Robert Louis Stevenson on learning to write

“Whenever I read a book or a passage that particularly pleased me, in which a thing was said or an effect rendered with propriety, in which there was either some conspicuous force or some happy distinction in the style, I must sit down at once and set myself to ape that quality. I was unsuccessful, and I knew it; and tried again, and was again unsuccessful and always unsuccessful; but at least in these vain bouts, I got some practice in rhythm, in harmony, in construction and the co-ordination of parts. I have thus played the sedulous ape to Hazlitt, to Lamb, to Wordsworth, to Sir Thomas Browne, to Defoe, to Hawthorne, to Montaigne, to Baudelaire and to Obermann. . . .

“That, like it or not, is the way to learn to write; whether I have profited or not, that is the way. It was so Keats learned, and there was never a finer temperament for literature than Keats’s; it was so, if we could trace it out, that all men have learned; and that is why a revival of letters is always accompanied or heralded by a cast back to earlier and fresher models. Perhaps I hear someone cry out: But this is not the way to be original! It is not; nor is there any way but to be born so. Nor yet, if you are born original, is there anything in this training that shall clip the wings of your originality. There can be none more original than Montaigne, neither could any be more unlike Cicero; yet no craftsman can fail to see how much the one must have tried in his time to imitate the other. Burns is the very type of a prime force in letters: he was of all men the most imitative. Shakespeare himself, the imperial, proceeds directly from a school. It is only from a school that we can expect to have good writers; it is almost invariably from a school that great writers, these lawless exceptions, issue. Nor is there anything here that should astonish the considerate. Before he can tell what cadences he truly prefers, the student should have tried all that are possible; before he can choose and preserve a fitting key of words, he should long have practised the literary scales; and it is only after years of such gymnastic that he can sit down at last, legions of words swarming to his call, dozens of turns of phrase simultaneously bidding for his choice, and he himself knowing what he wants to do and (within the narrow limit of a man’s ability) able to do it.

“And it is the great point of these imitations that there still shines beyond the student’s reach his inimitable model. Let him try as he please, he is still sure of failure; and it is a very old and a very true saying that failure is the only highroad to success. I must have had some disposition to learn; for I clear-sightedly condemned my own performances. I liked doing them indeed; but when they were done, I could see they were rubbish. In consequence, I very rarely showed them even to my friends; and such friends as I chose to be my confidants I must have chosen well, for they had the friendliness to be quite plain with me, ‘Padding,’ said one. Another wrote: ‘I cannot understand why you do lyrics so badly.’ No more could I! Thrice I put myself in the way of a more authoritative rebuff, by sending a paper to a magazine. These were returned; and I was not surprised nor even pained. If they had not been looked at, as (like all amateurs) I suspected was the case, there was no good in repeating the experiment; if they had been looked at—well, then I had not yet learned to write, and I must keep on learning and living.”

Memories and Portraits, Chapter IV (1912)

False steps: looking for the message

I wrote this piece several years ago. It covers much of the same ground as “Sending the Right Message About Literature” a bit more concisely, and with the addition of the “Little Red Riding Hood” example.

Teachers and students waste a good deal of time looking for messages in literature. I know this both because my own students almost all come to me with this idea firmly implanted in their minds, and because I have seen so much evidence of it in my work as an examiner for the International Baccalaureate.

A great work of literature, as evocative as a tree or as the world itself, invites us to respond with our minds and our hearts, but it does not prescribe those responses. It invites us to explore, to reflect, to read and re-read. It does not say to us, ‘This is life’ or ‘This is the world’ or ‘This is what people are like’. Instead it shows us life, the world, and people, from a certain angle (or, more often, from a variety of angles) and asks: what do you think? what are you feeling now?

Unfortunately, many students learn in school that stories, plays, and poems are cryptic messages meant to be deciphered. As I wrote in one of my examiner’s reports a while back,

Most students have been taught that literature is filled with hidden messages and meanings cleverly disguised with symbols, metaphors, and other ‘literary devices’. Their job is to decode the messages and file them under various standard headings such as ‘existentialist’, ‘nihilist’, and ‘archetypal’. One candidate actually made this theory of literary criticism the opening sentence of her essay: “It is important to understand the intentions of authors as most of the time they are trying to convey hidden messages.”

Finding hidden messages is difficult. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, most students simply retail ideas that their teachers or other sources have fed them. When the same interpretation of a work is repeated by student after student, it’s clear that they are simply parroting what they have been taught. Such teaching appears to be the norm, as one can infer from Billy Collins’s wonderful “Introduction to Poetry”:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

To be sure, it is perfectly possible to tell a story, or write a play or poem, with the intention of sending a message or making an argument. With rare exceptions, such works quickly fall by the wayside and are easily dismissed. Perhaps they have some historical significance, but they are not taken seriously as works of art. Equally clear is the case that certain stories are written for children and adolescents with the intention of teaching their readers to be kind to others, or to avoid illegal drugs and unwanted pregnancies. Again, these are not often serious works of art. 

Some children’s stories, of course, do achieve a standard recognizable as art, and they illustrate my argument here quite well. What is the ‘message’, for instance, of A.A. Milne’s ‘Pooh’ stories, or of Arnold Lobel’s ‘Frog and Toad’ stories? Like all good stories, these tales for children create an imaginary world that raises questions: Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here, and what should we be doing? These are the questions raised again and again by literature and by other forms of art. But how can we tell the difference between real literature and propaganda, or moralizing tales? For one thing, the questions remain open: it is up to the readers or audience to answer them.

As an example, let’s have a look at Charles Perrault’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Perrault (1628-1703), a well-connected member of the bourgeoisie in the court of King Louis XIV, began collecting children’s stories in his old age and published them with the subtitle, “Tales of Mother Goose.” In his version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” the grandmother and the girl are both eaten by the wolf, and the tale ends there. But not quite. Perrault adds this paragraph to the end of the story:

Moral: Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf. I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves. There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue young women at home and in the streets. And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves who are the most dangerous ones of all.

Apparently Perrault intends to send a message with his story, and his final paragraph makes his message very clear: young ladies are in danger of being seduced—or even raped—by nefarious men who may be “charming, quiet, polite, unassuming, complacent, and sweet.” Despite his apparent intentions, however, both his story and his “moral” raise a multitude of questions. Why is a story addressed to young women written as a fairy tale for children? Why is the main character a little girl when the “moral” is about young women? Why does the mother send the girl off alone into such a dangerous world? Why does the grandmother not have a proper lock on her door? From another angle, why is Perrault (or rather, the men of his time, society, and class) so intent on controlling young women, and preserving their virginity? And so on. What is the “message” of “Little Red Riding Hood” now?

