaces at the end of each period, questions mark, colon, or exclamation point; leave one space after each comma and semi-colon. Do not use a title page. Beginning one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin, type your name, the course, and the date on separate lines, double-spacing between lines. Double-space again and center the title. Double-space again between the title and the first line of the essay. Do not underline your title or place it in quotation marks or type it in all capital letters. Number all pages consecutively throughout the paper in the upper right-hand corner, one half inch from the top and flush with the right margin (normally, your computer will do this for you under Insert: page numbers.). Type your last name before the page number in case pages get separated.”

Is this being too anal retentive? No. I am teaching students that the appearance of the paper often subconsciously influences the way a reader reads the paper, and therefore can influence the grade. On such things as Advanced Placement or SAT exams, does a student wish to receive a lower grade simply because she has misspelled words, or written illegibly?

From here, the grading becomes more complicated. Did the student answer the question? Does he have a clear thesis or argument, clear, specific, detailed support for this argument? If the argument is about a book, poem or play, does the student draw specific scenes and examples from the work studied to support his position? Does the conclusion wrap up the argument? Is the style of the writing fluid, cohesive, coherent, logical, and organized?

If all of these aspects are in place, the paper receives an A. If the paper has spelling or grammar errors, especially involving titles of works, characters, and authors, I take a lot of points off. If the spelling errors are simple errors, such as confusing the different uses of there, their, and they’re, I lower the grade. If I cannot understand a sentence due to poor grammar or missing words, a student misuses prepositions, or has problems with subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement, I take off major points.

If a student’s lead paragraph does not clearly state the author and title of the work being analyzed, nor offer a clearly stated thesis/argument, I note it in the margin and knock off points.

In the body paragraphs, if the evidence is not clearly presented in an organized and logical manner, I note it in the margin and subtract from the grade. If the student does not use the work of literature, or in the worst case scenario, does not demonstrate knowledge of the work read for the paper, I deduct huge numbers of points.

If a student has a weak conclusion, or no conclusion at all, I will note it in the margin and subtract from the total points.

Am I always negative? No. I often note in the margins when a student has an excellent opening paragraph, a clear thesis, good use of vocabulary, a well-put, or poetically written idea, or has discovered a point we did not cover in class discussions. If a student demonstrates creative or analytical thinking, I add to the grade. Did they read other material for the paper outside of class, such as essays, journal articles, or other works in the author’s oeuvre, I applaud the student’s initiative by adding points to the score.

At the end of the paper, I always write a summary comment that brings together all the good points and negative points of the paper. I offer some goals to work on in the next essay written for class, and if the paper needs a rewrite, meaning it is so deficient as to be unacceptable, I assign the rewrite with a due date. Students must then turn in the new draft with all previous drafts by that date. I will look the new draft over and offer more criticism and discussion. Without telling the student, I may add some points to the initial grade, bringing D papers up to the C level. I do not discuss this with the students because I do not want them to focus on the points gained, but on improving their writing skills.

In the end, I use the rubric I place on the course syllabus and distribute to students on the first day of class: “The coursework will be graded "A" (excellent, original, insightful), "B" (distinguished, thorough, thoughtful), "C" (competent, clear, clean), "D" (mere summary, derivative of class discussion, repetitive), "F" (incompetent, incomplete).” Between the course syllabus and the “Guidelines For Writing,” the student have a clear picture what is expected of them. If they read and study my comments and corrections on the pages, they will clearly understand where they succeeded, and where they went off the path.

In my class, it is never about discouraging a student as a writer. It is my job to set standards based on experience and the standards of good writing. Students often tell me, “I don’t know how you want me to write?” That is not true. Good writing is not about an individual teacher’s preference, but about what the texts teach us is good writing. Decent writing is about clarity, cohesion, organization, and having something to say. As the critic Alfred Kazin, one of my heroes, titled a book of his essays: “Writing is everything.”

Therein lies the only truth.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Frost On Trees


The American poet, Robert Frost (1874-1963) won four Pulitzer Prizes for his poetry. Before winning those prizes, he faced years of rejection from literary magazines. It was only through determination and a persistent belief in himself that he persevered through the miserable years into the light of publication.

Born in San Francisco, California, Frost had little time to know his father who died when the poet was young. The family moved across country to New England where Frost grew up. He tried college, but found himself ill-suited to academia. He became a poultry farmer. Meanwhile, he wrote verse and continued to educate himself.

In 1912, Frost moved to England to hopefully find a publisher for his work. There, he met the influential poet Ezra Pound who helped Frost place his work with publishers. Critical acclaim followed after each of Frost’s two books of poetry. This enabled him, in 1915, to return to the U.S. a success. He went on to teach at Amherst and Harvard colleges, starting the Breadloaf School of English all while carrying on his life as a farmer.

In 1960, Frost received a singular honor: President-elect John F. Kennedy asked him to read a poem at his inauguration. On that day, Frost approached the dais and prepared to read, but his planned poem blew away in the stiff wind. He resorted to reciting his well-known poem, “The Gift Outright” instead.

Frost’s poems built on traditions going back centuries, but turned on a uniqueness all his own. They seem deceptively simple on the surface, but often contain layers of meaning. Many fall into the category of pastoral poems, but are often marked by a tragic vein. He disliked free verse, and used traditional metrical and rhythmical schemes.

Frost uses trees and tree imagery in many of his poems to illustrate life lessons. Three of these poems, “Into My Own,” “Birches,” and “The Sound of Trees” best illustrate the poet’s fascination with nature as embodied in trees. For him, trees represented childhood, the life span of Man, and the purity of nature.

His poem, “Into My Own” begins with the lines: “One of my wishes is that those trees, / So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, / Were not, as ‘twere, the merest mask of gloom, / But stretched away unto the edge of doom.” The speaker outlines one of Frost’s enduring ideas: to steal away into the woods, to disappear into nature, “into my own,” in the speaker’s words. He wants the forest to not just be the “merest mask of gloom,” but to stretch out for all eternity “unto the edge of doom.” He wants to lose himself, taking refuge in the womb of nature, the forest primeval.

