Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Posted on November 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life, Politics and Law | 7 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

I’m almost embarrassed to include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (there is no ‘The’ in the title) in my list simply because doing so is an admission that I hadn’t read it before. Then again, reading great books that we probably should have read by now is partly purpose of the Great American Novel Challenge. Make no mistake about it: Mark Twain‘s Huck Finn is a genuinely great American novel.

I should start this review where Mark Twain started his book. The first page contains this notice:


Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

By the Order of the Author,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordinance

In some ways this notice tells you all you need to know about Mark Twain. It’s humorous, yet half-serious. It sets the reader up to find their own inner Huck Finn because if you do any of these things, then you’re breaking the established rules of the book. Of course, if you don’t see a motive, moral, or plot in the book, then why read it at all?

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn picks up where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off. It was conceived as a sequel, but it stands alone. Readers don’t have to have read Tom Sawyer prior to reading Huck Finn. In fact, Mark Twain struggled for eight years to write and publish Huck Finn and the books are considerably different from one another. The preface to my edition of the book explains that Huck Finn comes at the midpoint of his career and “stands on a line between the upbeat humor of the early books and the bitterness of the later ones.” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this statement, but I can say that Huck Finn delicately balances humorous storytelling with serious social commentary.

The book is ostensibly the story of a young boy’s adventures on the Mississippi river narrated after the fact by the boy himself. The story starts with Huck Finn in his hometown being raised by a widow and her sister. They try to civilize him, but Huck Finn doesn’t particularly like the idea of being forced to do things in a ‘civilized’ way. Eventually, Huck’s abusive father manages to bring Huck back to his place where Huck escapes, fakes his own death, and begins life floating down the Mississippi. While on the river, he meets up with Jim, a runaway slave previously owned by the widow and her sister.

The middle of the book is largely episodic. Each episode can be demarcated by the return to the tranquility and safety of floating down the river on a raft. These episodes are mini-commentaries on a particular part of American culture. For example, there’s an episode in which Huck and Jim run into a gang trying to steal from a wrecked riverboat. Another episode involves a family feud similar to the archetypal Hatfield-McCoy feud. Yet another episode details the exploits of two grown con men as they ply their trade. The episodes serve as satires of the many ways that we become slaves to society. We become slaves to the desire to get rich quick. We become slaves to our deep-seated animosities. We become slaves to unthinking religion. Twain is calling for us to think for ourselves, act as individuals, and take action appropriately.

The over-arching plot of the book is the fate of Jim, the runaway slave. Huck Finn’s individualism and friendship for Jim battle with his upbringing and society’s expectations for him as he decides whether or not he will actively help Jim escape to freedom. It’s worth noting how Huck dismisses inaction as complicity in the predictable result and unworthy of himself. This in and of itself is a commentary on the society in which Huck Finn finds himself. Throughout the book Huck views civilization as something akin to a brainwashed malaise that everyone has accepted. Perhaps this is why his relationship with Jim and the actions he takes as a result of it are so important.

The ending of the book and the resolution of the main plot is bittersweet, which seems almost inevitable because of the book’s structure. There’s simply no river left to for Huck to escape to. Huck and Jim are both freer as runaways than they ever were before the story began or after it comes to an end. The strength of the book is the middle rather than the ending, and I won’t comment further on the ending simply to ensure that I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the book.

Twain’s home-spun style starting with the NOTICE on the first page and continuing throughout the book was particularly comforting for me because I have so many fond memories of visiting my extended family in North Carolina as a boy. They all spoke with strange accents and expressions that seemed so magical to me having been raised in the midwest. There was comfort, humor, and seriousness in those conversations that seemed unguarded and real. That’s what reading this book felt like to me, but I suspect that everyone will find some “southern comfort” in Twain’s story telling.

Twain is famous for walking that thin line between sly humor and moral outrage even to those who have not read his books. His dry wit and incisively worded commentary remain relevant for any free society because he is constantly reminding us that freedom and individual liberty aren’t achieved so much as they are maintained. If we aren’t vigilant in analyzing for ourselves the outcomes of our action or inaction, then we will become slaves to something. Twain points this out so masterfully and with such unique style in Huck Finn that I am forced to conclude that Huck Finn is the most American of the books I’ve read for this challenge thus far.

Five books down; eight to go!

