3 Things I Learned While Earning My English Degree

As an undergrad student majoring in English, the one question I got all the time was, “So you’re going to teach?” My answer always has and always will be “no.” Teachers are amazing, but teaching isn’t my calling. If I taught, the students and I would both be crying a lot, and I find it best to avoid mass crying.

Though I don’t use my degree to teach, it’s come in handy a time or two over the years. Today I want to share the three most important lessons I learned while getting my degree and how I’ve put them to use.

I LEARNED HOW TO REALLY READ.

I’ve always been an avid reader, but it wasn’t until college that I learned how to read through various lenses. Whenever I read anything before, I read it through the lens of a white, middle-class millennial. But in college, I learned how to read through the lens of the Victorians, the Romantics, and the audiences who witnessed Shakespeare’s plays. As I earned my degree, I learned that when I read, I need to think about context, such as:

What time period was this written in?
Who was the original audience?
What would stand out to them that can inform my opinion today?

That knowledge has been incredibly beneficial and opened up texts to me in whole new ways.

I LEARNED THERE’S A REASON WHY SO MUCH CLASSIC LITERATURE IS REVERED, EVEN IF I DON’T LOVE IT.

Reading Moby-Dick wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, but I’m glad I read it. Melville’s story of an obsessed man going on an epic quest is a timeless story about longing and revenge. I’m not Shakespeare’s biggest fan, but it’s astounding to me that people are still analyzing and enjoying his words even now. His use of language amazes me. I might not pick up Paradise Lost or The Scarlet Letter for light weekend reading, but those stories tell us something profound about humanity, sin, and judgment. I didn’t love all the reading I was assigned in school, but I did discover books like The Monk by Matthew Lewis and Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain. I also encountered contemporary works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Good fiction always tells the truth, and those books tell it beautifully. Even though I didn’t like every text I was assigned in school, I’m better for having read them, and I was exposed to some great writers along the way.

I LEARNED WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A FEMINIST AND THAT I AM ONE.

In my last semester of college, I took two classes that paired perfectly. One was an English class teaching the theory and fiction of the women’s movement thus far, and the other was a sociology class about gender. I went into those classes pretty neutral about feminism. It wasn’t a word I used to identify myself, but if someone else used it, that was just fine with me. I couldn’t have given you a good definition of the term at all until I read the passionate words of Audre Lorde, Naomi Wolf, and others like them. I didn’t fully understand how hard women had to fight to vote or to buy a house on their own. I couldn’t have explained why feminism is so important before I watched a documentary in my sociology class about how women are objectified. I knew that was true, of course, but it wasn’t until I saw scenes of women allowing members of a rock band to throw pieces of deli meat onto their skin to see if it would stick that I realized just how little women’s lives matter to people who only see them as entertainment.  Learning about how the world has mistreated women and how so many have fought back shaped me in ways that I’m still uncovering.


What are the important things you learned in school? I’d love to hear them!


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Books that Have Opened My Eyes

One of the best things about reading is that it opens your eyes to people, beliefs, and situations that are outside what’s familiar. I’ve lived a privileged, middle-class life, so it’s important that I learn from stories different from mine. Many books have made an impact on me, so today I’m highlighting a few of them that illuminated a specific topic.

Please note: Two books deal with rape and sexual assault, which I do address.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF POVERTY:
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx
by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

I knew about poverty before I read this book, of course. I knew poverty could hold people back, but I didn’t fully understand its ramifications until I read Random Family. This is a remarkable work of journalism by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc that follows a group of people living in the Bronx over several years of their lives. Their stories are full of addiction, drugs, sex, prison, broken relationships, and violence. It’s easy to say, “Just get an education. Just get a job. Just leave that situation.” But poverty often acts as a blockade. If you’re poor and might lose your housing, dealing drugs and making thousands of dollars might sound great. But dealing leads to more and more problems and the cycle keeps on going. This book showed me how easily poverty traps people and how difficult it is to transition to a better life.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO RACISM:
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness 
by Austin Channing Brown

One of the most striking things about this book is the author’s name. She reveals that her parents named her Austin so people would hear it and assume she was a white man. They knew this would make job searches easier and might allow her a foot in the door she might not have as a black woman. Reading that broke my heart. A child entering the world should be a time of joy; parents shouldn’t have to think about the future and prepare for eventual prejudice as they’re holding their newborn. This is a slim book, but it’s full of insights about race, and specifically speaks to the Church about what we can and should be doing better to advocate for and welcome people of color.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF TRAUMA: 
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

