Sunday, April 29, 2007

Ways to Make American Democracy More Democratic - 1

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Every four years when we vote for President, more often than not, I find myself, like many of you, voting unenthusiastically for the candidate who is the lesser of two evils. It is not that I want So-and-so to win; what I really"want is for the other So-and-so to lose.

I have two ideas that would enable me to vote with great enthusiasm.

(1) Instead of voting for one candidate, what if we could vote “Yes” or “No” for each candidate? We would not be choosing one candidate because we disliked him less. We could express our unhappiness with both major party candidates. The one receiving the fewest “No” votes would be the winner.

(2) My second idea is better than the first one. This would only entail the addition of one box at the very bottom of the ballot. Next to this box would be the words, “None of the Above”. We aren’t really given a choice in voting if we are not free to reject all the candidates.

If either if these proposals were adopted, I am certain that voter turnout would soar, that there would be long lines at every polling place because people would feel that they were being given the chance to make a real choice.

I recognize that both plans are flawed, especially the second one because “None of the Above” would win every election, and then what? I also recognize that for either idea to be adopted would require a Constitutional amendment, and the chances of that happening are nil.

But every ballot has space on it for write-in votes. What if we simply started writing in, “None of the Above”. What if this were the start of a new movement, the None Of The Above movement to bring true democracy to the voting process?

What if?


“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

George Orwell, from “Politics and the English Language,” in Shooting an Elephant


Ride rusty – To be stubborn, obstinate.

"President Bush thinks he is sticking to his principles by refusing to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but all he is doing is riding rusty."


New York City, 1965

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 8

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

The one book that changed my life was Watership Down by Richard Adams. I received it from my aunt for my 11th birthday.I knew instantly the impact it had on me -- I remember thinking that reading would never be the same again. I didn't know books could be that good. I've read many wonderful books since, but that one has a special place in my heart.

Clare Hitchens
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Books have always been a huge part of my life. Many books have affected me, but I would single out these:

Zami, A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde. I read this for a university course and felt great affinity with the narrative voice. I had never before identified in such a core way with someone so unlike me in upbringing and life circumstance. I think this book made me more
open to other people.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I read this as a teenager. I expected it to be a romantic read and was appalled by Heathcliffe--I loathed his nastiness and selfish control of others. This book helped
me understand very clearly what I did and did not find romantic.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. When my husband was courting me he read this book aloud to me, one chapter at a time. It's a mighty long book. By the time it was over I was in love.

Draw Me a Star by Eric Carle. So creative, yet so simple. Thanks to my son, I've read it many many times. This is the one book that makes me feel that aging doesn't necessarily imply decay. As a woman, I find
that comforting.

Claire Fyfe
Toronto, Canada


"Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree."

Ezra Pound, How To Read


Bless - The word comes from the Old English bletsian which comes from the same stem as seen in the word blood. Bletsian originally signified "to cause blood to flow." Later it came to mean "to consecrate or invoke divine favor by means of blood sacrifice." When religious observances ceased human sacrifice, the latter part of the meaning was dropped, and the word came to its present meaning of "to consecrate, sanctify."

Adapted from The Private Lives of English Words (ISBN 0-930454-18-9)


Birds' Nests, Atlanta, Georgia, 1966

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

To Know the Living

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Last week as I read the newspaper profiles of the 32 people murdered at Virginia Tech, I was reminded of the profiles the New York Times published of many of those killed in the attacks of 9/11. How ironic and unfortunate that I would have not known of their lives if their deaths had not been so horrific.

Each weekend my local newspaper publishes a full page profile of someone who lives in the area. Practically everyone profiled is “ordinary” in the sense that they are not known beyond their circle of friends and co-workers. Yet, each week I feel that my humanity is increased as I read of some one's life.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if local newspapers across the country, as well as national ones like the New York Times, published a word portrait each day of an “average” person?

I think we would learn that no one is “ordinary” or “average”, that so many people are living with unseen courage, with an intelligence that includes the life of the emotions as well as the life of the mind. Each day we walk past lives of quiet and ineffable beauty without knowing it.

If newspapers conveyed daily the stories of such people, perhaps we would become more aware of others, not as categories but as the miracles each of us is. With such awareness, maybe, just maybe, our daily interactions with others would become permeated with respect and beauty.


“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”

Lewis Thomas


Beauty - Perfection affording great pleasure to the senses, or which charms the intellectual or moral faculties through inherent grace, or fitness to a desired end.

Related words: beauty-beaming, beauty-breathing, beauty-manner.


