April 28

These are a Few of My Favorite Words

People make fun of me for the way I talk. Sometimes they are even offended by my use of big or unusual words. They think I’m trying to show off or, even worse, make them feel stupid. But the truth is much simpler (and kinder!) than that.

I’m a word nerd.

I’m a complete language freak. I love words! It’s why I learned French and Russian. It’s why I majored in English and became a language teacher. As my Writing Center colleagues and students can attest, I become positively giddy when I encounter a clever turn of phrase or a brand new word. A new word is like a newly unearthed treasure I want to pull from the ground and share with the whole world! Look at this! Isn’t it shiny and beautiful!

English is such a rich language, full of these treasures, and I don’t see why any word should be buried, relegated to the darkness. If I discover a new one, especially one that sounds funny, trips neatly off the tongue and has a perfectly specific meaning, I will incorporate it into my own vocabulary and use it as often as possible.

And I’m fortunate because I’ve been blessed with the auditory equivalent of a photographic memory. I take no credit for the ability; I didn’t earn it. It’s genetic. My sister and my kids have it too. We can just hear something and forever remember it exactly. That gift makes it pretty easy for me to absorb new words.

So when people accuse me of showing off or belittling them, I’m hurt and a little confused. In general, I don’t “dumb down” my language for anyone. To me, doing so would mean I am assuming the listener is not smart. The only creatures I “dumb down” for are animals and small children, and even then, I don’t speak differently unless I am explaining a difficult concept that a child truly needs to understand.  I talk the same way to pretty much everyone and assume that anyone I speak to is just as smart as I am or smarter. If they don’t understand a word I use, I’m delighted to explain it, and I imagine they feel the way I do when someone shares a new word with me – excited!

Now that I’m older and also since I started teaching at the university, people seem more tolerant of the way I speak. It’s so liberating!

So in the spirit of sharing and educating and getting giddy, may I present some of my favorite words?

It is a diverse list. Some of the words I love for their sound. Some of them for their surgically precise meaning. Others have happy associations with people or places. This list could be 10 or 20 times as long. Believe it or not, I whittled it down!

Entropy  - Learned during an undergrad biology class at IU. It summarizes what I see as the greatest struggle in my life: maintaining order in the face of invading chaos!

Stygian – Learned from a Pakistani chemistry student who was writing a lab report on a dark coagulate. He got tired of the word “dark,” so he pulled “Stygian” out of the thesaurus. It does mean dark, but it’s poetic, so it was completely out of context in a chemistry report. Ah, the thesaurus.

Efficient (usually used with “effective”) – I just love the meaning of these words. They got tossed around so much at the insurance company where I was a tech writer, for a while I hated them. But efficiency is vital in my struggle against entropy, so they’re back in my good graces.

Patois – Learned from one of my fellow grad students at Butler. She kept talking about the “patois” of the aristocratic Indians in Salman Rushdie’s novels. I had to look it up. You should too.

Going concern – Okay, so this one’s a phrase. And it’s kind of jargon-y. But we used it a lot at the insurance company and at Disney, and no other word or phrase in English has this meaning. I just find it an interesting concept.

Delegate – As a verb. It’s something I must do more of, but I’m a control freak.

Hermeneutics – I run across this one often when I tutor rhetoric students. I like the sound of it and the way it looks on paper.

Epistemology – Another one I see in graduate-level papers, especially social work students. I don’t really understand it well, but it’s fun to say.

Ecumenical – Learned this one from the Merriam-Webster “word of the day” app. I like the way my mouth moves when I say it.

Self-deprecating – Learned this one from my mother who used it all the time when my sister and I were adolescents.

Aplomb – The newest word on the list! I heard one of Jon Stewart’s guests use it on The Daily Show a couple weeks ago, ran to look it up, and just like everything about it.

Synergize – Disney-ese. I heard or used this word almost every day during the decade I worked for The Company.

Permutation – First encountered this as a math concept in Mrs. Hender-Bob’s advanced algebra class. I use its non-algebraic definition every chance I get.

Logistics – Another word, like entropy and efficient, that signifies my highest priorities in life.

Contrived – Learned from Simon LeBon of Duran Duran who was arguing with a reporter about whether or not the band was “contrived.” It’s just the perfect opposite of “organic” and so much more specific than “artificial” or “unnatural.”

Shiksa – Learned from my Jewish sorority sisters at IU. Yiddish has fabulous sounds. Even the rude words sound funny. (See “shmuck!”)

