Archive | May, 2013

On Developing Hockey Players in Minnesota

30 May

The NHL playoffs may be nearing their close, but the hockey season never really ends. For top-end Minnesota high school players, this means the junior league camps are just around the corner. The players will have to decide if they want to forgo the remainder of their high school careers for hockey opportunities in other cities. Some will do so to get out of, say, a bad relationship with a coach, but most will do so in pursuit of better “development” as a player. The better junior leagues have longer seasons and older players, which offer increased competition and challenges that may not be available in high school. Unsurprisingly, this also results in heated and vitriolic debates over which path makes the most sense; I’d guess that over half of the disciplinary actions I have to take on the hockey forum I moderate relate to these arguments.

The number of players choosing different development models shot up dramatically in the late 90s, and though it has since leveled off somewhat, the hockey scene will never be the same. Across the Twin Cities, a proliferation of summer hockey programs has given rise to several that have moved into the winter season and now, whether directly or indirectly, antagonize the Minnesota hockey model. (While the pre-high school, community-based youth associations technically have nothing to do with high schools, the two work in such concert that I will conflate them in this piece.) The new programs attempt to group together elite players on teams that play schedules that are far more intense than anything allowed by the powers that be—whose responses  to such challenges, as one might expect out of a many-layered bureaucracy, have often been rather slow and lurching. Canadian Major Junior leagues now eye young American players with relish, and there is something of a silent war going on between the Canadians and the proponents of high school and U.S. college hockey. (Playing Canadian Major Juniors leaves players ineligible for the NCAA.) The Alec Baer incident this past winter was probably only the opening round in an impending battle of development models.

Putting myself in the shoes of a hockey parent, I understand the shift. If I someday have a kid who loves hockey, I doubt I’d hesitate to give him or her the best development opportunities my money can buy, and I wouldn’t hold an ambitious kid back from heading off to another league if it were a good fit. Sure, I love the high school game more than any other level, and in my perfect world, no kid would ever leave. But perfect worlds aren’t necessarily good guides for what to do in the real one, and I also can look at this game from a far enough distance that I have no desire to sacrifice the goals of others to the altar of community-based hockey.

Still, two issues leave me with some reservations.

The first comes from Herb Brooks, the Minnesota hockey legend and coach of the U.S. national team that won the gold medal in the 1980 Miracle on Ice. Brooks envisioned hockey development as a pyramid, with a broad base of community-centered hockey propping up the top players. By its nature, this model is somewhat inefficient; it doesn’t allow the top players group together to maximize their development. But it also recognizes that culture matters, and that the long-term health of hockey in Minnesota requires attention to the things that make hockey more than a game. It is near-impossible to measure the value created by the bonds of community loyalty and the mystique of the ever-so-Minnesotan high school tournament, but it certainly exists, and I sincerely doubt the dream of playing for a team in Alberta or the 2004 Birth Year Team Minnesota Wolfpack Sponsored by Car Dealer X would be able to match the pull of playing for Edina or Roseau or Hill-Murray High. The reason football is so embedded in the American psyche is because its sole development model touches just about everyone who goes through a traditional American high school; kids who have minimal interest in the game still show up on Friday nights to join their friends in a rite that venerates the players but also lets each and every fan participate, an experience passed forward through schools and families and generations. The same is true for Minnesota hockey in many communities, and losing that cultural cachet in the interest of efficient development would be a real loss.

This is especially true for a sport that, due to high equipment and ice rental costs, has largely come to be the province of the wealthy. Hockey has big enough image issues as it is. In this day in age we like to pretend that any choices we make that are “best for our kids” don’t have any consequences beyond said kids. They do. People who act according to strict self-interest are naïve if they think others will not judge them for abandoning a community or having different priorities. I’m not saying it is right for those considering leaving to abandon their aspirations under communal pressure, but if they do not understand where the community is coming from, conflict will ensue. Culture matters.

