Living · Reading · Teaching

Creating ourselves: Creation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Maybe not what Ovid intended, but this gift
from a wonderful friend reminds me that even
rough-hewn folks know how to be tender.

The first book of the Metamorphoses involves the change from chaos to order and compiles multiple creations of the cosmos and of humanity. This tracks for me; lots of traditions have similar creation stories, and without ironclad faith one seems as reasonable as the next. The fact that they overlap at all, in fact, is comforting to some degree and hints at a unified human experience.

So when he starts by describing chaos, “an undigested mass/ of crude, confused, and scumbled elements” (3), I’m ready for him to establish some order, but he’s not very accommodating. His first mysterious creator is “a god—and nature, now become benign” (3). This god, whom he later calls the Architect of All (5), sorts the mismatched elements, and he shapes—in ways reminiscent for me of the Old English depiction of the Christian God as Shaper/Fashioner—the earth and heavens. It’s an image of god-as-sculptor, and in Ovid’s work this god first fashions mortals as well. God is an artist and humanity is glitter—an accessory to make the earth shine.

Or else Prometheus molds humans out of clay (6).

Or else they’re formed of giants’ blood by Gaia after the gigantomachy—the war between Gaia’s giant children and the Olympians (9).

Or else they’re grown from the rocks that Pyrrha and Deucalion drop behind them as they walk away from Themis’s temple after the Flood (18).

All of these stories exist alongside each other in Book 1 of the Metamorphoses. Ovid is certainly collecting and organizing source material, but he does not overtly privilege one version over the other. If anything, he orders them too. He starts with a god creating almost ex nihilo, then from mud or earth, then blood, so the material is moving up the Great Chain of Being as we go. Then the last one is back to stone, but they need no god—mortals create the next race of humans on their own, trusting to the earth to soften and shape the stones they drop/plant into people.

There are at least two ways to read that last account: either Pyrrha and Deucalion drop stones back in to Gaia—the womb of the world, who does the rough hewing—or they are responsible themselves for choosing the stones, placing them correctly, and letting them grow on their own. If you take the second reading, Ovid might be describing an evolution of creation.

And it’s this last story that compels me now, still in this weird limbo of a global pandemic, when we’re emerging but also hesitant and making conscious (often draining) decisions about how we re-enter the world. The stones that Pyrrha and Deucalion drop behind them “began to lose their hardness;/ they softened slowly, and in softening,/ changed form.” Their nature grew “more tender” (18).

Ovid reminds us to note our stony ancestry, our toughness and tenacity, but just now I’m more interested in that tenderness; for me, that way lies hope. That we can be tough but develop softness, tenderness, and compassion is very heartening right now, as we absorb the lessens taught by this trying time.

So that’s what I have for you tonight—a wish that you recall your strength but indulge your tenderness, and extend that mercy to someone else who could use it. Put some purposeful gentleness in to this next age of humanity we are shaping together. Thanks in advance. 😊

All quotes taken from The Metamorphoses of Ovid: A new verse translation. Trans: Allen Mandelbaum. Harcourt Brace 1993.

Teaching · Uncategorized

Back to School: Fall 2021

What. A. Year.

And by “year” I mean 17 months that feel like five years. And by “what” I mean quelle castastrophe, che bello, que año de cambios.

How are you? Are you still there? What is left and lost and undone and reshaped of you? I am tired. But just now, quiet and still and hopeful.

I’m teaching on campus again–just one class–so far, just one hour. And one of my husband’s classes was moved online after one day, so I’m very clear how precarious everything is, but one hour is more than I got all last year, and it was glorious—masks and anxiety and all.

It’s Myth as Literature again. And myth reminds me to think broadly, and we start with Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which reminds me to notice how beautiful humanity is and how ubiquitous change is, and I can feel some of my mushy insides congealing into a new butterfly.

So here is a teeny blog for re-emerging, as the academic year begins:

I hope you are finding parts of yourself you didn’t know were there and that you put them to use.

I hope if you’ve been working, you’re staying safe; if you’re rejoining the in-person workforce, I hope you’ve been safe and you begin to feel more confident every day.

I hope where you’ve lost has been healing, and that those holes give you some new perspectives to help you move forward.

I hope you read some things that distract you and challenge you that aren’t news items. And I hope you have the means and space and energy to pursue something new during this transition.

I hope you have let yourself grieve and continue to. And I hope even more that you let yourself rejoice.

