My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 1, #21, January, 1996


I'm always a little different in December from what I was the previous January. Things happen to me, I listen to people, I follow the news, and I read books. All these things change the way I think about things. So I'd like to tell you about some of the books that changed my mind this past year. Who knows, you might enjoy them yourselves.

Melba Patillo Beals was one of the teenagers who integrated Central High School in 1957. She tells about this scarring experience in Warriors Don't Cry. It's hard for most of us, I think, to imagine the hatred, and the sheer meanness of the whites, who believed themselves to be Christians, who fought integration bitterly, with no holds barred. Students, parents, even teachers, would hurl insults and rocks as these black teenagers arrived at the school. Inside the school, responsible adults would do nothing to protect them, as white students pushed them, shoved them, verbally abused them, ostracized them, threatened them, and beat them up. When one of the students fought back, he was expelled for bad behavior. At home, there was no rest, because of the constant phone calls, with vicious racial slurs, death threats and bomb threats. Even their own people were not entirely supportive; many in the black community preferred to endure segregation because they feared stirring up white passions. This book is a useful reminder of how badly racism allows us to behave. As bad as race relations are today, I think most whites today would be ashamed to see anyone acting against blameless children the way these whites did. They say laws don't change minds, but laws that allow people to mix together freely allow us to know each other as people rather than as stereotypes. I do believe that now, responsible adults would stand beside those children and fight the barbarians.

David Brin's novel, The Postman, made me think a lot about the importance of mythmaking. In the world that's left after nuclear catastrophe, society is reduced to small enclaves of people defending themselves against the barbarians, the survivalists who completed the destruction begun by the bomb. Gordon, near death from cold, helps himself to the coat of a dead letter carrier and finds that he has become a potent symbol that the post office, and hence ordered government and civilization, continues to survive somewhere. He tries to convince them that he is no such thing, but their need to believe is strong. He takes their letters, even in some cases delivers them, and in this way becomes the most accidental of leaders. Fortunately, he is a good man, and the power of his myth is benign. We, of course, are currently living in a world in which our storytellers' myths are mostly about the Evil Other, the ones who are not like us and are therefore responsible for all our ills. Even Ronald Reagan's myth of America as the shining city on the hill served us better. What we need is better storytellers.

Laurie Garret's book, The Coming Plague, is a very scary book about all the new viruses and microbes that "progress" is exposing us to; scarier still, those viruses are out-adapting us and rendering our entire arsenal of drugs and antibiotics useless. But oddly enough, this book is a tesimony to the importance of government. As she tells about Ebola and the other African viruses, you see the constant frustration of the researchers and doctors, trying to get there in the first place, where there are no decent roads, trying to keep blood samples and rugs refrigerated, where there is no electricity, trying to prevent water-borne disease where there are no water-purification systems. It's a real downer of a book, but one I wish our senators and representatives would read before they try again to cut the budget for the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control again.

Stewart Brand's book How Buildings Learn is about buildings people love, because they can be changed and adapted to new purposes, and buildings people hate, even if they are architectural masterpieces, because they are rigid and inflexible. It's about the eternal conflict between the architect, who believes he is giving you a perfect work of art, fixed for all time, and the users who think the building is there to serve their needs. And I do wish the man had gotten around to writing this book before we started building a new library.

David W. Brown's book When Strangers Cooperate: Using Social Conventions To Govern Ourselves is a very useful approach to the current crisis of legitimacy of government. People have become deeply distrustful and resentful of government--even people like me who understand how utterly dependent we are on government for personal safety, health, transport, and economic security. Our bureaucracies do indeed have far too many people who apply rules mindlessly, or who take petty pleasure in frustrating people, or who seek to usurp more power over people's lives. Meanwhile our Congress has become incapable of civilly discussing and trying to solve our problems. Indeed, they don't seem even to notice what our most pressing problems are. While most of our employers are trying to lay workers off, or replace permanent workers with temporary workers, and unions are powerless to protect our incomes and benefits, and real wages are going down, and few people are secure in their jobs, Congress is worrying about side issues and patting themselves on the back for it. So if government is not capable of dealing with out problems, we need to consider some other ways for mutually resolving them. Brown suggests that our normal social conventions may be a useful starting place. I hope a lot of people read this book.

Bill Bryson's book, Made in America is intended as a study in the development of our racy, inventive, colorful American version of the English language. But along the way it gives as entertaining and enlightening an account of American history and culture as you are likely to get anywhere. I also recommend Bryson's earlier book, The Mother Tongue, about the history and spread of the English language. It's funny, correct, anecdote-filled, and beats the heck out of the dreary little textbook I used when I took a course in the history of the English language lo these many moons ago.

Edwin Chen's book, Deadly Scholarship is the story of how a Chinese student came to kill another Chinese student and several physics professors at the University of Iowa a few years back. It's a complicated story about a clash of cultures. A student with an overweaning sense of his own importance and entitlement is frustrated when his merits are not adequately recognized, and when he sees another student getting a coveted award that should, he thought, have been his. This deadly mixture is compounded by its intersection with the American culture of guns. Nothing truly explains madness, of course, but this books gives some sense of how such a tragedy could occur.

William Zinsser's book American Places is one I recommend for Americans and vistors alike--Americans because we teach and learn our history so poorly, and the rest of the world because this is such a wonderful distillation of the best things about us as a nation. Zinsser explores all the obvious places, of course--the Alamo, Mount Vernon, Mount Rushmore, etc.--and not with just the standard tour guide blah blah blah. Zinsser gives a wonderful sense of place and history, and shows you how the mythology evolved around these places. But he takes you to some unexpected places as well. His chaper on the Civil Rights Memorial is not only a powerful piece about the civil rights struggle and the Southern Poverty Law Center, but it is also a wonderful story about how a sculptor, Maya Lin, thinks about her art and her goal as she creates a monument, and about how her work interacts with its audience.

I loved Anna Quindlen's novel One True Thing enough to make up for the fact that she gave up writing her columns, which I loved, in order to write this and other novels. It's the story of a woman who thought she knew and understood her family until she comes home to help her mother get through the lengthy, untidy, undignified business of dying. Like most of us, much of what she knows is not true. She comes to see the reality of the woman she had accepted so casually and contemptuously as just a mother, just a housewife. And she begins to see how helpless and hopeless the father she idolized is in the face of death. Reading books together with her mother, and talking about them, she unpeels the layers of her mother's life and at last begins to understand her own.

There was a lot of other stuff along the way, of course. Lots of non-fiction, mostly. Trying to figure out why things fall apart, the center cannot hold, I read about journalism and politics and history and race relations and gender relationships. And I read a lot of baseball novels, which are as good a way as any to talk about the problems in American society--racism and greed and manliness and the quest for excellence and the culture of celebrity and the need to win at all costs, to name a few. And when all of that got way too depressing, a little science fiction, some murder mysteries, and some escapist romantic trash (but first-class trash--my heroines have to be bright and funny, the dialogue has to be witty, and the hero has to pay as much attention to the heroine's mind as to her body. Like I said, escapist).

But these books here helped to make me different on December 31 than I was last January 1. I recommend them to you.

If you're interested in any of these books and they're out of print,
click HERE for advice on how to find out of print books.

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