As another example, let’s try one of the greatest novels ever written: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. From the epigraph alone (“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord; I will repay”) one could infer what the historical record shows: Tolstoy began his tale with the moralistic idea of showing us that Anna was a sinful woman deservedly punished by God. But along the way, a funny thing happens: Tolstoy seems himself to fall in love with Anna, at least temporarily, and at least enough to bring his moral certitude into doubt. Indeed, his alter-ego protagonist, Levin, visits Anna when she and Vronsky are living at Vronsky’s country estate. Levin, prepared to meet an immoral woman, is surprised to find her delightful and charming. Only after he returns home to his wife is his newly-sympathetic view of Anna brought down to earth with a bump. Anna does suffer a famously terrible end, but as readers we are not at all certain that she deserves her fate. As critics have often remarked, Tolstoy the artist wins out over Tolstoy the Christian moralist. The story that Tolstoy apparently set out to write would perhaps have ‘sent a message’; but if it had finished up that way, it would not be regarded today as one of the greatest novels ever written. The novel does not leave us with a message; instead it leaves us pondering many questions.

I am not arguing, of course, that an author’s tone—his or her attitude toward characters and events—cannot be inferred. It’s clear that Tolstoy sympathizes more with certain characters than with others, but these sympathies and antipathies are not ‘messages’ that close off alternatives. On the contrary, when Tolstoy treats Oblonsky with comical delight, we wonder why he should remain beloved by all—including the author—when his sister Anna (who is guilty of the same ‘sin’) becomes a pariah doomed to a tragic death.

Shakespeare remains the supreme example in our literature of an author who does not send messages. His plays are filled with ideas, with characters and events that raise questions, but at no time can we imagine Shakespeare sitting down to write, thinking, “Ah, now I will write a play with the message, ‘if you need to take revenge, act quickly!’“

George Saunders: What happens to me when I read fiction

From his wonderful book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (Random House, 2021)

I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind.

I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid.

I feel I exist on a continuum with other people: what is in them is in me and vice versa.

My capacity for language is reenergized. My internal language (the language in which I think) gets richer, more specific and adroit.

I find myself liking the world more, taking more loving notice of it (this is related to that reenergization of my language).

I feel luckier to be here and more aware that someday I won’t be.

I feel more aware of the things of the world and more interested in them.

Most of that applies to other art forms, too.

Practice, practice, practice!

Some students think that certain assignments are important, while others are not important—or that some assignments are more important than others.

This is a dangerous error.

If you only read what is assigned to you, you will never read enough to become a really good reader, and to acquire the background knowledge you need.

If you only write what is assigned to you—or even worse, only what the teacher marks in detail—you will never write enough to become a good writer.

Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball except during team practices and games. That player will never learn to play basketball well. Good players become good by spending hours and hours and hours in the gym, shooting lay-ups, shooting free-throws, shooting jump shots. No coach is there pointing out errors or praising progress. 

Or consider the piano student. Once a week, during lessons, the teacher points out what the student is doing well, and where the student needs to improve. In between lessons, the student must practice, practice, practice, practice. No one is there to say, “That’s good!” or “No, no, your left-hand fingering is wrong!” 

Getting better is all about the repetitions. 

If it were possible for a superhuman English teacher to mark in detail every piece of writing you do, it would be a waste of time for the teacher, and for you! Why? Because we continue making the same mistakes, for a long time. Mistakes arise out of bad habits, and bad habits can be corrected only through practice, practice, practice! 

Consider the basketball player. During a team practice, the coach sees that the player’s elbow is stuck out away from the body on jump shots. “Pull your elbow in! Your forearm should be vertical!” says the coach. But the player must shoot hundreds or thousands of jump shots to train the brain and the body to keep the elbow in and the forearm vertical. It would be useless for a coach to stand behind the player for hours crying out, “Elbow out! ”That’s better!” No, it’s out again!” The player knows what the problem is. Correcting it takes practice, practice, practice!

Those hours of practice begin to pay off, eventually, during team practices and games. But without the hours of practice, unobserved and ungraded, the player—and the student—will never make much progress.

Who will be a better player: the one who never touches a ball except during team practices and games, or the one who isn’t even on the team but spends hundreds of hours in the gym practicing?

Who will be a better writer: the student who never writes except on graded assignments and exams, or the one who writes every day, privately, and is not even enrolled in the course?

The answer is the same in both cases. 

Better than either of these, however, will be the player who practices for hours alone, gets good coaching during team practices, and then puts it all together during games. Better than either will be the student who reads and writes voraciously outside of class, gets good instruction in class, and then puts it all together on graded assignments and exams.

That’s why every assignment is important.

Time is a good editor (amen!)

I’ve been working for weeks on what will probably be an 800-word article. Well, I’ve just been writing and writing and writing… searching for the right small focused part of the big [picture]. . . .

I’ve gotten more patient with the writing process, and with that period when you want to have all the thoughts in a row but they’re running around like kids at a playground.

Time is a good editor.

—Farai Chideya, @farai on Twitter

Farai Chideya is a journalist, author, radio host, and podcaster. Among other achievements, she was a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute from 2012-2016.

Along the same lines, Natalia Cecire (Senior Lecturer in English and American literature at the University of Sussex, @ncecire on Twitter) recalls the advice she was given about learning math:

Some things are just so hard you have to see them ten times to get it. So if you don’t get it right now, that’s because this is only time one.

Wise words from George Monbiot

George Monbiot is the well-regarded author of several books focusing on environmental issues. “In 1995, Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500 Award for outstanding environmental achievement” (Wikipedia).

Understanding who we are and where we stand in the world is not something that happens at birth, or at any one point in our lives. It arises from questioning, challenging and reassessing ourselves every day. There is no one answer, and it does not stay still.

We acquire no useful knowledge of our world without determined study. We acquire no useful understanding of our world without constant investigation. We all have a duty, to ourselves and others, to see beyond the culture and beliefs into which we were born.

This might sound like a grind. But in truth, this quest will lead you to unimagined wonders and delights.

—George Monbiot on Twitter
11 June 2020

Why is learning to write well so slow, so difficult, and so frustrating?

Why is writing so difficult?
For many reasons. For example, writing is not natural, like talking or walking, so it requires a special effort. It also requires careful attention to lots of annoying details like punctuation, grammar, and spelling. Many of the ‘rules’ for English punctuation, grammar, and spelling don’t make much sense. Moreover, writing requires you to do two conflicting things at the same time: think about what you are saying, and also think about how you are saying it. And so on. To put it briefly, writing well is one of the most difficult human skills.

Why is it so frustrating?
Because usually, improvement takes a long time. Even worse, improvement is not gradual. That is, if we made a graph of writing improvement it would NOT look like this:

Instead, a graph of writing improvement would look something like this:

The second graph helps to explain an almost universal experience: you work, and work, and work, but your results don’t improve. Why? Because you are on one of those long, flat portions of the line. If you let the frustration defeat you, then you give up trying and you never reach the next level. But if you remain patient and determined and keep working, you will eventually reach that point where everything you have been working on suddenly ‘clicks’ and you jump up to the next level.