My books in the challenge thus far are:
July 2009: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
August 2009: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
September 2009: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
October 2009: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
November 2009: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

Book: For Whom the Bell Tolls

Posted on October 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life | 3 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

My original list of books to read for the Great American Novel Challenge included Ernest Hemmingway‘s The Sun Also Rises, but I chose to read For Whom the Bell Tolls because The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 and I’ve already read two novels from the 1920s. I’m quite lucky that I made that choice because For Whom the Bell Tolls is a fantastic novel.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I have not yet completed the novel, but I am very close and sure to finish it soon. I should also note that Allison and I did not collaborate in choosing what to read this month, but we did both read For Whom the Bell Tolls. You can read her review here.

Unfortunately, Allison posted her review before me and has stolen some of my thunder. She expertly points out that the title of the book explains a great deal about the themes in the book. I’ll take a moment to briefly expand on that here. The title comes from a John Donne‘s famous poem:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

It is worth noting that these are just a few lines of the longer, complete poem which you can read here. In particular, I think the ending of the longer version is particularly relevant to the novel:

If by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

As you may surmise from the title and the poem, Hemingway explores two main themes in this book: the interdependence of humanity and death. It is hard to imagine a writer better suited to the this task than Hemingway, a setting better suited to this task than the Spanish Civil War, or a time period better suited for the novel’s release than 1940. For Whom the Bell Tolls is about the Spanish Civil War, which was from 1936 to 1939. The Spanish Civil War, like many civil wars, mercilessly pitted siblings and families against one another. The scars of this are still visible today. It was fought between the Republicans, who favored a republican form of government, and the Nationalists, who favored a fascist dictatorship. As a result, the Spanish Civil War became a proxy war fought as a precursor to World War 2. The Republicans were supported by the International Brigades, which were basically a long list of anti-fascist countries, including the United States. The Nationalists, who were supported by Germany and Italy, won before the novel was published.

The protagonist of the novel is Robert Jordan, an American fighting for the Republicans. He is tasked with the extremely dangerous mission of destroying a bridge in enemy territory just prior to a Republican attack. Robert must enlist the help of several Republican-supporting locals, many of whom have lost loved ones and share their horrifying war experiences with Robert. He cannot complete the task on his own, but some of the locals are unwilling or unable to help him with the mission. Although Robert recognizes the danger of his mission, he still finds himself falling in love with one of the locals, Maria, who had been brutally raped earlier in the war.

The intended audience of this book must have included people who were struggling to understand the political and military happenings in Europe just prior to World War 2. Hemingway, who served as an ambulance driver in World War 1, was known as a part of the “Lost Generation,” a collection of writers disillusioned with “the war to end all wars.” His disillusionment with war is communicated through some truly gruesome scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls. For example, in chapter 10, common villagers became brutal murderers in a way that eerily foreshadows scenes described in Ordinary Men, which described how ordinary Germans were able to commit atrocities in World War 2.

Hemingway straightforwardly (his simple, direct writing style was a nice change of pace from Faulkner) displays the stark costs of involvement in a “foreign” war. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that American involvement in World War 1 was not guaranteed because the United States previously maintained an isolationist view of foreign wars. But the U.S. did get involved. And it continued to get involved in foreign wars. These wars have defined modern America: World War 2, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf war, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The world got a lot smaller in the 20th century. Indeed, it is more clear now than ever that no man is an island, but when is war a justifiable mechanism for preserving mankind? Perhaps we do have some moral responsibility as a nation, but we are still struggling with the cruel costs and exacting execution of “foreign” wars.

Four books (almost) down; nine to go!

My books in the challenge thus far are:
July 2009: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
August 2009: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
September 2009: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
October 2009: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)

Book: The Sound and the Fury

Posted on September 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life | 4 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

I had an interesting experience while reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. It was the first novel I’ve read that I found both almost incomprehensible and extremely deep at the same time. I will explain this momentarily, but first let me talk about some background on why I chose this book. First, I would probably be remiss if I were to not read any Faulkner during this challenge. William Faulkner is widely regarded as one of the greatest American authors in history. As I Lay Dying was required reading at my high school, and although I can’t say it was my favorite book, it was interesting enough to warrant further investigation of the author.

Second, I have always believed that the Great American Novel would have a truly great title. I am familiar with the cliche that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and I am sure that this should extend to the title. However, book titles like The Sound and the Fury, A Movable Feast, The Grapes of Wrath, and Gravity’s Rainbow all simply beg to be read. How do you move a meal large enough to qualify as a feast? How wrathful could a bunch of grapes really be?