Bougie – French word for a fat candle. We don’t have a good word for that object in English. It’s not a taper, a pillar, a votive or a tealight. It’s fatter and squatter.

Ciao – Like “aloha” which I also love, it can mean either “hello” or “goodbye.” That appeals to me. Plus it sounds cool in every way.

Nimble – Learned from “Ghostbusters.” Enough said.

Kaibab – Learned in the Grand Canyon. I love the way it sounds and feels. Plus, it reminds me of our hike.

Cooperate – I use this word a lot when I tickle my children, so it reminds me of them. I tell them, “If you’ll cooperate, this’ll just take a second.” When I get to “cooperate,” they start giggling because they know what’s coming. So the word makes me smile now.

Walrus – Another word that reminds me of my kids. Also, Ferris Bueller (“I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off people.”), the Beatles and “Alice in Wonderland.” Whenever we have to end an activity or go somewhere, I say, “The time has come, the walrus said, and I am the walrus. Coo coo cachoo,” synthesizing John Lennon and Lewis Carroll. The kids understand. See? Told ya I was a word nerd!

March 7

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Education

I have started three drafts of a blog entry on the current political environment vis-a-vis education.

I gave up three times.

The conversation right now is too close to me. It is too disheartening. It is even shocking.

As the granddaughter, niece and daughter of teachers, as an educator myself who has always valued education and the myriad opportunities it brings, I guess I’ve been a little sheltered from the vitriol of the anti-school crowd. Not completely, of course.

My mother often brought home horror stories about angry parents, aloof administrators, and indifferent students. My aunt teaches second grade at a public school in Terre Haute, the methamphetamine capital of the world. She always talks about her 7-year-old students whose parents could care less if their kids come to school. Hell, my grandfather actually had Charles Manson in class for a brief spell before he got kicked out for ditching. Even before I went to college, I knew that many people had low opinions of a formal education.

And the further I went into my own academic career, the more first-hand experience I collected myself. The summer after I graduated with my bachelor degree, I went to a party with some old high school pals and made the mistake of enthusiastically admitting I was now a college grad. One of the guys I was talking to actually rolled his eyes, snorted and walked away. When I questioned his girlfriend about his behavior, she shrugged. “We’re not big on college snobs,” she replied. I was speechless.

By the time I got to grad school, I realized that, sadly, there were some circles in which I needed to keep my education to myself. When certain people asked me what I was up to, I would just talk about the two jobs I was working and leave out the classes I was taking.

Nowadays, when people ask me what I do, I try to gauge the situation, anticipate their reaction. If I’m not sure their reaction will be positive, I just say I’m a teacher. Sometimes, though, they’ll ask further, and I have to admit I teach English at a university. And then I get the “Ooooh, well, I’ll try to watch my grammar” comment. Like I’m going to correct their usage. I rarely correct even my own children; I don’t correct friends. Ever.

Despite all these experiences, the current discussions about education and teachers and their unions still leave me speechless. What can I say? Can I even be remotely objective?

Of course not.

Obviously, education is important to me. And it should be important to all Americans. It’s part of what makes the American dream possible. We must have a baseline of education to succeed in life. We have to learn how to read. We have to learn how to do basic math. We have to learn enough history to understand what’s come before, so we don’t repeat the same mistakes. We have to learn the scientific method.

At a minimum, everyone should learn these things. The U.S. has to have a literate population to maintain its democracy. Thomas Jefferson understood that: “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

We have to have a literate population to innovate and boost our economy. Even the most creative people will not get anywhere if they cannot articulate their great ideas.

We have to a have a literate population to protect our nation. Our military needs soldiers and officers who know their history, know multiple languages, know good communication skills.

Education is important to the success and stability of our nation.

So when people want to cut funding of our schools, when people want to bash public school teachers as lazy, glorified babysitters, when people want to privatize our schools because they’re not performing as they think they should, I am flabbergasted.

Our government needs to get its priorities straight. Get back to basics: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. For me, “life” means “health” and “safety.” I want my government to provide a bottom-line, safety-net type of health system, and I want my government to keep us safe from our enemies within and without.

“Liberty” is more complicated, but for me, its about getting to choose our leaders and those leaders’ supporting the Bill of Rights.