So now you want to know . . .

How does one become a good writer?
It’s not so complicated, but it’s not so easy, either.

  1. Read! When you read, you learn what words and sentences look like when they are written. If you read very little, your understanding of what written words and sentences look like remains weak and uncertain. How is that word spelled? Should I put a comma here? What’s the right way to use a dash, or a semi-colon? Hundreds of such questions confront a writer, and it’s impossible to learn the answers to them by memorizing a grammar book. However, someone who reads a great deal learns to answer most of those questions correctly simply by seeing so many words spelled and so many sentences and paragraphs written correctly. So there’s the first key to success as a writer: good writers are voracious readers!
  2. Pay attention. Once you become an enthusiastic reader—when reading is a pleasure, not a chore—you can begin noticing how writers write. After all, if you enjoy reading, then you enjoy the results of someone else’s writing. At first, and for a long time perhaps, you may be content just to benefit from other people’s hard work. But if you’re lucky you will develop an interest in the craft of writing—how do they do that?—and want to try it yourself. You may discover that, although writing well is very difficult, the satisfaction of succeeding at it is very great.
  3. Write! You learn to walk by walking, and not giving up even though at first you fall down a lot. You learn to play the piano by playing the piano. You learn carpentry by doing carpentry. You learn to play football by playing football. You learn to write by writingFind good writers, and copy what they do. Then find others who write very differently, and copy what they do. Practice, practice, practice. Seek out good coaches, and take their advice. 

And as Winston Churchill almost said, never, never, never, never give up.


Quality vs. Taste: The Ice Cream Story

No ice cream was consumed during the writing of this story, and consuming ice cream of any kind is NOT recommended. If you want something sweet, eat fruit.

One Saturday afternoon my friend and I were walking down the pedestrian-only section of the main shopping district downtown. My friend looked to the left and saw a Mr. Softie vendor selling swirls of soft ice cream in three different colors, with sprinkles of various kinds available at additional cost. “Oooh! Mr. Softie!” he cried, and started toward the stand. “Wait!” I said. “Do you have any idea what’s in that stuff? It’s just air and chemicals and artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors and artificial colors. The only real thing about it is the very real damage you do to yourself when you put that poison in your body.” “I know,” he said. “It’s crap, and it’s really bad for me, but I love it anyway.” And off he went. 

Waiting for him amid crowds of shoppers, I began looking around. On the opposite side of the street to the Mr. Softie stand was a Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream shop. The best, most expensive, and most delicious ice cream in the world! Without hesitating I walked through the ornate double doors, already salivating as I imagined a scrumptious bowl of Waldorf-Ritz Rocky Road. The moment I passed through the doors, lights began flashing, celebratory music began playing, and confetti began falling from the ceiling. The store manager rushed straight up to me, smiled happily, and said, “Congratulations, sir! You are the one millionth customer to walk through those doors!” He took me by the arm and led me to a special roped-off table that had been prepared for the occasion. “Please have a seat here, sir,” he said. Then he called to his employees, “Bring out the Prize Ice Cream!” In a kind of procession, the entire staff escorted the master ice cream chef to me as he carried, on a silver tray, a large bowl of ice cream. “There you are, sir!” said the manager. “Three scoops of our unbelievably delicious pistachio ice cream, free of charge, with our compliments. I know you will enjoy it.”

I looked at the ice cream, and then at the circle of happy employees waiting to see me take my first spoonful, and then at the manager. “I really appreciate this,” I said, “but I’m sorry to say that I don’t like pistachio ice cream.” The manager looked shocked, but then smiled. “I think you misunderstand, sir,” he said. “This ice cream is handmade in small batches by our master ice cream chef. All the ingredients are 100% natural, organic, and completely free of any artificial additives or colorings of any kind whatsoever. The cream comes from cows raised in luxury dairy farms where they are treated like movie stars. Nowhere in the entire world will you find ice cream even half as good as Waldorf-Ritz Gourmet Ice Cream!”

“I know that your ice cream is the best in the world,” I sighed. “But I don’t like pistachio ice cream!”

The moral of this sad tale, of course, is that judgments of quality are different from judgments of taste. I may love Mr. Softie ice cream, or I may love a corny movie or a trashy piece of pop music, even though I know that if I judge their quality, they all fail the test. On the other hand, I may admit that Waldorf-Ritz Pistachio ice cream or the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are all superb examples of ice cream, fiction, and dance, while still not enjoying any of them. In the words of the great American film critic, Roger Ebert, “Does it make a movie ‘good’ because you ‘like’ it? No, it doesn’t, and I have liked a lot of bad movies.” We can put this another way: no one can tell you that your judgments of taste are wrong. No one can say, “You are wrong to dislike pistachio ice cream!” But if someone who knows more than you do about literature and ballet says, “You are wrong to claim that the novels of James Joyce or the ballets of Igor Stravinsky are crap,” he just may be correct.

Why do a GAP year?

Throughout my career I have advised my Grade 12 students to do a GAP year before beginning their college studies. I gave the same advice to my own children.


Most first-year university students waste their parents’ money and 25% of their four short years as undergraduates, because instead of going to every class and studying as hard as they can, they are busy doing all the things they couldn’t do when they were living at home with their parents. That year would be much better spent out of the classroom in one of a very large number of excellent GAP programs. After a year traveling, living abroad, working in a service program, etc., students are not just ready but eager to go back to school. They are a year older. They are less interested in staying up all night and going to parties.

Here is one college professor’s take on this question:

It is the rare high school graduate who is ready to take full advantage of what a Bachelor’s course can offer. A year away from education – traveling, working, volunteering, growing up – before college should be the preferred option, the default, not the rarity it is in the US. It is common enough in Europe, and often very successful. Our undergrads who return from their Junior [third] Years all around the world (we send around 2/3 of them abroad) are often, finally, the kind of curious, thoughtful, broad-minded students who are ready to take advantage of what we can offer them. And they get a year of it [i.e., their last year of university] before they move on. If more of our students came to us at the beginning in something like that frame of mind, they would get a great deal more out of their college experience.

I did not take a year out between school and university. I had a fabulous time and learnt a lot, but missed so many opportunities. It was only in my mid-20s, looking back, that I realized what fantastic resources had been available to me, had I only had the wisdom to use them.

—Ed Webb*


Many colleges and universities allow students to apply, be admitted, and then defer their entrance for one year so they can do a GAP program of some kind. They do this because they recognize that first-year students who are a bit older, a bit more mature, and really keen to study do better, usually, than those who go straight from high school to university. Ask your college admissions counselor for advice about this process.

