Thursday, January 8, 2015

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution

Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution – Derrick Jensen

With the right perspective, education happens everywhere all the time, but in this book Derrick Jensen takes the opportunity to focus on formal education in the school setting, and in particular the intersection of education, teaching, and writing.  We as the reader are guided through his rules for writing (primarily, don’t bore the reader) and allowed vicarious participation in standard classroom activities like lengthy philosophical questioning and discussion, expressing and addressing intense emotions, and high-stakes games of capture the flag and hide-and-seek. What Jensen emphasizes in each of these stories/chapters/essays is the connection between education and culture. In a society that values standardized production, schools provide “industrial education” that, rather than contributing substantive value to the individual receiving the education, leads the student away from him or herself at the steep cost of personal hopes and dreams. Jensen rejects this system of education and instead offers his approach, cultivated in years of classroom trial and error, of using education as a tool to guide students to discover who they are, what they love, and how they can use that in the future. All of which turns into a writing exercise, of course.

In “Walking on Water,” Jensen challenges conventional thinking on the method, impact, and purpose of education. Though most of the book recalls his experiences teaching in a university classroom, he also draws on his time teaching writing at a prison to compare and contrast the settings, pupils, and lessons. Despite mixing examples from the classroom with the prison, and connecting each with personal experiences and nuanced musings, the whole book flows smoothly so that by the end, it hardly feels like a learning experience. To be sure, he teaches several lessons in this book, the most basic of which being his rules for writing. Although his statements, questions, and examples are often provocative, they evoke serious consideration and reconsideration of often fundamentally held beliefs. Sometimes this process leads to new conclusions, and sometimes it reinforces those same ideas, now strengthened after having been held up for scrutiny. In his teaching and his writing, Jensen respects the student (and the reader) as a person, encouraging full expression and understanding of varied opinions. Even as the reader, the process is fun and interesting, and leaves a one with a greater sense of certainty in what you know to be true and curiosity as to whether that is really case.

Needless to say, I absolutely love this book. This is partly because I generally enjoy anything that goes against the grain, but more so because the book is so engaging.  Jensen very clearly models his teaching style in the way he writes this book, and though I don’t get to participate in all the activities as a reader, I still reap the rewards of critical thought and examination. Even, or especially, when I disagree with his points. He references violence more frequently than I remembered from my first reading, which I don’t appreciate, but I feel good about reading the book having questioned the validity and necessity of such statements. This is a must read.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Pianoplayers

The Pianoplayers – Anthony Burgess

Ellen Henshaw, now entering the later years of her life in a stately fashion, decides to share the story of her father as a way to recognize and remember his accomplishments in life. Ellen’s father was not a pianist or a piano player, but a pianoplayer. Early in his artistic years, he accompanied silent films at local pubs, offering musical interpretations and embellishments to the action on the screen. However, he frequently patronizes local pubs as well, and his penchant for beer consumption tends to interfere with his good judgment. Due to unfortunate circumstances, often of his own creation, he loses a string of jobs and finds himself in a unique position to play piano for a “marathon” of 30 days straight, which also comes to an abrupt end. While he carouses, Ellen finds her own form of expression. Dropping out of school at the earliest opportunity, Ellen finds herself in a special school that trains exceptional ladies in the skills of Entertainment. After several years entertaining for several years, she then becomes a Madam, opening her own schools across the globe. As she looks back on her life and the life of her father, she focuses on the moments that epitomize the accomplishment of grand dreams, finding satisfaction with everything that brought her to where she is today.

“The Pianoplayers” by Anthony Burgess is written as if narrated, which is part of the premise of the story (Hellen speaks her story into a tape player to be transcribed by a wandering author). The result is an entirely accessible story with quirky and intentional misspellings, colloquialisms, and verbal tics. While this is somewhat confusing until it becomes apparent that the story is a “verbal transcription,” it also allows for unique understandings that cannot be fully conveyed in a typical literary vocabulary. It also brings in wry humor, particularly when Helen lists the name of songs her father performs as a pianoplayer according to phonic spelling rather than proper spelling. Burgess displays musical knowledge both by appropriately referencing musical terms and also intentionally mixing up musical references. He also builds a concrete and intricate setting, skillfully reconstructing English pub life in the 1920s and 30s and bringing to life the context of the story.

Although I really appreciated certain aspects of this story, which includes pretty much anything relating to music, Burgess lost me at the ending. Helen makes a clear connection for herself about generational transmission of talent from her father to her son, and somehow brings her own story into it, but the majority of the book focuses on her father, which causes the section about her son feels tagged onto the end and does not seem to fit clearly with the rest of the book. The narrative tone of the story was fun once I figured out how the author/narrator used the word “like.” The book has its moments, but overall, I have a “take it or leave it” feeling about it.