Frost is writing here in the tradition of a group of New England writers of the mid to late nineteenth century, the Transcendentalists, led by Ralph Waldo Emerson. They too saw nature as a refuge, a place to go for healing. In nature, Man is reminded of the cycle of life, that all things must change and evolve. Robert Frost is the twentieth century keeper of the flame for Transcendentalist philosophy.

In nature, the speaker can travel “Fearless of ever finding open land,” or “where the slow wheel pours the sand.” He sees nature as endless, offering opportunities to escape the industrialized urbanization of city life. The speaker in the poem sees no reason to ever return to such urbanization. There is more peace in nature than in civilization.

And what does the speaker offer to those that might miss him? They can seek him in the forest to see if he has changed, or if he loves them less. “They would not find me changed from him they knew—/ Only more sure of all I thought was true.” The speaker is unchanged, except that he is more sure of the truth. This too is a Transcendentalist idea. Nature teaches truth. Mysteries of life, like where we go when we die, are answered in nature. A consistent theme from Emerson down to Whitman on down to Frost is that we die, we decay, we fertilize the soil for the next generation. We live on in essence, just as nature continues on when a tree’s leaves fall in the autumn. They become fertilizer for the new grass and plant life in the spring. This is the truth of life that nature teaches.

Of course, this truth was one we already suspected as true because we know it in our souls. Still, one might fear death because it is the “undiscovered country,” as Shakespeare put it, and because it is unknown. But we cannot know for certain what will happen after death. Frost argues, as did many New England poets before him, that nature offers us solace in this quest for knowledge. Dead plant life remains long after death to bring forth a new generation; so are we like the plants. We procreate and bring forth progeny, and our lives are the fertilizer for these new generations of human beings.

He also shows us the life cycle—winter and death become, in time, spring and summer—much like humans are born (spring), they move through childhood (summer), they reach middle age (autumn) and grow old and die (winter). This is the truth that Frost knew, and found strong evidence of, in nature.

“Birches” in the poem and in nature are trees with white bark. Frost describes them as bending “left to right / Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” For the poet, birches represent our lives, twisted and bent by our struggles. This distortion occurs as a natural part of life. Sometimes, the birch is broken and destroyed by the events of a lifetime. This is represented in the poem by the ice storms. Frost has stumbled upon another truth: life changes us. We begin as a young, straight tree, and end up bent and twisted, but wiser and stronger for the journey.

The boy in the poem does not damage the trees permanently. “I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. / But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay / As ice storms do.” To a boy, the trees are an adventure to swing from and play on, a source of fun.

Frost follows this with a seemingly wandering digression into the ice storm and what it does to the birches. “…[O]nce they are bowed / So low for long, they never right themselves: / You may see their trunks arching in the woods / Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground / Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair / Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.” Frost identifies this idea as a truth in the next line, “But I was going to say when Truth broke in,” and capitalizes truth to affirm that this is a life lesson as well. Life does twist and bend us down, but he wants to discuss the life of the boy, and how he grows by taking on his father’s trees.

The boy in the poem plays in solitude, as only a dreamer can. The speaker seems to speak from experience. Is this Frost himself? Is this the reason he is always drawn back to the farm, to nature, rather than New York City, or the world where a man of letters might seek publication and the intellectual life more easily? One can only guess, but the speaker seems to relate the story of the boy and the birches with the passion of reflection. The boy subdues his father’s trees, following in his father’s footsteps.

The boy in the poem lived “too far from town to learn baseball,” and “Whose only play was what he found himself, / Summer or winter, and could play alone.” This is a child raised in nature, one not used to the street games of baseball or stick ball. He uses the materials in his world as a game, and this is why he turns to the birch trees. The speaker says that he was once a “swinger of birches.” And this signifies a switch in the point of view in the poem. The speaker moves from the objective view of the trees to a more personal and subjective one.

“So was I once myself a swinger of birches. / And so I dream of going back to be.” We are now in the speaker’s mind, and hearing him express a desire to return to the truths of nature and childhood. “It’s when I’m weary of considerations, / And life is too much like a pathless wood.” The considerations Frost speaks of are the ways of the world. When civilization becomes too much to handle, that is when he longs to return to nature. When the road through life is unclear and filled with obstacles, he longs for the simple life. But the speaker does not rest with simply wanting to go back to childhood and his trees; he wants to be reborn to the world. “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” This is not a suicidal wish, and in fact, the speaker worries that someone might “grant what I wish and snatch me away.” He knows that “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

The speaker simply wants to take a break from it all. He wants “to go by climbing a birch tree, / And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk / Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, / But dipped its top and set me down again.” Through nature, pure interaction with the mystical realm of nature, we can be reborn to purity and a better life. It is in nature we find solace.

Frost ends the poem with: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.” One could do worse than be a kid again, or to maintain a bit of childish awe into adulthood. Frost argues that we must maintain a certain joy in life. This is his poem of reflection. In fact, he wrote many poems of reflection about life and childhood. But this poem is not only about childhood.

The middle section about the ice storm is a classic Frost digression to make a salient point. He does this in several poems. One might think he has simply wandered away to another topic, but he brings the reader back on track with a connection between what seems to be a random digression, and his main point. It is not a digression at all, but a kind of sub-thesis. In this poem, ice storms damage the trees permanently. The young boy does not. They are simply learning experiences for him. He can swing and fall and get back up again without fear of permanent injury. Life often twists and bends us; in childhood, we are able to withstand this because we are young and resilient. Play is not the same as life-changing twists and turns, as if the “inner dome of heaven” were crashing down upon us. Play is healing, and nature is the landscape of the lesson.