I read (and loved) Roxane Gay’s essay collection Bad Feminist, so I knew she’d been raped as a 12-year-old. Hunger is the story of how that assault changed her life and her relationship with her body. With awe-inspiring vulnerability, Gay writes about how being overweight became a fortress to keep people away and how her family watched her spiral out of control and weren’t sure what to do. She talks about bad decisions she’s made, her relationship with food, and what she’s doing as an adult to manage her trauma. There are no easy answers or tidy endings here. This is a powerful memoir that shows just how much one event in a person’s life can completely change everything. Roxane Gay is one of the best writers alive today.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE WAR ON DRUGS:
Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari

In this book, Johann Hari presents a well-researched history of the war on drugs, revealing all the ways in which that war has caused additional damage and suffering. He includes powerful stories about Billie Holiday, drug cartels, and needle exchanges, among others. Hari weaves all of these threads into a convincing argument about the future and reform of the drug war. This is a gripping, thought-provoking book from start to finish.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO THE EFFECTS OF SOCIAL MEDIA:
American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales

I work with kids every day, so I was curious about the role social media plays in their lives. I was unprepared for what I learned in this book.  Journalist Nancy Jo Sales interviews teen girls, so readers get firsthand knowledge of just how important social media can be to them. I was surprised that even when girls are getting bullied and have to deal with being oversexualized, they remain dedicated to their online worlds. My one complaint about this book is that most of the subjects Sales interviews are middle-class or higher, so there isn’t much information about how poorer kids interact with technology. I think that’s a big missing piece, but this book is still worth reading, especially for those of us who engage with kids on a regular basis. After I finished reading, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist while I was growing up.

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THE BOOK THAT OPENED MY EYES TO MISOGYNY AND RAPE CULTURE:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

There are aspects of all these books that shocked me, but I don’t think any of the other books left me feeling quite as disgusted as Missoula. Jon Krakauer explores how little seriousness is sometimes given to rape and assault allegations, especially when the alleged perpetrators are people the community admire, like college football players. If I could, I’d make this book required reading for every person heading off to college. They need to know just how drastically rape and assault can change lives, whether justice is served or not.


What about you? What are the books that have opened your eyes?

A Gift Guide for Book People

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

As you might have noticed from the music, store Christmas tree displays, and crowded malls, the holidays are quickly approaching. I relish this time of year, including shopping for the people I love. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to put together a bookish gift guide. Whether you’re searching for a gift for a friend or want something special for yourself, I’m sure there’s something here for you. Let’s get shopping.

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  • Author Bookmarks | $5
    • I bought these for myself a while back, and they’re delightful.
  • Harper Perennial Olive Editions | $10
    • If you know someone who loves classics, the latest editions of the Olive series are beautiful.
  • Books Washi Tape | $3.55
    • Someone who keeps a planner or book journal would love this cute tape.
  • Edgar Allan Poe-ka Dot Pouch | $12
    • A friend gifted me this pouch years ago and it’s still going strong. It makes me happy every time I see it.
  • 100 Books Scratch-Off Poster | $15
    • How fun is this poster? If you get great joy from crossing off items on your to-do list, scratching off the squares might serve as a good push to read those classics you’ve meant to read.
  • Powell’s Literature Water Bottle | $12
    • When I use this water bottle, I feel more hydrated and well-read.

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  • Library Stamp T-Shirt | $28
    • This is perfect for any library lover.
  • Book Smart Tote Bag | $19.99
    • Make sure your bookworm best friend has something to carry her books in.
  • My Ideal Bookshelf | $24.99
    • This book is full of beautiful illustrations by Jane Mount and contains so many great reading recommendations.
  • William Shakespeare Library Candle | $25
    • Candles are lovely all year long, but especially when it gets cold outside. I might like reading Shakespeare more if I had this candle.
  • Reading Journal | Starts at $32.95
    • How cute is this journal? It’s customizable, too!
  • Reading Rest | $30
    •  This reading rest is ideal for someone who’s always reading on their lunch break.

