Winter: Five Windows on the Season

Layout 1I wanted very much to like this book, but Gopnik has nothing to say. He’s playing the role of the guy who rambles on about whatever expecting us to be pleased at where he winds up because he is just so cultured and knowledgable. (I know. The point of an essay is to wander in a useful, enjoyable, interesting way. My point is that these essays simply wander.) A bigger problem is that I don’t believe for one minute that Gopnik’s interested in the various minor whatnots he trots out. They feel contrived and make all the rest seem suspect.

To my eye, Gopnik’s real concern is form. He is not so much writing about winter as he is performing the essay in relation to the topic. What bothers me here is that there are awkward attempts to connect with his readers/listeners through pop culture and popular forms, a lot of them. These plus the various, marginal whatnots (which he clearly expects we will not have heard of) make it seem as if Gopnik thinks he is talking to children or simpletons. Because he is so attentive to form, I assume that this is intentional and that he does.

Which brings me to the thing that kept nagging at me as I read. I think these essays may be an ex-pat telling Canada, the Great White North, that winter’s white-cold nights really are interesting. It feels like a writer is patting his homeland on the head and telling its inhabitants they are beautiful “just the way they are. Chin up.” (I’m probably being touchy here.)

I read the first essay carefully and with excitement. I started the second quickly and in dismay. By the third, I was skipping and skimming and feeling no need to go back and pick up what I’d missed.

England: An Illustrated History

England- An Illustrated HistoryI realized that I have no sense of English history. I mean I know a lot about this and that, but I don’t have any over-arching timeline that ties the things I know together or gives a means of setting English history against American or Continental history. I read this book to try to fix that problem.

It’s simple, fast read, but useful and unpretentious too.

And I enjoyed it. Always a plus.

Dates I noted:

Roman Conquest (43 BCE-450 CE)

  • Caesar (55 BCE)

Norman Conquest (1066) Tudors (1485-1603)

  • HenryVIII 1509-1547
  • Eliz I 1558-1603


  • James Charles Cromwell Charles James
  • Long parliament was held when Charles I finally had to call P. they stayed in session and eventually launched civil war.
  • Civil war was followed by Cromwell’s commonwealth 1642-1660
  • Glorious Revolution: when parliament prevented James II from restsblishing Catholicism by bringing William and Mary to replace him. 1688.

Reasonable People

A humane take on childhood that’s fundamentally at odds with our collective “decision” to drug kids into submission. Find it here.

A humane take on daily life that’s fundamentally at odds with our collective “decision” to prioritize efficiency and live like machines. Find it here.

A satirical response to the Republican party’s decidedly un-funny, anti-woman social politics. How any reasonable person can vote for this party’s candidates escapes me. Find it here.

For a more serious (and bleaker) response to the same issue, go here. (If nothing else, read the last paragraph about the Loretta Lynn song.)

Teacher Evals and Student Performance

An important article that calls “Bull!” at the current mania for teacher evaluation appears here. The key point comes at the end:

Rubinstein writes that “the high correlation in this plot reveals that the primary factor in predicting the scores for a group of students in one year score is the scores of those same students in the previous year score.”

Basically, student performance is linked to what students have done, not what teachers do.

The World of Yesterday

The World of YesterdayThe Beav bought me this book after reading it in French. It’s a memoir of Stefan Zweig’s youth and early adulthood in the years leading up to the Great War that brought the Europe he loved crashing down. Zweig is a great writer, and his life was fascinating. Everyone who was anyone in the literary or artistic world of the early twentieth century moved in his circle and seems to have counted him as a friend. By the time, the story moves to Paris I felt obliged to read for the names on display alone. The book felt like a history of the side-world I’ve spent years studying.

But ultimately, I had the same trouble reading it, I had reading Annie Dillard’s memoir late last year. There is so much privilege here, so much easy leisure. Yet Zweig gives no sense that he understands that others live much, much less privileged lives. There’s certainly so sense that his personal distinctions and achievements rest, as least in part, on that privilege. In fact, he casts himself nostalgically as a troubled, constrained adolescent trying to build for himself the independence he needs to put down his own roots and blossom, this while living off his family’s money. To take only one example, he launches a literary career by storming into the offices of the best publishers in Vienna despite his youth and inexperience as if he had the right to do so. And of course, because of his family and money, he did have that right. So, yes, he needed and had talent (a talent nurtured by the best schooling available). But privilege, not pluck turned the trick for him.

By the mid-point of the book, I was overwhelmed by the wealth, the class privilege, and the tendency to read both as an expression of personal worth. And I was angry. Which is no way to read a book.

Clearly, I’m losing the American talent for imagining class doesn’t exist, counts for nothing or, if it does, keeps nothing from anyone else. Good riddance.

How Sports Destroy the University

Rant provoked by:  After a Costly Scandal, Binghamton Begins Rebuilding –

Without realizing it, this piece in the NYTimes shows up just how wrong the unholy marriage between big-money sports and the university is. Details about what happened are in the article, but basically, coaches, administrators and players threw SUNY Binghamton the school (as opposed to the sports franchise) under the bus in order to win basketball games. They were caught, and some student heads rolled. But the people in power were all handed golden parachutes and sent out to do more of the same elsewhere.

Oddly enough, officials are certain this can never happen again and found the report on the episode as thrilling as a cheap novel. Continue reading “How Sports Destroy the University”