11/22/63 by Stephen King. Time travel and presidential assassination figure into this good-old-fashioned fat novel by the master of suspense, but don’t be deceived: this is neither a Sci-Fi nor a political novel, but an un-put-downable romantic love story, the story of a man out of place who finds and creates a better life for himself. A great summer read which will happily last you a week of page-turning delight. “If there is love, smallpox scars are as pretty as dimples. I’ll love your face no matter what is looks like. Because it’s yours.”
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I never miss a Perrotta; this one is unusual for him in that it involves a supernatural event, but that event takes place prior to the story itself– it is really outside the narrative– and the book is set where all his books are: in our all-too-realistic world, or at least my world: suburban middle class America in the early 21st century, where we are all seeking meaning and significance in a non-heroic age. Determining what we live for haunts all Perotta’s characters, each of whom, ultimately, as in every existentialist fiction, has to find his or her own answer. “There’s not some finite amount of pain inside us. Our bodies and minds just keep manufacturing more of it. (67)”
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Read it in a sitting– probably won’t take you much more than an hour– and ponder its curious, elusive conclusion. What don’t we know, what don’t we understand, about our own lives? Are we all living a lie– or a least a big muddled misunderstanding, all the time? Realizing we are living in ambiguity is another existential truth that fiction like Barnes’ reveals. “How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”
The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Full disclosure: this is a novel about a 20th anniversary reunion of a group of college friends at their alma mater by a college friend of mine at that same university: of course I enjoyed it immensely. But, I recommend it not just for the nostalgia of college days but for two other fascinating aspects. First, it uncovers brilliantly the way we all put on masks for public consumption, and the difficult and sometimes destructive duality of our public and privata personae, a topic especially significant in our current social media era. Second, the story of parenting tweens and teens today is hilariously, compassionately, and empathetically conveyed here– and it is something all of us inside and outside of education it can stand to be more appreciative of and sensitive to.
The Darlings by Cristina Alger, The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, and Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian. Call me voyeuristic, but I can’t get enough of literature of the crash of ’08; I am a rubber-necker to this crash as much as any highway driver is to an automobile smash-up. Last summer I recommended Union Atlantic and The Cookbook Collector (which is actually about the dot-bomb crash of 2000, but reads as another take on economic meltdowns in our era). The Darlings is a Madoff story: what happens when the house of cards, enormous wealth built on a charade, crashes upon people who have become all-too-comfortable: how will they react and what will happen to their integrity? Integrity is also at stake in The Privileges, where yet another Upper East Side family seeks to stay the same as they become first insanely wealthy and then have to envision losing it all. In Three Stages the scene shift to San Francisco immediately after the crash, but once again, integrity is shaken as affluence is sought and protected, and characters reconcile themselves to our intensely challenging societal come-uppance. All three are easy-reading, swiftly told tales of hubris, featuring characters lovable and despicable, and all three ultimately are reduced to the characters’ challenging struggle to sustain what matters most in the end: family and love.
The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont. This I can only barely recommended. I love novels set in school, especially private schools, and I love stories of sailing– indeed, I should be a perfect match for this story, because like this character, I too was on an affluent prep school sailing team as a 14 year old. But this is a tale of of adolescent ennui, aimlessness, and depression, and, sadly, it is humorless and unredemptive: these spoiled young people do nothing to draw us in– and they change hardly at all. Worst of all are the private school administrators in this story, who are burned out, bored, and concerned only with their own status and the status, and financial prospects, of their school– so disheartening to read about my own profession. But this debut novel does remind us about the intensity of adolescent melodrama and what is swirling beneath the surface of our students each and every day.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I loved this novel, and think that the Pulitzer committee robbed Harback by not awarding it the prize, it being an outstanding short-list candidate. It is a such a meaty, great-American-novel of the heartland: of baseball, the American tradition; of university life; of literature and its legacy; of love and loss and mid-life crisis. We savor the games on the diamond– and marvel at the fielding skills so artfully depicted. We are challenged by the college President: he is a protagonist who draws us into his journey from loneliness to love even as he does wrong and makes serious mistakes: how do we reconcile responsibility and romance? And we are challenged by the psychology of perfection: what it is to not make a mistake, and to then, not not make mistakes? It is tough stuff, maintaining our judgment, our confidence, our moral responsibility and our quest for fulfillment as life comes at us, day by day by day. A must-read, I think, with a great deal to discuss and debate. “The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This isn’t as good as Patchett’s masterpiece, Bel Canto, and I have to warn that I completely dropped it at one point: there is a seemingly endless pit stop at a port city in Brazil where nothing happens for nearly 100 pages. But arriving up-river, in this revisiting of Heart of Darkness in the 21st century where scientists and doctors wrestle with the inherent conflicts of discovery and exploitation, the narrative speeds up and I was hooked. Motherhood is at stake here as biology and philosophy, and Patchett explores the interior realm of being female, the physical and the metaphysical both, and the choice of bearing, or not bearing, children, with sympathy and with suspense.