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  • Personalized 5 Book Set | $195
    • A set from Juniper Books is on my bookish bucket list. Their work is just stunning.
  • 1984 Sweatshirt | $50
    • Wear the books you love with a literary sweatshirt.
  • Bookends + Lamp | Starts at $58.80
    • This is both functional and beautiful, a solid combo.
  • Book of the Month Subscription | $79.99 for 6 months
    • You know your sister wants to read more, but neither one of you know where to start. With a BOTM subscription, she can choose her own titles.
  • Custom Ideal Bookshelf Print | $95
    • If you know your BFF’s favorite books, this would be such a thoughtful, meaningful gift.
  • Page 1 Books Subscription | $70 for 3 months
    • If you like the idea of a book subscription but want something more personal than BOTM, Page 1 is a perfect choice.

May your holiday season include much bookish goodness.

What I Wish People Knew About Their Public Library

Photo by Sylvia Yang on Unsplash

I’ve worked part-time at a public library for over 13 years. I’ve noticed that some patrons are dynamic library users. These folks know about our events, have no trouble finding what they want, and use our online resources. But there are a lot of patrons who know very little. Here’s a list of things I wish people knew about their public libraries. We have so much to offer, says the woman who’s not biased in any way.

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Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

YOUR LIBRARY’S WEBSITE IS FULL OF TREASURE.

If you’re a student and need to find articles for a research paper, your library will have great online databases to offer you, such as ProQuest or Science in Context. If you’re on a tight budget and want to get out of the house, check your library’s calendar of events. My district hosts trivia nights, offers concerts and poetry readings, and has taught classes ranging from yoga to art. Are you part of a homeschooling family? The library will be your best friend. Not only can you get educational materials, but check your library’s site to see if they offer special cards or classes for homeschoolers.

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Photo by Sunrise on Unsplash

YOU CAN HAVE AN ENTIRE LIBRARY IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND.

On your library’s website, you’ll probably find links to media resources such as OverDrive/Libby, Hoopla, RBDigital, or Freegal. I enjoy audiobooks, and I enjoy them even more when I download them to my phone from OverDrive and don’t have to carry around a large, plastic case with multiple CDs. I also like presidential biographies, which can be quite heavy. You know what’s not heavy? My Kindle Paperwhite and the biography I downloaded to it. Your library almost certainly offers downloadable audiobooks and ebooks, but they might also offer magazines, movies, comics, music, or TV shows.

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Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash

IF YOUR LIBRARY DOESN’T OWN WHAT YOU WANT,
THEY’LL DO THEIR BEST TO GET IT FOR YOU.

There’s a magical thing called interlibrary loan (or ILL) in which librarians will track down an item for you if it’s not in the collection. Libraries all over the world participate in this system, so there’s a good chance a librarian will be able to find that rare book you’re seeking. I fear patrons will search the catalog, not see what they want, and then give up. But you can always ask about ILL. You can submit a purchase request, too. Just a couple of weeks ago, I requested an ebook through OverDrive, and it was automatically in my checkouts by the end of the week. Trust me when I say your librarian wants you to get what you want.

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Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

YOU CAN PLACE HOLDS ON THINGS THAT
HAVEN’T BEEN RELEASED YET.

At my library, patrons can already place a hold on the 2018 version of A Star Is Born even though it’s still in theaters. Jane Harper’s newest book doesn’t hit the US until February, but I’ve had a hold on it for at least a month or two already. If you want to avoid being 147th in line for a popular item, check your library’s catalog ahead of time and place a hold. Even if you think there’s no way the library will have it yet, check anyway. I’ve been surprised many times.

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Photo by Rhii Photography on Unsplash
YOU CAN CHECK OUT ALL KINDS OF THINGS.

Libraries are no longer places just for books; numerous libraries have a library of things available for checkout. Here’s a list of what I’ve seen various libraries offer:
-Ties and bags for job seekers
-Telescopes
-Museum/symphony passes
-Specialty baking pans
-Musical instruments
-Seeds
-Tote bags full of books for book clubs
-STEM kits and blocks for kids
-Video cameras

I’m sure there are a lot more, so make sure to see what “things” your library has available.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

LIBRARIES ARE NO LONGER JUST QUIET SPACES.