And I hope when we get this pandemic under control and start thinking about how we want to live this next phase of our lives, we can agree that a butterfly would beautiful, but a phoenix would be better.

Living · Reading · Teaching

Summer Reading During a Pandemic

So this has been a weird summer. And spring. You know; you’ve lived it too.

My campus went online after March 13, so we have been teaching, advising, and meeting from home for months. I have some thoughts. I have had some thoughts before now, but honestly I’ve had more feelings than thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to write this summer, so I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do, but in keeping with what I’ve been telling my family, my students, my friends, and my colleagues, I’m going to be gentle with myself and just pick up the keyboard and start, not fret about what I didn’t do this summer.

I often post a blog or two about my summer reading, in part because it’s such a big deal for someone who teaches literature to be able to read something not for class, and in part because many of you wonderful folks who read this little blog are also big readers. This summer was something else. Here’s what went down:

  1. Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. I took a seminar on Dickens in grad school, and this was my favorite. I haven’t, however, revisited it in the twenty years since then. It’s still lovely, but I have to tell you, I started in March, and I’m not through it yet. I’ve been reading it in little bites—a chapter or three here and there, then nothing for two weeks. Somehow I haven’t been able to sustain the attention Dickens requires. From time to time I had twinges of guilt or shame at being less capable of reading a big novel, but this is just not the summer for (multiple) big novels. Whatever. Someday this fall Florence will get her happy ending, and that’s just fine.
  2. James Nestor’s Breath, a new non-fiction book about how we breathe and how we should breathe for better physical and mental health. I have gotten one massage  in the last six months, and when I did, my massage therapist recommended it. And now I recommend it. It’s readable, practical, and I found myself reading passages out loud to unsuspecting family members about how to calm anxiety and get better sleep. Timely, no?
  3. A Book that Takes its Time by Irene Smit and Astrid von der Hulst. This is basically a compilation of articles suitable for publication in the magazine FLOW, and I enjoyed all the pieces and their piecemeal nature. It’s easier to read two pages of something delightful than, for instance, 900 pages of Dickens.
  4. Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days. I recently started in a new leadership position with a wildly different job description, so I was looking for resources. Tragically, my first 90 days were all online, during summer, far away from the fine folks I’ll be attempting to lead, so all this one gave me was a vague sense that I was missing opportunities.
  5. Patricia McKissick’s The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. This is a lovely collection of African American fiction for kids, and it was one of the several ways I started thinking about race and history and doing better personally and nationally. I also bought Alice Walker’s Hard Times Require Furious Dancing and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Walker is miraculous, but I haven’t read any Whitehead. I’m optimistic.
  6. Small Teaching: Online by Flower Darby and James Lang. Darby is adapting Lang’s Small Teaching, and I am frantically searching for ways to help my students stay connected to each other and the texts I teach. This has some good stuff, so I hope I finish it and put it to use in time. Cross your fingers for me; the countdown’s on.
  7. The first two novels in the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. These were the first choices of a friend who did what it takes to guarantee that I read a book—she bought me a copy and started a book club. We had good talks on Zoom about whether the murderbot is male or female and all the other things one talks about when one reads science fiction.
  8. Joyful by Ingrid Fetell Lee, which I found via her TED Talk, and which gave me lots of little, happy boosts from reading it and consciously looking for sources of joy. For an incontrovertible happy-ass like myself (who’s been struggling of late), I now feel super-charged in the “Notice Cool Stuff and Enjoy It” category.
  9. Lisa Schneidau’s Botanical Folktales of Britain and Ireland. If you know me, this has my name written all over it. I’m reading one a night, and they’re perfect.
  10. Allan and Jessica Ahlberg’s The Goldilocks Variations. It’s a picture book. That one I finished.  But it’s also outstanding in every way, and I highly recommend it.

So what have we learned? I’m scattered, or eclectic, looking for comfort and inspiration, sometimes finding them, sometimes not finishing what I start or even starting at all. It’s been a wild summer, hasn’t it? What I’ve learned above all is to be gentle—with myself, with others, with the world. That’s all that’s working for me consistently.

I hope wherever you are, you’ve found some comfort, some solace, some insight and inspiration this summer, and if you’d like to talk about books—books I read, or you read, or books half-finished or waiting patiently on the end table, filled with potential, let me know.

Reading · Teaching

Reading Dante in Isolation

I recently moved my teaching online, along with the rest of the world. I was in the middle of Dante’s Inferno.