In the poem, “The Sound of Trees,” Frost avoids visual description of the trees in favor of aural views. It is the sound that he is interested in here. He asks the question: “Why do we wish to bear / Forever the noise of these / More than another noise / So close to our dwelling place?” More than traffic or the freeway, the trees in the poem offer distraction from urban sounds. The speaker believes we “lose all measure of pace,” and “acquire a listening air.” What we are listening to, and mesmerized by, is nature.

“They are that that talks of going / But never gets away.” The sound of trees keeps us rooted. It draws us into the lullaby of nature. We grow older and wiser. We learn the value of staying put, that there are things in life worth staying for, like the deeper ideas of love, beauty, and truth. Frost is not speaking of material things here, but the joys of living the simple life. To him, being able to hear the sound of trees is more important than living near the city.

The speaker in the poem actually begins to equate himself with trees. He mimics their movements. “My feet tug at the floor / And my head sways to my shoulder / Sometimes when I watch trees sway, / From the window or the door.” He takes his cues from them, the way they shift in the wind. The speaker knows that the trees stay rooted, but he must set out for somewhere. He must “make the reckless choice.” Life is a journey, and there are times for staying and there are times for moving on, like the “white clouds” hurrying across the sky in the poem. But the speaker says that he will have less to say because he will be gone. He is older and wiser for his time spent, and therefore, he knows that the wise cannot tell their wisdom to others. They must learn it through experience. They must stand and listen to the trees to learn what they teach.

Again here, trees are symbolic for stages in life. In this poem, trees are not just playthings for children, but bearers of wisdom. Repeatedly, Frost offers nature as solace from the stresses of the world. We hear the voice of Frost the farmer, listening to nature.

Robert Frost continues Transcendentalism into the twentieth century. His thesis is clear: in nature we are purified and healed. His trees have lessons for us if we only listen. They will bring comfort in distressing times. Nature is the antidote to materialism and greed. If we listen to the trees, they will tell us how to live. They will speak of history. From them, we can find comfort and solace, here in the fast-paced world of the twenty-first century.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Read Like An Idiot



Today, I had to give some students the bad news. I do not think they are cut out for English Honors courses. I based this on our class discussions of the first few weeks of the year and the essays they wrote about the books they read for the summer. I hate doing this. I did not get into teaching to discourage people. Still, I have to paint an honest picture for them, and it would be better to drop to a less demanding course than to have Ds and possibly lower grades on the report card.

So I called the class to order, discussed the common errors I found in their essays, explained the procedures for dropping the course, and promised them I would reconsider them for the program next year in June. I tried to deliver the blunt truth without discouraging them, but I did not feel I succeeded at the end of the class. In fact, several came up to me later in the day to ask if they really should drop the course. I reaffirmed that yes, that is exactly what I was telling them in class. To be successful in English Honors, one must read like an idiot, and write even more compulsively. “You might have the desire to do this kind of work,” I told them, “but simply having the desire does not get the job done. You have to walk the walk. Or in this case, read the book and write the near perfect essay.” Some of them were a little stuck on my use of the word, “idiot.” I had to explain: read like a madman, like you cannot get enough, like you breathe.

In an issue of Publishers Weekly dated August 27, 2007, Editor-In-Chief Sara Nelson recited some scary statistics. A few years ago, in the Reading at Risk survey published by the NEA, 57% of Americans said they had not read a book in the last year. A Gallup poll in 2005 proclaimed that the average American read only five books per year. Finally, in mid-August 2007, the AP-Ipsos poll revealed that 27% of the people questioned had not read a book in the previous year. Pretty disheartening stats, I think.

If people—parents, teachers, relatives, priest, rabbi, doctor, lawyer, holistic healer—model reading behavior for students, show them reading in practice, these dismal statistics might change.

Parents must read. The household should stop for at least an hour each evening for family reading. Turn off the radio or television; shut down the computer. Pick up a book or newspaper or magazine and read. Parents teach their children values, or they teach them bad habits. Teaching them the importance of reading, placing reading on a pedestal, demonstrating the intrinsic value of diving into a good book for at least an hour per night should be a parent’s job, alongside providing braces for the teeth and solid, nutritious meals, among other important items. If a parent models the behavior, the child will be part of a reading culture. With that, we are half way to the finish line.

Teachers—oh, they are the worst offenders. They assign books. They assign homework. They hand out reams of paper. But do they read? It is my first question when interviewing a candidate for a teaching position: what books have you read in the last month? Inevitably, I get the nervous, blank stare. Nervous ticks flourish. “I liked that Harry Potter book.”

“Really? Me, not so much. He dies at the end. That was a real downer.”

“Yeah,” the poor job seeker responds. “Sad.”

Next candidate!

Teachers must read. Sounds stupid and redundant, but there it is. I have taught with teachers who scoured Sparks Notes for the answers and the questions. But they did not open the book. I have taught with teachers who read half the book in college. And did not pick it up again. I have taught with teachers who saw the movie. Hated it! But they will show it to their classes all day, every day, for five school days straight.

Teachers should read like they will die if they don’t. They should eat books. Swallow them whole while they also wolf down that tuna sandwich during the fifteen second lunch period. Stay out of the faculty room. Find a dark corner. Read a book. What would the kids say if they saw you sitting against the lockers, knees up against your chest, enthralled by a book? You do not need to go this far, but students should see you reading, should be able to tell you have read, feel certain that you have read nearly everything on earth. And you should. You are an English teacher, for crying out loud!

Talk about books at a family gathering. Select a family book to read. Choose one now so you can talk about it at Thanksgiving. Enough of going around the table asking everyone what he or she is thankful for; be thankful that you can read!

