History of Literature Episode #136 – The Kids Are All Right (Aren’t They?) Making the Case for Literature

LOGO-COVERS

Does literature matter? Why read at all? Jacke Wilson takes questions from high school students and attempts to make the case for literature.

Works and authors discussed include Beloved, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, the Odyssey, The Inferno, The House on Mango Street, Farenheit 451, 1984, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Where the Red Fern Grows, Pride and Prejudice, Junot Diaz, Drown, Maya Angelou, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, J.K. Rowling, Paul Auster, Sara Gruen, Alice Sebold, Lorrie Moore, Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Isabel Allende, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Amis, Colson Whitehead, Edwidge Danticat, Ronica Dhar, David Sedaris, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz, Vu Tran, Julia Alvarez, Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Margot Livesey, Cristina Garcia, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, James McBride, Shawna Yang Ryan, Charles Baxter, Nick Hornby, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Help support the show at patreon.com/literature or historyofliterature.com/shop. Learn more about the show at historyofliterature.com or facebook.com/historyofliterature. Contact the host at jackewilsonauthor@gmail.com or @WriterJacke.

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Winner! Top Post of the Year #4!

We’re counting down the top posts of the year here at the Jacke Blog. (As well as the worst.) It’s probably not a surprise for those of you following the Jacke Blog that so far the Objects are taking home the prizes. I’ve been very grateful at the response to these – the Blog really started to take off when I started posting them. And the comments and feedback have been so positive they have flooded my heart with joy. Thank you, Wonderful Readers!

What are the Objects? Stories. That’s it. Sometimes a little supernatural. Sometimes closely related to my own life. Sometimes not. Fiction, more or less.

Stories about being a boy in Wisconsin, and a college student in Chicago, and a vagabond, and a teacher, and a pursuer of literature, and an admirer of people who can do things, and an itinerant worker, and a wayward but ardent father, and a dutiful grandson.,,

All those things. And many more.

And of course, the popular post about the time I invented a quasi-religion through a simple act of refusal.

Top Post of 2013-2014 #4

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

 

Back to School! Causing a Metaphysical Riot Somewhere Between Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Nirvana’s Nevermind

We start with a quote:

I was starting to believe in the power of this thing, not as a talisman but as a phenomenon. It had to mean something that it – and I – had generated so much consternation. I represented something. To some I was a testament to discipline, to conviction, to inner strength. To others I was a fool who needed to be saved. To many I was both. And to a few I became a symbol of something horrible, something wrong with the world, or humanity; I needed to be exposed as a fraud. Whatever I represented, the principle on which I stood, needed to be expunged.

I started receiving threats. Violence seemed real. Would I die for this?  Object #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

That’s right! It’s another back-to-school week! Last week we celebrated teachers (when we weren’t celebrating awesome princess ninjas or writers laughing or, um, ourselves. This week I’m running a special celebration of what it means to be a student. Or what it meant for me.

Today’s story: the ever popular story about the Monopoly Game Piece.In which a simple refusal (hello, Bartleby!) splits a high school down the middle. Into the world of believers and unbelievers. And finally, to an encounter with an actual religion, and the way it all circled back on me.

So put on your jeans-and-sweatshirt, pop in some Van Halen, and tape a few Sports Illustrated pictures to the inside of your locker door (if you haven’t forgotten the combo – d’oh!). And here…we…go…!

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #24 – The Rope

rope

I didn’t like my new boss much. On my first day he had me scraping tar off the inside walls of his truck, ten hours in a hot, enclosed space breathing in noxious odors. The second day he blasted “beer farts” all the way to Skokie and back, and I had to sit next to him pretending not to be disgusted. On Wednesday I jumped in the truck and nearly passed out from the toxic chemical smell that greeted me.

“It’s heavy duty paint we got back there,” he explained. “Heavy. Duty.” He narrowed his eyes. “As in, not legal in some states. If you know what I mean.” Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #18 – The Monopoly Game Piece

When I was young, my class took a field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry. On the way back from Chicago we stopped at a McDonald’s, and along with the meal everyone received a Monopoly game piece. It was a small square piece of cardboard with the monocle man – Uncle Pennybags – on the front and two perforated tabs running down each side. On the back were rules and the red text in the Monopoly font. And the magic words:

WIN $1,000,000

Everyone else tore theirs open. A couple of kids won – a small fries, an apple pie. I put mine in my pocket and got busy with other things. I had a meal to eat, friends to hang out with – I don’t know why I didn’t open mine. I just didn’t.

I was astonished by the reaction. On the bus, everyone went crazy with the rumor – I hadn’t opened mine yet! What was in there? What was I waiting for?

For some reason this made me decide not to open it. I didn’t want to be on display. I figured I’d open it later. So I refused.

By the time we returned to the school parking lot I was surrounded by other kids.

“When you gonna open it?”

“Yeah, when? Come on.”

“I might not,” I said. “I might never open it.”

“Come on. S’amillion dollars.”

They could not fathom my refusal. People got angry. They did not forget about it. I waited. Days went by, then a week, then another, until I began to realize that it meant more unopened than opened. It was a one in 80 million chance of winning the big prize – infinitesimal odds I could live with defying – and who cared about the smaller prizes? Not opening it was worth more than a small Coke.

I kept it in my wallet. I never brought it up. Once in a while a rumor would spread that I’d opened it, and I would produce the piece to verify that I hadn’t.

I became a freak: the kid who turned down a million dollars. The rumor spread to other schools. At parties I’d be pointed at – yeah, that’s the guy. The guy with the Monopoly thing. Never opened it. He’ll show it to us if we bug him about it.

The toughest kid in school grabbed me one day and shoved me against a locker. Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #10 – The Spitwad

Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.

They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.

Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.

How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.

Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It was impossible to know, because he exhibited no personality whatsoever. Zero. His face barely moved when he spoke. With his plain brown mustache covering his upper lip, you literally could not detect any change in his expression for hours at a time. He never smiled. It was like being taught by Buster Keaton without any of the physical comedy.

That was our biology class. Day after day, Mr. Ward stood in front of the class in his drab plaid shirts, droning on about chlorophyll and flowering plants. And in exchange for his years of service he was mocked and jeered and verbally abused by the teenagers who knew everything and had all the power.

Yes, power. Who knows where this power comes from? Teenagers are desperate, scared, and self-conscious. And also cocky, fearless, and totally in control.

I used to feel sorry for Mr. Ward. If only he’d tell a joke once in a while, he’d probably have a better chance connecting with some of the renegades forced to take his class. That’s all it took for other teachers, who could pal around a little. Anything to prove he was not a robot. If only he’d ask if anyone had seen the World Series the night before. Or say he heard something interesting in church last week. Or raise his voice in anger. Or smile.

But no: Donald Ward delivered his lecture in the same way, sentence by boring sentence, until the class, forced to submit to this for months at a time, had developed a kind of of pent-up frenzy. These were high school students, after all. Adolescents! Their insides were full of raging energies that had to be discharged. They needed to show off, to thump chests, to flirt, to challenge authority. They needed all this to survive.

In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.

Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.

Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke.

Continue reading