Shadows of mobiles by Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Taking Responsibility for the Past

Photograph & text © 2007 by Julius Lester

Something remarkable has been happening in the country. However,it is being done so quietly, its significance may be missed. The legislatures of North Carolina, Maryland, Georgia, Missouri and Virginia have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery.

Some argue that such gestures are meaningless because the people passing the resolutions were not alive during slavery. No one today is responsible for what happened in the past.

But as William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

That is certainly true where slavery is concerned. We as a nation still suffer from the effects of slavery in the enduring tensions of black-white relationships, in the government’s failure to respond to the primarily black victims of Hurricane Katrina, in the government’s eagerness to pour a billion dollars a day into the invasion of Iraq while at the same time acting with utter contempt toward the poor and the homeless here at home.

Apologies are an essential step in taking responsibility for our actions, be they verbal or physical. This is true for individuals; it is true for nations. It is especially true when we take responsibility for the sins of our ancestors. Our lives are built atop theirs. Whites have unknowingly benefited from slavery, segregation, and racism. Blacks have knowingly suffered from slavery, segregation, and racism.

One of the reasons for the divide between whites and blacks is that we have not shared the same narrative of history. The former has been a narrative of America Triumphant; the latter has been one of an America that enslaved. These apologies from the legislatures moves us toward a new narrative, one that includes the admission by whites that what their ancestors did was wrong, wrong, wrong! And that they are ashamed of their ancestors.

These apologies are a small but important step in recognizing that the white American narrative also contains the black narrative. These apologies are a hopeful sign that one day blacks and whites will tell a new story about what America, a truer story than the one told now.


Thanks to all who have sent in the book or books that changed their lives. All will be posted over the next few weeks in the order I've received them. They will be posted one or two a week rather than each day as I have been doing. If there are any people who still want to share the book or books that changed their lives,please send it (or them) to me.

I am going to be visiting my oldest son, his wife, and their three children in Washington, D.C. this coming week. “A Commonplace Book” will resume some time after April 22.


“Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.”

Samuel Johnson


“There is a range of value-laden, untranslatable Russian attitudes, such as podlec, ‘base person who inspires contempt,’ marzavec, base person who inspires disgust, and negogjaj, base person who inspires indignation.”

In Other Words by Christopher Moore, p. 47


Another from my series of leaves opening.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 7

Photograph © 2005 by Julius Lester

Today’s contribution to Books that Changed Your Life Comes from KC in Columbus, Ohio:

“As a young girl with 3 siblings, a somewhat dysfunctional family, and not much money, I found reading to be my one true joy. I was (and of course still am) an avid reader. I read everything that I could get my hands on and my local library was my favorite place and my best friend! I even had "special permission" at a young age to go UPSTAIRS where the MORE MATURE books were. My mother had to write a letter giving me that permission.

"I tended to love fantasy, primarily because it took me so far out of my own mundane existence. And I can say that my most memorable book and the one that I still usually say is my favorite "all-time" book was C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I don't know if it appealed to me because of the magical qualities of the story, or because it was a story of 4 siblings who all (mostly) got along, or because of the protection of Aslan that I craved. At that place in my life I only knew that the story took me away from my life and gave me hope for the future.

"But, I don't know that it 'changed my life'. (I am also almost embarrassed to say that it was not until I was in college rereading the Chronicles of Narnia and discussing them in my Children's Literature course that I realized the biblical implications of the story. It almost ruined the story for me for some reason!)

"So, getting back to your question of what particular book changed my life... none in particular. ALL books have touched me, influenced me, and taught me that there was and is a world beyond the one in which I live. I have learned about other cultures, other faiths, other people, and other ways of life. Without books I would never know the richness of this life. Without books I would be caught in a shallow, unhappy existence! Books are my salvation and my solace. Even those that left me scratching my head and wondering why I read them have caused me to pause and think, so they, too, have helped. I suppose I would have to say that READING has changed my life. I would be lost without it!"


“We may be the last generation, or the last few generations, that regard reading as anything more than a very specific, highly specialized entertainment interest. Like dressing up in cowboy clothes and going to Nashville.”

Michael Moorcock


Read – to look at and understand what is written or printed. The word could also mean ‘think’, ‘guess’, ‘make out the meaning of’, without any involvement of reading matter. The ‘interpret’ sense of the verb still exists in the palmist who ‘reads palms’.