The second issue has to do with the very notion of “development” itself. Many critics have wondered whether young hockey players are mature enough to leave home early, or whether the rigors of an intense training regimen will lead to burnout or injury. These are real concerns that have affected some players who seek different development paths, though they can be mitigated in various ways. Still, my questions are a bit more profound. We can justify just about anything claiming that it leads to better development, but development is such an abstract term that any serious contemplation of what it means requires some distance. Sure, more ice time will almost certainly make a player better, but we have a very limited grasp on the degrees to which it can help. At what point do we hit the point of diminishing returns, and can a different path fundamentally change the trajectory of careers that are also dependent on genetics and work ethics and other issues that pop up in life? Advocates of models have lots of anecdotes and select statistics they like to throw around, and plenty of them do make intuitive sense. But until someone can put together a study with a huge sample size that takes players and compares their career trajectories and isolates as many variables as is humanly possible, we are all groping around in the dark.

I can go even further on the development front. Does the arms race for better hockey development have an ending point, or will it simply go on until the end of time, with more and more opportunities that are less and less accessible to most anyone? On an even more existential level, is youth hockey always a means to an end, or is there more to it? Is childhood a constant progression from one step to the next, or does thinking of hockey players as crops to be grown and harvested somehow impoverish our understanding of them—and if so, in what ways?

I don’t pose any of these questions with the hope that they will lead anyone to have a sudden change of heart. I just hope people might consider them with as much objectivity as possible, instead of running away from them because they are too deep and complicated, or trying to cram knee-jerk responses into a preexisting worldview. Our inability to be completely objective is no excuse for not trying.

For the Minnesota kids who do choose to leave this offseason, I’ll be rooting for all of you. But I do have one simple request: remember where you came from. Even if you bounced around for a bit or didn’t quite fall in love with your particular program the way some people do, it is a part of you. If you love hockey, you are in some way indebted to the many people who keep it going at each and every level.

Take the example of Zack Fitzgerald—a player who is not from Duluth (his family moved there when his older brother, a future NHLer, was in high school), and left Duluth East High for Canadian Major Juniors after his freshman year. He has had a successful career as an enforcer in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL, and got into one game in the big show. Yet he spent his formative years in Duluth, and this summer will find him back home, running a hockey camp along with his older brother. There are countless ways to help, whether through volunteer work or philanthropy; God knows schools (both public and private) need all financial the help they can get. I’d also advise donors to look beyond one’s alma mater, as means allow; for example, the need for support at Duluth East, while real, is far less pressing than it is for the dwindling program of their crosstown rivals, Duluth Denfeld. Sustaining the hockey culture in Minnesota requires a broader perspective, and programs that get financially disadvantaged kids on skates can help in ways that go far beyond the rink. So long as the base of the pyramid remains solid, I am at peace with players pursuing their hockey careers in any way they see fit. And if that base isn’t solid, before long it won’t much matter which paths players take.

Silicon Valley and Technological Utopia

28 May

Silicon Valley troubles me, and I don’t think I’d survive very long in Palo Alto. This isn’t anything personal, really; I know plenty of lovely people who have gone out there to seek their fortunes, and wish them nothing but the best. It just isn’t me. I have never owned an Apple product, and I do not wear blue jeans (though this is more for practical reasons than some great boycott or fashion statement). I am a fan of Evgeny Morozov, who has made a living out of writing books with such fantastic titles as The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism. I prefer print journalism to online content, and real books to e-readers, weight and bulkiness be damned. My musical tastes are fairly mainstream, and though I do a lot of writing, I do not see much glory in the supposed genius of individual creation or some “entrepreneurial spirit;” rather, I think that things are far more complicated than that, and that the works of most any person stand on the shoulders of countless forerunners.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I spend too much time on this laptop every day, and though I do not use my smartphone heavily, I happily embraced mine when I first got it. I was quick to jump into the world of internet message boards as a teenager, and have actually built some real connections through that, along with a side career of hockey coverage. I enjoyed the early community-building of Facebook, though I use mine less and less as the site has grown more and more commercialized. While I do not have a Twitter and am driven nuts when “social media analysts” appear on the news to read famous people’s tweets, as if tweeting were anything other than writing or making a very short statement via any other method of human communication, I have been known to go spying through other people’s Twitter feeds, and before long I may have an account (primarily for hockey purposes, though one never knows). Being a teenage boy in the era of the internet opened me up to other, umm, “wonders” unavailable to previous generations. I am grateful to live in an age with the technology that we do have, and would not want to go back to some earlier time of alleged simplicity.