And then there’s “pursuit of happiness.” Now, I know that education does not make everybody happy. My kindergartner told me just today that she hates school. I know that higher education is not for everyone. I certainly do not look down my nose at people who choose or cannot afford college. My husband left school at age 16; he’s one of the most brilliant people I know, and he also appreciates the value of a good education. You don’t need a degree to be educated, but not appreciating education makes you stupid.

Education allows us to succeed in business. It allows us to get better jobs and make more money. Education helps us to pursue property, which is, of course, the original source of the phrase from which Jefferson co-opted his famous Declaration (John Locke).

And the current education system, while certainly not perfect, its not in such bad shape that it needs to be completely abandoned. Are there bad schools? Oh yes. Do I know how to fix them? No, but taking away their money and marginalizing the teachers is definitely not the answer! Are there bad teachers? You bet. But I can count on one hand, the number of bad teachers I’ve had in seventeen years of education. In fact, I can think of just two. Two!

On the other hand, I can think of a hundred really good teachers I have had the privilege to know, either as their student or as a friend. My mom won student-voted awards almost every year of her 30-year career. Even today, people who had her as a teacher come up to me and sing her praises. She worked her tail off for three decades. All those “vacations” and “breaks” people complain about teachers’ enjoying. Yeah, my mom spent most of those “days off,” locked in her room, grading endless piles of essays. I remember Thanksgivings, Easter Sundays, and Mother’s Days, when we would visit family in Terre Haute, my mom spent the two hours in the car grading and doing lesson plans.

One of my favorite teachers of all time was a lady named Karen. She taught three preps – sophomore AP literature, junior composition, and an awesome class called humanities. I was fortunate to have her twice as a teacher. She was amazing in the classroom. But she was also one of my mom’s best friends, so I got to see behind the scenes. I saw her in tears my senior year, her first year teaching the brand-new humanities course. She was crying on my mom’s shoulder because she was working so hard, prepping all her classes, developing this new curriculum, grading and dealing with all the usual administrative crap. She felt like she was missing her sons’ childhoods. If I hadn’t walked into my mom’s classroom after school that day, I’d have had no idea she was under such stress. She was flawless in front of her students.

And then there were my band directors. The first two years I was in band, I didn’t give much thought to how much time these three men put into their music program. My senior year, though, I was a drum major, and I spent a lot of time with them. In the summer. On Monday evenings. On Thursday evenings. On Friday evenings when we had football games. Every Saturday from August to November when we had contests. They chose the marching drill, the musical selections, the uniforms, the flags, the staff. They coordinated 350 teenagers, teaching us music, marching routines and dealing with our teenage angst. They dealt with stage parents and vengeful judges. I cannot imagine how many hours they put into that program. And, oh, yeah, they also had to teach music classes, grade papers, and all that stuff too. They earned every dollar they got paid, and I know it wasn’t as much as it could’ve been if they’d taken their degrees and put all those hours into a private business. I know for a fact that band was the only reason many kids stayed in school at all.

Teachers are alright.

The cuts in funding, the swipes at teachers’ unions, the pushes for privatization (vouchers and charter schools) reveal some seriously screwed-up priorities in our country.

We’d better get our heads on straight and start investing in our future. Education is key. If we forget that, we sacrifice our future because part of our electorate has a chip on its shoulder and another part is senior voters who would rather protect their assets than educate our nation’s children.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (or property if you swing that way) is the bottom line. Education is the path.

February 8

Resources and Priorities

I had an argument with my mom the other day. It wasn’t a big deal, and I don’t want to bore you with the details, except that it was about going to the movies.

I have terrible luck at movie theaters.

You can ask my sister or my friend Glynda or my husband. Weird, annoying things happen to me in theaters – rude patrons (or even employees!) who talk during the movie, broken film reels, malfunctioning sound, out-of-focus projection. I just have a long history of bad experiences at the cinema. But I do love movies, so I watch a lot of videos, Netflix, AMC and TCM.

The argument with my mom was really about something else entirely, but in defending my position, I was forced to explain a philosophy by which I have always lived, but never articulated before:

Life is a struggle against limited resources.

We have a limited amount of time, energy and money. 24 hours in a day; 3 weeks of vacation; 4 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas; 14 hours of anticipated, productive energy in a day; a certain number of dollars’ worth of salary a month.

The limits on my resources are the reasons I make to-do lists, calendars, schedules, budgets and routines.  They are the reasons I say “no” to some things but “yes” to others. They guide pretty much every decision I make because I have priorities.

