A Wilder Time by William Glassley

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When taught to love this Earth like a geologist, we appreciate and crave even the smell of rocks.

Glassley, William. A Wilder Time: Notes from a Geologist at the Edge of the Greenland Ice. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018. Print.

Genre: narrative nonfiction

Summary: Two geologist colleagues invite Glassley on a return visit to Greenland because a newly published research paper accuses them of misinterpreting data they published years ago. Their thesis: Greenland is but geologic scar tissue; the site of colossal tectonic subduction; a place where the earth slowly swallowed a mountain range that would have shadowed the Himalayas. Unless Glassley and the team go back to reassess their data, the scientific community may think them imbeciles.

Critique: As a writer dealing with a somewhat obscure topic, Glassley is a patient teacher. Readers steadily acquire complex geologic concepts and terminology as the book progresses.

My favorites: foehn (a strong warm wind forming on the downslope side of a geologic feature), palsa (a round mound of soil many feet across, rising out of a watery region), and pingo (a larger palsa, measuring hundreds of feet across).

As a writer brokering in passions on the page, Glassley is a master. He is to science prose what Byron is to poetry. Quite often, Glassley wallops readers with revelations like, “In Greenland, water and rock are consanguineous.” He is so deft at describing the grand, cyclical conversations between atoms, chemicals, gravity, and molecules which form not only continents, but also life.

Like the handsome Indiana Jones lecturing about archaeology, Glassley gets us swooning over a topic we didn’t know we could crush on so hard. He convinces us not just to study rocks, but to go so far as to smell them! Why? Because one day their atomic makeup will fold into our atomic makeup and feed our very thoughts, ideas, and dreams.

His superpower is to make the study of rocks something intimate, delicate; something blush-worthy to read about. Take, for example, Glassley’s nearly erotic description of the way foamy waves coax and massage all the pebbles on a beach to align. The bubbles charm the small stones to flatten together and form the kind of slope which water prefers to slide along. One pebble sits askew until the waves tickle it with foam. “One wave, one pebble, and the metronome of process registers one more click,” says Glassley.

This book, at its core, is a love poem to science. Glassley explains, “When Kai, John, and I return to our laboratories, we will describe much of what we have seen through equations that honor the observations and data we have collected.”

Wait–wait–wait! You mean equations aren’t just devious and maniacal forms of mathematical torture? They are devotional and even a tad spiritual?

Could somebody please get me a fresh college registration form? I think need another degree…in geology.

“Earth,” Glassley writes, “is the construct of wandering stardust, accreted from the atomic debris of supernovae and the elemental winds of unknown starts. The gentle fall of interstellar particles, the collisions of comets and meteors and frozen water, gave rise to our planet in a rush of cosmic artistry just over four-and-a-half billion years ago.”

In other words, our world derives from galactic erosion! Our home is but space tallus recombined!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to fill all my spiral notebooks with the equation: me+rocks=<3.

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel

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Cheating thuds from this book’s heart. A father and son must confront the question: what exactly counts as cheating on work projects or school assignments? And, how much are they cheating themselves by not facing their fears, which are really their sorrows?

Oppel, Kenneth. Inkling. Illus. Sydney Smith. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018. Print.

Genre: middle grade, graphic novel hybrid

Summary: One night, for reasons unknown and unclear, ink lines, scribbles, and splotches on a sketchbook page congeal into a sentient blot that jumps off the page. The little blot, Inkling, is on a quest to find something…something that summons and beckons with a steady pull. Amidst this quest, Inkling befriends Ethan Rylance, son of Peter Rylance, the famous comic book artist! Both father and son are struggling to produce the artwork required at school and work. Inkling lends his own tremendous talents to their projects, and in the process, discovers the grief holding them back and tearing apart their familial bond.

Critique: Inkling is one of those rarest of literary characters. That one-of-a-kind charmer which only comes along once in a generation, if we readers are lucky. He is earnest and noble. He is kind and generous. He is rambunctious, meddlesome, and curious. He is Mr. Toad and Winnie the Pooh and Stewart Little and Ramona Quimby and Calvin (plus Hobbs).