What really bothers me about Silicon Valley is not precisely the downside of its various breakthroughs (though they are real), nor anything explicitly superficial (though I do think the superficial is often deeper than we think it is). It is, instead, the hubris of a culture that believes technology can save everything. George Packer has an excellent exploration of Silicon Valley in last week’s New Yorker, though it is, sadly, behind their paywall (as most everything I try to link to on that site seems to be). Taking pride in a quality product is one thing; believing that one’s product somehow offers the answer to the world’s ills is quite another. There’s the pretension of claiming one’s industry will drive the future of the nation’s economy while simultaneously employing only a handful of highly skilled and educated workers. The political ethos of the Valley, to the extent that it exists, involves a naïve, cheery optimism that leads its champions to take pride in their own successes while remaining completely unable to understand those who did not make it to the top. It is libertarian in nature, but not in an aggressive, Ayn Rand-ish way. It does recognize, at least on some level, the value of human connections, given its emphasis on social networks. But it is a very impoverished view, presuming that these networks can somehow weave together into a social fabric that can replace the institutions that form the building blocks of the United States as we know it. To see how this dream looks in practice, look no further than Palo Alto and San Francisco (the free preview of the Packer piece does a good job of painting this picture). While this gentrification and growing inequality is not at all unique to the Bay Area, it certainly belies any supposed exceptionalism along the San Andreas Fault. Instead, it is a microcosm of the 21st Century United States: glistening in wealth, but atomized; socially liberal, but only skin-deep in its diversity; caught up in this myth that further liberation will somehow solve all of our problems.

I’m painting with a broad brush, of course, and perhaps I’m picking on Silicon Valley. It probably isn’t hard to find similar attitudes in other elite ghettoes, from New York investment banks to Washington bureaucracies to the Boston academia. But, at the very least, many of these people seem cynically aware of their positions, and public opinion of these institutions reflects that accordingly. Silicon Valley, on the other hand, remains a fairy-tale land of opportunity and possibility, a realm of happy groupthink unaware of the dark side of their worldview. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, the old cliché goes, and once again, the old cliché proves true. The most dangerous people tend to be the ones who cannot conceive of the possibility that they might be wrong. I can only hope that Silicon Valley is more mature than Packer suggests, or that it will mature–or, if necessary, be exposed for what it is–before long.

The Water Freezes Over

25 May

A week after my last post about David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, I fished a little book out of a pile of library donations, and started reading it while busing down to Minneapolis for the weekend. The book is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and it has a cheery-looking whale gamboling across the cover. (A Moby Dick allusion, as I soon learned.) I figured I was in for a pleasant little read about the timeless wisdom of classics that would leave me nodding in agreement but without any lasting insights. To my pleasant surprise, once the authors (a pair of philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) dispense with the necessary background information, they head into a chapter entitled “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” in which the Kenyon College address figures prominently.

The authors then proceed to rip DFW’s argument to shreds.

Dreyfus and Kelly use a character in DFW’s The Pale King, Mitchell Drinion, to make their point. Drinion is DFW’s absurd hero: he has the most mind-numbing job imaginable, and he is not only at peace with it, but he is happy. Their critiques are threefold. First, it sets an incredibly high bar for happiness. It says humans need a very intense sense of awareness to be happy, but by adopting that awareness, people naturally become aware of how often they themselves fall short of the ideal. Second, the authors question the value of Drinion’s happiness. If he lives his entire life in a contented haze, can he even know that he is happy, with nothing to compare it to? Is the ideal state really one with no apparent variation in human emotion. Finally, DFW’s “ecstatic bliss” comes about through the careful harnessing of the human will, which is a rather dangerous place to expect to find it. Unless we’re talking to Nietzsche, the odds of success are near zero. The implied conclusion of the chapter is, ‘no wonder DFW killed himself!’

I’m not sure this is entirely fair to DFW. As with most all pop philosophy works (perhaps all philosophy?), the book needs a target; something for the authors to pit their argument against. While useful and often mostly true, this technique can lead the authors to over-simplify the views of their target, and set them up as something of a straw man. The Drinion character is an extreme example, probably deliberately set up to be ridiculous, and we need not accept all of DFW’s nihilistic premises, or go as far as Drinion does on the road to ecstatic bliss, to find something useful in his writing. My takeaway for “This Is Water” can stop at agreement with his views on worship and acknowledge an occasional need for greater awareness for my surroundings and leave it at that. It can still be a profound piece, even if I disagree with DFW’s over-emphasis on the will as opposed to other parts of the human psyche (soul?) and think we need to go through cycles of emotion to truly understand things.