History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason. This is something of a guilty pleasure: an R-rated raunchy romp in an era and setting deliciously similar to that great indulgent treat of last winter, Downton Abbey. I can’t wait for its seemingly promised sequel, and can’t help but wonder if it will make it to the screen. Horatio Alger would roll over in his grave if he were to know how this pleasure-seeker finds his way to impress and delight his employers and manage his way toward success and fulfillment. Read it at the beach, because your blushing can be mistaken for the beginning of a sunburn.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Like the Red Book, this novel takes me back to college in the mid ’80′s, in more ways than one. Like these characters, I was fascinated by my sophomore year discovery of post-structuralism and deconstruction, and wondered how to incorporate into my philosophy not just of literature and history, but of society and of life. I also, in college, watched up close and personally, the staggering cyclical wave of the intense bipolarity of a roommate. Perhaps the narrative means to intertwine post-structuralism and bi-polarism– how does each comment on the other, or am I making the mistake of making metaphor of illness? The bipolarism I saw, and which is evident in this protagonist’s charismatic boyfriend, is more than metaphor. This book too is ultimately a romance: how do we know in our twenties how to love, and how we learn how to love when we there is so much still to learn about life? “But, like anyone in love, Madeleine believed that her own relationship was different from every other relationship, immune from typical problems.” Eugenides is a great American novelist, one among a small set of our contemporaries likely to read in the next century, but this isn’t his magnum opus. I’m partial to his stunning debut, now nearly two decades ago, The Virgin Suicides, which, if you haven’t read yet, deserves to be on your list this summer or any summer.
The Submission by Amy Waldman. This wasn’t on the short-list, in contrast to Art of Fielding, but this is what really should have won the 2011 Pulitzer. Imagine a Muslim architect winning the architectural competition for the 9/11 memorial, and imagine the passions that would be unleashed. This is a rich, complicated, surprising novel, with commentary upon art and architecture, pride and prejudice, media and mobs, politics and personality, and ultimately, about resignation and reconciliation. We all have so much to learn about what it means to submit– and we can learn from much Mo Khan and Amy Waldman. “There were in life rarely, if ever, “right” decisions, never perfect ones, only the best to be made under the circumstances.”
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. Brilliance shines here: what a joy to read an intellectual history that entertains and informs in equally high proportions. Greenblatt has determined a moment, perhaps the moment, when the modern world and modern consciousness arrived, and reconstructed it with colorful verve. His brief for the prescience of Lucretius is fascinating: the suspense he creates around the near-eternal loss of the learning of Lucretius is terrifying. The re-discovery of Lucretius didn’t just bring back certain scientific principals or philosophical insights, it brought back a world-view that we have the right and the responsibility to live life to its fullest, that sensuality is not a sin– which is a happily appropriate message for summer reading. This is a book you can happily enjoy reading by a pool or along the lapping tide, enjoying the beauty surrounding you. “A comparably capacious embrace of beauty and pleasure – an embrace that somehow extends to death as well as life, to dissolution as well as creation – characterizes Montaigne’s restless reflections on matter in motion, Cervantes’s chronicle of his mad knight, Michelangelo’s depiction of flayed skin, Leonardo’s sketches of whirlpools, Caravaggio’s loving attention to the dirty soles of Christ’s feet.”
