Thursday, July 31, 2008

The circumstance of Ulysses S. Grants' autobiography

Quoted from Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, pages 144-145

. . . Ulysses S. Grant, whose Personal Memoirs (1885) are by common consent far and away the best, distinctive for their candor, honesty and incisive thought. "Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs," Grant wrote in his preface, "I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication," and then explained why he changed his mind:

At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly acts of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, good or evil; I hope for the former.

The editor and publisher of the memoirs was Mark Twain, whose selfless dedication to Grant and his welfare was extraordinary. Suffering grievously from throat cancer, Grant toiled on the book for eleven months, turning out in some instances ten thousand words in a single day, a level of production that amazed everyone who read his copy. On July 19, 1885, Grant dictated the final words, his voice barely a whisper. A few hours after declaring he had finished, Grant wrote a letter to John Hancock Douglas, the doctor who had been treating him through the ordeal, declaring his readiness to die. "I first wanted so many days to work on my book so the authorship would be clearly mine," he announced with obvious relief. Four days later, he died; published posthumously, Personal Memoirs sold 300,000 copies in less than two years.


Most important personal library - Thomas Jefferson's personal collection of 6,500 books which became the founding collection for the Library of Congress.

Fastest presidential reader - Jimmy Carter at 2,000 words per minute.

Largest personal collection of books - Probably Franklin Roosevelt with 15,000 volumes.

Most select personal collection - Probably Herbert Hoover with 1,000 original editions of major works from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, all of them collector's items.

Founder of the White House Library - Millard Fillmore, who, when taking up residence after his election, discovered that there were no books at all in the White House, not even a dictionary or Bible.

Correlation between Bibliophilia and Presidential Excellence* - 100% correlation for the top ten presidents (Washington, Madison, Jefferson, Lincoln, Theordore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Eisenhower). Only two of the lowest ten rated presidents, Fillmore and Buchanan, were bibliophiles. The others making up the lowest rated ten were Tyler, Taylor, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Harding, Coolidge and Grant.

Presidential Authors - Presidents that wrote books that were not about themselves. Includes at least Herbert Hoover, Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jimmy Carter, Richard M. Nixon, and Woodrow Wilson

Number of presidents to have authored an autobiography - Thirteen

Most touching autobiography - Ulysses S. Grant (see Thing-Finder post)

Most prolific presidential author - Theodore Roosevelt who authored twenty-six books.

Most prepared presidential reader - Perhaps Theodore Roosevelt who carried a portable library with him on all his journeys.

Bibliophiles in the White House - Per Harold Evans based on book collections and reading habbits as gleaned from biographies of all the Presidents through to Bill Clinton. Those that rated as bibliophiles (22 out of 42) were:

George Washington
John Adams
Thomas Jefferson
James Madison
James Monroe
John Quincy Adams
Millard Fillmore
James Buchanan
Abraham Lincoln
Rutherford Hayes
James Garfield
Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Herbert Hoover
Franklin Roosevelt
Harry Truman
Dwight Eisenhower
John Kennedy
Richard Nixon
Jimmy Carter
Bill Clinton

* Presidential Excellence based on a survey by the Siena Research Institute's survey of academic historians and political scientists.

Culled from the essay Paving the Way by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, and from an essay by Harold Evans in the New York Times, January 14, 2001, "White House Book Club."

Enduring Works

"The Aeneid is a cautionary tale. It is one we need to read today," Fagles said, amplifying his oft-stated conviction that readers of every generation need enduring works from the distant past available to them in their own idiom, freshly imbued with new vitality and insight. The Aeneid, in particular, he stressed, "speaks of the terrible price of victory in war, for Virgil knew that victory is finally impossible, that it always lies out of reach. He saw the unforeseen aftermath, the way war could go all wrong, whether from poor planning or because of the gods on high. He knew the sheer accumulation of death, the destruction, the pain we inflict when we use force to create empire. Even though in Virgil, as in Homer, you find great reservoirs of memory. You find the restorative power of love set against a world of violence. There is still an overriding sadness in the poem. There are countless losses. War rages on too long. The majority of books in the Aeneid end in death. Aeneas reaches out to the ghosts of those he loved, always beyond his grasp."

Quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, page 155.


"A translation, if it is a really serious translation, becomes a new work of art in its own right, because it is a transplant in many ways." Robert Fagle

Quoted by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his Every Book Its Reader, page 152.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Blind trails

There is an update on recent research on the Antikythera Mechanism, an Ancient Greek "computer" for calculating calendrical and astronomical events. History is full of these blind trails where a technology was developed, sometimes to a surprising level of sophistication, and then, for unknown reasons, it peters out and is abandoned. The Chinese with their massive ocean-going junks in the Middle Ages is one example but somewhat explicable. More mysteriously (and much earlier), they developed the capability of producing steel which they did for a couple of hundred years before losing the technology completely.