Too dumb to quit

The great jazz drummer, Joe Morello, in a 1986 interview, tells a story about his teacher, George Lawrence Stone:

Another of Stone’s little axioms was, “The secret to success is an unbeaten fool.” I asked him what that meant, and he said, “It means you’re too dumb to quit.” [laughs] You’ll be criticized and put down, but you keep coming back and trying again.

Ain’t it the truth!

St. John’s College, the Great Books school

If you’re looking for the best liberal arts education in the world, you’re looking for St. John’s College: Great Books curriculum, seminar classes, small residential colleges, outstanding teachers.

St. John’s has two campuses, the original site in Annapolis, Maryland (home of the U.S. Naval Academy), and the second campus founded in the 1960s in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In Annapolis you get leafy avenues, historic buildings, and East Coast charm. In Santa Fe you get high desert, adobe, incredible skies, and New Mexican cuisine. I earned my master’s degree in the St. John’s Graduate Institute (three summers in Santa Fe, one in Annapolis), but have long regretted not going there as an undergraduate.

There are no lecture courses: all are seminars with no more than 20 in a class. The teachers are called “tutors” and they “teach everything” just as the students learn everything: literature, mathematics, science, languages, music, etc. If you like reading books, and discussing big ideas; if you aspire to being a truly well-educated person; if you’re looking for intellectual challenges; then St. John’s might be for you.

Looking for a College or University

1. Think about where you want to go. West Coast? East Coast? Midwest? South? Canada? Overseas?

2. Think about how big a school you want.

3. Do you prefer to live in a small town, a medium-sized city, or a large urban area?

4. Strongly consider a small, liberal arts college. Such schools exist only in the United States and offer, to my mind, the best undergraduate education. At a good liberal arts college you will be taught by professors from the best graduate schools in the country, and the world—professors whose primary interest is teaching, not research and scholarship. You will have access to these teachers in small classes (not cavernous lecture halls), giving you the maximum opportunity to benefit from them. You will be able to take courses in a wide variety of subjects, perhaps discovering something you really love and otherwise might never have even heard about. And at almost all such colleges, even those in remote locations, you will experience a rich array of art, music, and other cultural events and performances that would otherwise be available only to people living in New York or London or Paris.

5. Don’t take “college ratings” too seriously. You might attend Harvard College and discover that the two or three professors most important to your major field of study are people you don’t get along with at all. On the other hand, you might attend a very modest regional state college and discover that the two or three professors in your major field are wonderful, caring teachers who become important influences for the rest of your life.

My graduation speech

I’ll begin with a story.

One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”

I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.

Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred by their experiences but wiser, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.

First, take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.

You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! (Try a water flosser—better than normal floss, and more fun.) And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food-processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat real food: vegetables, grains, meat and fish, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: go very light, if at all, on the dairy products. Above all, avoid added sugar, a slow poison that is highly addictive and causes a host of diseases.

Exercising won’t keep you slim—you have to end your sugar addiction to do that—but you do need exercise to stay fit. You don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons, however—working out a bit at home, every day, will do the trick. Find a form of exercise you really enjoy, and exercise regularly. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.

Second, plan for retirement. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I do advise you, however, to plan your retirement.

When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. For such a man, living two years without a salary was not a big problem. (His wife, if she was lucky, lived out her days on her husband’s comfortable pension and a life insurance annuity.) Today, people who retire at 65 are likely to live another twenty or thirty years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as forty or fifty years.

Even twenty years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheck, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheck. Seriously.

Third, don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?

Fourth, try to find something or someone besides yourself to live for. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives, gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will. The most important way to make the world a better place, of course, is simply to be the best person you can be.

If you’re not asleep yet, you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they eat giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of gardening. If you work only for the giant broccoli, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day—something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work.

Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work.” I’ve given you the best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.

Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.

Research: what are ‘credible sources’?

Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.

But what exactly is a credible source?

Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are researching: a university professor, or a lawyer, or a doctor, or a carpenter, for example, all have expertise in certain areas. Note, however, that a physics professor writing about physics has a certain credibility, while a physics professor writing about politics has no more expertise, necessarily, than anyone else.

On the internet, avoid citing personal blogs by unidentified authors, or sites where anyone can post a comment. Such information may be right, or may be wrong; but as a source in an academic research paper it has no credibility. You may find more reliable information on sites with URLs that end in .gov (government sites), .org (non-profit organizations), or .edu (academic institutions like universities). Even here, however, beware: governments lie, or publish propaganda; non-profit organizations may still be biased; and since we know that university professors often disagree violently with each other, it would be unwise to accept without question what any single professor might say.

Wikipedia is inherently unreliable, because its pages can be edited by anyone. However, at the bottom of most Wikipedia pages is a list of sources used in writing the article, and these sources might be good places to look for credible information.

“Real” encyclopedias like the Encyclopedia Britannica might, you would think, offer more credibility—but think again. Can their editors be trusted more than Wikipedia’s editors? Maybe, or maybe not. Besides, encyclopedias of all kinds are little more than starting points for your research. Use them to gather some initial ideas and get an overview of the subject, but then dig in to their sources of information and go further.

Similarly, do not give automatic credibility to publications like the New York Times: such mainstream, “respectable” newspapers and magazines have been found guilty of printing misinformation on many occasions.

Going Further (2013)

For more (and sometimes different) advice on finding credible sources for your research, have a look at these links:

Mrs. Fitzgerald recommends these sites: – a script which helps students discuss and evaluate websites which was created by a joint project of the Illinois Math & Science Academy and the US Dept of Ed.  I use their tools often with classes.  (Go back to main page and choose Tutorials to see other useful resources). – a help guide for UC Berkeley students – EXCELLENT tutorial created by Intute Virtual Training and the LearnHigher project in the UK to help university students – a guide create by librarians at Ithaca College to help their students – brief list of website criteria created by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company

And Mr. O’Reilly has sent me these recommendations:


Internet credibility

Never Give Up: An Inspiring Story

In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.

Honestly, I remembered very little about her: the name, a face, not much more. Among 130 or 140 other students I taught in 1982-83, she had done little to stand out. Her first moves after high school, as she related them to me, were not filled with academic promise: an early marriage, and then the birth of her daughter when she would have been graduating from university had things been different. Once her daughter was a year old she began taking university classes, but a few months later she gave birth to twins with serious medical and developmental problems. For the next few years she dropped her university studies to take care of her children.

A decade passed. Kathy began working, but a “handful of years” in an office job convinced her that she wanted a different life than that. As she tells the story, “My employer was kind enough to allow me to cut back to a half-time schedule so that I could go to school full-time and qualify for financial aid, and [the university] provided sufficient resources to help me along.”