In the Sunday Los Angeles Times Opinion section (September 16, 2007), there is an article about how schools are no longer assigning homework. Randye Hoder, the writer of “The School Ate My Homework,” tells the story of her nine year-old son’s first day of fourth grade where the teacher informed the class that they would have to do no more homework forever. After the initial shock wears off, Hoder is not all that displeased. She believes that much of the work students are assigned at home is simply what we in the profession call, “busy work.” This needless and time-consuming stuff turns the evening into a battlefield, where parents must fight with their children to complete the assignments and get to bed at a decent hour.

From the classroom perspective, I know that there are many teachers who assign busy work. Does a child need to do 75 math problems in an evening? Do they need to answer every question offered up at the end of the short story in the literature anthology? And what about those dioramas of stars and planets in a shoebox? Is your child able to find Venus near the setting moon in August because he built one in third grade? Besides, couldn’t he just borrow dad’s GPS star finder that he bought last year at The Sharper Image?

Sometimes I worry that I am turning my high school students into twenty year-old coronary cases. It is the pressure, man.

If we are going to abolish homework, let’s make time for more reading. Go home tonight and read and think and dream and plan. May be you should write some of that down. Several times a week, I may ask you to discuss what you read last night, or I might ask you to go on the computer and find out why the Spartans were such fierce warriors.

Homework should be important and meaningful. It should never be busy work. And it should be centered around a child’s need to know, a child’s question, not some editor’s question at the end of the story.

To those students I had to put down today, I am truly sorry. I am sure you will all prove me wrong this year, and by December, I will be kicking myself that I did not let you stay in Honors English. Please, please, make me wrong. I love when the hero faces defeat, regroups, and comes back to conquer and achieve victory. I root for those heroes. Most importantly, if you want to know the secret, it’s reading. Read, read, read, read, read.

No less than Ethan Hawke, actor and novelist, in a recent New York Times Magazine interview said, when asked what advice he gives his kids, “I tell them the more you read, the more intelligent you are. It’s really that simple.”

Yes it is.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In The Years Since



I am standing in the late afternoon summer humidity of Battery Park, staring out across the Hudson River toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. People are beginning to stream out of the office buildings and towering edifices around Wall Street to their homes in Jersey or Brooklyn or Queens. I have a home three thousand miles away. I am here on a pilgrimage, to the place where everything changed, where I watched my America slip away and lose whatever innocence it still had left after the twentieth century.

I love this city. It is the place I should have called home. In a thousand lifetimes, in a platoon of years, the past tells me I detoured away from what should have been. I walk the streets I have never seen before, yet I feel I know in my blood. There is Broadway and Trinity Church, and the Sacred Place. There is the slight smell of ash in the air of memory, and I see the whiteness of that day still embedded in the sidewalks. I pass the mural on the side of the firehouse all coppery in the late afternoon sun. I see dead flowers in the fences surrounding the Sacred Place, and the messages left by travelers and New Yorkers alike on the black billboards that line the boardwalk near the viewing platform.

Now, from this spot in Battery Park, I think I can see all the way back north to Times Square, and even farther, to Columbus Circle, Central Park, Harlem.

Oh the places you’ll go, Dr. Seuss told us before he left.

It is January after. My grandfather is dead. I remember watching the coverage with him in the main dining hall of the hospice near my home in Los Angeles. He was silent for so long, so sad and unhappy. He did not understand a broken leg, leaving his home forever, going to this place of strangers and sickness, as he did not comprehend the images that day on the television screen.

On this January day, we bury him in the cemetery at the Mission. I remember his wife placed a dozen red carnations on his chest before they closed the casket.

April in Virginia, months after, my first airline flight since, to my brother’s wedding. I see Washington D.C., the monuments, the White House. I offer prayers at the Vietnam Memorial. I read the letters, the signs. I examine the relics left by those who have loved and still love. Through the trees, I spy the other memorials. Some offer statues and granite and remembrance of things past. Lincoln sits at the head of it all, staring down the mall into history. I hear the echoes of King. I follow the mighty obelisk into the sky, and see the jet plane arc over the expanse of green lawn, an ever-present reminder of that day. Almost, the tranquility was vanquished here. Almost.

On the subway ride back to Virginia we pass Arlington, and after, the Pentagon. Still standing.

Back at the wedding, I stand on the lawn of the Civil War mansion, the remnants of an old plantation. Here is where the battle for us was fought. Brother against brother. I come to see my own brother’s wedding, but it is son against family. My grandmother tells me how disappointed she is in me, that I did not take the path she chose for me.

“I am a teacher, now, a man of books and paper and ideas,” I insist “Does that not count for something?” She did not have an answer, so I will take up both sides of the argument for us. The problem with men of books and paper is that they are often consumed in the fires of history. But then we all are consumed in the fires of history.

The grandmother dies in the year 2003. At her funeral, I am the black sheep, the outcast. My family and I are on different trajectories, and like the rocket’s red glare, our coming demise would be tragically realized. It is just a matter of time.

I inherit a house. We spend the year 2004 fixing it up, making it our own. It is the place where my wife spent her childhood. Then, in the middle of renovations, in fights with painters and fencing companies, and roofers, I wake up one morning and I cannot breathe. I think it is only a pulled muscle in my chest, but the condition worsens. I can only sleep sitting up in a chair. I find myself losing the fight to bring air into my lungs.

At the hospital, I am rushed into the emergency department with congestive heart failure. In rapid succession, I find my diabetes is out of control, my heart is enlarged, and my blood pressure is dangerously high. I am stuck in the hospital while my wife must handle all the contractors and workmen. For the first time, I think seriously about death, in a middle aged, no nonsense, change-your-life-right-now kind of way.

I leave the hospital a week later having lost forty pounds, fifteen of it in the first twenty-four hours of hospitalization. The enemy is water. Water, you need to live. But too much around your heart and you die. I am more quiet for a while, and the thoughts of death stay.