There’s a cliche about librarians in which they’re always shushing people. Perhaps that was the case at one point, but it’s certainly not anymore. Public libraries are no longer quiet places all the time. One library in my city has a coworking space. Another has a studio with cameras, a green screen, and a beautiful Mac desktop that I might be lusting after a teensy bit. Things happen in public libraries like storytime, game nights, art walks, and sometimes even concerts. It’s fun to see libraries become the creative cornerstones of their community.

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Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

YOUR QUESTION ISN’T STUPID.

I can’t count the number of patrons who seem incredibly guilty when they ask me a question. They might say, “This is probably stupid.” I’ve also gotten a lot of, “I’m so sorry to bother you.” Others have confessed how long it’s been since they’ve been to the library at all. Let me assure you that your question isn’t stupid or a waste of time. It has definitely been asked before and will be asked again. Library staff is there to help you find what you need. If a staff person is ever rude or dismissive to you, that’s their problem and not yours. So feel free to ask about whatever makes you curious. The vast majority of library employees work there because they love learning, so they’ll be glad to help teach you something.


Every library might not have the resources I mentioned, but I’m willing to bet a lot of them do. What’s your favorite thing about your public library? What do you wish your library offered?

My Favorite Political Books

With the U.S. midterm elections coming up tomorrow, I’ve had politics on my mind. I have zero desire to debate political beliefs or watch cable news, but I do love reading about politics and presidents.

Today I want to share some of my favorite books that fall into those categories. Some are biographies of presidents, others are memoirs, and some are extensive histories. Whatever your political leanings, I’m sure there’s something on this list that will pique your interest.

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The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity
by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

In this book, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy explore the relationships between presidents from Hoover to Obama. Because of the ever-widening divisions in American culture between Republicans and Democrats, you’d think the stories in this book would include tales of alliances between members of the same party and bickering by those who were opposed to each other. Yet in several cases, it’s Republicans and Democrats who have the closest relationships, such as Hoover and Truman and Clinton and Bush 41. It’s refreshing to read about how rivals overcame their political battles and entered into deep friendships. This is easily my favorite political book.

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The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
by Chris Whipple

According to Chris Whipple, the average amount of time a White House Chief of Staff stays in their position is 18 months. If you wonder why it’s not longer, read this book. Chiefs of staff have included men as varied as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Rahm Emanuel, and James Baker. Some have been incredibly effective (like Baker), and others have kept on ascending until they were second in the line to the presidency (like Cheney). Their stories are utterly absorbing from start to finish. If you have even the slightest interest in politics, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
by Jon Meacham

I picked up this biography because I’m a fan of Jon Meacham, but also because I was curious about George H. W. Bush. One of the reasons he intrigued me so much was because I noticed how people from both sides of the aisle seemed to talk about him with respect (not always, of course, but seemingly more often than not). After reading Destiny and Power, I understand why. This book is worth reading just to hear about Bush’s time serving in World War II. He’d be the first to tell you he’s not a perfect man, but his heroism is admirable, as is his dedication to his family and ideals.

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Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House by Peter Baker

9/11 happened when I was in high school. Before that, I never paid much attention to who was in the White House. After the attacks, President Bush was everywhere and impossible to ignore. He was on every TV screen, newspaper, and website. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever thought much about the presidency, so I was immediately drawn to this book because of that first young awareness. Peter Baker’s history of the Bush/Cheney dynamic is as impossible to put down as any suspense novel I’ve ever read. It’s well-researched, thoughtful, and essential reading for anyone curious about Bush 43 and the complicated relationship he had with Dick Cheney. If you think history is boring, this book will probably change your mind.

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Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
by Katy Tur

Katy Tur is a broadcast journalist who delivered NBC’s Trump coverage during the 2016 presidential campaign. This book is her story of that time. For a year and a half, Tur followed Trump around the country. She attended his rallies, was the victim of his insults, and consistently called him out on his lies. Tur’s stories about life on the campaign trail are fascinating, and I admire her tenacity and respect for truth. If you’re still bewildered by what happened in 2016, this book will give you a greater understanding of how Trump got elected.

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Fraternity: A Journey in Search of Five Presidents by Bob Greene

The five presidents the title references are Bush 41, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon. Bob Greene talks to each of them (except for Reagan, who I believe passed away before this book was completed) and reveals portraits of five complex, deeply human,  and very different men. This book is one of the shorter ones I’m sharing today, but it packs so much into its 300 or so pages. Greene captures presidents at their most vulnerable and stripped down. This book is engrossing from start to finish. Go read it.