Reality is Brokenby Jane McGonigal. When we see an exodus from one nation or continent to another, sociologists, political scientists and historians seek to understand why people are leaving, and what is drawing them to that new environment. McGonigal, in this fascinating and extremely energetic read, seeks to explain why so many hundreds of millions are moving, are undertaking an exodus of their own, from the “real-world” into the world of interactive, multi-player gaming. This is less an advertisement for the virtues of a gaming life as it is an exploration of what motivates, what engages, what enriches, what fulfills the human psyche, and how we can learn from gaming to enrich regular, everyday life. Clearly we must find better ways to find the sweet spot for learners and workers between what is too easy and what is too difficult; we must find better ways for learners and workers to track their progress and develop a sense of genuine accomplishment– and this book helps us understand why we should and how we can do so. “Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves… Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we’re doing.”
Now You See Itby Cathy Davidson. I’ve been critical of this book-- I think that in her passion to evangelize a life of connectivity, interactivity, multi-media and multi-tasking, author Davidson is too quick to dismiss the value of focused concentration. Surely there is a place for all these things, each in their rightful time. But this is among the very best of recent writing which seeks to help us understand the virtues of learning in a multi-media environment and the value of synergizing from wide, divergent, streams of information. Her discussions of specific learning environments which maximize such resources are both informative and inspiring. ”Are we teaching them in a way that will prepare them for a world of learning and for human relationships in which they interweave their interests into the vast, decentralized, yet entirely interconnected content online? The answer more often that not is no. I believe that many kids today are doing a better job preparing themselves for their futures than we have done providing them with the institutions to help them.“
Education Nation: Six Leading Edges of Innovation in our Schools by Milton Chen. At times, this book underwhelms: its narrative style is a bit flat and it functions as something of a primer for those not already immersed in the field. It is a useful overview of the educational crossroads we are at, and it is a wonderfully optimistic view of the opportunities presenting themselves for reinventing education to better serve students and communities. ”Until every student has a his or her own computer, the benefits of using them on a regular, ongoing basis are undercut…. Providing 1:1 access in classrooms doesn’t address the larger issue of 24/7 use. Students as “knowledge workers” need to work and learn around the clock.”
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. Failure is a bit of a buzz-concept in our present moment– I heard about it this very morning on NPR in a piece about Silicon Valley– but that is ok: it is a great thing to celebrate. This book goes far beyond the buzz– it delves into many an example from scientific research and corporate success (and failure), and demonstrates that far, far too often, success is sharply limited by our bias for risk-avoidance. In leadership, “it is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it.” Another lesson: “variation– taking a pluralistic approach to encouraging new innovations– is essential to the innovative enterprise.”
Stop Stealing Dreams by Seth Godin. Godin never disappoints. We all wonder how he manages to be so prolific, iconoclastic, original and inspirational, but once again he delivers a compelling, passionate, inspiring call to arms: we must make schools relevant, compelling, and connected to engage and prepare our students. ”Amplified by the Web and the connection revolution, human beings are no longer rewarded most for work as compliant cogs. Instead, our chaotic world is open to the work of passionate individuals, intent on carving their own paths. That’s the new job of school. Not to hand a map to those willing to follow it, but to inculcate leadership and restlessness into a new generation.”
Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. Although this book is a bit slight– it is as if four or five New Yorker articles were stitched together, and it betrays its roots in journalism– this is a swift and enjoyable read through current thinking, research, and practice in the field of creativity. ”Group creativity is becoming more necessary because we live in a world of very hard problems: all the low hanging fruit is already gone. Sometimes a creative problem is so difficult that it requires people to connect their imaginations together.”
Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner & Bringing Innovation to School by Suzie Boss.
As my regular readers know, this topic is my professional obsession, and this spring we have two brand new titles (the Boss book is due out next month) by, I am pleased to report, two friends of mine. Together, they break ground in being among the first books available to study closely and offer counsel on how we must and how we can design and execute learning environments which will inspire, inform, and shape future innovators, those of our students who will emerge from our schools independent and inquisitive thinkers and creative and masterful problem-solvers. We all are dependent upon these future innovators, and let’s hope that there are many of them; in the meantime, those of us who educate and who parent have our work cut out for us in creating them and bringing innovation to our schools. Read these books in tandem: the first, Wagner’s, is a bit broader in scope and somewhat tilted toward university settings; the second more practical and entirely situated in K-12 teaching and learning. (My lengthy review of the Wagner is here.)