At the end of summer, we move into our new home. I am sad to leave our other life behind. Eleven years in one place means feeling like a fish on land in the new place. Change is supposed to be good, but I am ashamed to admit, I often fear it. I believe I do my best work when I have security. Now I have a mortgage, more responsibility, health concerns, far less security.

In the fall of 2005, I watch my other brother get married. I take close to four hundred pictures for him that day, but we really have little to say to each other. I am not part of the wedding party. I sit with my parents and another couple, their friends since high school. Little do I know that in a few months, we will all share in a tragedy, an event that will push us apart even as it links us together.

On January second, after leaving the home of those high school friends, my mother drops dead of a heart attack on their driveway. The paramedics and emergency room doctors work on her for over an hour, but she is gone. Sixty-one years old.

My father retires in 2006. The seven day man always worked the full week. My father is not a big communicator. I go to his retirement party at the brewery with his co-workers. He thanks them, seems to enjoy himself, but there is a sadness, a distance, like he had left a long time ago.

A few weeks later, a dull pain in my side lands me in the emergency room with sepsis. Appendicitis. I come out of the anesthesia fighting with the nurses over a catheter I did not want. It takes several of them to subdue me. I remember the darkened hospital room, and my father trying to say something to me, but it’s garbled, like code. I cannot focus. The antibiotics, the pain medicine, the anesthesia all leave me cloudy.

I leave the hospital, and twenty-four hours later, dance gently at my twentieth wedding anniversary party. When the time comes, I give a toast to my absent brother, our missing grandparents, my dead mother. I speak about memories, and difficult days, and love and friendship.

There are moments in our lives where we stand on a precipice, and our whole lives stretch out before us, as well as behind us. We get a glimpse of what has been, where we are now, and what is to come. There are ghosts and the living there with us. In that moment, no one will ever grow old, nobody will ever get sick, and nobody ever dies. But the moment is gone in an instant, and the good fight goes on. It is only a brief respite. Here’s to twenty more years.

The last thing to happen in the time since is the death of a family. We simply ran out of things to say to each other. Like that day in September, six years in the past, there is a dividing line between who you were, and who you are now. Henry David Thoreau said that “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” I know this now from first hand experience. In the years since, I feel I cannot live enough, or that I live not at all. I think about those poor people falling from the sky. I think of the hatred that pushed them into the air. I think about what those final moments must have been like.

It is time to cast off the things holding us back. It is time to step out into the clear, blue sky.

I think of all that we have lost in the years since, and I again think of the words of Thoreau: “I have penetrated to those meadows on the morning of many a first spring day, jumping from hummock to hummock, from willow root to willow root, when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead, if they had been slumbering in their graves, as some suppose. There needs no stronger proof of immortality. All things must live in such a light. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory, then?”

Spring journeys into summer again.

And so I stand in Battery Park, in the fading twilight of a summer’s day, the way it is always summer in my dreams. I take a last look across the rippling Hudson to Lady Liberty, a hazy darkened shadow in the distance. It is time to go home.

As I make my way back toward Trinity Church and Ground Zero, I see Spiderman. He is not flying through the air. He is not even looking heroic. He simply trudges past me, a backpack slung over his tired shoulders. He is a guy heading home after a long day’s work.

In the days and years since, our heroes tend to be more like normal people now. They do not fly through the air anymore; like every one else, they walk on the ground.


Saturday, September 8, 2007

1984 and The Stranger: Bleak Worlds



1984
By George Orwell
Signet Classic $4.95, paper
ISBN 0-451-52493-4


The Stranger
By Albert Camus, Trans. By Matthew Ward
Vintage International $9.00, paper
ISBN 0-679-72020-0


George Orwell (Eric Blair) and Albert Camus (pictured) present a bleak and hopeless world inhabited by characters who are at the mercy of their respective societies and circumstances. The worlds ultimately destroy these characters, and by the end of each novel, the two protagonists have been changed dramatically.

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, Winston Smith is a prisoner in his own society. In the state of Oceania, Winston suffers oppression at the hands of the vague, unfocused government, represented first by Big Brother, a figure who stares menacingly out from posters spread all over the city, and later by a party figure known as O’Brien, who tortures Winston until he is completely given over to party ideals.

Throughout the novel, Winston not only is a victim of the oppressive regime, he must take part in his own destruction as a party member. He works in the Ministry of Truth, rewriting news stories at the party’s whim, eliminating references to people who have been removed from society for crimes against the party, and in turn, Big Brother. He is disturbed by what he sees, and what he must do as part of his job. This gives rise to a major theme in the novel: the mutability of the past. If any fact can be changed, if any reference to a person can be eliminated, no person and no event ever existed to begin with, and therefore, those that control the past also control the present and the future. This theme is oppressively disturbing to Winston, and he begins, on every level possible, to rebel against it.

He begins keeping a journal, written in real ink on real paper, items in short supply in his world, and only available in the poorer neighborhoods where the Proles live. He must secretly buy these things on the black market. While purchasing these illegal items, he also picks up a glass paperweight, another relic from a time passed. In fact, he becomes so enamored with the junk shop in the poorer section of town that he rents the room above it from the shopkeeper. This constitutes a treasonous act because the room does not have a telescreen, the party’s in-home listening and visualizing device required by law. In other words, Winston creates his own secret world where, very shortly, he begins to cohabitate with a young party member, a woman named Julia, in a secret and forbidden affair.

As Winston and Julia continue to break rules and live as individuals, their crimes against the party snowball. They become reckless and careless. The shopkeeper is a member of the Thought Police, and the two lovers are arrested in mid-tryst, separated, and imprisoned for their crimes.

Winston faces torture by O’Brien, a shadowy party figure who works in the Ministry of Truth with Winston, and whom Winston sees in his dreams, often spouting the cryptic comment, “We will meet again in the place where there is no darkness.” The promise turns out to be true; Winston is tortured in the Ministry of Love, a place where the lights burn twenty-four, seven and prisoners are watched at all times.