Personally, my priorities are fairly complicated, extensive and somewhat dynamic. My family, however, always comes first. Sometimes my job comes second, especially if there is an important deadline coming up. But if things are calm at work, my friends supersede my career. Health is more important than education. Entertainment is more important than material stuff, and so on.

I could probably go on for days spelling out all my various priorities and the ways in which I allocate my resources to satisfy them. In the past few days, though, I realized something more universal.

Priorities are how we label each other.

How we use our limited resources is how we put ourselves into groups, communities or even political parties. People who decide to use their resources on education become academics. People who use their resources on video games and computer equipment become geeks or gamers. People who decide to use their resources on GTL (Gym, Tan, Laundry) become “The Situation.” You get it.

Priorities and the use of limited resources are why we get so annoyed with lawmakers. To me, it is a waste of time and energy for Indiana lawmakers to be debating an amendment to the state Constitution to make gay marriage illegal. Our state is facing far more dire issues than whether or not two people, who are likely upstanding, contributing members of our society, can be married.  We have rampant unemployment, governmental and corporate corruption, gang violence and industry demise. I consider lawmakers’ using their time and MY tax money to discriminate against a small group of people who are not harming anyone else to be a WASTE of limited resources. It ticks me off. Obviously, other people have different priorities.

I see it as a waste of time and money and energy for the House of Representatives to be debating a bill to redefine rape so the federal government can protect citizens from paying for federally-funded abortions. Because only 191 abortions due to rape were paid for by federal funds last year, and that number won’t change under the new Health Care Law. So they are sitting in Washington, debating something that might cost taxpayers 2/10 of a cent next year. When we have so many other, bigger issues they should be dealing with.

Priorities are different for everyone, though. Some people buy designer clothes and pay $50 for a weekly manicure while they live in an apartment that should be condemned. Other people think that spending billions on a war with another nation is okay; spending a lesser amount to help maintain the health of our own citizens is a travesty. That’s why we argue. That’s why debate. That’s how we label one another.

In the end, my mom decided I had the right not to spend my time and money on going to the movie theater. My priorities are different from hers. Long story short – I’ll wait to see “The King’s Speech” on DVD.

September 2

If Not “American,” Then What?

Humpty Dumpty said gaily… “That shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four days when you might get un-birthday presents”
“Certainly,” said Alice.
“And only ONE for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’”Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”
“Would you tell me, please,” said Alice “what that means?”
“Now you talk like a reasonable child,” said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. “I meant by ‘impenetrability’ that we’ve had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you’d mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don’t mean to stop here all the rest of your life.”
“That’s a great deal to make one word mean,” Alice said in a thoughtful tone.
“When I make a word do a lot of work like that,” said Humpty Dumpty, “I always pay it extra.”
“Oh!” said Alice. She was too much puzzled to make any other remark.

Lewis Carroll’s passage from “Through the Looking Glass” is near and dear to many linguists because it demonstrates so succinctly some of the fundamental debates about language: Where does definition stop and connotation begin? Who wields the power of language in a dialogue – the speaker or the listener? Who has the authority to determine what a word means and how it is used?

As an English teacher and a writer, I think about these general ideas all the time. But lately, I’ve noticed an odd little movement that has me thinking about this on a more specific level.

The movement has to do with the word “American.”

Lately, I’ve seen posts on Internet message boards and heard comments from people on television and even from students regarding the meaning of “American.” There is a small group of people who disapprove of United States citizens monopolizing the term to label themselves. After all, the argument goes, anyone living on the North or South American continents is an “American.”

Sure. I’ll buy that. But what purpose does it serve to define the term only that way and strip it of its other definitions? According to Merriam-Webster, “American” has three meanings: 1) an American Indian of North or South America  2) an inhabitant of North or South America  3) a citizen of the United States. To suddenly decide that it is offensive for inhabitants of the United States to call themselves “American” because we’re leaving out the rest of the people in the Western Hemisphere, seems contrived.

The argument seems to be coming from uber-left-wing progressives and non-U.S. citizens. If you know me or if you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’ve got nothing against either of these groups. I’m a moderate liberal myself, and I’m certainly no xenophobe. Speaking as a linguist, though, their argument is illogical.

First, if we don’t call ourselves “Americans,” what do we call ourselves? “U.S. citizens?” “Yankees?” (That’d go over well with Southerners.) “Residents of the country north of Mexico?” I mean, there aren’t any concise, useful synonyms. It’s not like an offensive epithet for which there are many, more appropriate terms.  It’s actually a unique word.