At this point, a disclaimer is probably necessary: I’ve only ever read a few of DFW’s short stories. To be completely honest, I find his prose rather pedantic and filled with a lot of post-modern navel-gazing. It is possible that I am being very unfair to him in my judgments, and for a variety of reasons. He is brilliant, obviously, and if I were to take the effort to read Infinite Jest or The Pale King, I’m sure I’d wrestle with it and get something out of it.

At any rate, Dreyfus and Kelly’s book was a welcome addition to my thoughts on any number of themes, and did a very good job of putting words to the thoughts I’d often had when studying various strains of existential philosophy: “this is all very lovely,  but something about this view of humanity just isn’t quite complete.” I can know throw their views into the cycle and see how they hold up under further scrutiny.

If the rest of the book proves as compelling as this chapter, I’ll have more on it, though I also promise I will have some less esoteric content on the way soon, too.

This Is Water

18 May

The Georgetown University Class of 2013 is currently being rained upon on Healy Lawn, listening to a series of commencement speakers who are about to release them into the world after college. This means I’m one year removed from my own graduation, so it seems like a fitting time to reflect on the greatest commencement speech I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College. I’m hardly alone in lauding this one—this partial video of it went viral recently—but I’m not terribly snobbish about this sort of thing, and I suppose it isn’t surprising that people who actually care about commencement addresses often value the same thing.

Here’s a transcript of the full text:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

I first read this a few years ago, but had forgotten it somewhat until last month. Ever since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve repeated that mantra. This is water. This is water. It really isn’t possible to be forever aware of the water around us—and there is such a thing as too much awareness—but Wallace (hereafter ‘DFW’) is dead-on when he notes that blind consideration of our own interests is our default setting.

In my reading, the climax of the piece is here:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

DFW goes on to say that worshipping the divine probably makes the most sense, given the fallibility of everything else. Since I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature, I’d certainly agree; the problem here—as most any devout believer will probably tell you—is that logical arguments for faith aren’t especially convincing. Sure, they might sound lovely, but to true belief requires some sort of leap into surrender before a deity or some other supernatural realm. This is a leap many people are quite unwilling to take, including many people who consider themselves religious: acknowledging a God is one thing, but submitting to the teachings of faith as a serious code for life is an entirely different matter. It is also one of my own biggest stumbling blocks: a few fairly minor things aside, I haven’t really chosen to worship anything yet. I take pride in my skepticism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its downsides. Freedom always has a price.

And DFW is dead-on in his definition of freedom. The freedom we so desperately seek does not come from liberties enshrined in some constitution, though the two can be related. Freedom comes from awareness; from having the wherewithal to embrace our surroundings as they are and find our niche within them. This does not mean blind compliance; instead, I think it means something akin to the old Reinhold Niebuhr prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots—‘God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is freedom. (Though I do have something of a beef with the second clause; surely not everything that we have the power to change should be changed!) It’s all a bit vague, but freedom’s power may be in its vagueness; it isn’t something we pin down, but something we feel.

Looming over this address, of course, is the knowledge that this incredibly insightful man took his own life just three years later. DFW had his mental issues, certainly, but it makes one wonder when he forgot what water was, or if the depth of his mind somehow overwhelmed him. The task is, as he says, “unimaginably hard.” But with the right grounding, with the right object of worship, it is all worth it.

So congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013, and all of the other graduates who are on their way off to some other stage of their lives. Finding myself largely in the same place I was at this point a year ago, it’s time for me to head out into the world again, too.

But, of course, I cannot forget.

This is water. This is water.

