Wednesday Words of Wisdom from Author Walter Dean Myers

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Confessions of a Book Hoarder

According to a 2011 survey, the average Briton has 80 books on their shelves they have never read. Of those 80 titles, 70 percent have never been opened, with 40 percent of survey respondents admitting their copies of classics like Pride and Prejudice and The Hobbit are just for looks and will probably gather dust until the day they disintegrate. That is, unless that book jacket for Jane Eyre is cleverly concealing a copy of Confessions of a Shopaholic.

But Brits aren’t the only readers with confessions to make. I, too, have many unread titles on my shelves, some of which have made multiple moves with me. So, this fall, I’ve resolved to read only the books I already own, review them on Goodreads, and offer them up for exchange on book swapping websites. That means I’m not making any trips to the bookstore for new titles. I’m even taking the library card out of my wallet.

My reward for this virtuous act of word recycling will be a clear conscience and, hopefully, an even clearer set of shelves to fill with fresh fodder in the new year.

If you’d like to join me in this endeavour, send me a friend request through Goodreads. I’ll accept because, frankly, I need all the encouragement I can get.

In Praise of Adjunct Teaching

Sharing what I know and learning new things from new people are two of my favorite activities. This would explain why I became a reporter and writer. It would also explain why, after the events of September 11, I was inspired leave my job as a business reporter to join Teach For America in an effort to make a difference in the lives of those not already earning a six-figure salary.

Thanks to that amazing organization, I had the opportunity to teach special education and English in Saint Louis City’s Vashon High School. I later moved on to a nearby middle school and, after meeting and working with some incredible adults and young people, finally remembered why few would ever elect to return to middle school in any capacity. Given that I had also expended considerable time, effort and money earning a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, I also thought it was well past time for me to return to writing something other than office referrals.

Still, I knew I would miss sharing my passion for reading and writing with young people, so I settled on what has thus far proven to be an ideal compromise. In addition to adding a certain level of class to my attic storage space, that aforementioned master’s degree makes me qualified to teach college courses as an adjunct.

Adjunct teaching certainly doesn’t give me a six-figure salary comparable to those earned by the executives I used to write about. In fact, it doesn’t even offer anything close to what I brought home as a full-time public school teacher in a struggling city system. But it has been an enlightening experience that makes me honestly echo the cliché that I hope I am teaching my students as much as I am learning from them.

Indeed, it was the textbook for my business communications class, coupled with a few innovative presentations from my students, that inspired the idea behind my first published piece in a decade. And the classes I teach — in which students are encouraged to submit almost all their work through a blog — are the only reason this site exists today.

It’s true that adjunct teaching is often, if not always, a poor way to earn a living for extremely educated, underemployed degree holders hoping for substantive salaries, health insurance and a tenure track professorship. But I would argue it’s an excellent way to sharpen your skills and supplement your income while working on a book project, raising a family or pursuing your Ph.D.

And I can say from experience that it definitely beats middle school bus duty.

I’d Love to Meet That Deadline, but I’ve Got to Bake Some Cupcakes

My best friend and I recently attended book tour events by two very different authors whose presentations had a surprising number of factors in common. They also made me wonder whether I should learn to bake my own high-end cupcakes, force myself to write a book a year, start developing a monologue for a future book tour or wake up at 4 o’clock every morning to try accomplishing all those things at once.

The two authors, Alexander McCall Smith and Jennifer Weiner, both write fiction that appeals mostly to women, but that’s where the surface similarities end. McCall Smith is best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series which stars “Mma Ramotswe, the endearing, engaging, simply irresistible proprietress of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the first and only detective agency in Botswana.” Weiner is famous for novels with plucky and plump protagonists who, she says, often “are a lot like me and have an ex boyfriend a lot like Satan.” In contrast, Satan doesn’t come into play in McCall Smith’s novels, which feature protagonists that seem to bear no resemblance to the 60-something Scotsman who created them.

That said, both seem to see their fictional characters as living, breathing people, and it comes through in their work.

During his presentation, McCall Smith frequently amused himself as much as he did his audience while recalling the exploits of six-year-old Bertie, a bilingual, saxophone-playing prodigy who is the constant victim of his pushy mother’s aspirations in the author’s 44 Scotland Street series.