Finally, 28 years after finishing high school, Kathy earned her university degree in May 2011. Her daughter graduated in the same class at the same university. Shortly after the graduation ceremony, the university announced the hiring of its new president: one of Kathy’s high school classmates. “It has been a long, strange, and excellent trip!” she wrote.

She told me, too, about her senior thesis: an analysis of Charlotte Brontë’s 19th-century novel, Jane Eyre.

The senior seminar that was offered was on Jane Eyre and [Jean Rhys’s] Wide Sargasso Sea. Although many of my fellow students were enthusiastic about the Brontë novel, I was not. I am just not a fan of Victorian literature, I guess. Knowing I needed to produce a substantive paper to get the sheepskin, and being unwilling to write a piece that was merely a rehashing of other people’s research, meant I had to get creative. 

I followed my gut, which led me to interrogate the reasons for my dislike of the novel. I concluded that the tidy romantic ending was dissatisfying because the result was that Jane abandoned her dreams in order to spend her life with a man who was less than an ideal mate, a man who drove his first wife insane (according to Jean Rhys), imprisoned her, and denied her existence to the world. 

My paper developed into a close reading of contradictions within the novel, and an interrogation of the mechanisms that make it feel natural for young women in our culture to sucker for romantic conclusions that lead to unsatisfactory relationships and the short-changing of hopes and aspirations. Jane could have made a profound difference [as a teacher] in the lives of many boarding school students who were otherwise left to be victims of a defective system. Despite the fact that she thrice stated that her ideal was to run a school that would provide experiences opposite those she lived through at the Reeds’ and Lowood, she gave away the inheritance that would have allowed her to do so, and became dependent on a dark and brooding patriarchal master to whom she surrendered her agency and independence. 

My advisor told me that he had never seen anyone approach the novel from this angle, and that successful completion of my thesis could open up new discussions on the topic. I feel accomplished to have been able to provide a new take on an old subject for a professor who has been teaching literature since the early 60s.

Far too often, students and teachers are judged by grades and exam results. In truth, each of us is so much more than the grades we earn in high school. The grades and exam results tell us something about our recent performance on a narrow range of tasks given us by the school. But they tell us nothing about what we are, who we are, or what we may be and do in the future. “I can’t count the number of times I wished I had been a better student in your World Lit class”, Kathy wrote. Her poor performance in my class would have led unwise observers to conclude that she was not cut out for an academic future, or that if she did pursue a university degree, it should certainly not be in English literature.

Such unwise observers might also conclude that I had not done a very good job with Kathy, and that her poor results followed from my poor performance as a teacher. But grades and exams don’t tell the whole story. Sometimes the results of a teacher’s efforts remain invisible for years; often the most important effects of a teacher’s work are impossible to measure.

Kathy wrote, “I am steeped with gratitude for teachers like you, who taught me that education is not about having answers, but more importantly, it is about learning how and when to develop good questions. Kudos to you for having the fortitude to stick with [teaching], especially when some students do not always give their best efforts! You have been successful in creating a ripple that spans the vastness and touches the lives of others. . . . It does make a difference, even decades later.”

Students need stories like Kathy’s to remind them of what they can accomplish, given enough determination, patience, and persistence. Parents, teachers, school administrators, school boards, and politicians should be reminded of Kathy every time they forget that education is about much more than grades.

The Intentional Fallacy: it doesn’t matter what the author intended

First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? I could offer you lots of reasons, but in the end I have no idea what impelled me to eat oatmeal.

Second: it doesn’t matter. Literary biographers are interested in a writer’s life; literary critics are interested in a writer’s work.

E.M. Forster makes this point by distinguishing ironically between the real work—reading literature—and the associated activity of “studying” literature, which he calls “only a serious form of gossip”:

  • The personality of a writer does become important after we have read his book and begin to study it. . . . We can ask ourselves questions about it such as ‘What is the author’s name?’ ‘Where did he live?’ ‘Was he married?’ and ‘Which was his favourite flower?’ Then we are no longer reading the book, we are studying it and making it subserve our desire for information. ‘Study’ has a very solemn sound. ‘I am studying Dante’ sounds much more than ‘I am reading Dante.’ It is really much less. Study is only a serious form of gossip. It teaches us everything about the book except the central thing, and between that and us it raises a circular barrier which only the wings of the spirit can cross. The study of science, history, etc., is necessary and proper, for they are subjects that belong to the domain of information, but a creative subject like literature—to study that is excessively dangerous, and should never be attempted by the immature.
    • —E.M. Forster, ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’, from his collection, Two Cheers for Democracy.

So we can all indulge in literary gossip, and we all can enjoy it. Tolstoy the man is as interesting, in his own way, as his novels. But we should not confuse literary gossip with literary criticism.

Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. All that matters is what the author actually produced. Mark Twain may have intended nothing more than a sequel to Tom Sawyer; whatever his intentions, however, he produced Huckleberry Finn, and as readers that’s all we care about.

‘Hamlet: The Happy Ending’

Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm


Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.

But how is this possible?!

‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth and the grace of God. But sit you down, and I will lay it all out before you. Here, a bit of wine will do you good.

Horatio sits and grips his wine cup as though it were the last real thing in his universe.

I saw right away that to stay in Denmark meant certain death for me and those I most loved. I began with Ophelia, and together we wove a plan. Then came you, and the ghost. I wanted to tell you all, but feared to put you in danger should the king suspect you, and so I must beg your pardon, dear Horatio.

But I saw you die, with my own eyes. I saw Ophelia buried. I saw you kill both Laertes and the king, and I saw the Queen drink the poisoned wine. Have I gone mad?

Fie, fie! you are the sanest person I know. But eyes can deceive, good Horatio. What you saw was mostly theatre. Acting. Stage tricks I learned during my days with the players in the city.

Did no one die?

Only the king and, alas, old Polonius. That was the accident that nearly unraveled all my plans.

But my lord, you killed the king with the same rapier that only moments before you pulled out of Laertes. How can Laertes live, if the king died?

That was nicely done, eh? Laertes and I managed the rapiers very well. Of course, everyone was so alarmed by then, it was easy to beguile their senses with a sleight of hand. [Seeing Horatio’s incomprehension.] The rapier that seemed to kill Laertes was one I had from the players. The one I plunged into the guts of that villain was real.

May he roast in hell! O, my lord, you cannot know, nor I cannot say had I a thousand years, how glad I am to see you here before me, alive and well and smiling. [They embrace, both shedding glad tears.] Tell me, though, how is’t with the Queen your mother?

Still my mother, God be thanked, and no longer queen, I am glad to say. She was yet divided in her heart, though always loyal to me, but when Laertes told her of the king’s plan for the fencing match, all division ended and she became an eager player in our plot. And then, when the king did not stop her from drinking the wine that he thought was poisoned, all remaining sympathy was erased and she rejoiced in his death, though for the sake of our deception she could not show her happiness ‘til later.