Forward, and into the Past

15 May

It is just over 450 miles from Duluth, Minnesota to the western suburbs of Chicago. Growing up in the former and but coming from a family built around the latter, I cannot count how many times I’ve made that drive. It is not a particularly thrilling ribbon of road; while the Northwoods of northern Wisconsin and the rolling hills around Madison are pleasant, they don’t stand out in any obvious way, and as with most any freeway in this country, there are long stretches of blah suburban sprawl. But it’s a drive I’ve made so many times that even the most indistinct farmhouses and office buildings lining the road take on a certain familiarity. With familiarity comes comfort, comfort lends itself to repetition, and before long, improbable traditions are born.

There’s the cheese barn in Tomah, where we always stop for a hunk of 5-year cheddar; there’s the rest area near Black River Falls with a hiking trail up a convenient bluff—the perfect way to get one’s legs moving after several hours in the car. Sadly, the Rocky Rococo’s Pizza Parlor is no longer in Wisconsin Dells; it wasn’t particularly remarkable pizza, but we always stopped there anyway, and now have to improvise, either by heading on to another Rocky’s in Madison or going to the sit-down pizza place up the road with the fantastic giant moose atop their delivery cars. (The Dells are still an attraction in themselves, being one of the most impressive monuments to American consumer kitsch this side of Vegas.) There’s the ABS Beef billboard with its witty slogans, the offbeat coffee shop in Eau Claire, and the Illinois border, always a welcome sight despite the looming tolls and inevitable construction clogging up the last hour or two of the drive.

In southern Wisconsin, there are places that have a deeper place in my psyche than merely passing amusement. There is Madison, where my parents met and went to school; even though I’ve never lived there, it still brings out all the nostalgia of a former home. No summer is quite complete without an afternoon basking in the sun on the Memorial Union Terrace, or wandering up State Street in search of the most obscure possible culinary experience. (“Nah, we went to one of the Afghan places last summer; let’s try the Nepali restaurant this time.”) I see a lot of Madison in myself: a mix of Midwestern homeliness and university life (including both its intellectual and, um, “less refined” delights), interested in both the wider world and every move of the local sports teams. (I adopt the Badgers for sports in which my alma mater doesn’t compete.) It all adds up to one of the most vibrant small cities this country can offer, and on this road trip, it’s always a reassuring sign to see the capitol dome rising above the skyline.

After filling my granola quota in Madison, a short drive south takes me past the place where our old Honda once broke down and on to Edgerton. Edgerton is a town of some 5,000 residents, and in many ways couldn’t be further from the cosmopolitan pretension of Madison. To the passerby, it’s no different from any of the other towns lining the freeway, and the one or two facts one might learn of it—home to the world’s largest Culver’s restaurant! home of an annual “Tobacco Days” festival!—hardly inspire the casual driver. Further digging might reveal some things that might intrigue a few people: say, the home of children’s author Sterling North, or perhaps the intriguing political dynamics of a town halfway between lefty Madison and its industrial southern neighbor, Janesville—the hometown of Congressman Paul Ryan. Still, Edgerton seems exactly the sort of town people imagine when they hear the words “flyover country.”

But Edgerton will always be more than that: it was where my first memories were formed. I wasn’t born there, and it proved a fairly brief stop, convenient for its location between my mother’s graduate program in Madison and my father’s work in another Wisconsin town. I don’t know anyone who lives there anymore, and the memories are so distant that I only barely recognize the landmarks. What remains is a profound sense of rightness, one that comes rushing back when we make a pit stop at the old gas station, swing past the handful of places I remember: the house with the little creek in the back yard, a land I claimed as my kingdom; the school where I tormented my kindergarten teacher by making her look up the names of bizarre dinosaurs while other, more sensible children picked normal spelling words; the park with the pool whose water slide I was never quite tall enough to use; the library with its card catalogues; the daycare where I’d sit in the kitchen on a cot with pile of books during naptime because I couldn’t sleep.

On my most recent drive along this route, down from Duluth to Chicago with my mother to visit her mother on Mother’s Day, we listened to a book on disc, as we often do on these road trips. Our selection this time was Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. It was an ideal book for this drive: a story of pioneers that takes its time, buried in so much rich detail that one can zone out along the road for a spell without missing much, but also drift back in to find a sudden gem of brilliance. It is the story of a retired history professor who, at an advanced age, finds himself divorced and unable to relate to his own son, alienated from the modern world he lives in. Lost in the present, he returns to the past, and sets out to write a fictionalized family history, following his grandparents across the American West. It’s a very long book, so we only made it halfway through, but the incisive opening passages were all I really needed to set my mind thinking about the past.