Adapted from Dunces, Gourmands, & Petticoats by Adrian Room (ISBN 0-8442-0921-X)


"Leaf Opening" A couple of years ago I realized that I had never watched the leaves emerge from tree branches and open. So one year I watched.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 6

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

Today's Book comes from Monica Edinger, New York City.

"A book did in deed change my life in concert with a person. The book is CHARLOTTE'S WEB and the person is Princeton University's U. C. Knopfmacher. In 1990, I saw a poster in my school's faculty room announcing that year's NEH Seminars for School Teachers. Ever since a high school teacher had commented negatively about my writing, I'd been convinced I couldn't do it, and I'd stayed away from English departments in college and graduate school. As a result, I had no idea that children's literature was studied.

"When I saw Uli's seminar featuring classical American and British children's literature I salivated. With great effort I wrote the required personal essay for the application, probably the first piece of writing I felt good about in twenty years because I ended up being accepted into the seminar, one of 15 out of more than 100 applicants. The seminar was incredible. We studied White, Twain, Alcott, Sendak, Hoban, Burnet, Nesbit, Carroll, and others.

"But I wasn't looking forward to CHARLOTTE"S WEB, a tearjerker I thought and not my kind of book. Until the day we did a close reading of the first chapter and I was completely blown away; in two hours my opinion of the book was turned upside down.

"When I returned to my fourth grade classroom that fall, I thought about what I could possibly use from the summer in my teaching. I decided to see what happened if I had the kids do a close reading of that first chapter of CHARLOTTE'S WEB, part of a new program I called "Children as Scholars." The kids loved it; like me they thought that it was amazingly cool.

"(After modeling how to read the first chapter closely, each does another on his/her own and then presents it to the class seminar-style.) And so every year since, I've been starting my fourth graders' school year with this way of looking at CHARLOTTE'S WEB, discovering that it is really the most amazing piece of writing, one that is worthy of year after year of close reading. Every year children discover new things. Other teachers have come to my school and do it too (and are blown away by the experience too).

"And so, I guess, a book did change my life! I teach differently, I've written books and articles about this, I've spoken about it, written about it on my blog, and just look at books differently. That soppy book, the one that started me on this path, is to my mind the great American children's novel. An amazing piece of work!"


“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

Vladimir Nabakov, Lectures on Literature, “Good Readers and Good Writers”


Persuade – to induce the acceptance of a belief or position. However, in its Latin root, there is a dimension of the word that is lost in English. The word really means “to convince by making things very sweet.” Interestingly, the Greek word which gave us the English, hedonist, “one who lives for pleasure,” literally means, “one who likes everything sweet.”

Adapted from The Private Lives of English Words by Louis G. Heller, Alexander Humex and Malcah Dror (ISBN 0-930454-18-9)


Room, Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, Amherst, Mass.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 5

©2007 by Julius Lester

Today's Books That Changed Your Life comes from Emily Lisker, the Urban Mermaid, Woonsocket, Rhode Island:

"I am very narrow or selective in my book loves. I love memoirs some poetry and what I call true fiction which are often really just memoirs with fictitious names. I search for truth and honest storytelling. I try to keep all the books I've loved as evidence (to myself) that I really can and do read. I am a person who needs to find truths in a book. As a grade school kid I saved up my allowance to send away for the boys and girls book about divorce. I read bits from the encyclopedia and dictionaries.

the dream watcher by barbara wersba: grade school favorite (i wrote her fan letter recently and we traded books)

be here now ram dass (high school) I remember the day VIVIDLY, my head blew open. my parents were gone for the weekend. I was home alone. I read this book and was never the same.

think on these things krishnamurti (college) this was great oxygen and first aid for my soul

all of alice miller's books ( I broke the code on reading-turned me into a "reader") post college

a woman speaks (college) anais nin's lectures I reread it often

the fire eaters a novel by william cobb I have read it three times. I woke in the night vowing to write the author-and to write my own book. now we have become pen pals).

journal of a solitude may sarton ( this book is oxygen to me i have paperback copies all over the house)

bird by bird anne lamott this book kept me from suicide

a place to stand by jimmy santiago baca this book made me believe in miracles and that i could write too. i have become pen pals with the author.

amy bloom come to me-short stories

jane shore- all of her books of poems

Jimmy santiago baca all of his books of poems

MFK fisher the art of eating

Oliver Sacks -anthropologist on mars-made me realize I could be loved with my quirks

iron John by Robert Bly

a little book on the human shadow - by bly- i reread it often

The unquiet mind by kay jameson - i reread it every spring."