The course on Epics (this term) wound its way from Greek and Roman treatments of the Trojan War to Dante’s critique of some of those tropes and characters, and we were just about to talk about how low in Hell Ulysses gets placed when we disbanded. We left some things hanging as we moved in to a new, foreign medium.

But the conversation continued. We were fortunate to have built a good base; we were about halfway through our semester, so comfortable with each other and our content. And the content is all connected.

The last day we met in person, we talked about Dante’s treatment of thieves. As we considered why thieves get transformed in to snakes in hell, we teased out all the imagery and traced through-lines. For about four cantos, Dante winds the image of a coiling snake through theft and fraud and lying to achieve personal ends: thieves and liars, snakes and friars. In a  beautiful confluence of word and image, all of Dante’s snake imagery fits those who steal, like the serpent who stole Paradise from Adam and Eve, with his forked, venomous tongue, through Ulysses, who counseled fraud and convinced his men to seek that which was beyond their reach (the mountain of Purgatory). Because we had a firm grasp of the snaky thieves, our first discussion online went almost as smoothly as it would have face to face.

Gustave Dore’s illustration of a thief transforming to a snake

After that, though, two things happened. First we went deeper, and trying to envision the fractious Sowers of Discord and the ultimate traitors in the 9th circle were harder to get our heads around. That Dante places those who create division among humanity—divisions in religious sects, in families, and between people and their lords reminded us of our distance from one another during our quarantine.

We are stronger together in so many ways, but one of them is in education. Dante argues this negatively in Inferno, when he shows how destructive division is to humanity, and he argues it in Paradiso, where he shows that the unity of humanity is godlike. We are most like god when we gather together and support each other as one. That’s why the Sowers of Discord are in deep Hell. That’s why even the introverts are feeling the sting of a quarantine. That’s why we learn better in a classroom than on the internet.  

Lucie reads the Inferno. Her Italian is impeccable.

But sometimes we have to be apart. So I am grateful for all the ways we have found to create community virtually. The next big event was that the midterm took place as scheduled–a dramatic reading of seven cantos of the Inferno. People read from their own homes, some with sound effects (because they’re way cooler than I am), and on their phones or their laptops or with whatever means they had. And we heard Ugolino confess his cannibalism and Nimrod shout his babble and Satan mumble with his mouth full. And we shared in the horror of those scenes and the power of performance to unify actors and audience.

Finally, we discovered my cat and Dante share a birthday, so they decided my cat was Dante reincarnated. Therefore, despite what feels like the theft of our face to face community, I’m confident in our ability to come together in other ways, building unity and shared knowledge, and optimistic about the rest of the term.

Living

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

The Quarantine/Mom Blog

I have not blogged for a while. It’s the biggest lapse since I started blogging, actually. Things have been… you know how things have been. I’ve been torn between trying to stay positive and feeling anxious and being grateful that my parents don’t have to deal with a quarantine.

Which leads me to the mom blog.

Mom was a little girl in World War II. She had very few memories, really. Dad was older; he was old enough to remember, but not old enough to understand. He had stories about collecting fighter plane cards and feeling lucky that Grandpa scored a giant barrel of eggs preserved in water glass. His memories felt sheltered to me—innocent.

Mom, who didn’t remember the war, but remembered growing up poor after it, was undeniably shaped by it. She was frugal—clipped her coupons, made her own clothes, and crocheted toys for us. She lived as if she didn’t have much, even when she was comfortably middle class. Some of that rubbed off on me.

But along with being cautious with her funds, she also appreciated what she did have, perhaps because she remembered very clearly not having much at all. No store-bought toys. One chicken for nine people. The stories she told involved people, not things.

So when I think of her living through a quarantine in a pandemic, and I try to imagine what she would have done, I don’t have to look too far. As I walk the dogs around our neighborhood and chat with neighbors, I am following my genetic directive. When I text and zoom and email friends to stay in touch, I’m reminded of how Dad set up a special chair for her to talk on the phone. I send out greeting cards to friends in far-flung places, and I remember the drawer she had full of cards for all occasions and the long list of holiday card recipients.

And I think despite having more in common with my dad, mom left her mark on me in many ways. She would have hunkered down during a quarantine and done whatever it took to keep her family safe. She would have kept people distracted with stories and games. She would have been delighted but flummoxed by video chat. And there’s no way in hell she’d have run out of toilet paper.

Stay safe out there, my friends.

Living

Wending, Winding, Wandering

I have rediscovered how delightful it is to go for a walk.

I turn on my Runkeeper app and head out, clocking my time, my distance, and my pace, and nodding sheepishly if I’m near another person when my phone squawks out my progress report.