As mysteriously, the ancient Aztecs had the concept of the wheel but used it only for children's toys and never developed it for transportation.

Mysteries of history.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Pliny - <em>nullum esse librum tam malum ut non ex aliqua parte prodesset</em>

No book so bad but some part may be of use. (nullum esse librum tam malum ut non ex aliqua parte prodesset)

Pliny the Younger, Epistles 3

Save the Economy - Read to a Child Today

Here is a great interview with a leading economist, James Heckman, that is well worth reading as his research surfs the same waters that affect one of the core interests of the TTMD community - how to instill a love of reading among our children.

This interview was conducted by a journalist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis in June 2005.

Below are some of the provocative highlights (which make perfect sense in the context of the interview.

On sources of inequality -

The family is the major source of human inequality in American society.

On the importance of measuring non-cognitive skills (personal behaviors, discipline, etc.) as well as cognitive skills (such as test scores, years of school attended, etc.) -

These findings have major implications for American educational policy - for example, the No Child Left Behind Act, and all the related policies which are predicated on the assumption that we succeed with an educational intervention if we improve on test scores. Such policies are at best misleading. The achievement test scores of these GEDs show they're as smart as high school graduates, but they don't earn anywhere near what high school graduates earn because they lack persistence and motivation.

Most macroeconomists think of human capital as education, measured by years of school. Or if they're a little more sophisticated, they measure human capital by test scores like IQ or an achievement test. Neglected are all the noncognitive abilities that are produced by healthy families. Deficiencies in these skills can be partially remediated, as we know from the early intervention programs. Not completely remediated, but certainly gaps can be closed. The things we used to think of as soft and fuzzy have a real effect on behavior.

The importance of stories as contributors to non-cognitive capabilities -

But anyway, [Adam] Smith says people are basically born the same and at age 8 one can't really see much difference among them. But then starting at age 8, 9, 10, they pursue different fields, they specialize and they diverge. In his mind, the butcher and the lawyer and the journalist and the professor and the mechanic, all are basically the same person at age 8.

This is wrong. IQ is basically formed by age 8, and there are huge differences in IQ among people. Smith was right that people specialize after 8, but they started specializing before 8. On the early formation of human skill, I think Smith was wrong, although he was right about many other things. And Dimitriy and I said that in the speeches we gave while in Scotland last year. We wanted to be a little titillating. But I think these observations on human skill formation are exactly why the job training programs aren't working in the United States and why many remediation programs directed toward disadvantaged young adults are so ineffective. And that's why the distinction between cognitive and noncognitive skill is so important, because a lot of the problem with children from disadvantaged homes is their values, attitudes and motivations.

Cognitive skills such as IQ can't really be changed much after ages 8 to 10. But with noncognitive skills there's much more malleability. That's the point I was making earlier when talking about the prefrontal cortex. It remains fluid and adaptable until the early 20s. That's why adolescent mentoring programs are as effective as they are. Take a 13-year-old. You're not going to raise the IQ of a 13-year-old, but you can talk the 13-year-old out of dropping out of school. Up to a point you can provide surrogate parenting.

So, coming back to job training and other interventions targeted toward disadvantaged adolescents, mainstream discussions miss the basic economics of the skill formation process. When we understand how that works, that skills build on each other, it's very common-sensical. It's not just IQ, or achievement measured by a test. That's very hard for many economists to understand. There are interactions among IQ, cognitive ability as measured by an achievement test and noncognitive ability.

We tell stories in nursery school, such as the story of the tortoise and the hare and the story of the little train that could. I read these to my kids, and they were read to me. All these folk tales, all these pieces of wisdom, the fact that a mother's love matters and all this stuff, we tend to dismiss them in our formal models of education policy. We economists like to write down specific technologies and make things very precise. That's a useful discipline, and that's what I am doing with various coauthors. We are making this subject precise. But sometimes I have my doubts. Some of what economists do is to explain to fellow economists what most intelligent people already know. A lot of what economists do is explain to themselves what the rest of the world already knows. There's a real risk of being caught up in that.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Children's Poetry

Mother Goose is a great place to start to introduce children to poetry (see poetry booklist) and can be begun at the tenderest of years. It is never too early to start introducing children to the rhythms and rhymes of the language delivered in the cadences of their parent's voice. The phrase Mother Tongue begins to fall into place when you think along those lines.

By two or three years of age though, and sometimes even sooner, it is perfectly appropriate to begin reading longer poems, playful poems, poems that tell a story. By this means poetry is understood, or really is felt, as a natural form of communication. I am afraid many children never get introduced to the forms and strictures of poetry till way too late - at which point, poetry is some sort of desiccated art form from which all life has been sucked. Something for the museum and not of the heart. It becomes an arcane exercise and they miss the pleasure and the comprehension that comes when your ear has been well tuned from the beginning.