After a long day spent drawing for Ethan or Peter, Inkling needs to refuel by gobbling the ink off books or newspapers. Each meal imparts its unique voice to Inkling. For instance, after he devours Anne of Green Gables, he is a dreamy, wordy chatterbox who sees kindred spirits in everyone he meets. Or, when he eats an Earnest Hemingway novel, he communicates only in short phrases. And the short phrases were simple. The simple phrases were repetitive. And they were good.

Inkling also has a serious sweet tooth for colorful comics, but those send him literally bouncing off the walls, leaving BLAMMO CRASH BOOM murals everywhere.

No small wonder that Ethan and Peter have a hard time keeping Inkling a secret. Once word gets out, everyone wants to borrow or steal little Inkling.

All the while, the ink blot senses something summoning him, pulling him to a box hidden in the back of Peter Rylance’s closet. If he can only sneak past Richman the cat (and his painful claws), he can maybe see why the contents of that box have halted the Rylances’ creative powers along with their ability to laugh with and love each other.

The book’s ending is a heart-twisting tear-jerker, but you need not drain the entire Kleenx box just yet. Thanks to some unresolved subplots, I suspect a sequel or three in the works.

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I need only one word whenever I am asked, “What’s your all-time favorite book?”

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial life. 1872. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1994. Print.

Genre: fiction (19th century British)

Summary: An idealistic young woman and a noble-minded doctor enter disastrous marriages. The consequences of their choices ripple through the wider community. Both doctor and woman might find redemption and rediscover hope if they can find each other amidst rigid class structures and isolating social barriers.

Critique: True, all print editions of Middlemarch are roughly the size and weight of a brick.[1]

Doubly true, you are unlikely to heed even my most urgent pleas and gushing recommendations to read any brick-like book.[2]

I urge you nonetheless because Middlemarch is precisely the brick we all need to come crashing through our windows.

Writers can gawk at Eliot’s tenacity. To construct the masterwork, she wove together two going-nowhere projects that chewed up countless months of her writing time. At first, there was the tale of an ambitious doctor, Tertius Lydgate, foisting modern medical treatments on a backwards British village. When that rough draft petered out, Eliot switched to a new story about the ingenuous Dorothea Brook, whose marriage to a fusty scholar twice her age does not result in the spiritual and intellectual self-refinement she desires. Once again, the rough draft stymied. While most writers might have abandoned the second project and gone on to a third, Eliot saw a connection between the two protagonists. She identified parallels in the stories and combined them.

I suppose she hit two stones with the same bird.

All readers—whether they are writers or not—can marvel at how Eliot’s narrator[3] repeatedly expands the focus out from the two heroes to the supporting cast of characters as the repercussions resulting from the unfortunate marriages rumble across the community. The more we learn about other characters and how their lives are impacted by Dorothea and Lydgate, the more we discover our untold potential for compassion.

Of course I could readily empathize with Dorothea—the pitiable young dynamo who marries an abusive nerd-turd, Mr. Casaubon. I was that young dynamo at one point in my life. I was in that very relationship. But then, the narrative shifts and presents Casaubon’s inner working. Suddenly, I discover how, at other times in my life, I have also been a nerd-turd—jealous, suspicious, and trying to mask my paralyzing self-defeating fear with pedantry. The more I read, the more I realize how many “others” I am and have been. When I read Middlemarch—which happens annually at this point—I feel my fundamental connection to all beings.

When I read Middlemarch, I feel my own infinity.

This brick-like book smashes my perception of the world made of strangers. Through the eyes of the Middlemarch narrator, we are all familiars.

[1] I am borrowing, and promise to give back, the brick comparison from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), a memoir told through the guise of a literary examination of the novel plus a biography of George Eliot.

[2] Naxos AudioBooks produced an exceptional, unabridged recording of the novel. Juliet Stevenson’s reading is powerful. Her finesse with diverse character voices is also stunning!

[3] Jonathan D. Culler notes in his 2004 essay “Omniscience” that Eliot’s narrator is not actually omniscient, but heterodiagetic. That is to say, a person who is not directly involved in the plot or the world of the novel (AKA the diagesis), but who has elected to sift and present germane information for the reader’s consideration. Indeed, the Middlemarch narrator refers to itself as a historian making a case study of the town and its folk. (Culler’s larger point about the impossibility of god-like omniscience in any story is well worth reading.)