After rounds of torture, and after the final act of being threatened with his worst fear, hungry rats, Winston betrays Julia, and professes his love for Big Brother. At the end of the novel, he sits in a gin-soaked stupor in the Chestnut Café, waiting for the inevitable bullet in the back of the head, realizing that alive or dead, it is all the same.

The bleakness of the ending comes after an endless barrage of hopeless events and images. Winston’s world is hellish. It reflects Orwell’s view of a post-Second World War Britain with the rise of communism and socialism and the growing hopelessness of a world in chaos, subjected to weapons of mass destruction, genocidal events, and meaningless, empty wars. Orwell’s only cause for hope is the poor Proles, who are left alone by the party, and are earthy and procreative in their poverty and ignorance. In the Orwellian world, it is the Common Man and Woman who will defeat an increasingly dangerous and darkened world.

The novel is written in a pedantic and claustrophobic style that leaves little to the reader’s imagination. The strength of the work is in its breathtaking accuracy in predicting the world of the late twentieth century. Orwell captures the incestuous oppression of totalitarian governments and shadowy figures who spy on people. The depravity of O’Brien and the party, the cold calculations of their “civilized” world, make Orwell’s view dark indeed.

Albert Camus’ The Stranger, takes a slightly different tactic. Camus and his translator, Matthew Ward, aspire to poetry in prose. The result is a bit less bleak, and contains several well-written elements, some satire and subtle wit. But the world Camus creates is still bleak.

Camus’ novel revolves around the philosophy of Existentialism formulated by thinkers and writers such as Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Simone de Beauvoir. Existentialism was a group of ideas current in philosophical, religious, and artistic thought during and after the Second World War that emphasized existence rather than essence and saw the inadequacy of human reason to explain the enigma of the universe as the basic philosophical question. Existentialists believed that we, and things in general, exist, but that these things have no meaning for us except as we can create meaning through acting upon them. The roots of Existentialism go back to Rene Descartes’ formula, ‘I think, therefore I exist.”

In practice, Existentialism is characterized by a sense of meaninglessness in the outer world; this produces discomfort, an anxiety, a loneliness in the face of human limitations. There is a desire to invest experience with meaning by acting upon the world, but these actions only lead to anguish, greater loneliness and despair. In Camus’ novel, this concept is portrayed through the character of Meursault. In his conflict with himself—identified by a total lack of connection to anything in his world—we see how the duality of freedom and responsibility create the main source of anxiety. Meursault should feel his mother’s death as the novel opens, but instead feels nothing. Camus renders the details of the funeral in surreal tones. Meursault does little better than sleep through the wake; in fact, he seems caught up in his need to sleep, often a sign of depression.
If left to fester, Existentialism can lead to nihilism and hopelessness. Nihilism is a doctrine that holds that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated; it is the belief that destruction of existing political or social institutions is necessary for future improvement.

Indeed, Meursault proceeds to destroy his life. By the end of the novel, he is facing death after murdering an Arab on a beach. But in the act of murdering another human being, he feels something—an emotion—for the first time. He also realizes that his life has meaning; his actions in committing the murder have led the people to hate him. In this case, engendering an emotional outburst in others, even one steeped in spilled blood, means his life has meaning.

The world of 1984 is cold and scary. Having lived into the twenty-first century, and after witnessing both the Vietnam and Iraq conflicts, I marvel at Orwell’s gift of prophecy. The novel is a nightmare; there is no hope offered except for Winston’s views of the Proles, and in that idea, I concur. The Common Man has always been the enemy of the state. We use his children to serve in the army and to eradicate our enemies. We test our drugs and vaccines on him. We leave him to sink or swim by his own devices. For his part he is loyal, until he feels betrayed by those governing him, and as we saw in countless protests and acts of civil disobedience over the years, he rebels and affects change.

The Soviet Union could not sustain itself. Many other regimes have fallen as well over time. Any nation that victimizes its people will ultimately fail. This country is no exception. Our first two hundred years were marked by the development of a nation based on ideals of freedom and democracy for the Common Man. Historians may argue we have betrayed him in recent years, and that may yet lead to America’s demise unless we return to those ideas and the average, middle class American rises up and takes back his country.

In this way, I did not find Orwell’s view appealing. It is blunt, dramatically rendered, and frightening, which I am sure was Orwell’s intention.

Camus makes more subtle points. He too, in his own way, is prophetic. We have numbed ourselves to the point of narcotic stupor with anti-depressants. We do not wish to feel anything, because feeling causes emotions and emotions are difficult to rein in and control.

He is also a better writer on an artistic level. There are many beautiful passages in The Stranger, and Matthew Ward manages to not ruin them in translation. In one chapter, Meursault speaks of his life in prison: “In the darkness of my mobile prison I could make out one by one, as if from the depths of my exhaustion, all the familiar sounds of a town I loved and of a certain time of day when I used to feel happy. The cries of the newspaper vendors in the already languid air, the last few birds in the square, the shouts of the sandwich sellers, the screech of the streetcars turning sharply through the upper town, and that hum in the sky before night engulfs the port: all this mapped out for me a route I knew so well before going to prison and which now I traveled blind. Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something had changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.”

As this passage demonstrates, Camus is a writer of power and beauty. His message appeals to me because it is beautifully written. But his message also rings true when contrasted against our world today. We still suffer from loneliness; we still struggle to put meaning into our lives; we still often feel empty and isolated from each other. Only when we take some kind of action do we accept our role as determiners of our own existence. Although Meursault determines his fate and opens a floodgate of emotions through negative actions, most people today are looking for a positive way to do this.