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: How can you not read the biography of the year about one of the most fascinating figures of our lifetime, a mercurial figure who accomplished greatness of design, commerce, and ingenuity with an ego and a self-obsession both infuriating and appalling. This could be a great American novel, a Great Gatsby of our times, the story of rise and fall and redemption of dizzying heights and depths. Jobs, this book makes clear, is both a terrible person and a phenomenal inspiration, and I couldn’t put it down. A terrific, rich, summer read. ”He didn’t invent many things outright, but he was a master at putting together ideas, art, and technology in ways that invented the future… Some leaders push innovations by being good at the big picture. Others do so by mastering details. Jobs did both, relentlessly.” My full post on the book is here.
Truth Beauty Goodness Reframed by Howard Gardner. This isn’t a beach read– and it can’t be described as un-put-downable. But I have to hand it to Gardner, who demonstrates an ambitious aspiration to be a philosopher in our time, to rise to these heights and speak to Plato and Aristotle, and update ancient wisdom to our digital and relativist age. Can this great trinity of virtues be relevant to us today? Yes– and they need to be. We need to determine how to preserve and perpetuate an appreciation for, even a devotion to, Truth, Beauty, and most of all, Goodness, and though it is a bit of a slog a times, and though I disagree with quite a few of the specific fears Gardner has of both digital communities and relativist worldviews, this book is very genuinely a valuable guide to our thinking and our judgments. “An entire curriculum [can be constructed] around [just] three topics: Darwinian evolution, the music of Mozart, and the Holocaust of World War II. These topics were not chosen casually. Rather, evolution was selected explicitly as an example of scientific truth; Mozart, as an example of artistic beauty; the Holocaust, as a historical instance of human evil (the sharpest contrast to good).”
The Innovator’s DNA by Clayton Christensen. This is a great tour of two things: what are innovators made of, and what are the qualities of innovative leadership– or more to the point, effective leadership of innovative organizations. Entirely read-able, not more than a couple of hours in total, one walks away with both great encouragement and greater confidence that it doesn’t take a Steve Jobs to become an innovator or lead innovation. Christensen is a tremendous resource– a never-slowing fountain of information– for understanding and advancing innovation throughout our society. “In the most innovative companies, senior executives didn’t just delegate innovation; their own hands were deep in the innovation process… Their focus was innovation, so they actively engaged in questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting, which had a powerful imprinting effect on their organization and team…If top executives want innovation, they need to stop pointing fingers at someone else and take a hard look at themselves.” My full post on the book is here.
Academically Adrift by Arum and Roksa. This isn’t an entirely smooth read: it is written as an academic monograph and won’t be your most pleasurable summer read. But it is an important work on an incredibly important topic: are students learning what they most need to learn; how can we tell; and what can we do about the fact that too many of them are not? Even though it is addressed to college educators, its content is entirely applicable to secondary educators. “Studying and doing homework has stronger and more widespread positive effects than any other measure.”
What School Leaders Need to Know about Digital Technologies and Social Media by Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann. An all-star group of writers from the educational blogosphere I inhabit offer a wide array of suggestions and introductions to various Web 2.0 tools and social media practices. Most who pick up this book will find some sections more useful than others– but that is in the nature of a compendium like this. As anyone visiting this site is likely to recognize already, the educational landscape is being reshaped, dramatically, by these technologies, and this volume is a valuable tour guide to the frontier. I especially appreciated Chris Lehmann’s perspective, and his humility, about the topic of 1:1 laptop computing. “The most challenging part about 1:1 computing is that, despite twenty years of 1:1 schools all over the world, we are just at the very early days of this movement. Whatever solutions your school comes to today will evolve as technology continues to evolve. We are learning more every day about what it means to be in a networked world, and how we create schools that reflect our changing world is an ever-evolving process. The only thing you can be certain of is more change.”
Also see Summer Reading 2011: Recommended reading for Educators and others