Secondly, and this might sound immature, but we were the first nation in the Americas to break free from our colonial empire. When we first began calling ourselves “Americans,” Mexicans were still calling themselves “Spanish” or “Aztec.” Brazilians were still calling themselves “Portugese.” Canadians were still calling themselves “British” or “French.” It’s the old playground claim – we were here first, so it’s ours! Seriously, though, from this perspective, it becomes pretty silly to be offended by our use of “American.” When we first started calling ourselves that, no one else wanted the name.

Most people living in the Western Hemisphere still don’t want the name. Call a Brazilian an “American” and they will correct you. “No, I’m Brazilian.” If you persist, they’ll probably laugh. “Oh, I get it!” Most of the Mexicans, Canadians, Central Americans and South Americans I know would think it was kind of a joke.

Besides, to limit the term “American” to its second definition is to render the term fairly useless. It’s like calling Germans “Eastern Hemispherians.” Who does that? Why would they? Make a term too broad, and it becomes ineffectual.

Human beings just don’t think of themselves in such big terms. Sure, some people like to think of themselves as global citizens, but they don’t usually speak that way in normal conversation. I mean, if you say to someone, “Where are you from?” and they answer, “I am a citizen of the world,” you’re going to think they’re a nutjob.

Most of the time, depending on where you are and to whom you are speaking, you would answer, “I’m from Paris,” or “I’m from Saudi Arabia.” Human beings have a general propensity for putting ourselves in smaller communities. And it’s not just endemic to people in the United States; Great Britain has extensive experience with this phenomenon. Just call a Scotsman “British” sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.  We tend to identify ourselves locally, not globally, sometimes even in direct opposition to political realities. (Like my Iranian friends who call themselves “Persian” even though Persia has not existed politically since 1935.)

Our loyalties lie with our countries, our regions, our cities or towns, our neighborhoods, our schools. We’re not loyal to our hemisphere. Thinking of ourselves in pan-continental terms is not natural to us, and I don’t think it will ever really catch on.

Then again, limiting the word “American” to only its second definition not only makes its third definition offensive, but also its first. Try telling a Navajo or a Cherokee that they cannot call themselves American, and you’re likely to get punched in the face. And rightly so. After all, they were here before the Europeans. If anyone is going to change the definition, shouldn’t it be up to them and not a radically politicized group of word police or a bunch of people who don’t even live here?

Of course, people are, like Humpty Dumpty, quite free to call themselves or others whatever they like.  Americans don’t pass laws restrict our own speech, and we certainly cannot expect to restrict the speech of people in other countries. If these folks want to redefine “American,” though, it’s going to take a long time. Words don’t change their meanings on a dime.  In the meantime, it’s just not a very clear way to communicate.  People who insist on calling all inhabitants of the West “Americans” will likely get the same reaction Humpty Dumpty got from Alice – a puzzled “oh.”

June 19

Summer Reading Recommendations 2010

My husband chastised me the other day because my blog’s been idle for a while. I admit, I’ve been lax, but I do have some really good excuses if you’re interested! First, I’ve been in summer school hell. Like an idiot, I accepted a double assignment which means I’m teaching two classes covering 15 weeks’ material in 6 weeks. I’m a lesson planning-student-email-responding-paper-grading automaton! Second, the novel that has been gestating in my brain for the past 8 years has decided it’s time to be born. So in between my manic teaching work, I’ve been spending most of my writing time writing that. And finally, well, most of my blog stuff’s been focused on current events, and the oil spill in the Gulf has been dominating that spectrum for a while. The whole fiasco simply paralyzes me with disappointment and anxiety. I am so angry with BP, disappointed in our government’s response, devastated about the environmental impact, and grief-stricken for the people of that region, I don’t want to write more than these few lines about it. Soooooooo…

My guilt-ridden conscience thus temporarily cleared, I can move on to something kinda fun.

As an English teacher with a couple of degrees in literature, I am often asked for summer reading recommendations. Now if you were talking to me in person, I’d ask you several questions about your personal tastes before I would presume to recommend anything because the possibilities are really endless. Plus, I have some rather particular tastes in reading materials, especially the stuff I read in my free time.

Since you’re just reading this blog, though, I’ll list my personal favorites. Please bear in mind that I read some rather heavy stuff for my professional work, so in the summer, I tend to read fun, low-impact books. I love Dante, Shakespeare and Henry James, but I’m not going to recommend them for light reading on the beach. Please don’t hold the fluff in this list against me!