And where are they now— your mother, Ophelia, and Laertes?

At home, such as it is, waiting to embrace you when I bring you there to greet them.

With all my heart will I greet them, each and every one. But what of Rosenkrantz, and Guildenstern? Do they live?

[Laughing] Aye, what a pair, those two! The king had no idea what actors they were. At moments they nearly convinced me of their villainy. They are in London, and from their latest letter it appears that they are making a name for themselves in the theatres there. Perhaps we shall go and see them, or better yet persuade them to return here and join us. We might make Wittenberg the centre of the world.

Does Fortinbras know you live?

Aye, aye, he was my back, had the fencing match not gone as I planned it. The great fool, he was just as happy to become king as I was to escape from that madness. Ambition, greed, grasping always for favours and power—what kind of life is that, Horatio?

Not the sort that I should want, my lord.

No, nor I. Shall we go to greet the ladies and Laertes? They await us.


Ugly word of the day: “societal”


 What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.

Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .

I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” that. Please, please, please: just say “social”!

A Slow-Books Manifesto: Read books. As often as you can. Mostly classics.

From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

With empathy comes self-awareness, of course. By discovering affinities between ourselves and characters we never imagined we’d be able to comprehend (like the accused murderer Dimitri Karamazov), we better understand who we are personally and politically; what we want to change; what we care about defending.


Reading (Again): great advice for literature students

I just came across this blog post by Barbara Kerley. Although aimed at people learning to write fiction, it matches exactly the advice I give to students in my literature classes, especially at the IB Diploma level, where they need to analyze how the authors’ choices and techniques produce the effects we see in the works.

Since Blogspot is blocked where I am, I will, with apologies to Ms. Kerley, reprint a big chunk of her post here so that my students can benefit from it:

Reading (Again)

Posted by Barbara Kerley

I got the nicest email the other day from a group of kids in Illinois who’d been reading my books in school. They sent questions. (And pictures! That was a treat for me to see all those smiling faces!) These kids are serious about wanting to write; they’re analyzing books they like and writing authors for advice.

One of the questions they asked was what writing exercises I’d recommend for young writers like them, and what kind of exercises I enjoyed doing.

I wrote back:

“I think one of the best things you can do as a writer is to REread other people’s books. When you read a book you like, read it again and look at how the author accomplished whatever it is s/he did so well. Satisfying ending? Well, how did s/he set that up? Exciting story? Well, what details or plot twists did s/he include? Characters you really care about? Well, how did s/he do that, specifically?”

I learned this tip years ago when I heard the wonderful author Nancy Farmer speak at a conference. She said when she was teaching herself how to write, she would read the same book three times. The first time she read it, she was so caught up in the story that she really couldn’t see how the author made it work so well. But by the third reading, she was able to step back, analyze what was going on, and learn from it.

Right. The first time you read a book, most of your attention is devoted to tracking who’s who and what’s happening. The second time you read it, you know who the characters are and what happens, so you can devote most of your attention to the details you missed the first time; you make connections you didn’t make before, and understand things better. The third time, you can really focus on the author’s choices and techniques and analyze how the story or play or poem is written.

At this point you might ask: what kind of book would I want to read three times?! Answer: a really good book. Supermarket thrillers can be read once, but after that? —there’s no reason to re-read them, because they are all plot, and once you know the plot, that’s it. A really good book, however, can be read multiple times, and each time it shows you something more and gives you more to think about. Or, as Susan Sontag wrote, “No book is worth reading once if it is not worth reading many times.”

Does reading great literature make us pessimistic?

Here’s what David Carl, a teacher at St. John’s College, answered in an email message to one of his students:

In general, our encounter with great works should tend to make us hopeful, and therefore optimistic. I have the words of several authors in mind when I assert this, such as Montaigne (“The profit from our studies is to become better and wiser men”) and Wallace Stevens (“It is not what I am but what I aspire to be that comforts me”). So long as we believe that we are capable of becoming better people in the world through the work we do (whatever that work happens to be) it is difficult to have a fundamentally pessimistic view of our own existence.

If we believe that progress and development and improvement are possible for us as individuals (that it’s possible for me to become better than I currently am, whatever I mean by “better”) and we also believe that the work we do (the reading, the studying, the talking, the writing, etc.) can contribute towards that goal of “being better”, then I think it’s difficult not to be optimistic about the books and our work at the college. And if we don’t believe that we can become better than we are, then I’m not sure why any of us are here (or anywhere else) in the first place.

I would only add what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogue, ‘The Meno’ (tr. W.R.M. Lamb):

Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it—this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed.

Thanks to Mr. Carl for permission to quote him.

Do university students learn anything? It depends.

I am usually wary of stories in the U.S. media about education issues—almost always I find distortion and oversimplification.

This piece by the Associated Press is no exception, but it caught my eye, particularly these two findings from the report it cites:

_Students who studied alone, read and wrote more, attended more selective schools and majored in traditional arts and sciences majors posted greater learning gains.

_Social engagement generally does not help student performance. Students who spent more time studying with peers showed diminishing growth and students who spent more time in the Greek system [fraternities and sororities] had decreased rates of learning, while activities such as working off campus, participating in campus clubs and volunteering did not impact learning.

To which I guess one can only reply, Really? No kidding?

Chalk up another one to common sense, and write it on the wall next to your desk: If I study more, read more, write more, go to a better school, study real subjects, and don’t go out drinking every weekend, I’ll do better in school and learn more.

Might even work in high school . . . but we would need another scientific study to know for sure, eh?

The Blue Pencil Online: a literary magazine for students, edited & published by students

High school writers looking for a place to publish their work should have a look at The Blue Pencil Online, a project of the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, in Natick, Massachusetts (USA). Their standards appear to be quite high, so for a young writer of real talent and ambition, the Blue Pencil just might provide the right sort of challenge.

For a brief article about the site and the school, see this page from the National Association of Independent Schools.

How to improve your English


Students sometimes ask, “Mr. MacKnight, how can I improve my grammar?” Here’s how.

1. Read every day!

There is no substitute for daily reading. Choose books you like: if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t read. Students who are non-readers will never become fluent writers, because only through years of reading do we develop a strong sense of what sentences should look like when they are written down. Read every day!

2. Copy good writing

If you are reading every day, but want to accelerate your improvement by doing more, it is possible. Trying to memorize a grammar book won’t help. But if you are really determined, there is a good method. It may sound stupid, but it works.

Copy good writing.

I don’t mean, “imitate good writing.” I mean copy it, word for word, comma for comma. By hand. So that it’s perfect. As I say, this may sound stupid, but it will actually force you to slow down and pay attention to the details, and it will teach your muscles to write correctly.