But most importantly, go vote. Elections have consequences. Make your voice heard.

Weekly Favorites: Volume 5

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

WORDS

BLOG

  • I came across a book blog that I’ve fallen in love with. Check out the Literary Edit if you like books and beautiful web design.

MUSIC

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TELEVISION

  • Due to my fondness for Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, I started watching the Amazon series Forever. I’m four episodes in and am enjoying it so far. I like how it keeps subverting my expectations.

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INTERIOR DESIGN


What are your favorite things right now?

Top Five Friday: Books I’m Shocked I Liked

I’ve been a reader ever since I read Green Eggs and Ham by myself in kindergarten and thought, “This is pretty fun.” Over the years, I’ve figured out exactly what I like to read. I’ll admit I’m not the most adventurous reader, and most of the time that’s okay with me. Managing my time wisely is essential; I’m not going to spend time reading a book that’s not for me. But sometimes there’s a book that pulls me in that’s outside my literary comfort zone. Today I’m sharing five books that I picked up out of curiosity, assumed I wouldn’t like very much, but ended up enjoying immensely.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Anyone who knows me well knows I’m not into the outdoors. The idea of going outside fills me with disdain. Why would I go outside when the wifi and air conditioning are inside? Nevertheless, I kept hearing buzz about Wild, so I picked it up from the library to satisfy my curiosity, intending to read a few pages. Instead, I read the entire book in one sitting, amazed at Cheryl Strayed’s gift with words. She writes beautifully. The story she tells about her life and the loss of her mom in this book is tragic, yet she displays incredible resilience which fills her story with hope. This book is so much more than a story about a woman who embarks on a really long hike. It’s the story of coming alive again, and it’s fantastic.

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty 

Last summer, I was sick with pneumonia for several weeks. During that time, I had zero energy and concentration, so I needed a fluffy book to join me on the couch. I chose Big Little Lies expecting fluff, but fluff I did not get. Instead, I got a novel about friendship, abuse, parenthood, deception, and how the past can haunt us no matter how beautiful things look on the outside. The pacing of this novel is pure perfection. This is another book I read in one sitting, wholly engaged by Moriarty’s well-developed characters. She’s since become one of my favorite authors.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Despite my passion for literature and that overpriced English degree I earned, I don’t consider myself terribly well-read when it comes to classics. Not only is Anna Karenina a classic, but it’s also a Russian classic that’s over 800 pages. I picked up a used copy of this for a great price and decided I’d give it a go, even though I was intimidated by it. As I cracked it open, I thought, “There’s no way I’m finishing this.” To my surprise, I not only finished it, but I loved it. I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which is excellent. I thought this book would be a real challenge, but that’s not the case at all. I’m not sure if that’s due to the translation or Tolstoy’s ability to tell a great story. I assume it’s a mix of both. If you’re intimidated by the book like I was, don’t be. Give it a chance, and I bet you’ll love it too.

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The Circle by Dave Eggers

Along with seemingly everyone else in the world, I read Dave Eggers’s memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and liked it. Since I knew I enjoyed his writing, I picked up The Circle. There’s a science-fiction/dystopian feel to this novel, qualities that made me think I might not like this one. As with all the other books listed here, I’m so glad I gave this a chance. Eggers has fascinating things to say about technology and connection. Mae, the protagonist of this novel, was an engrossing character and I was invested in her story the whole way through. The Circle is nearly 500 pages long, but I finished it in just a couple of days. If you’re interested in the ways technology and social media are shaping our lives, don’t miss this one.

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Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis

In college, I took a class about the philosophy of C. S. Lewis. I’d read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters in high school and had really liked them, so I was excited about the class. I was slightly less excited when I saw Till We Have Faces on the syllabus, though. This book retells the Cupid and Psyche myth, and I had never studied mythology. I also had zero interest in reading fantasy. To my surprise, I loved this book. It’s one of my all-time favorites. What Lewis says about love and beauty in this book is profound. I’m grateful this text was assigned to me or I probably never would have read it.


What about you? What are the books you’re surprised you liked?