In no particular order:

Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher: A memoir of Princess Leia’s life, growing up in a celebrity family. Painfully funny, it is particularly fascinating if you are remotely interested in Hollywood history. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that it wasn’t three times as long.

Fool by Christopher Moore: A retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear from the fool’s perspective. I’ve been a Christopher Moore fan for years, but I was leery of his taking on my beloved bard, especially Lear, which is my favorite Shakespearean tragedy. Moore is irreverent, hilarious and dirty, so I had my doubts. I needn’t have worried; it is hilarious, and his love for this magnificent play is obvious just behind all the four-letter words and naughty bits.

Angels and Demons/ Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown: Imaginative novels about Catholic conspiracies. If you’re one of the few Americans left who haven’t read these, pick ‘em up at your local library or used book store. They’re fun, fast-paced, and intriguing, especially Angels and Demons, which moves at a near-breakneck pace that keeps your nose in the book right until the rather farfetched end. I can’t recommend the third one because I haven’t read it yet. I refuse to shell out $30 for a hardback, so I’ll wait until it’s available at the library.

Stephanie Plum novels by Janet Evanovich: Series of mysteries about an unlikely bounty hunter in New Jersey. These are pure fluff, but I was hooked when my sister lent me the 9th book in the series, and I read the line: “Punky Balog had an ass like Winnie the Pooh…big and fat and furry.” That was the first page, and it just got funnier from there. They’re all filled with wild characters and improbable fumbles – the kind of stories I have to stop and read pieces aloud to my husband now and then.

Sex with Kings/Sex with the Queen by Eleanor Herman: A whirlwind tour of European history via royal bedrooms. I’m a sucker for European history, so I love Herman’s books. They’re not your high school history textbooks, for sure. All the juicy particulars of romance, passion, sex, and political intrigue are woven into real history to make it come alive in lurid detail – everything from tsarist Russia to Prince Charles and Princess Di.

Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: Murder mystery with a twist before twists were cool. My mom has read every Christie novel. I’ve read about a dozen or so, and the Hercule Poirot stories are my favorites. This one is a classic. Think M. Night Shyamalan before his father was even a twinkle in his grandfather’s eye.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: The monster classic. I taught this to freshmen a few years back, and I was worried. The course was designed for non-majors, and I feared the 18th-century language and sensibilities might turn them off. I warned them to forget about watching any of the film adaptations and faking their way through discussions; this is nothing like what you think you know about Frankenstein. They loved it. It’s actually an easy read despite its age, and it is still fascinating and disturbing and thought-provoking.

Dracula by Bram Stoker: The other monster classic. Again, forget what you think you know. Even more so than Frankenstein, Dracula has been done some terrible disservice by Hollywood. Stoker’s novel is far richer in characters, plot and paranoia than any of the film adaptations. This novel is what I started to write my Master’s thesis on, so it’s a personal favorite. I’ve read it about 20 times. A couple scenes still give me chills!

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne: An adventure tale about an OCD British gentleman who makes an outrageous wager. If you ever watched “Frasier” with Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde-Pierce, you’ll recognize Phileas Fogg’s type – fastidious, exacting, particular, and over-educated. But you can’t help but fall in love with him as he battles his way around the 19th-century globe. I read this to my 8-year-old son, and we had a blast following Fogg’s travels.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold : Historical fiction about a magician in 1920’s San Francisco. I love historical fiction done well. This novel is full of surprises and keeps you guessing until the end. Supposedly, it was just picked up by Warner Brothers for a film adaptation. That’s been a rumor for a while, though, so don’t wait for the movie.

The Alienist by Caleb Carr: Historical fiction about a profiler in turn-of-the-century New York City. Sherlock Holmes does Jack the Ripper in the United States. Sort of. This book is dark and twisty with cameos by great historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt.

Alice In Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Classic children’s fantasies. Most people (including myself, obviously) label these as children’s books, but they are so deep and full of tricks and word plays children would never catch, I think it’s a shame to dismiss them or relegate them to a genre where adults who never read them as kids will feel foolish picking them up. They are amazing, and I find myself quoting them all the time: “If you do such a thing again, I’ll have you buttered!”

So there you go. I wish I hadn’t read any of these so I could read them all this summer for the first time. They are such fun to discover. If you’re fortunate enough not to have read some of them, I envy you.

Meanwhile, I shall trudge off into the unknown bookshelves, mining for gems. Happy reading!