“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

J.D. Salinger


Bosom bottle – A small flask, tucked into a stomacher, to hold flowers. (A stomacher was a V-shaped piece of decorative cloth, worn over the chest and stomach by men and women in the 16th century, later only by women).


Bust of Shakespeare, Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, Amherst, Mass.

Books That Changed Your Life 4

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

Today’s contribution to "Books That Changed Your Life" comes from
Jan Tappan of Pasadena, California

"The book that has had more of an impact on my life than any other is The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Dubose Heyward. My dad used to take us to the library every Saturday when we were children, and I checked that book out many times. It was partly the story that was so magical for me, and partly the country bunny herself.

"In an age when the major options for careers open to women were mother, secretary, teacher, or nurse, the country bunny represented the idea that women might achieve more. Well, it gave me that idea, anyway. The story was good, but the thing that was the best about that book were the illustrations. I loved the colors, the cute bunnies, the country bunny struggling up the mountain, and I loved the idea of an Easter egg that you could look into to see a scene inside. I'd never seen anything like that!

"I didn't actually own the book until about ten years ago. My memory had been that there was a picture of the scene inside the egg, and I was quite surprised to find that I'd imagined that illustration.

"The book has remained in my memory all my life. When I had children of my own, I found it and bought it for them, and for myself as well. Though I took away the message that girls were capable of many things, my first 'job' was the highly traditional role of stay-at-home mother to my three children. When my children started school, I became an animal behavior researcher at a zoo and a traditional fiddler, combining it with parenting - and trying to organize my family like country bunny did, though with far fewer children! After my husband and I divorced, I returned to a more traditional 'woman's' career, teaching elementary school. I read the book to my third grade class every year, and the book still holds magic for me."


“I love to do things to make her happy. She loves to do things to make me happy. It just works out great.”

Woody Allen, talking about his wife and his marriage. "Vanity Fair," September 2005


Amachi: A girl’s name from the Ibo people of Nigeria. It means, “Who knows what God has brought us through this child.”


Statue, Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, Amherst, Mass.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 3

Photograph © 2007 by Julius Lester

This contribution to Books That Changed Your Life comes from Abby Kingsbury in Acton, Massachusetts

“There are so many books that have deeply affected me, but the book that first sprang to mind is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My brother, whom I adore, is eight years older than me and a brilliant person - kind, smart, creative, eclectic. The first time I felt myself to be more than a little sister to him, the first time that I felt somewhat on his intellectual plane, was after reading The Phantom Tollbooth. Dan and I had many long discussions about the book, most especially its subtle humor and twists of language, and thus began a life-long habit of sitting and talking together about literature and philosophy. There are two messages in the book that have helped to form how I approach my life: that the impossible can be achieved, and that it's far better to appreciate the here and now than to waste time and life wishing you were somewhere else.”


“People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”

Logan Pearsall Smith, Afterthoughts


Brouhaha – In a fifteenth or early sixteenth century French farce, a priest disguised as the devil cried out, “Brou brou brou ha ha brou ha ha!” By the mid-sixteenth century the French brouhaha was used a noun meaning “hubbub, uproar.”

In traditional synagogue worship, prayers can be chanted very rapidly and very loudly with no effort on anyone's part to chant in unison. The cacophony of voices could easily sound like confused and meaningless speech.

Thus, the pseudo-devil’s speech of “Brou brou brou ha ha brou ha ha” may have been making fun of Jews. The Christianity of the time believed that Jews were a diabolical people, and what else would the devil say than words heard at synagogues?

Source: The Merrian-Webster New Book of Word Histories (ISBN 0-87779-603-3).


Table and Astrolabe, Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, Amherst, Mass.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life 2

Photographic art © 2007 by Julius Lester

This book that changed a life comes from Leah D. Nelson who lives in Champaign, IL.

"In my early teens, I had bad taste in everything — clothes, music, and even books. Goes with the territory, I suppose. It was the early '90s, and young adult horror novels were all the rage in the world of fiction. The characters were usually banal, plots predictable. I read them out of habit. Imagine my delight when I found, within all of the muck, a gem by Christopher Pike, of Chain Letter 2: The Ancient Evil fame.

"The book is The Starlight Crystal. Our hero, 18-year old Paige Christian, follows her destiny through space, time and The Creation of the universe. It is science fiction meets philosophy and it brought me closer to my higher power.

"I re-read the book just last week, at the age of 28. I am in a period of transition and uncertainty, and Paige comforted me by following the path laid before her, no matter how much fear or uncertainty lingered in her heart. She prevailed in her mission, despite the odds against her and the aliens who seek to destroy her. It helped remind me of all the adversity I have overcome, and gave me fresh hope for the next chapter of my life."