Where to find good writing? Any writing you admire and enjoy will do, but here are two suggestions. First, try any essay by George Orwell. He died about 60 years ago, and he was British, so there will be an occasional word or phrase that may be out of date or unfamiliar. But he remains one of the two or three greatest English-language essayists of the 20th century. Second, try some essays by Paul Graham, who writes as a hobby, mostly, and usually about computer science. But he also writes on more general-interest topics, and he is an excellent stylist.

I suggest that you copy one paragraph every couple of days—two or three a week. Don’t try to go fast; aim to copy everything perfectly, down to the last apostrophe. If you keep at it, I guarantee that your grammar will improve. You will also learn about how to write a great essay.

Don’t use study guides!

We’re talking about SparkNotes, Cliff’s Notes, York Notes, and all such similar shortcuts used by lazy and/or desperate and/or insecure students.

Inspired partly by an online discussion among IB English teachers and partly by my own students, I’ve added a page to my English A1 class blog that makes things as clear as I can make them. It begins like this:

Study guides WON’T HELP YOU! In fact they will harm you, in several ways:

1. They often are inaccurate and of poor quality.
2. They prevent you from thinking for yourself.
3. They encourage you to think – wrongly – that the goal is to discover THE ANSWER or THE MEANING and then regurgitate it on an exam.

The rest of the page is here.

SAT scores: not the last word

This may surprise you:

[Students who don’t submit SAT scores when they apply to university], with significantly lower SATs, earn [university] G.P.A.’s that are within five one-hundredths of a G.P.A. point of submitters, and graduate at rates within one-tenth of 1 percent of submitters.

This comes from the former head of admissions at Bates College, in Maine, USA, but presumably would be generally true.

Great Podcasts #4: BBC World Book Club

Harriet Gilbert hosts monthly interviews with contemporary authors that feature questions from both a live audience and BBC World Service listeners from all over the world. Recent programs have featured writers such as Nawal El Sadaawi, David Guterson, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, Annie Proulx, and Chinua Achebe. Highly recommended!

As always, you can go directly to the BBC site, but the best way to ensure that you don’t miss a program is to subscribe via iTunes.

Summer writing help

All of my Gr. 11—>Gr. 12 students in English A1, and all Gr. 10—>Gr. 11 students going into English A1 are invited to work on their writing this summer through email tutorials.

Just send me a paragraph as an email attachment. I will mark it up with comments and suggestions and send it back to you. You can then rewrite and repeat the process as often as you like either with the same paragraph or a new one. Current English A1 students may not, of course, use actual paragraphs from one of your World Literature assignments.

My email address, in case you’ve lost it, is ericmacknight AT mac DOT com.

Best wishes,


Holden Caulfield on Smoking: a Pastiche

In the first place, you have to buy the goddam cigarettes, unless you just bum ’em off other guys all the time and then don’t even say thanks like that sonuvabitch Ernie Morrow. Anyway, like I said, you have to buy them, and who do you buy them from?—these stinking-rich gigantic corporations with about as much social conscience as your average mass-murderer, that’s who. I mean, they probably hire all these poor people to grow the damn tobacco, pay ’em peanuts, then turn around and sell cigarettes to the poor bastards who can’t afford decent clothes, let alone cigarettes, but they probably can’t stop smoking on account of they’re so depressed about their lousy lives.

And in the second place, once you give your money to these fat corporations,
what do you get? You get to start stinking up everything in your life. Your breath stinks, your clothes stink, your house stinks, your car stinks, your whole life stinks, if you want to know the truth. Gorgeous.

The only good thing about smoking is, if you’re lucky, with the right genes and all, you’ll get lung cancer or emphysema or something and die an early death.

The problem is, you might not die an early death. You might live until you’re about seventy-five with yellow teeth and dried-up, papery skin and ashtrays all over your goddam house, and drapes that stink enough to kill a damn moose and then you get cancer and you spend about three years in the hospital with tubes sticking out of you all over the place and your grown-up kids come visit you and stand around your bed talking when they think you can’t hear them about all the birth defects they got from you and the asthma they got from you smoking around their cribs and playpens when they were little and all and then you wish to hell you’d given all that money to the Red Cross or something instead of buying all those damn cigarettes.

It just goes to show how stupid a guy can be who’s actually pretty smart, if you know what I mean.

—October 2003

Great Podcasts #2: Writers & Company

Eleanor Wachtel interviews writers on her Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, “Writers & Company”. She and Leonard Lopate are the two best interviewers I know. She talks with famous and not-so-famous authors, and their conversations are invariably interesting and informative. Few ‘media personalities’ are as well-informed as Wachtel. Older students in top-level literature classes will find these podcasts stimulating, sometimes challenging, and very worthwhile.

Subscribe via iTunes, or directly from the CBC web site.

On stories

From the archives . . .

When we tell stories, or read or watch or listen to stories, we are (in part) searching for our own story: the story that will explain to us who we are, where we are going, and why; the story that will make sense of the world we live in, and our place in that world. To put it another way, through stories we both rehearse for the performances ahead (courtship, marriage, career, middle-age, death) and review our past performances, to see whether, with hindsight and the storyteller’s angle of vision, we might understand them better.

Our choice of stories, and the nature of the stories which really move us, can be understood as having something to do with the problems and questions that concern us personally. Fears of all sorts; doubts of our own ability, courage, or moral strength; questions about romance, marriage, parenthood–such elements arise in many different kinds of stories, from fairy tales and nursery rhymes to the most sophisticated novels and plays.

Northrop Frye, the great Canadian literary critic and teacher, once remarked that all stories may derive ultimately from one archetypal story about the loss of identity, and the search to rediscover it. According to other critics, death is the central issue of story-telling: we rehearse our own death endlessly, by reading about the deaths of others. How and when will we die? Will we behave admirably, or shamefully, when death is upon us? And, of course, what is death? According to this view, our compulsion to understand death, prepare for it, or escape from it, fuels our obsession with story-telling.

These generalizations about the nature of story-telling are no substitute for reading a particular text closely, and analyzing it in detail, but they may help you find a “way into” a story: look again at the issues I’ve raised, and see whether any of them are present in the story you’re reading now. These reflections about stories may also help you appreciate better the value of the detailed studies that you are forced to undertake in school: if your own story, your own identity, your own death are really at stake, then perhaps it is worthwhile, after all, to look very closely, and think hard about what you find.

—June 9, 1998

Ancient Greece, Modern Readers

A man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, fulfilling a prophecy made years before. When he discovers what he has done, he gouges his eyes out with his mother/wife’s hairpins. A young woman defies the law and risks her life to give her brother’s body a proper burial. The general of an allied army agrees that his eldest daughter should be put to death so that he can lead the army in a war to defend his brother’s honour. A woman, abandoned by her husband, wreaks her revenge by murdering their children.