In the end, I am drawn to the subtly simple prose of Camus. Whereas 1984 exists as a blunt warning, The Stranger does what all art should do: it opens up the mysteries of the human condition in beautiful and poetic language, but unique to this novel, it also leaves us weeping for a murderer. To do both makes Albert Camus more than just a visionary; he is an artist.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Einstein's Dreams


Einstein’s Dreams
By Alan Lightman
Warner Books $8.99, paper
ISBN 0-446-67011-1


Einstein’s Dreams, in the novel by Alan Lightman, represent not only his meditations on the nature of time, but also thematic ideas and lessons about life. Here are three examples.

Passage one: “In the world in which time is a circle, every handshake, every kiss, every birth, every word, will be repeated precisely…And just as all things will be repeated in the future, all things now happening happened a million times before.”

Passage two: “A world in which time is absolute is a world of consolation. For while the movements of people are unpredictable, the movement of time is predictable. While people can be doubted, time cannot be doubted. While people brood, time skips ahead without looking back. In the coffeehouses, in the government buildings, in boats on Lake Geneva, people look at their watches and take refuge in time. Each person knows that somewhere is recorded the moment she was born, the moment she took her first step, the moment of her first passion, the moment she said goodbye to her parents.”

Passage three: “For in this world, time does pass, but little happens. Just as little happens from year to year, little happens from month to month, day to day. If time and the passage of events are the same, then it is only people who barely move. If a person holds no ambitions in this world, he suffers unknowingly. If a person holds ambitions, he suffers knowingly, but very slowly.”

These three passages from the novel explain not only a possible dream Einstein had while formulating his theories on time, but they also illustrate an aspect of the human condition and teach life lessons that can be incorporated into today’s world.

In the first passage, the citizens of that world are doomed to live one segment of life over and over again. They will have the same successes, but also make the same mistakes. This is a cause for much sorrow and trepidation. The full chapter ends with the people twisting and turning in their sleep, unable to rest, moaning aloud through the night due to the agony of being unable to change.

Lightman is illustrating with this passage that comparable to Dante’s rings of hell, someone who knows he must change, but is unable to due to either conditions or circumstances, faces agony and frustration. Many people make resolutions, or vow to change some behavior, but the behavior is so ingrained in them that they cannot complete the change. Therefore, they live making the same mistakes over and over again.

In the real world, this is the obese man who cannot bring himself to diet. The gambler or alcoholic who cannot kick the habit. Misery follows on the heals of misery. If man cannot adapt, then all is lost, and that is exactly what is happening in the passage. Take away a human being’s ability to change negative behaviors and one is doomed to failure, not just once, but repeatedly, over and over. Humans can be stubborn and resistant to change; Lightman postulates that these people are in for a lifetime of heartache and pain.

In the second passage, the people of that world rely on what is dependable and constant. As the passage states, they “take refuge” in the stability of time. One may feel safe with keeping to the dependable path, but in the long run, life is filled with risks and uncertainty, and there is no way to avoid them.

We are all victims of the relentless march of time. We grow old, we die, our children grow old, they die. Eventually, everyone who remembers us dies and we die again when we are forgotten. It is the clichĂ©, “time marches on,” that informs this passage. By staying with what is safe and stable, one misses out on the spontaneity of life. Again, as Lightman does in so many of these chapters, he illustrates the trade off: one might play it safe, but that leads to a stifled existence.

In the third and final passage, time passes, but little happens. A person without ambition lives a life of malaise. A person with ambition realizes he is going nowhere, and therefore suffers.

This is easily translatable to our world. If no progress is made, the ambitious person feels frustrated. It is a given that everything must change or die. When we stop changing, our lives are over. In a sense, the people in Lightman’s passage never had a chance. Time’s progression is so slow, any forward momentum is lost.

It is also a fundamental truth that given a choice, one would love to be paid to “do nothing.” In reality, doing nothing would become tedious and boring after a while because we are restless creatures. We crave forward motion. Therefore, Lightman’s passage illuminates once again a hellish world. No one gets anywhere. And suffering ensues.

Lightman is magical in the way he blends a meditation on time and the nature of the universe with the actuality of being alive in this world. Although each chapter represents an imaginary world, the ties to our lives and the way we behave are very clear.

In the end, that is the success of this oddly structured little novel. Lightman manages to illuminate the human condition while laying out the dreamscape of a scientist’s brain. The end result is a novel that explains the incongruous nature of our perception of time, with the agonizing and often frustrating minefield of human endeavor within the confines of time.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Melting The Face of God



I took the photograph above after returning home from New York last summer. Either my house was burglarized by anti-Viagra forces bent on playing a practical joke, or the heat had its way with my candlesticks. It makes for a funny picture.

This year, I find myself preparing to teach a quick unit on the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelations to my seniors as we launch into AP Literature, all while temperatures hover at 109 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Even with air conditioning, I feel the fires of hell.

If we need anymore evidence of Al Gore’s holiness as a prophet of increased heat and diminished humanity, we need look no further than the last two summers here in Los Angeles. This beginning of September week has seen temperatures in the 100s. Lightning strikes have given way to brush fires, including a scary one today in Acton, about forty miles north of Los Angeles. I am sure there will be more to follow.

Last year, in July, we had record temperatures here in the San Fernando Valley, including 119 in Woodland Hills. I thought I had escaped the worst of it by traveling, but when I returned home, I found that my air conditioner, which had been shut off for a week, could not handle the round the clock work to get the house down to a livable temperature. It took two days and periodic rest to defrost itself before everything was back to normal, except for the limp candlesticks.

Of course, whenever the weather here in Los Angeles does a number on us, I always think of Joan Didion’s essay, “Los Angeles Notebook” from her collection entitled Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Didion is my favorite essayist. She is the best at capturing the perceptible malignancy in daily life. She is the perfect writer for the late 60s—early 70s Los Angeles, the times of Charles Mansion, drug parties in Laurel Canyon, and the danger lurking in Santa Ana winds and earthquakes. She is the Raymond Chandler for the essay set, taking a hard, cool look at what being an inhabitant of Los Angeles truly means. Of course it means, according to Didion, unsettling fear.

