The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Read: 12 August, 2015

I’ve been aware of The Phantom Tollbooth for years, hearing from several friends that it was their first favourite book. Unfortunately, I was country-hopping at the age where I might have come across it organically or been assigned it in school, and so had never read before. Yet I knew of it, and picked it up when I found it at the thrift store.

I originally tried to read it to Kid, now that I’m transitioning him off from picture books at bedtime. That didn’t really work out, though. We only got about halfway through before he asked to read something else instead. And I can understand why – so many of the jokes either involve puns or knowledge that he hasn’t been exposed to, so all the humour was going right over his head. And without the humour, there isn’t really much left to the book.

But I’d made it halfway through, and I didn’t really want to abandon the reading entirely. So I decided to carry on on my own.

I quite enjoyed the book. The humour is right up my alley – with plenty of silliness, poking fun at adult convention, and loads of puns. As I said, there isn’t too much else besides that – the plot is flimsy at best, and the characters are either jokes or a blank slate to serve as a reader insert – but there doesn’t need to be. I can imagine the impact of reading this at 10-12, when the jokes would be more directly relevant.

It’s very playful and enjoyable, and a not too long read despite the stuffy British narration style.

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Teach Your Child To Read In Just Ten Minutes A Day by Sidney Ledson

Read: 25 March, 2014

There are two separate aspects of this book to review: The first is the writing, and the second is the method.

The writing is terrible. It reads like the fevered rant of some self-publishing conspiracy theorist. The book – particularly the argument-setting Part I – is riddled with phonetic spelling errors, like the word “Instutute” on page 15. These don’t exactly inspire confidence in the method.

There was no real acknowledgement of childhood development, no mention of the physical developments of the brain that might be necessary to process the relationship between symbol and symbolised, and no mention of the research that suggests that pushing skills (like reading) before a child is developmentally ready can backfire. There’s also no mention of the difference between ability to read and comprehension, so that Ledson gives no evidence that he’s teaching anything other than a parlour trick. Even if the author disagrees with these points, since such research have direct implications for his thesis, they should have been acknowledged.

Further, Ledson clearly has an axe to grind against the public school system. Throughout the book, his method is compared to the failings of public schools, including the rather incredible assertion that dyslexia is a made-up disease. None of this was necessary to his thesis, nor to the discussion of his method. I found it distracting and, frankly, rather aggravating.

Whenever research is used to support a point, it goes uncited. References are far too vague for me to be able to figure out what studies he’s talking about. For example, he says: “According to a highly-respected researcher in early-childhood studies…” (p.24). When that is the only identifying information given, how can I possibly take his point seriously?

Finally, I want to whine about the incredible promises. Throughout the book, Ledson promises that every single child can read with his method (often using the word “guarantee”). He even, at several points, strongly suggests that children taught with his method will develop a genius-level IQ as a result. Over and over again, the idea that precocious readers might have started with certain physiological advantages is dismissed out of hand.

For all these reasons, I was pre-disposed not to take the method very seriously. Yet for all its claims, the method really isn’t so different from what I already do with my preschooler – except perhaps being a little more methodical (not relying on incidental word sightings, and focusing on one letter at a time).

So the method seems to at least have some surface validity, and I’m willing to give it a try. I’ll update with our progress, if any.

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The Year I Stopped Reading Men

After a glut of female authors, Anna Szymanski read a novel by a male author and was not impressed. “It was like when you turn on a TV set after spending a significant period of time streaming television online. Suddenly, you’re covering your ears and asking why those Kia hamsters can’t play a different song. You never used to notice the commercials, but now they’re all you can hear.”

In her article, Szymanski argues that school curricula should be including more female authors at all grade levels. “We need to support the work of female writers, including female writers of color and lesbian writers and everyone else whose story is almost always filtered through a white, male lens. We need to arm young women with the critical understanding that their experience is valid — that they are not a trope or a category. Leaving a few Dickens novels off the syllabus in favor of some Virginia Woolf or Jamaica Kincaid may be a small step. But it’s a start.”

It’s an interesting article, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

Owning two of an object can predict school success. Can you guess what it is?

Of course, simply owning these objects won’t change anything, but it does indicate a pattern of behaviour in the family, and that’s what predicts children’s success in school.

Can you guess what the object is?

It’s bookcases.

On a materials level it makes no sense, that a series of particle-board slats named Billy would, just by their very existence in the living room, mean a child living in the same structure would do better in school than kids whose families lacked that product. But parents buy bookshelves for a reason, of course, and when they own two bookshelves or more it indicates that they like to buy books and presumably read them, and as it turns out, folks who like to read are more predisposed to see to it that their children do well in school.