During her talk, Weiner responded to a question about her first fictional protagonist, Cannie, by saying that “she definitely has a future,” and that future depends much on where the author’s own life journey leads.

Both are incredibly prolific.

Including her first novel, released in 2001, Weiner’s published 12 books and collaborated on countless other projects between book tours and birthing babies. Weiner has 11 events on her schedule this month alone, including the one where I saw her in the Saint Louis area. I’m not sure when she finds time to write, but I’m pretty positive she cranks out copy a lot faster than I can.

McCall Smith, a retired medical law professor, has penned more than 50 books since his first, published in 1978. That’s better than a book a year. And McCall Smith’s latest promotional tour has six stops in seven days in October. I know rock bands with members in their 20s who can’t keep that pace.

Both treat their readers with respect.

Each author answered questions they must have heard hundreds of times before with a quick wit that made their responses funny and fresh. Weiner even referred one reader with a question on how to write her own novel to a section on her website that conveniently breaks the process into 10 stages, the first two being “The Unhappy Childhood” and “The Miserable Love Life.” Clearly, she’d been asked the question before, but she didn’t mind answering it again or sharing her insights with readers who might never make it to one of her events.

Both were incredibly engaging.

I went to these events expecting a reading, a signing session and maybe an audience Q and A. What each author offered was a full-on, laugh-out-loud monologue that simultaneously explained their popularity as writers and made me want to friend them on Facebook. I’d like to be able to say the two writers were equally engaging, but Weiner dropped the F-bomb in an upscale mall store at least twice and provided gourmet red velvet cupcakes. Given that, McCall Smith just couldn’t compete.

Books and Teachers – They Change Lives

Almost anything can be a source of inspiration. Although the subject may seem simplistic to some, I believe a writer can bring any topic to life if they write about it from the heart. A reader can sense that heart behind a piece, even if the subject doesn’t appeal. And true magic happens when a writer’s heart speaks to a reader’s heart at just the right moment in time. For writer and Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie, that moment came when he picked up Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day,” a beautifully simple story about a young boy exploring during the first snowfall of the season.

“It was the first time I looked at a book and saw a brown, black, beige character — a character who resembled me physically and resembled me spiritually, in all his gorgeous loneliness and splendid isolation,” Alexie said when accepting the National Book Award for young people’s literature for “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

Like Alexie, I remember a similar moment of connection with a set of fictional characters. Although I was a voracious reader long before my incredible high school English teacher, Anna Belle Akers, recommended Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” that recommendation was a turning point in my life as a reader, writer and student. It was the first time I really sensed a teacher viewed me as an individual and — almost — an intellectual equal. It was also the first time a writer and her fictional characters seemed to be speaking directly to me.

As a writer working on several non-fiction projects and just beginning the first draft of a children’s book, I can only dream of creating that heart-to-heart connection with readers some day. As a teacher, I aspire every day to be as inspirational as that high school English teacher who was insightful and courageous enough to recommend a book featuring concubines and opium overdoses to a high school kid who would one day become a writer and teacher herself.

Libraries Are Still the Front Lines of the Information Revolution

A good public librarian — and the library that comes with him — is more valuable than an Ivy League education. I can say that with authority because I am fortunate enough to have both. Friday, a Saint Louis County reference librarian accomplished a research task that had not only foiled me, but also a representative from The New York Times and a researcher for the information clearinghouse ProQuest. And he did it in fewer than 10 minutes. (You can read more about the details in this aside.)

Like so many other readers and writers, I’ve spent countless hours at my various local libraries over the years. So much time, in fact, that I still remember my three-digit library card number from my tiny hometown library in Arkansas (114). There, I  moved from Trixie Belden mysteries to classics including everything from Jane Eyre to The World According to Garp.

I imagine it’s exactly the sort of evolution Andrew Carnegie envisioned when donated more than $40 million between 1886 and 1919 to pay for 1,679 new library buildings across America. Or maybe he pictured writers like Alfred Kazin, who used materials in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue to inspire his first book, On Native Grounds, published in 1942.

Sixty years later, that same venerable building hosted a celebration of what would have been the Dr. Seuss’s 108th birthday as well as the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day. While the NEA commemorated  the date Friday with actors Danny DeVito and Zac Efron actors reading The Lorax to 300 public school elementary students, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put the city’s libraries in a completely different sort of spotlight just weeks before.