She writes great imagery in “Los Angeles Notebook,” potently real to anyone from here. “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon,” she begins the essay. “Some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point.” Danger is coming, to be sure.

She goes on to write of neighbors wielding machetes, Indians throwing themselves into the ocean, and the shriek of peacocks in the night. The heat, she says, is surreal. Here we tread across common ground. Outside, my neighborhood is achingly still. The sky is a deep blue with lurking clouds of smoke and smog from the fires. It is ominous, filled with evil.

We have only been back to teaching for three days. I am still not sleeping well, and the heat does not make things easier. Luckily, we have central air conditioning in each classroom and at home. I do remember working at schools without air. By the end of the day, my pants were glued to my legs, and the students were near catatonic. One of the greatest inventions of humanity is not the computer; it is the air conditioning unit humming just outside our windows.

The heat adds a dimension to these dog days that makes for nervous energy. I feel restless. I cannot concentrate. Even in the coolness of my classroom, my students and I are aware of the heat outside. We cross its plateau to get to the building. The asphalt in the parking lot is sticky and soft. Crickets haunt our hallways, searching for coolness and moisture.

We will get through it. By December, the air conditioner will be shuttered for the winter. We will wear sweaters and jackets, and our breath will make clouds in the cold air. God, I cannot wait.

Until then, I think of Joan Didion, the prophetess of doom, the bringer of harbingers of what’s to come. Los Angeles is a tinderbox right now, a stewing pot, a house of dry twigs. All it will take is a flash, and up it goes. Tornadoes of fire will stretch crimson arms to the sky. People will flee their homes. Horses will rear and scream as they are herded into carriers. Cats will hide under the bed. Television news helicopters will hover over canyons until late at night, capturing and broadcasting hell in primetime.

That last one is kind of ridiculous. All you see is fire and hillsides in the dark. I never can tell what city or area the fire is in until the newscaster tells me. Yet the helicopters continue to hover dangerously, even when it’s just smoke, fire, and night, and you cannot tell which way is up.

Tomorrow, I will teach another lesson on how the world will end according to the Book of Revelations. It is no secret how it will end. Just look outside.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Living Under The Radar



Scott Timberg, a Los Angeles Times’ staff writer, addresses a number of authors in Sunday’s Arts & Music Calendar section, September 2, 2007 (latimes.com) who have remained under the radar over the course of their careers. Many of these writers are also widely read in high school, and have stimulated intense interest over the years.

Timberg discusses J.D. Salinger, who has not published much new work since his novel Catcher In The Rye, Thomas Pynchon, who will not allow himself to be photographed, Cormac McCarthy, who until a recent Oprah Winfrey interview, refused to make public appearances, and probably the best example of reluctance to embrace her status, Harper Lee, who hasn’t allegedly written anything since To Kill A Mockingbird.

At my school, Salinger and Lee, and their reluctance to publish, are well known. The students read both novels as part of the ninth and eleventh grade curricula. This year, we added Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road, to the Advanced Placement Language and Composition course on the eleventh grade level.

Timberg discusses similar writers who have followed in these great ones’ footsteps, like Denis Johnson, author of Tree of Smoke, and even artists in other fields, such as Syd Barrett, founder of the rock group Pink Floyd, and actress Greta Garbo.

In his article, Timberg delves into the reasons writers disappear, or refuse to write more, or live a life of seclusion. He also discusses how this disappearing act plays into literary criticism. He quotes French critic Roland Barthes, who argues that a writer’s biography has nothing whatsoever to do with the value of the work of literature. Timberg states that “because there are so few real facts to go on, withdrawal [by the author] both confirms and distorts the way we see each writer.”

It is a common debate among critics whether or not an author’s biography means anything to the criticism of the work. Works of literature, indeed works of art, are not created in a vacuum. They are created in response to the world, to what the author undergoes as part of every day living. One cannot avoid at least considering what possible impact current events and the author’s experience might have had on his writing.

I usually show a film to at least one of my classes that illustrates some reasons why an author might turn reclusive. Timberg mentions the film, Finding Forrester, starring Sean Connery, in the article. Supposedly, Gus Van Sant, the film’s director, based Connery’s character on aspects of Salinger. In the film, Connery’s reclusive writer, living in an ancient apartment in the Bronx, avoids contact with the outside world because of personal tragedies that occurred after his book was published. But the writer has not given up creativity. He writes, but as is rumored about Salinger, he keeps all of his work locked up in file cabinets. His decision to release a manuscript posthumously through a young writer he coaches is a major plot point in the movie.

Timberg also quotes New Republic critic Lee Siegel. “The poet maudit was the precursor to the recluse. He can’t deal with any kind of success, so he goes out, like Rimbaud, and destroys everything. It keeps alive this idea of a ‘holy curse’ on the writer, who has to keep away from humankind. It’s kind of romantic.” Timberg illustrates clearly the mystique that follows the reputation of the writers discussed in the article. Timberg adds the newer, less reclusive authors, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth, to the list.

In the end, the question must be asked: does a writer’s reluctance to submit to public identification, or her refusal to prolifically publish, add to or detract from her popularity? In short, would Catcher In The Rye have the kind of panache it does if Salinger made the rounds of late night talk shows? Probably not. But in his case, what adds more fuel to the fire is that his novel has been found in the possession of a number of high profile murderers. For publicity and intrigue, that is the kind of detail a publicist dreams of, even in the face of tragedy.

The whole phenomenon of the book tour, the author appearance on a talk show, and publicity a writer must do to sell his book developed recently. Writing used to be much more anonymous. Today, writers simply cannot escape the very public arena we expect anyone who writes to participate in fully. Warhol’s idea that everyone is eligible for fifteen minutes of fame now applies to even the solitary creative life of a writer.