Third, although I knew very little about this book, I did know that it was a sort of precursor to the existentialism movement. I was taught about this in high school as well, but I never really understood much of it until years later. I think there are some important problems with existentialism, but it does serve to highlight one or two deep truths about the nature of humanity. For example, I believe that if human existence is genuinely alone (i.e. if there is no God), then life ultimately carries a devastating hopelessness and meaninglessness. Life without a reason for existence is bleak, and change seems to consistently and implicitly question human reasoning in this area.

Given that rationale, I picked up the book and started reading. I did no additional research into the plot, purpose, or history of the book, which may have been a bad decision, but at least it left me somewhat unbiased. The Sound and the Fury focuses on the Compton family, a southern clan living in the early 20th century. The first two sections are extremely difficult to read. The first section is written in a stream-of-consciousness style from the perspective of a child with a mental handicap. As you might imagine, this is somewhat jarring if you didn’t know that when you started reading the book. The second section uses the form and structure of the writing to reflect the emotional state of the main character. Again, this was quite confusing. The third section is easier to read, which reflects the mental and emotional state of the main character, but it too ultimately ends up full of ‘sound and fury.’ It is also worth noting that most of the book is not written in chronological order, and much of the language (as with Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is conversational and colloquial English rather than grammatically correct or formal English.

The final section is the easiest to read and the most direct in conveying the purpose of the novel. I began to figure out much of what I failed to understand from the previous sections. Also, I became more aware of the purpose of the book. Quite honestly, this was probably too late in the book for me to get much out of it. I won’t give away then ending of the book, but I will say that after reading the fourth section, figuring out what Faulkner was trying to say, and – in particular – reading the ending of the book, I found myself wishing I had time to start over and try reading it again. There are almost certainly some fundamentally important aspects of the book that I missed completely the first time through and I suspect that I would enjoy re-reading the book to discover them.

Perhaps I am simply not ‘literary’ (the majority of my formal education has been in engineering and science) enough to have picked up the book with little prior knowledge of it and get something valuable from it. However, I believe such an experience in and of itself was valuable. I began to wonder how the context in which we read affects our understanding of what we read. In trying to figure out what it was that I read, I found that The Sound and the Fury was not immediately recognized as an important literary achievement. Was the context of the book’s initial release partly responsible for this? You can perform your own thought experiment on this by thinking about how you select a book to read. In my case, The Sound and the Fury was selected not from any understanding of the plot, purpose, or content of the book, but instead from the rules and context of the Great American Novel Challenge. This is certainly not my usual method of selecting books to read. For other books, I have a process that includes some synthesis of the plot, purpose, author, context, and probably many tacit metrics that I don’t consciously consider.

Several literary critics believe that Faulkner’s greatest achievement is The Sound and the Fury. I am not qualified to judge either of these since I have only read two of his books and since I have not yet read many other ‘great’ American authors. I can say that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is more like an artifact to be studied than a novel to be read. Since I have only read it once, you’ll have to take my evaluation with a grain of salt. As such, the only way for me to evaluate The Sound and the Fury is to consider how “American” it is. It is certainly set in a quintessentially American location, the post-civil war south, but I can’t say that it discusses inherently American problems, dreams, or goals. It has probably affected world culture more than American culture, and I find it somewhat difficult to label it as a Great American Novel.

Three books down; ten to go!

My books in the challenge thus far are:
July 2009: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
August 2009: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
September 2009: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Posted on July 21st, 2009 in Education, Entertainment | 5 Comments »

The Internet is universally recognized as being the perfect medium for inciting flamewars, but I have personally never seen a flamewar about Children’s Museums. In this post, I intend to pull out my tinder box and do my level best to start one. Why? In short, I had a visceral, gut-level reaction upon reading’s list of 100 Geeky Places to Take Your Kids this Summer. I got the the end of the list and found myself stunned. They left the premier Children’s Museum in the world off their list: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

One special summer exhibit at the Children’s Museum is Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. The King Tut exhibit includes tons of artifacts never seen before in the United States. They even have the little organ-preserving jars used to preserve King Tut’s organs! How cool is that? If you’ve ever seen a show on ancient Egypt, it’s likely that you’ve seen Dr. Zahi Hawass. He’s coming to Indianapolis to speak at Butler University on August 7th in conjunction with this exhibit. WISH TV, an Indy-area station, has produced a muti-part, detailed documentary in conjunction with the King Tut special exhibit. This documentary includes a segment on how Egypt is building their own Children’s Museum and specifically sought the advice and help of the leaders of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for help in their efforts. In short, this is a major, major exhibit for kids this summer.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is another special summer exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The Star Wars exhibit talks about building and animating the Star Wars world and has lots of technical geekery. It includes scale models, digital prints, and a life-size Jedi starfighter. At this point my last rational explanation as to why they folks at would have left the Indy Children’s Museum off their list was, “Well, maybe they just didn’t think it was geeky enough…” It’s freaking Star Wars!! That’s almost the definition of geeky!