We take for granted the things we do with little effort, but I’ve been reading Shane O’Mara’s new book, In Praise of Walking, and he points out how much neurological and physiological energy go in to walking, and that and my six-year old sense of wonder have me heading out a couple times a week on treks with no destination other than the distance covered before I get back.

O’Mara’s book is wonderful, and I recommend it. He’s a neuroscientist, so he talks about the systems involved in walking—our muscles and skeletal system are working, of course, but so are our senses and our vestibular system (responsible for balance). This book is about more than neuroscience, though. It’s an apology for walking as of benefit to our bodies, our minds, and even our social lives. It argues that walking is not only fundamental for humans, evolutionarily speaking; it is unique. That got my attention.

So I’ve started walking with purpose again. I live in a hilly suburb with lots of trees, and I work on a university campus that used to be an Arabian horse ranch. Both offer lovely walking. I just have to get up and do it.

Some people grab their dogs and go for a brisk walk. We, however, have a Basset Hound. There is nothing brisk about his cadence except in the distance between the couch and the refrigerator. But he needs to be walked. I just don’t count the saunter as proper exercise. For a real walk, the heart-pumping, sensory experience O’Mara recommends, one must not be walking a Basset.

Twice a week, then, I’ve started going for a solo walk, to rediscover my brisk pace and reap some of these walking benefits. It’s great. It’s really great. Although when I walk alone, I’ve discovered I free my inner six-year old. If it’s not the Basset slowing me down, it’s the Beauty.

The world is so beautiful. When I’m walking and not trying to drag a dog or keep up a conversation, I’m noticing every bird song, every elegant line in a building, every flower and tree blooming and growing and dying, and it’s all lovely. I’ve seen plenty of trees; these are not novel things. But when your only purpose is to go and be going, you have license to notice everything and give it all your attention. And when you do that, or at least when I do, you become captivated by color and sound—by the world—in a more dynamic, invigorating way than when you just see it presented on television or through a window.

Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina learned to be “in the world and of the world,” and that is how I feel on a walk. Shane O’Mara says “You’re not built from the soles of your feet up—it’s more like your head is a ‘castle in the air’, with scaffolding reaching down to the ground” (64). All of that scaffolding is trundling up hills and through intersections and feeling the contours and textures of the world, while I take in the light reflecting off surfaces and the rustle of spring flowers in the wind.

There’s a long history of people praising walking as a balm for the body and mind. Charles Dickens walked the street of London in the evenings, listening to people and gathering story material. Friedrich Nietzsche sorted all his many thoughts on long walks. Recently there has been fresh attention to the mental boost a walk can give, either for clarity or creativity. They all seem right to me as I tool around, trying to break my last record without breaking my neck gawking at the architecture.

Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Living

Architect’s Daughter

I refer to myself in class as an architect’s daughter, to explain why I draw doors the way I do on Valhalla. Being an architect’s child shapes a number of ways I think and act, really. I draw multiple perspectives of buildings, yes, but I also write in the universal, architect’s block letter style when I want to make sure everyone can read my handwriting. (I have learned architecture students don’t even need to learn this anymore; AutoCad does it for them. Now I’m an old architect’s daughter.)

1954

I also look at buildings for accessibility and earthquake resistance, as well as aesthetic features. It’s a different way of seeing the world, to be alert to form as well as function pretty much at all times. It means I marvel at clever drainage solutions and elegant lines of light and shadow. I grew up having him point out features of buildings on road trips and explaining seismic activity and flexible frameworks at home. It stuck, and it manifests in weird ways, when I just pop out with some random observation about an access ramp at the library or the structural integrity of a Lego tavern.

Of course he was more than an architect. He was also an aesthete—a lifelong collector of art and music. And he was an alcoholic, which I didn’t see when I was young, but now I attribute to a fairly crippling social anxiety. He was very smart, very empathetic, very curious, and very gruff. He was fastidious about the details of his life, and he was passionate about human rights and whether one should use canned shaving cream or soap and a brush (soap and a brush, of course).  

He was an introvert, but family didn’t count as “peopling.” He was an Eisenhower Republican and an avid reader. He was happy camping, and he was a conservationist before we called them environmentalists. He lived in Nevada for 45 years, but I never saw him gamble once. He called me “kiddo;” I had an older brother and sister, who for him filled the normal slots of what was to be expected of boys and girls, so I was free to be whoever I wanted.

