At XQ, we think reading a good book is like wearing a warm sweater on a cool, crisp November day. That’s why we’re so excited to celebrate National Author’s Day. Not only does it land on the first day of November (when autumn is fully in bloom), it recognizes the individuals who are hard at work putting their ideas, truths, and stories to the page. Whether those words take the form of a novel or short story, magazine article or personal essay, the writers who write all across America do so to entertain, transport, and inspire readers like you and me.
And while discussing our favorite authors is one of our favorite activities (Jacqueline Woodson, Colson Whitehead, and Trevor Noah, to name a few), we thought it best to ask what’s on the bookshelves of educators in the XQ school community.
Their insights not only illuminate just why the written word is so important for readers of all ages, and why it’s crucial we continue to encourage all students to become not just lifelong readers, but lifelong learners.
So, without further ado, read on for the authors whose work has inspired Jeff Carter, advisor and humanities teacher at New Harmony High and Edward Montalvo, an English teacher at PSI High.
There is No Wrong Place to Start
The author who has impacted me the most is Annie Dillard. While most notably known for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her Pulitzer Prize-winning rumination on the infinite and infinitesimal natural world surrounding a small creek in the Blue Ridge Mountains, if you are new to her work there is no wrong place to start—pick anything and dive in.
The experience of reading Dillard is one of full immersion, a commandeering of the senses that is disruptive to life outside of her books. Much of her nonfiction writing circles around a concept of seeing, or rather developing an awareness of electricity amongst the ordinary.
“Nature Walks” Around Campus
Sequestered to the four walls of a high school classroom, my love of Annie Dillard has been minimally transferable. However, Annie Dillard in the field can be somewhat of a wonder.
On several occasions, students and I have taken “nature walks” around the campus and attempted to find places and spaces that we’ve never seen before—an exercise in trying “to be there” in even the most familiar settings. Each time, after some eye-rolling and giggling, things begin to appear. A bird’s nest in a tree near the yard. A weird web near the air conditioning units. A mysterious hole near the cafeteria door.
Spark a Sense of Wonder
In Tinker Creek, Dillard says, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
While the striking that I believe she is referring to is something much more spiritual and transcendent, it’s my dream that exposure to language like this will spark a sense of wonder within students—if even the smallest ringing.
Edward Montalvo, PSI High
This is such a great question because I could write books about my favorite books! I will say that no matter what grade I’m teaching, or what our project goals might be, I like to introduce students to one of my four absolutely favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel García Márquez, George Saunders, and John Green. While I have a really diverse list of authors and graphic novelists on my bookshelf at home, I can’t help but find personal resonance in their style and commentary on the human condition.
As a Student, Vonnegut Just Made Sense to Me
His sentences were like Hemingway’s without the pretentiousness. The simple sophistication you find with Twain—a humorous gut check into the abdomen of our material reality. Slaughterhouse V made me believe in the power of science fiction, but it also told me more about the realities of the war experience.
There is an impact that does not follow the rules of time, it traps people and their cultures in these horrific moments, like infomercial reruns endlessly looping in the middle of the night.
Vonnegut’s satire in tragedy is so entertaining. I feel like a spectator in awe of Hamlet at The Globe Theater; like a teenager swept up in Beatlemania.
And this is what I share with my students. You can and should feel this excited about an author who has something important to say.
I learned that literature can speak not just for one person, but for an entire people’s collective history. I look at the first line from OHYOS as an inspiration for catching the imagination of curious minds, and how the tenacity of a single sentence can achieve so much in its limited frame:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
The subjects and themes of history, justice, memory, family, technology, prison, life, and death appear in a mere twenty-six words. This is what language does for us. This is why reading is so important. If we can learn so much from so little, imagine what the rest of the novel is begging to tell us.
Literature is the opportunity for us to give voice to the voiceless; to give rise to the empathy and compassion that rescues our species from the darkness of our misguided actions. Books create a sense of solidarity and history among this human condition we collectively share, but most importantly, they occupy the imaginations of what could be and guide us into that unknown.
A Single, Overarching Goal
When it comes to the works of Green and Saunders, they always seek to achieve a single, overarching goal—create love so that no other alternative can gain sway over. We call this empathy, we call it compassion, some call it religion, but I call it humility. (In literary theory circles, it’s also called the New Sincerity.)
In Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, the grief for a nation is worn on the sleeves of a leader who must also grieve over the loss of his own son, maintaining the health and sanity of his wife and beloved nation. Lincoln must accept his failures to protect those he swore to safeguard, and the deceased must reconcile their inability to live evermore. It’s a beautiful novel that encourages us to forgive ourselves of our misdeeds and past transgressions, while simultaneously supporting our personal resilience against the audacity of life.
We Should Embrace That Minuscule Jubilance
Much like Saunders, Márquez, and Vonnegut, I think Green knows exactly what is at stake if we fail to uphold an equal sense of love and justice for everyone around us. In Paper Towns, Green asks us to consider how we make our mark on society.
There was this fascinating trend where map makers would leave signatures on the maps they created, inventing these ‘paper towns,’ fictitious locations only fellow cartographers and the devoted could easily decipher for what they were.
Sometimes that’s all we can do in life. And that’s to leave an obscure mark that speaks to our individual impact while embracing that minuscule jubilance. To those paying attention, they’ll decipher that little impact and they’ll contribute to something bigger—them as a whole, complete human being, eager to be a part of this social experiment we call humanity.
That’s What Literature and Books Do
And that’s what teaching does. That’s what writing is. That’s what literature and books do. They encourage us to keep up with this grand scheme in the best ways possible. If nothing else, we should instruct our students that books, in general, keep us from feeling alone.
Sometimes, I wish I had a superpower for reading. Like a waiter that has ingested everything on the menu, I want to provide that level of expertise to my students. But my bias plays loudly, at least with these four, they can’t go wrong. Nobody can.
I imagine a solid moment, where either I or someone else shoves some kind of book into the eager hands of a curious mind. And then Green says, “If you don’t imagine, nothing happens at all.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF STORYTELLING WITH THESE OTHER RECENT POSTS FROM THE XQ BLOG:
10 Reasons Why Teachers Should Tell Their Stories
Podcasts and Poems and Projects, Oh My!
How to Help Students Start Their Own Podcasts
Do you have a story you’d like to share with XQ readers? Be an XQ guest blogger! Check out this form for details.