Poetry is one of the oldest forms of literature because, before the advent of writing, if one were to record a story, it was done orally and had to come from memory. Consequently the bards used the full range of mnemonic devices - rhythm, rhyme, stock phrases and descriptions, sectioning into digestible chunks, i.e. verses, standard meters, etc.

There was no children's poetry per se, but one can picture everyone sitting around the fire listening to the bard recite stories from generations before, stories of Gilgamesh, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Osiris and Seti, of Adam and Eve, of Odysseus and Achilles, all the old epics which were poetry.

Even as I write this, as much poetry as I have read to the kids over the years, it occurs to me that I have never read any of these epics around a campfire in the dark. I need to give that a try at the next boy scout camp out. Beowulf would seem especially appropriate.

Because these early pre-literacy stories were so dependent on memory and the mnemonic tricks to facilitate recollection, poetry followed very defined patterns. That is part of the magic of poetry - you are forced into an unnatural level of creativity to stay within the boundaries of the form.

The evolution of "children's" poetry is a late development in our five thousand year stretch of literacy and is customarily deemed to have begun to emerge as a distinct genre with the non-sense poems Edward Lear and of Lewis Carroll. Wherever you draw the line for the beginning, it is all relatively recent.

There are probably three groups of poems that one can identify with children. The first we covered in the Pigeon Post essay of a couple of weeks ago - Mother Goose and Nursery Rhymes. These of course reach back to the 1700's and are a magnificent warehouse of folk wisdom, but also of snippets of rhyme and rhythm - not all of which make any sense.

The second class of poems are those written explicitly with children in mind; Lear and Carroll both being early practitioners. Then there are the poems that are not written for children per se but have ended up being kidnapped by children. Kipling with If or Tennyson with Charge of the Light Brigade are examples as would be T.S. Eliot with his Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and Edgar Allan Poe with his The Raven. The music of their rhythm and rhyme is too good for just parental ears and children adopt these poems for their own.

Poetry books can be divided simplistically into anthologies and single poet collections. I would strongly advocate that for the early years, you go with an anthology. Your child is changing fast as are the things they are interested in. You want to be able to fish around among a large variety of styles and forms of poetry at any given time. There is no avoiding a shot gun approach to find that which rings true with them at a particular moment. There are a couple of exceptions to this general rule. Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses is almost certainly a must have for any child's library of poetry.

By five or six, I would suggest making sure that whatever collection you are using includes poems that tell a story. Tales such as Longfellow's Paul Revere's Ride, Hiawatha, or The Wreck of the Hesperus, Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman, Walter Scott's Lochinvar, Edward Lear's Owl and the Pussycat or The Pobble Who Has No Toes, Louis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter, etc. Many of these longer poems have been rendered as stand-alone books, often with wonderful illustrations.

At all the ages, but especially the younger years, it is valuable to have a well illustrated anthology. Long before they can read, children will love to sit in your lap and hear the poems and the stories but they especially love to let their eyes feast on some colorful and captivating picture while they hear the story. It is amazing to me how much sticks from these early years. Every now and then I will hear one of our kids, apropos something in the conversation, throw out a line of a poem that I know we read to them years ago. I know the line, but would never have remembered it - their young, plastic minds are far better at holding and retrieving than I think we give them credit for.

Robert Louis Stevenson has a lovely poem that encapsulates the ability of a story to become the whole world of a child's imagination.

The Land of Story Books
By Robert Louis Stevenson

At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.

Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter's camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.

These are the hills, these are the woods,
These are my starry solitudes;
And there the river by whose brink
The roaring lions come to drink.

I see the others far away
As if in firelit camp they lay,
And I, like to an Indian scout,
Around their party prowled about.

So, when my nurse comes in for me,
Home I return across the sea,
And go to bed with backward looks
At my dear land of Story-books.

I know I have been listing mostly only well-known classics here, but there are many wonderful contemporary or near contemporary authors as well. Of course Shel Silverstein but also Charles Causley, Ogden Nash, Jack Prelutsky and many others. Among poets writing principally for adults, W.H. Auden has a good number of poems well attuned to young ears as does Billy Collins, our former US Poet Laureate.

One of the difficult aspects of selecting any anthology is guarding against the expectation that a child will like all the poems. I think the very best we have ever done is one particular collection, A Children's Book of Verse illustrated by Eric Kinkaid and selected by Marjorie Rogers. It is a marvelous collection but even so, any one of our three children at most likes about half the poems. It is just the nature of the beast and my experience is that usually you are doing pretty well if you find you are reading a third of the poems in a collection.

One of the challenges as a parent in finding good poetry books is that poetry is perhaps the most delicate flower in the literary garden. There is no field more overpopulated with literary weeds. Everyone and their brother considers themselves to be a poet and there are far more poems to be read than there are readers of poetry. Thomas Macaulay had a particularly jaundiced view - "As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines."