I’ve only mentioned two special exhibits showing this summer, but, in the words of every late night TV infomercial, that’s not all! The Indy Children’s Museum has 11 major galleries including a 130-seat planetarium, the world’s largest water clock, a multi-floor dinosaur exhibit, and a biotech learning center in their ScienceWorks wing. It’s difficult to convey the size of this museum. At 472,900 square feet, it is the world’s largest Children’s Museum with the largest museum collection for kids in the world. has rated it as the best Children’s Museum in the United States. Over 1 million people visit it every year. The numbers are just staggering.

When I was a kid growing up in the Indianapolis area, I took part in their Museum Apprentice Program (called MAP), which is just one of the many ways to volunteer at the Museum. I participated during the summer after 8th grade, and I went to the Children’s Museum 1 to 3 days (roughly 8 hours with a 30 minute lunch break) per week over the course of the summer. I probably was there about 25 times in total. MAP kids worked as apprentices in one of the main galleries, and I got to work in the Science Spectrum (now ScienceWorks) area. I setup props for science shows, and I did demos of cool science experiments about things like angular momentum or water surface tension. I got special access to some of their storage areas and I used my lunch breaks to explore the areas where I wasn’t working. In all that time, I think I may have finally seen everything they had. And the Children’s Museum has had three major expansions since then (1996, 2004, and 2009)!

It’s not as though they didn’t include any Children’s Museums on the list. The Austin Children’s Museum (#6 on the list) is only 12,000 square feet of exhibit space and has an embroidery workshop this summer. Uhm, yay? The San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum (#12 on the list) is only 28,000 square feet of exhibit space and features a 1950s Post Office. Nothing excites children like post offices from the 1950s. The EdVenture Children’s Museum in Columbia, South Carolina (#25 on the list) is only 67,000 square feet of exhibit space and features an exhibit entitled, (I can’t make this up) “The World of Work.” The Omaha Children’s Museum (#65 on the list) is only 60,000 square feet of exhibit space and features a traveling Sesame Street exhibit this summer, which at least sounds like it might not completely suck. The Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT (#91 on the list) is in the middle of a 22,000 square foot expansion and has an exhibit on Rainforest Adventures, which also sounds decent.

Now, let’s think like a child and imagine if we combined all five of these geeky Children’s Museums from all over the United States into one Children’s Museum worthy of five spots on the list of 100 Geeky places to take your kids this summer. We would have something less than half the size of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis with exhibits on Embroidery, a 1950s Post Office, “The World of Work,” Sesame Street, and Rainforest Adventures. That’s not exactly leaping out to me as better than Nintendo. Of course, it’s all imaginary because that museum is actually five separate museums located in Texas, Califorina, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Connecticut. For the sake of argument though, let’s compare our imaginary museum to the real-world Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Would your kids rather see mummies, dinosaurs, a giant water clock, a planetarium, and Star Wars or go to embroidery workshops, 1950s post offices, and “The World of Work”? Seriously, I don’t think this is much of a contest, and I dare the folks at to justify their omission.

Book: The Great Gatsby

Posted on July 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment | 7 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is classic required reading for high school students across the country. However, I somehow managed to avoid reading this book until a time of my own choosing. (Though I was required to read Like Water for Chocolate which no one outside of my high school seems to have read.) The Great Gatsby is also considered universally to be a masterpiece of American literature. It was chosen by editors from Random House as the second best novel published in the English language since 1900. Radcliffe Publishing chose it as the best novel in their rival list. It is consistently mentioned as a Great American Novel, and it is only about 180 pages long, so it’s a perfect way to start investigating all those things that you should have read when they were assigned.

I have to confess that this was one of the books that led me to create the Great American Novel Challenge. I chose to spend part of my summer improving my writing, and in this effort, I found Susan Bell’s analysis of how editing improved The Great Gatsby. I felt convicted for not having read the book. Now that I have read it, I feel like I need to read it again. Almost as soon as I finished I knew that Susan was right: this book was meticulously crafted. The book has not become outdated; it has become more elegant with age. This is where all that careful editing pays off. There are several sentences, particularly later in the novel, that are packed with meaning.