 

Note: As always, I do not earn commissions or other compensation for any of the books/audiobooks I recommend.

Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!

Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel

At last—the recipe for limitless, lifelong learning (and remembering) is here! Ingredients include: bean bags, buckets, Mark Twain, England’s monarchs, and some elbow grease.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2014. Print.

Genre: nonfiction

Summary: Researchers Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel compile recent findings from neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Writer Peter Brown translates the science into laymen terms as the experts combine the results to reexamine what learning is how best to facilitate it.

Critique: Despite roaming through complex fields like neurology and psychology, this book never feels dense or esoteric. In arranging the content for each chapter, the co-authors also cleverly employ the optimal learning methods they discover. As a result, information snowballs. The reader re-encounters and continually retains more and more of the book’s core concepts. Done poorly, this technique can become a broken record. Here, it always arrives fresh as Farmer’s Market produce.

The authors’ primary goal is to upend the “golden rules” about how we think we learn. Conventionally, we believe that learning anything “the hard way” is a waste of time and effort. The student and teacher are better off when the learning is fast and easy. We also believe that practice makes perfect. Repeat something over and over AND OVER until you have it down. However, like nearly all the revelations arising from fMRI (real-time observations of living brains) evidence, the takeaways on learning are counterintuitive and quite opposite from the quick-and-easy conventions.

The Make It Stick authors reveal that when it comes to learning, easy in equals easy out. For example, whenever someone tells you a phone number, you might repeat the number over and over until you can plug it into your phone or jot it on a piece of paper. If asked to recite the number again later that day, odds are good you would succeed in the memory task. But, if asked to recall the number days or weeks later, odds are you will have forgotten the number entirely.

Why?

Image by Bryce Miller. (CC BY 2.0)

Because the brain stores quick and easy info in short term memory. Think of short term memory like a chalkboard. It’s as easy to mark on as it is to wipe clean. Long term memory is more like a safety deposit box. It will cost you to put anything in it, but once there, it will endure.

The cost required to store anything in long term memory is effort. Learning actually needs to be effortful if it’s going to last, expand, and enrich.

How can we make learning meaningfully effortful? The authors recommend “interleaving” or mixing the tasks and skills to be practiced. Their example comes from a study of youngsters challenged to master the art of chucking a bean bag into a bucket two feet away. One group of kiddos practices exactly that: lobbing bags at a bucket set two feet away. Over and over in the usual “practice makes perfect” style—or what learning specialists call “massed” practice. The other group interleaves their learning. Their buckets sit three feet and four feet away and they can shoot at either or both targets as mixed or as methodically as they wish.

“Tossing the Bean Bag” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On an immediate skills test, the first group nailed the two-foot bucket more often than the second group. However, within a few weeks without additional practice, the first group missed the target while the second group nailed it. The interleaved practice was more difficult and did not produce desired results immediately, but it built a wider range of skills thanks to mixed targets. Over time, the brain massaged all that learning into the physical finesse needed to land the shot, regardless of the bucket’s distance.

Another vital point which contradicts convention concerns forgetting. We assume forgetting stems from a flaw in our ability to remember, or that the way we acquired the information was somehow flawed (otherwise, we would remember it). On the contrary, forgetting is what the brain does naturally and needs to do in order to acquire information for the long term.

How can we encourage beneficial forgetting? Build open spaces or gaps into the learning process. Following a lesson, allow for a gap in time and attention on the topic. Allow the brain to erase some or most of what you acquired. Then quiz yourself. The effort you put into reconstructing the lesson strengthens the wiring in and across your brain. To recall what you learned (and partially forgot), you must tap various regions of the brain—those governing sound, smell, touch, taste, and so on. Your prior learning and experience will also feed the reconstruction process, which in turn, bolsters the wiring (synaptic connections) around the new information. More connections equal deeper storage and longer retention.

So, how do Mark Twain and England’s monarchs factor into durable learning? You’ll see (and likely never forget) when you read the book.