Because I am his daughter (and there will be another blog later for mom), I have an eye tuned to notice things I might not have, and it filters through most of my life. Because I watched him, I recognize patterns of behavior I see in my kids and understand them better. Because I learned that men could be gentle and still strong, I found a partner who has made me happy for 29 years and counting. Because he loved me, I learned how much power love has in the world.

It strikes me I should save this for his birthday or something, but grief works out of concert with time, and I don’t miss him any more on his birthday.

Living · Writing

Wordtales 2020.1

This is written in periwinkle ink, which derives from Latin per + vincere ‘to bind thoroughly’. The color term derives from the flower. It also means a small, edible mollusk, which derives from Middle English pine-winkle by association, because periwinkle sounds way cooler.

It’s time for some more wordtales.

(Since I moved to WordPress, I haven’t figured out how to post a little, intermittently updating inset blurb, so I’ve stored some up.)

“Edulcorate” means ‘to sugarcoat.’ If you parse it, it literally means to draw the sweetness out of something (Latin ex- ‘out of’ + dulcor ‘sweetness’), presumably surfacing the object’s innate, inner sweetness, which is not the same as how it’s most often used, as to slap sugar on something from the outside brusquely and crudely, like with a palette knife, not even a detail brush.

“Virago” is a term for a loud, bossy woman. That’s great, because it literally means ‘to act like a man.’ Latin vir-  means ‘man’ and gives us virile, virtue, and other lovely words. It’s Germanic cognate, wer, survives in werewolf and all the manifold multiform critters like werebear and wererat of the D & D universe. Add Latin ago/agere = to act, and the word “virago” means ‘manlike.’ We don’t hold a very high bar for men, apparently. Of course this term derives from a time when men were in control of politics and power, and for a woman to reach in to that realm was unfeminine to the point of condemnation. No comment.

Finally, in Italian, people make meatballs of others instead of mincemeat, cover their eyes with ham instead of burying their heads in the sand, choose a fish instead of picking a direction, and wish each other dreams of gold. Not sweet dreams. Golden, gilded, glimmering dreams.

Words are awesome. Sogni d’oro, y’all.

Reading · Uncategorized

Journey to the Center of the Real World, Part One

My son and I exchanged books on Christmas. Uncle Gerry had given me a copy of Norwegian Folktales, and him a copy of John Muir’s short works. They were thoughtful gifts—he knows I love folktales, and my son had talked with him at length about John Muir on several occasions.

But he underestimated the size of my library, and overestimated my son’s interest in reading nonfiction.

To be fair, I wouldn’t ask anyone to buy me a book of fairy tales unless I gave them an ISBN. That is one genre very well represented on my shelves. I teach folklore (because I love it), and that has given me an excuse to buy widely. Also my daughter and I make an annual pilgrimage to Solvang, where there is a Hans Christian Andersen museum and a well-stocked bookstore we visit dutifully.

All right; I’ll just say it. He bought a classic collection, and I already have three different translations of it. So I traded with my son for John Muir.

My daughter also received a book of environmental nonfiction: Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land. She gave it to me for “safe keeping.” By my count, she should be ready for it about twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. This is speculation, of course, but informed speculation.

My daughter reads fantasy. My son does too. When they’re reading for pleasure, which is pretty frequently for American teenagers, they read fiction and some poetry. I remember this. I once told my mom (a biography nut) that there was no point in reading about real people; real people are boring. And I told my dad at the wise old age of 16 that nonfiction was useless. The real world was taking place all around us. If I was going to read, there should be dragons.

So I’ve seen this sort of thing before. But my kids are doing it a little differently. My son is reading that new folklore book with the intent of plundering it for content for his Dungeons and Dragons adventures. My daughter does this too. She likes novels with well-developed worlds and accompanying maps, in part because she draws her own maps for her D & D campaigns.

Where my experience and my kids’ overlap is in territory they’re not paying attention to yet, but I recognize it. While they read about all these magical places, they’re putting them to immediate use. But what they don’t see happening is the building of their own internal landscapes. They are stocking their brains with fantastic settings and spectacular characters whom they speak of as friends. These images and scenes are building up their framework for understanding the world—their frame of reference from this time forth. That is huge, and fantasy will do the job.

There must be families somewhere who like nonfiction as kids, but where we live, reality can wait. We have lots of years of Narnia and Hogwarts and Wonderland and Discworld before they can be tempted away by the majesty of the real world.

In other news, I have arrived at the age of loving nonfiction. And it is breathtaking.