Perhaps Edgerton is the reason why, despite a lifelong fascination with the countries whose cuisine one finds lining State Street, I am still most at home in Middle America. Perhaps it is why I can take these apparently plain little towns and see not a cultural waste, but a diversity just as rich as that of any other place, all hidden in the details and waiting to be discovered. It is almost certainly why my own lurching attempts to write fiction always come back to places not so very different from Edgerton.

I try to be suspicious of nostalgia. It can lie, make us believe we should go back to a past whose faults have faded from memory, leaving only a false, pleasant haze. But we also shouldn’t dismiss it as irrational; instead, we need to reflect on it over time, recognize that it ties us to things that are part of who we are, and things that are worth carrying forward. There is value in any history if we read it carefully, and that is exactly what that drive across Wisconsin invites, no matter how distant my life may wander from it.

The Reading List

3 May

I have been lax in blogging, so it’s time to get back into the game. What follows is a list of some of the works that have most profoundly affected me over the years. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things that I probably shouldn’t, but here you go: 

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Some classics can be dry, certainly, but some immediately reveal why they have endured for centuries, and deserve to endure for many more. Few works are more universally applicable to most any situation, and often in ways that conflict with the popular image of the title character, thanks to Cervantes’ sharp wit. I had the added benefit of taking an entire college course on this one that was taught by a brilliant professor, which probably helped me see a few more things than I would have if I’d picked it up on my own.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. With graduation season upon us, I’ll be writing a longer post about this one in the coming weeks.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I read both of these in high school and haven’t really touched them since, so I’m not sure if they’d have the same impact today. The styles are radically different–one is a lyrical and very real story of racial tension and forgiveness in South Africa, while the other is a punchy work with absurd layers of allegory, but both did a lot to expand my consciousness about the world around me.

The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz. What is it about Latin American writers and solitude? At any rate, this book is best known for its exploration of the Mexican identity, but I though it was at its more profound in the later chapters, when it opens up in an even deeper meditation on human nature. On the intellectual side of the ledger, this was my most rewarding discovery during the semester I spent in Mexico City as an undergraduate.

The Bill James 1984 Baseball Abstract. Yes, seriously. As it is, Bill James is (with apologies to Roger Angell) the most insightful baseball writer out there, and there are plenty of bits of brilliance about the game. But this is more than a baseball book; it is a book about how to think about things on different planes, and for a young sports fan, it presented its ideas in a way that was clear and easy to apply to a real-world scenario. I revisit parts of it time and time again.

Honorable mentions: Freedom and “Farther Away” (a New Yorker essay) by Jonathan Franzen; Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; the New Yorker‘s collection of reflection essays on 9/11 (most notably, Roger Angell’s); “Leaving Washington” by Patrick Deneen; The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I’m curious to see the new movie version); The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt; and Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar. I’ll also throw in the “Harry Potter” series; I know it’s not great literature, but I did grow up with the books and draw certain insights out of them, so they deserve to be acknowledged.

I grew up generally indifferent as to whether books were considered classics or not, but I’ve been finding those so-called canonical works more and more relevant of late. For example, I read The Odyssey when I was fairly young, and though I enjoyed it, only in the past few years have I come to appreciate how far it reaches. I read War and Peace when I was way too young to get most of it–it was more so I could be That Kid who read War and Peace in 6th grade–and have not gone back to it yet, but from what I gather in reading about it since, I’m guessing I would really like it. Some day. It’s a similar story with The Bible. I was not raised within the Christian tradition, and I think that let me have some critical distance from it; as a result, I have only ever found it richly layered and compelling, and I think most intelligent readers should be able to appreciate its merits, even if they don’t believe it. Classics often get dismissed these days as stuffy or unrelated to contemporary life, and while many have their limits (what doesn’t?) and certain works are not for the faint of heart, tackling them with the right mindset can be very rewarding. I’d advocate for a healthy balance between past wisdom and present insight, but there’s little point in forcing oneself to read something that one does not want to read, and one never knows where one might stumble across the most relevant works.

That should do for my list, at least until I wake up in the middle of the night and think, “how could I forget Book X?!” Feel free to share your own in the comments.