There are many more people who read this weblog than have shared books that changed their lives. I would love to hear from others of you.


“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

Kimberly Johnson


Abozzare (Italian) – to accept meekly a far from satisfactory situation.


This is "Alone, Herself #7". I took the photograph on Cape Cod at the Wellfleet
Town Beach.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Books That Changed A Life

Photographic art © 2005 by Julius Lester

The first contribution to the list of books that changed some one's life comes from GraceAnne Andreassi DeCandido, Ladyhawk, who writes that she "lives in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, at the northeast edge of New York City, in a house built in 1911. Coming to you live from The Toybook, her tiny laptop."

"Some time just after college in the early 1970s I read Mary Daly's Beyond God the Father. It completely rearranged all my molecules. I was in the process then of separating myself from the Catholicism of my youth, but it was painful and lonely. It was astonishing to me to find a way to think of God as female, as Mother, as nurturing, as generative.

"Sometimes I think every book I read changes my life in some way. But the only other title that came close to the kind of power Mary Daly's book did was a novel, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale . It made my city, New York, the heart and center of a magical fantasy; it infused some of that magic into Grand Central Terminal. I go in and out of there often, and I always think of Peter Lake among the stars of its ceiling. It reminds me always that magic is in the very dust of our lives, in our own spaces."


“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.” Andre Gide


Eudaemonism (noun) A system of ethics that bases moral value on the likelihood that good actions will produce happiness.


"Alone Herself #3" This is part of a series. I've posted this one before but it seems appropriate for the these reflections on books. The woman is my wife, and the photograph on which the digital art is based was taken outside the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Mass.


You will notice a new link to the right. I gave the afternoon keynote speech at the recent conference on children's literature at the University of Massachusetts. That speech will take you to "Olio", a new website I've started for the occasional speech or essay too long to "publish" here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Books That Changed Your Life

Photograph and text © 2007 by Julius Lester

I read to my wife every night once she is in bed. We’ve been through Anna Karenina, all four books of Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels, and many less weighty books. Presently I am reading to her The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Elizabeth Gordon and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

We just finished a very engaging book, The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books that Matter Most To Them (ISBN 1-592-40210-0), edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen. The writers are very eclectic because they are all writers who did readings at Coady’s bookstore, R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Connecticut.

Among the writers included are Anne Lamont, (who cites Little Women as one of the books that changed her life), Jane Stern (John Barth’s The End of the Road), Chris Bohjalian (Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist), Jack Prelutsky Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass), Tracy Kidder (Hemingway’s Collected Stories), Senator John McCain (Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls), and Billy Collins (Margaret Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling). The essays, with a couple of exceptions, are brief, 1-2 pages. Most are very engaging. With some you wonder, “How could that book change anybody’s life?”, and with others, “That sounds like an interesting book.”

I would like to ask you to e-mail me the titles of a book or books that changed your life and a short paragraph as to why. Let me know if it is all right to include your name, or whether you’d prefer just your initials. And also where you live. That’s just to satisfy my curiosity. I like knowing where people live.

It seems only fair that I should start. The first book that comes to mind is The Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley. It is a compilation of quotations from the mystical writings of Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism which demonstrate that on the level of mystical experience, religions do not differ in any significant way. I read it in 1959 at age 20. I had dispensed with the God I had learned of from my minister father, and Huxley’s book gave me a radically new way to think about religion and the Divine. The experience I had reading that book remains with me 48 years later.


“I still love the power of words. They dispel my loneliness. They soothe my fear of uselessness.”

Kate Horsley, Confessions of a Pagan Nun p. 159


Bibliomaniac – someone with a lunatic’s passion for acquiring books, but not necessarily reading them. One of the most famous bibliomaniacs was Englishman Richard Heber (1773-1833). Of him it is written that one of his houses was “nearly all library” The house in which he died “was filled with books from top to bottom, every chair, table and passage….” He collected books not only in English but Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Portuguese. He rented houses merely for his books in Oxford, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent. When he died it is estimated that he had half a million books. It took Southeby’s auction house two hundred and two working days over a two year period to catalog the collection.

From Forgotten English: A Merry Guide to Antiquated Words, Packed with History, Fun facts, Literary Excerpts, and Charming Drawings, by Jeffrey Kacirk (ISBN 0-688-150187)


My "easy chair" and a glimpse of a few of the 15,000 or so books in my library. No, I have not read them all. Yes, I suffer from bibliomania.