In February,  the mayor unveiled a preliminary fiscal 2012-13 budget that aims to slash library budgets by nearly $100 million year-over-year, according to forecasts from the city’s Office of Management and Budget.

Bloomberg is certainly not the only public official to propose such cuts. A 2010 survey by Library Journal found that 72 percent of  libraries polled faced budget cuts in the previous year, while 43 percent said they had made cuts to staffing. Although  LJ‘s 2011 survey found budget cuts may be beginning to stabilize, it also reported that libraries reduced their weekly operating hours from 59.8 in 2010 to 49 hours in 2011 and slashed an average of 2.7 full-time positions from their staffs.

These days, that doesn’t just mean less time to check out the latest best seller. Libraries offer a wide range of programs and services as well as the only free internet access offered in many neighborhoods. For example, in addition to traditional story times and adult book club events scheduled this month, my local branch is offering technology classes, craft days, tax assistance for older patrons, and a “Hunger Games Tribute Challenge” for teens among many other events. Unscheduled activities recently included a group of developmentally disabled adults and their teachers using computers with internet access and practicing fine-motor skills with the old-fashioned card catalog or a librarian helping an elderly man sign up for an email account, his first.

Odds are that anyone reading — or writing — a blog owns a computer that they use to check multiple email addresses. But several recent surveys by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Projects found that only 40 percent of people with household incomes of less than $30,000 a year have broadband internet access at home compared with 87 percent of households earning $75,000 or more. For many of those lower-income households, public libraries represent the only oasis in a digital desert. Indeed, public libraries offer the only completely free internet access in 71 percent of their communities, according to the American Library Association.

So if their local library is closed or understaffed, where will all those school kids doing research, job seekers filing online applications and foiled freelance writers go when they need internet access or assistance tracking down a hard-to-find nugget of information? Guess they better start saving for the Ivy League education — although it isn’t quite as useful as a good librarian.

If a Post is Published in the Forest

As some of you may know, I recently started this blog to share my thoughts on writing, the media industry, teaching and life in general. But I came across some statistics that make me wonder, if a post is published in the forest, and no one is around to read it …

According to the most recent comprehensive study of our reading habits by the National Endowment for the Arts, 43 percent of adults did not read a book for pleasure in 2002. If you look at  U.S. Census data, there were about 215  million adults in the U.S. that year. Doing the math, that means an astounding 92.7 million Americans over 18 did not read a single book for enjoyment in that year — not one. The 2002 statistics marked a 7 percent decline from 1992, the last time the NEA surveyed reading habits. If those trends have persisted over the last decade, that would mean nearly half the adult population will not read a book for enjoyment this year.

Now take into account that the number of print books published in the U.S. rose by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010, an increase of more than 14,000 new titles. Non-traditional publishing more than doubled its number of published titles from 1,033,065 in 2009 to 2,776,260 in 2010, the most-recent year for which numbers are available. “These books, marketed almost exclusively on the web, are largely on-demand titles produced by reprint houses specializing in public domain works and by presses catering to self-publishers and ‘micro-niche’ publications,” according to Bowker, which tracks the publishing industry for publishers, booksellers and libraries.

So, if frighteningly close to half of U.S. adults don’t read for fun these days,  who is reading all these books? Why, other authors, of course.

The blog clearinghouse Technorati.com currently has 1,295,372 blogs in its directory. Of those, 16,846 fall into the site’s BOOKS category. That’s just one indication that the people who do read books are clearly reading, and writing about their hobby, at a pretty furious rate. Add to those the number of blogs about writing and those that, like this one, mention writing, reading or books occasionally. I would venture to say these blogs indicate that a growing number of avid readers are writers as well.

This essay from The New York Times Book Review* touches on some of these topics, but some other reading I have been doing seems to indicate the brief romance between blogging and books might be morphing from a passionate affair into an established marriage or, worse, an incestuous morass that has a growing number of writers competing for the same, shrinking reading public. That thought leads me to the following questions  I would like to put out there for all you readers and writers. Please pass them on to others who might offer some insight:

How many blogs do you read daily?

Do you have a blog?

How many of you bloggers have written, are writing, or are thinking about writing a book?

How does your blogging relate to those book projects?

.Hopefully, this dispatch will make a sound.

* This New York Times essay cites the same NEA study, but uses some interesting new math to highlight its findings.