One could say that The Great Gatsby is another book about materialism or debauchery, but that sells it short. One could also say that it is about one man’s attempt to recapture the past, but that too sells the novel short. It is about the nature of authentic love, but again, labeling it as such sells it short. It is about the culture war between the midwest and the east coast, but in some ways it is about every culture war. It is about achieving the American Dream, or maybe defining your own American Dream, but this too seems to be incomplete.

Perhaps it is best to label The Great Gatsby as the first book to explore the quarter-life crisis. Although the term itself is relatively new, Fitzgerald shows that the concept is not. Virtually all the characters are in their late twenties and early thirties. They are all frustrated with their relationships, struggling to form meaningful long-term plans, and most of them are nostalgic for some earlier time in their lives when things seemed to make sense. F. Scott Fitzgerald was in his late 20′s himself when the book was published. It seems that Generation X and Generation Y are not the first to wonder about their place in the world. Even before America was a world superpower, Americans have struggled with trying to find a way to live meaningfully, contribute to the world, and in so doing become the “greatest” images of ourselves. In many ways, we are still living in the Jazz Age.

I promised myself that regardless of the books I chose to read as a part of the Great American Novel Challenge, I would offer some critique rather than simple-minded, endless affection. It’s easy to praise the things that worked because everyone likes to hear about what works. In addition, most reviewers don’t want to believe that they read something generally not worth reading. However, no book is perfect, and for me the part of the book that was least effective was the role of Nick Carraway as both participant in the novel and narrator of the novel. Weaving between these two literary roles would be challenging for any author, but Fitzgerald doesn’t do it well enough to avoid all confusion about whether Nick was a ‘real’ character. Nick’s character development seems stunted, particularly in the early parts of the book. I suppose this bothered me less by the end either because Nick was more of a participant or because I had grown accustomed to it.

Nick’s character development aside, The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book. It’s a short read, and if you haven’t read it you can easily finish it in an afternoon. Since much of the book actually takes place around the fourth of July and throughout the summer, I would urge you to consider reading it on a lazy summer Saturday afternoon. It’s not as stuffy or “intellectual” as you might think. There’s drugs, sex, controversy, murder, and all the things that would get it an R rating if Michael Bay turned it into a movie.

Now that I’ve posted this review, I have officially accepted the Great American Novel Challenge. One book down, twelve to go. I will update this post on Monday with a list of the links to other participating blogs. If you are interested in participating, feel free to start at any time.

[Update: At this point in the challenge, there are two other participating bloggers. Allison posted her review of Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner, 1936) on the morning of the 4th, and Carl posted his review of The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper, 1826) just under the wire on the evening of the 4th. I'd encourage you to take a look at their thoughts on these books. If you're interested in participating, grab a book and post a review on August 4th.]

The Great American Novel Challenge

Posted on May 27th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life | 9 Comments »

The notion of the Great American Novel is deeply ingrained in American culture. The term “Great American Novel” simultaneously describes historic novels from American authors that accurately captured a time period of American culture and idealizes the goal of producing or discovering such a work oneself. Authors want to write it. Readers want to discover it. (Copyeditors want to copyedit it.)

Ironically, the books that might be labeled as the Great American Novel are typically books that many Americans have never read. If you consider yourself an avid reader (as I consider myself), and you reflexively felt a little bit of painful truth in that statement, then you may be interested in my proposed solution to this problem called “The Great American Novel Challenge.”

In short, the goal of this challenge is to read and review 13 novels you have previously not read. The novels must qualify as candidates for the title of the Great American Novel. After completing this challenge, you can claim with confidence that you have attempted to read the Great American Novel. There are 13 official rules for anyone wishing to participate in The Great American Novel Challenge:

  1. Seek out the 13 novels you consider to be contenders for the title of the Great American Novel. This rule is intended to allow for a broad range of books while also picking a number with some significance for American culture: There were 13 original colonies that eventually became American states.
  2. The authors of these books must be American. Because immigration is a huge part of American culture, this can include authors who immigrated to America and were American citizens for much of their lives.
  3. Pick at most two books from any decade. Most lists of this sort will have serious clumping in the 1930′s or the 1960′s. This rule is intended to subvert that, at least partially. We’re seeking diversity!
  4. Choose only one book per author. This rule is also intended to improve the diversity of the experience because America is a pretty darn diverse place.
  5. Select only fictional novels. Do not pick histories, abriged summaries, biographies, poetry, manifestos, etc.
  6. Choose only books you have not previously read. You can pick books that you were supposed to have read in high school, but you didn’t actually read or you can’t remember reading. (My own high school English teachers are probably flabbergasted at the thought of me starting a challenge like this.) The point here is to broaden your own experiences. Besides, the Great American Novel is really more of a search or a journey than a book or a thing.
  7. Post a review on your blog on the 4th of every month from July 4, 2009 up to and including July 4, 2010. Thus, your first book review would be posted July 4, 2009. It would be followed by your second book review on August 4, 2009, your third book review on September 4, 2009, and so on. It seems like an appropriate timeline for finding the Great American Novel.
  8. Do not disclose your list publicly; each book must be a surprise announced no more than one month ahead of time. Plus, this will give you the ability to allow your early selections to influence your later selections. Keep the goal in mind as you progress through the challenge and remember that you’ve only got thirteen selections to make.
  9. Your posted review must explain how you feel the novel has contributed to American literature and culture. There are no length or formatting requirements for these reviews. In fact, this is the only real content requirement. I believe the Great American Novel is one that captures and explains a weird little piece of the American experience that all Americans notice, even if it is so tacit that we never speak about it. You may have your own definition or understanding of the Great American Novel, and that’s perfectly fine as long as you explain what it is and how you feel the book you chose fits or doesn’t fit it.
  10. You must actually read the novel you choose. This is a pretty basic rule, and it is implied by the other rules. However, sometimes rules like this are stronger when you actually write them out. This is not high school. There is no test; there is no grade. If you choose to accept this challenge, then the only thing you have at stake is pride. Of course, Americans are a proud people from time to time.
  11. Post a final review of your thirteen month experience searching for the Great American Novel no earlier than July 5, 2010 and no later than August 4, 2010. As a part of this review, try include a list of the books you wished you could have read during the challenge and why. Talk about what you learned and which books you would re-read. You may also wish to pick a single novel that you thinks is *the* Great American Novel.
  12. If you post a book review on your blog on July 4, 2009, then you have formally accepted this challenge. Everyone will know if you don’t live up to it. If you accept this challenge, then your pride is on the line. Can you actually read thirteen candidate Great American Novels in thirteen months?
  13. In one of the thirteen months of this challenge, you must break these rules. What can I say? Americans like to break rules. You get to pick which month and which rules, so be creative in how you choose to do it. Don’t forget to explain how you broke the rules and why.

Do not take this challenge lightly. Reading and reviewing 13 books in 13 months is not easy. Only 37% of Americans read more than 10 books per year. It may even be the case that one in four Americans don’t read at all. Do not be discouraged by these numbers! Take the challenge seriously, but set your goals high and see what happens! I believe the challenge will be extremely rewarding even if we all fail halfway through. If you leave a comment on this post or link to it with a trackback or pingback, then I will post a summary of all the participating blogs. Our posts will also encourage one another to keep reading, writing, and posting.

Finally, I would urge those of you wishing to participate in this challenge to spread the word. There’s more than a month before the challenge begins, so you have plenty of time to pick your first book, read it, and post a review on the 4th of July. The more people participating, the more likely we will all be able to complete the challenge.

Executing Your Ideas

Posted on March 31st, 2009 in Education, Life, Programming, Technology | No Comments »

Below is a (hilarious) video about executing ideas that I saw thanks to Merlin Mann’s posting of it at the beginning of the year. Warning: this video is possibly not safe for work watching due to some language.

[Side note: If you've never heard of Ze Frank before, then I would recommend Ze Frank's TED talk.]

One of the things I would like to focus on is a quote from Ze Frank that Merlin highlighted as well. This quote from the middle of the video:

And the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should executed…But the bummer is most ideas kind of suck when you do them.

I love this quote and really the whole section in the video where Ze talks about ideas. There’s something both true and subtle in what he says. Think about everything you’ve ever seen, read, heard, or come across that made you think, “Wow, that’s clever.” You would never have felt that way without someone else executing their idea. Here’s the subtle part: How many ideas are just as clever, but were not executed upon by their thinker?

Good economists recognize the possible value in unrealized potential. Bastiat may have been the first to write about what is seen and what is not seen. Essentially, his argument boils down to this: Fixing a broken window may appear to be productive, but if that were really the case, then we should all break every window we can find to help improve the economy. In reality, the money spent on fixing the window could have been spent on something else that would have improved the world before the window was broken.