Another challenge is that even more than children's literature itself, poetry collections seem to attract well-meaning attempts to make the collection "topical" or "relevant". In an already rarified genre, you have specialized collections about particular animals or regions or themes or ethnicities. Well meaning but, apart from some animal collections, I have never seen any of these taken to heart by a child. They serve more the moral or pedagogical interests of the adult than the reading interests of the child.

Yet a further challenge is that, as the market for children's poetry is pretty small, anthologies come and go out of print very rapidly. You can find a wonderful anthology today and five years from now you are scavenging the dusty bookshelves in the basement of a used bookstore to try and find a copy. Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury of Poetry and the aforementioned A Children's Book of Verse illustrated by Eric Kinkaid both come to mind. Building a section of poetry in your child's collection, therefore, needs to be driven by the old adage, carpe diem.

But it is not all barriers. Lovers of poetry are among the most enthusiastic of readers and passionate of advocates. Miraculously there are, every year, further collections offered up to the reading public by anthologists and publishers despite the economics. I picture a cabal of anthologists and secretive editors throwing themselves once more into the breach. I am sure they carry before them

A banner with the strange device,

I could go on and on but instead will give the last word to Robert Louis Stevenson. This is the dedicatory poem to his A Child's Garden of Verses:

To Any Reader
by Robert Louis Stevenson

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear, he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

Below are a series of recommendations, primarily of anthologies but with some particularly stellar single poet collections as well. We have also included a handful of narrative poems in book form. Enjoy and let us know or any collections you might recommend.

Picture Books

Big Red Barn by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Felicia Bond Highly Recommended

Johnny Appleseed by Reeve Lindbergh Highly Recommended

Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Ted Rand and illustrated by Ted Rand Highly Recommended

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Mike Wimmer Highly Recommended

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe and illustrated by Ryan Price Highly Recommended

A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Highly Recommended

The Ballad of the Pirate Queens by Jane Yolen and illustrated by David Shannon Highly Recommended

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet Ahlberg and illustrated by Allan Ahlberg Recommended

Cautionary Tales for Children by Hilaire Belloc and illustrated by Edward Gorey Recommended

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch Recommended

Wynken, Blynken, and illustrated by Nod by Eugene Field and illustrated by Johanna Westerman Recommended

In the Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming Recommended

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Recommended

Hush! by Minfong Ho and illustrated by Holly Meade Recommended

A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear Recommended

The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear and illustrated by Jan Brett Recommended

Now We Are Six by A. A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard Recommended

When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne and illustrated by Ernest H. Shepard Recommended

The Adventures of Isabel by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Bridget Starr Taylor Recommended

The Tale of Custard the Dragon by Ogden Nash and illustrated by Lynn Munsinger Recommended

My Very First Mother Goose by Iona Archibald Opie and illustrated by Rosemary Wells Recommended

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel Recommended

Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Marc Tolon Brown Recommended

The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley by James Whitcomb Riley Recommended

Nutshell Library by Maurice Sendak Recommended

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer and illustrated by Christopher H. Bing Recommended

The Edmund Fitzgerald by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen Recommended

Flower Fairies of the Spring by Cicely Mary Barker Suggested

Nonsense Verse by Lewis Carroll and illustrated by Lorna Hussey Suggested

Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Eric Beddows Suggested

This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and illustrated by Kathy Jakobsen Suggested

Family of Poems by Caroline Kennedy and illustrated by Jon J. Muth Suggested

Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by Susan Jeffers Suggested

A Pizza the Size of the Sun by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by James Stevenson Suggested

For Laughing Out Loud by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Marjorie Priceman Suggested

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart by Vera B. Williams Suggested

Independent Reader

Poems and Other Writings by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and illustrated by J. D. McClatchy Highly Recommended

Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson Highly Recommended

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse Recommended

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein Recommended

Falling Up by Shel Silverstein Recommended

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake Suggested

Rhymes and Verses by Walter De LA Mare and illustrated by Elinore Blaisdell Suggested

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems by Donald Hall Suggested

Hailstones and Halibut Bones by Mary O'Neill and illustrated by John Wallner Suggested

I Saw Esau by Iona Archibald Opie and Peter Opie and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Suggested

Goblin Market and Other Poems by Christina Georgina Rossetti Suggested

Young Adult

As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden and illustrated by Edward Mendelson Recommended

Beowulf by Seamus Heaney Recommended

Collected Poems of A. E. Housman by A. E. Housman Recommended

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Omar Khayyam and Edward Fitzgerald and illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan Recommended

Rudyard Kipling Complete Verse by Rudyard Kipling Recommended

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyson and illustrated by Genevieve Cote Recommended

Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake Suggested

Nine Horses by Billy Collins Suggested

Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins Suggested