These are just a few of the more memorable stories from ancient Greek poetry and drama. Written 2500 years ago, they still capture our imagination. Students known to doze in class are suddenly awake and engaged. These Greek stories have amazing power.

Their power is not merely the power of lurid plots, as the brief descriptions given above might suggest. The Greek stories are often lurid, it’s true, depicting unspeakable acts of seemingly primitive ferocity. Some readers—Sigmund Freud, for one—believe that they enthrall us because they conjure our deepest wishes and fears. “Moderation in everything”, said the Greek philosophers, “nothing overmuch.” Reading their stories and their history, one can’t help feeling that they extolled moderation because they could never achieve it themselves.

But the power of ancient Greek literature is not merely sensationalist. As Aristotle pointed out, our experience of these stories as stories—not actual events—gives us the emotional distance we need to reflect on them, and learn from them. (Aristotle also asserted that learning is the highest—not the greatest—pleasure known to humans, which helps explain why we enjoy these sometimes horrific tales.) We are appalled when Orestes murders his mother to avenger his father’s death, yes; but we are also made to think, and that thinking can lead to the most profound reflections concerning law, society, duty, taboos, the relationships between children and parents, and on and on.

Moreover, the culture of ancient Greece, along with that of the ancient Hebrews, lies at the root level of Western civilization. We cannot really understand European culture without knowing the Greeks; we cannot know ourselves without knowing the Greeks; we cannot, in the end, claim to be educated without knowing the Greeks.

Unfortunately, the Greeks have largely disappeared from school curricula. In secondary schools, younger students have a few sanitized Greek myths thrown at them, usually along with a potpourri of Norse, African, Asian, and Amerindian myths, legends, and folktales. Older students rarely return to the Greeks, and if they do, the visit is brief: an excerpt from The Odyssey, perhaps. “Advanced” students may read Oedipus Rex or Antigone. For most, nothing at all. In universities, very few students read any ancient Greek literature.

Why is this a problem? A while back, I saw a television interview with Bill Joy, who was at that time “chief scientist” for Sun Microsystems. He had written a magazine article discussing the ethical problems raised by the prospect of having in the near future a million times the computing power of a typical contemporary computer, on every desktop. His article provoked a small storm of debate about how or whether we should try to control such awesome power, and in the course of that debate someone referred to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Joy was prompted to go back to the Greeks, to see what they had to say. His conclusion? “The Greeks”, he said, “understood all of the issues raised in my article”.

Writing about what he thought was a new problem soon to be caused by an astronomical increase in computing power, Bill Joy discovered that the essential issues involved had already been explored, 2500 years ago. Bertrand Russell, who remarked that all of Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, would not have been surprised. It’s a tribute to Mr. Joy that he had the insight to raise these questions. I can’t help wondering, however, how much sooner he would have achieved his insights, and how many others would have foreseen the same problems, had a thorough exposure to Greek literature and philosophy been a part of everyone’s general education.

Greek philosophy, by the way, is not as scary as it might sound. Like Greek literature, it combines a surprising simplicity with amazing depth. The Greeks, in the infancy of Western thought, produced literature and philosophy that can be read and enjoyed by children, and re-read over a lifetime with increasing understanding and appreciation. Soon after his election as President of the United States in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court justice. Noticing a book on the table, FDR asked Holmes, who was then in his nineties, why he was reading Plato. “To improve my mind”, he said.

Plato wrote philosophy as literature. His dialogues feature a wonderful protagonist, Socrates, who delights his young friends and infuriates his opponents by asking seemingly simple questions they cannot answer, all the while professing to know nothing himself. The best introductions for secondary school students are the “Apology”, which recounts the trial and conviction of Socrates, and the “Crito”, in which Socrates refuses the opportunity to escape death by fleeing. Both will provoke vigourous discussions. My other favourite is the “Meno”, in which Socrates famously claims to to demonstrate his theory of learning by helping an unschooled slave-boy to learn geometry. The “Allegory of the Cave”, which forms just a small part of the very long dialogue named “The Republic”, is also a must-read. As is common in literature, the surface often deceives in Plato’s dialogues. It is not at all certain, for example, that Plato’s description of the ideal state in “The Republic” is really intended to be a blueprint for political reform. In the “Meno”, similarly, Socrates may not really believe that the demonstration with the slave-boy proves anything; he may simply want to convince Meno not to give up searching for the truth.

If your school is lucky enough to include philosophy in the curriculum, Plato will provide enough material for all the lessons the school could possibly offer. If not, I would argue strenuously for adding Plato to the reading lists for English. A dialogue, after all, is literature, and few alternative works will provide as much stimulation. English teachers who are used to finding ambiguity and layers of meaning in works of fiction will have no trouble finding them in Plato.

As for Greek literature per se, The Odyssey is first on my list. It can be read profitably, in different ways, by students at any grade level. The great myths–the Oedipus cycle, the story of the Trojan War, the Agamemnon/Orestes saga–should be taught in the middle years so that students can later read Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides with the benefit of their earlier experience. Once their interest has been piqued, students can explore the lesser myths on their own and in groups, and then share their discoveries with their classmates in speeches, presentations, and written work. In Grades 10-12, students should read the full versions of The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, Antigone, Agamemnon, and as many other plays as possible. Remember: if your students don’t read these great works in high school, it is almost certain that they will never read them at all.

For a teacher who has never studied Greek literature or philosophy, getting started teaching it can be intimidating. My advice is to start small, and go slow. Begin with a re-telling of The Odyssey, or a selection of myths, or a re-telling of the trial and death of Socrates. The response of your students will convince you that you’re on the right track.

A quotation for Natasha . . .

. . . who complained today, at a moment when everyone was working in silence, that the class was ‘boring’:

Perhaps in the end the question one should ask of any scholar is what purpose he feels his work serves. I could claim great nobility of character and tell you that I work for the good of humanity. Or I could try to shock you and tell you that all I care about are the financial and professional rewards. Neither would be entirely false. I am, indeed, a bit of a romantic who believes, rather in the face of the evidence, that good ideas eventually prevail and make everyone’s life better. I am also not an ascetic: I will not sneer at a nice honorarium or a free trip to a pleasant location.

But the honest truth is that what drives me as an economist is that economics is fun. I think I understand why so many people think that economics is a boring subject, but they are wrong. On the contrary, there is hardly anything I know that is as exciting as finding that the great events that move history, the forces that determine the destiny of empires and the fate of kings, can sometimes be explained, predicted, or even controlled by a few symbols on a printed page. We all want power, we all want success, but the ultimate reward is the simple joy of understanding.

Paul Krugman

(New Times columnist, Princeton professor of economics,and 2008 winner of the Nobel Prize)

The challenge for students and teachers is to dig beneath the mundane routine of school and find the ‘simple joy of understanding’ in every moment.