Although Bastiat was talking about the allocation of resources generally across industries, I think his argument applies equally well at the personal level. We need to allocate our resources on things that are actually productive and not just on things that appear to be productive. We need to stop convincing ourselves that our ideas are inherently valuable when they are actually not. If you convince yourself that you should hold off in executing on your idea until you’ve completely thought it through, then you will never realize the potential of the idea. It’s not enough to stop being actively unproductive; we have to force ourselves to continually produce.

Paul Graham has an excellent essay on ideas for startups that also touches on the value of an idea without execution. The hardest part of founding a successful startup is not generating the idea, it is executing the idea. In other words, there’s no such thing as a million dollar idea. Google was not a million dollar idea. Facebook was not a million dollar idea. Graham’s proof of this is dead simple:

Actually, startup ideas are not million dollar ideas, and here’s an experiment you can try to prove it: just try to sell one. Nothing evolves faster than markets. The fact that there’s no market for startup ideas suggests there’s no demand. Which means, in the narrow sense of the word, that startup ideas are worthless.

In other words, Google and Facebook are examples of million dollar execution, and I believe this concept is just as important at a personal level. Executing ideas is much harder than not executing them. There are all kinds of blogs out there that are devoted exclusively to dispensing advice on how to be more productive. It is easy to feel productive by reading them. It is easy to feel like you’re working on stuff. We humans are extraordinarily good at distracting ourselves or, as Ze Frank pointed out, convincing ourselves not to act, which is probably why executing ideas is so valuable.

The Cult of Done is the only example I can find that might (maybe) take executing ideas a step too far. They take an extreme position on doing things rather than thinking of things to do. (Here’s a good analysis on the Cult of Done.) We certainly need to emphasize actual execution of ideas since most people fall so far on the side of thinking and not even close to the side of doing. Perhaps adopting the spirit of The Cult of Done wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all, Ze’s right: most ideas really do suck when you do them, and the only way to find out is through execution.

John Stossel’s Bailouts and Bull

Posted on March 26th, 2009 in Education, Life, Politics and Law | No Comments »

John Stossel had another great special entitled “Bailouts and Bull” that takes on topics ranging from the recent spate of massive government bailouts to the current reality of the American dream. Other topics include medical marijuana, privatization of the highway system, universal pre-kindergarten education, and the US-Mexico border. Previously, I posted about his Politically Incorrect Guide to Politics, which focuses on similar themes. If you liked that, then you’ll absolutely love this show. Here’s a great (short) introduction to the show (and a more complete interview with Drew Carey):

Part 1 of the show:

Part 2 of the show:

Part 3 of the show:

Part 4 of the show:

Part 5 of the show:

Part 6 of the show:

Book: Outliers

Posted on March 20th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment | 1 Comment »

Outliers: The Story of Success is the latest best-selling book by Malcom Gladwell, author of Blink. It describes the impact of culture, opportunity, and environment on the extraordinarily successful. For example, it provides an explanation for the success of Bill Gates, the Beatles, and Joe Flom. It also provides an explanation for the lack of extraordinary success of some for whom extraordinary success seemed likely. If you are interested, here’s a New Yorker article with a similar premise.

The premise of Outliers is that extreme success is driven more by opportunity than talent. This means that our cultural background can give us small advantages that accumulate almost like compound interest over the course of our lives. Gladwell argues that the typical understanding of outliers in society is wrong. He claims it is easier to believe that the Hollywood hero is heroic based on some inherent quality rather than hard work, seized opportunity, and a little bit of luck. He believes that inherent talent is emphatically not the real story of success.

In a very broad sense, I agree with Gladwell’s assessment of extreme success. Success looks more like Batman than Superman. For those who haven’t kept up on their comics, Batman was a human like everyone else on the planet, but he was wealthy (opportunity) and had a random tragic event shape the course of his life (luck). Then he dedicated himself to his craft (hard work) and became a superhero crime fighter. On the other hand, Superman was an alien from another planet who, quite simply, was more powerful than everyone else. Now, Superman clearly had to choose to be a superhero and he had to make sacrifices along the way, but his overpowering natural gifts represent the typical way people view those who have achieved extraordinary success.

Aside from this broad agreement, I take issue with the way that Gladwell defines success throughout the book. ‘Success’ is described as everything from making the championship game in a junior hockey league to being one of the 75 wealthiest humans to ever walk the face of the Earth. Sure, if you want to be a founding partner in one of the world’s top five law firms, you’re going to have to have a few lucky breaks along the way, but what if your definition of success is living the upper middle class American dream? It’s never clear just how far ‘beyond normal’ Gladwell believes his premise holds.

