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Notes on a Reading List

Teaching is a tough job. First of all, it happens beyond our jurisdiction. Concepts ranging from reducing fractions to splitting infinitives are created and stored somewhere in the brains of those on the other side of the desk. These strange scraps of thought are stockpiled as words and pictures and wired for sound. But even the brain’s owner can’t point to the geographical area of her own head where she keeps specialized information or sorts through it to make sense of the world. Although it’s possible to map the general electrical activity that most associates with certain brain functions, it is still an amazingly complicated mystery where even the simplest stuff is kept. Given the literally billions of neural possibilities, it’s impossible to point to exactly where it is that you “know” that your two thumbs represent one-fifth of the digits on your hands. Amazing!

Most of what we know is the product of flimsy ideas somehow mysteriously knit together. At the most basic level, ideas are the products of words—combinations of just twenty-six letters that become the actual stuff of these elaborate tapestries. The learner weaves individual words into Technicolor strands of whole cloth to make meaning and music with them in the privacy of her own head. Words are tools that teachers and students work with and live by.

Unlocking the mystery in the various combinations of letters that form the words is one of the most basic tenants of our craft. There is perhaps a good reason why “reading” is the first among equals in education’s “big three.” First of all, it’s the only one of the “three r’s that’s spelled correctly. Besides, without the ability to read, the other two, “’rite’n” and “’rithmetic” wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

Not surprisingly, an international panel of historians evaluating the most important inventions of the last thousand years chose the printing press over all the others. Besides their obvious appeal as paperweights, books are the handy-dandy carrying cases for ideas. Each is a specialized collection of words that, when taken together, can teach, entertain, and inspire. The best ones do all three. Books can help explain how to make a kite that actually flies, where to get the best cappuccino in San Francisco, and awaken a simple kindness in the hardest of hearts. Books are indeed powerful tools that shape the thoughts and lives of those who hold them.

Books are also quiet and polite companions. They never speak unless asked and they generally stay put. However, when invited into the conversation, books can have strong opinions and exert wide-ranging influence over their hosts. Books have moved nations and started and stopped wars. Their words have made men and women better and, in some cases, worse. Books can be raucous, racy, and reverent; however, they are none of these if the words shut up in their paper cages are not freed.

As teachers, it is our job to poke around in the mysterious and quite messy brains of our students. Occasionally we recommend a few redecorating ideas, and sometimes our book suggestions work. It seems only fitting and proper that before we faculty nose around in the private lives of our students, we take inventory of our own. The result is a list of books that have rocked somebody’s world. In some cases, there are notes that explain the mysterious personal attraction to a particular set of words and their carrying case. For others, just the list is enough. Whether or not these reading suggestions move you—either off the couch or enough to turn the page—is a very personal question. Thankfully, you won’t have to explain. Like students, we faculty types also struggle with justifying personal taste. But occasionally, some wordsmith stumbles onto a magic combination of nouns and verbs that are unspeakably profound. But be careful! A carefully chosen list of books can become a list of matchbooks can set an entire imagination on fire.