All too often, I’ve known parents who buy plenty of books for their children and complain that their children just don’t seem to be interested in reading them. But the question is, of course, are the parents reading? Is reading seen to be a part of the family’s routine? If so, of course, children are much more likely to become readers. More time reading then correlates with all sorts of other things, such as literacy, vocabulary, introduction to other historical periods and cultures, etc.

I can see this with my son. He sees me read a lot, and he’s quite happy to choose a picture book and to sit with it for 45 minutes looking at the pages. So even though I don’t always remember or manage to read to him, I really don’t have any worries about his future literacy and interest in books.

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer

I had a friend once describe reading novels as “empathy training,” and that’s certainly been my experience. Reading a novel is putting yourself in another person’s head – experiencing the world as they do, suffering as they do, loving as they do. It stands to reason that an avid reader will have an easier time seeing matters from another person’s point of view, and understanding – of not agreeing with – them.

There’s a nice article on Time saying much the same thing – with an added bit about helping people to become more focused and thoughtful as well.

So give your brain a little training today – pick up a book!

Thought-provoking questions every book club needs to ask

These are pretty hilarious!

I think my favourite is the first:

During the sex scenes in the book, did you picture the other people in the book group also having to read the sex scenes and feel sort of weird about it? Why do you think we have so much trouble acknowledging our friends as sexual beings?

Probably one of the most awkward book reading experiences I’ve ever had was reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after BOTH my parents recommended it. I mean, yes, they can be sexual beings, good for them. But multiple anal rapes? Eeeeeew….

Read the rest of them over at Jezebel.

On the experience of books

My mother recently bought herself a Kindle and has been urging me to get one. She says that the ability to resize the text makes it far more readable than print. It seems to have many of the benefits of print books, such as the ability to highlight passages and write notes. It’s also far more convenient to travel with than a backpack full of paperbacks.

A friend, who also keeps a book review blog, has recommended listening to audio books for the speed (he speeds up the audio, burning through books at an incredible pace). Another reason is the ability to listen while driving or, more relevant in my case, while standing because no seats where available on the bus. Since my son was born with an apparent aversion to spending even so much as a few seconds without being held, I thought I would give it a try, attracted to the hands-free nature of audio.

But despite all the points in favour of both e-readers and audio books, I just can’t get into them. With my ridiculously long introduction out of the way, here are my reasons for preferring to read it old school:

  1. Memory: I learn best when I’m reading – so much so that I developed the habit of transcribing my professors’ lectures in university and reading my notes after the class was over. I found that this significantly improved my retention rate. Combined with the mnemonic act of writing, I rarely needed to study for exams. So when I ‘read’ by audio book, I quickly forget what’s going on. Unless I write my review within a day or two, I won’t remember enough about the book to form a coherent commentary.
  2. Finding a passage quickly: I tend to associate what I’m reading with many other factors that are going on around the text. So if I think of a specific passage and I want to find it in a book, I can normally remember a) the weight of the book in each hand, telling me approximately what page the passage is on, and b) the location of the passage relative to the page (left page or right page, upper quadrant or lower). When I read via audio book or on a screen, these other experiences aren’t present, making it almost impossible for me to find a specific passage. This is something of a deal-breaker when I’m reading non-fiction.
  3. Other people’s notes: I enjoy buying second-hand books to read the notes that other people have left. I used to find it annoying, but I’ve grown to enjoy them – particularly when the author is reflecting on the text. I believe that Kindles allow for downloading other people’s notes, so perhaps this complaint is only applicable to audio books.
  4. The book’s history: Second hand books bear the marks of their history. Do they smell heavily perfumed? Are they dog-eared or neat? Is the spine cared for? Are passages underlined or highlighted? Have any bookmarks, photographs, or shopping lists been left in the book? All these things appeal to my inner detective and enrich my experience of a book, which in turn  relates back to points one and two. The more I experience of the books, the better my memory is of it and its contents.
  5. Décor: I just love the look of books. The wall of colours add quite an interesting focal point for rooms that are otherwise kept in Builder’s White so as not to break my rental agreement.
  6. Sentimentality: The various book smells (new paper versus old, binding glue, cover card), the sensation of cracking a spine for the very first time, and the feel of its weight in my hands. While entirely irrational, these experiences are hard to give up.

All this isn’t to say that I’m opposed to Kindles and audio books. As I said, the convenience of audio books have forced my hand somewhat since my son was born, and I wouldn’t refuse to use a Kindle were one gifted to me. But I don’t think that I’m quite ready to give up the experience of physical books just yet…