One great example that stretches the ‘beyond normal’ limit is Gladwell’s discussion of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) in the context opportunity over talent. KIPP schools are open-enrollment public schools for traditionally under-resourced urban areas. They are intense. Students at KIPP schools spend far more time working, learning, and doing homework than in traditional public schools. They have also had dramatically better results. Imagine that: If you work harder, you achieve more.

Gladwell argues that we can manufacture ‘success’ by paying attention to cultural legacies and understanding the importance of providing opportunity. This is where the book becomes transparently political. The thesis seems to evolve into a rainbow wonderland where we are all capable of extreme success. Of course, this all depends on what he really means by ‘success.’ It’s idiotic to think that we can all be professional athletes or one of the 75 wealthiest people ever. (Hint: there are more than 75 of us.) Not everyone will be lucky enough to fit all the background criteria and cultural landmarks necessary to have tons of opportunity staring them in the face. Some things cannot be controlled; some things, such as hard work and discipline, can be.

What the book really needs is a clarification of what Gladwell means by ‘success.’ Without this clarification, the book loses cohesion and it becomes unclear how broadly applicable the ideas described really are. In some stories, he clearly shows that hard work and discipline are necessary, but not sufficient, for extreme success (Bill Gates, Joe Flom). In other stories, he advocates that we can all achieve extreme success by simply manipulating our cultural environment (Korean Air, KIPP). In one story, he tells the story of Christopher Langan as someone who is apparently unsuccessful (or at least as someone who hasn’t lived up to his potential). These disparate stories make the book feel like more of a collection of anecdotes about different types of success than a single “story of success.”

All in all, it’s a very entertaining book, but I recommend reading it with a critical eye. It’s important to understand the definition of success for each story and to separate things that can be controlled from those that cannot be controlled.

Requiem for a Teacher

Posted on January 14th, 2009 in Education, Life | No Comments »

Before we get too far into 2009, I wanted to post something that I probably should have posted before 2008 came to a close. I chose not to write about the passing of Randy Pausch when it happened (He died on July 25, 2008 at the age of 47.) because I felt that I needed time to reflect on everything that I’ve learned from him. I was never a student of his in any class that he taught, but I certainly learned a lot from him.

Long time readers of this blog know that I’ve covered Randy Pausch’s work several times. I wrote about his now-famous “Last Lecture” back before the video deservedly became a huge sensation. I wrote about his excellent Time Management talk twice to cover both versions. I wrote about his growing press coverage and the book version of his Last Lecture when it came out.

Despite all of that, I wasn’t really sure what to write about his passing when it happened. Time Magazine covered his passing rather well at the time. Although it has been half a year since, I’m still not entirely sure what to say. Certainly, there’s a lot that could be said of him. Carnegie Mellon has a memorial site up with excellent coverage of his work. ABC News considers his story to be one of the best stories of 2008. He was named the “Most Inspiring Person of 2008” by the online Beliefnet community. His Last Lecture book is one of’s best books of the year.

Of course, all of these things strike me as things that Dr. Pausch wouldn’t have said himself. He continually credited those around him because he realized that we – none of us – aren’t capable of this sort of success alone. Everything worth accomplishing in life requires teamwork. When he got tenure, he rewarded his entire research lab with a trip to Disney World. When his Alice Project received well-deserved praise, he deflected all of the credit to those around him.

There are times in life that I wish I were a poet. I would love to be able to write a proper requiem for this teacher. But I am not a poet. I barely know the first thing about poetry. I am a dreamer. Sure it sounds silly or corny, but there’s nothing wrong with being silly or corny from time to time. I thought I knew a lot about dreaming before I heard Dr. Pausch’s lecture. I thought it was something people did for fun, or something that had little bearing on reality. I was wrong. It doesn’t have to be that way. Our dreams and aspirations can affect the way we live, and as a result they can affect reality for everyone.

Maybe the best tribute is to continue to dream big every day and not worry about sounding silly. It sounds simple enough, but doing anything consistently every single day is extremely hard. It’s hard because most days are pretty bland. We get caught up in one mundane thing after another, and pretty soon the day’s over. One day bleeds into the next and it turns into a lifetime.

If you’re already feeling bogged down by a return to normal life after the enervation of the New Year, I would encourage you not to forget whatever audacious New Year’s resolution you may have made, regardless of how far behind you may already be. Take some time to watch the lecture again. And get back on that horse. You don’t have wait another 11.5 months to try that resolution again.