Should you worry about your legacy? Lessons from a time-traveling poet, a TV comedy writer, and a crime novelist

In a 1916 story entitled “Enoch Soames,” Max Beerbohm recounts the tale of a hack poet (Soames) who frets to his friend (Beerbohm) about his inability to enjoy the fame that will assuredly accrue to him posthumously. If only he could step into the Reading Room of the British Museum one hundred years hence: “Think of the pages and pages in the catalogue: ‘Soames, Enoch’ endlessly.”

Of course, the devil happens to be sitting at the next table and offers Soames the chance to do just that in exchange for his soul. Soames zooms to the Reading Room a century ahead. He checks for himself in the card catalogue. Nothing. He checks a few encyclopedias. Nothing. Finally, he finds a book on “English Literature: 1990-2000.” There he finds himself in the following passage: “For example, a writer of the time, Max Beerbohm, who was still alive in the twentieth century, wrote a story in which he portrayed an imaginary character called ‘Enoch Soames’ — a third-rate poet who believes himself a great genius.” History hasn’t forgotten Soames; it fictionalized him. 

This fear for our legacy recurs: Just yesterday I saw an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show that aired in 1963, where the title character — a TV comedy writer — laments, “All I write are jokes. Nothing I write has any real permanence about it. [It is said] on the television once and it’s gone forever.”

Maybe this desire to be remembered is all overblown. Perhaps the late great detective novelist, Robert B. Parker, had it right. When asked how his books would be viewed in 50 years, he replied, “Don’t know, don’t care.”

But in the present he brought great pleasure to many.


a cow, a pig, and a turkey board an international flight – a review of David Duchovny’s Holy Cow

If that sounds like the opening of a joke, that’s because it is! David Duchovny’s first novel, Holy Cow, is a fun, silly romp. I laughed aloud more than once, but not continuously.

In short, a farm cow looks into the family room of the farmer’s home and sees a TV program showing her bloody fate. But she also sees that there’s a land where cows are revered: India. She seeks to get there, along with a pig who wants to go to Israel and a turkey who wants to get to Turkey. As you can imagine, mayhem ensues.

Who is this book aimed at? No idea. If it were a movie, it would be a PG-13 for language, and despite the anthropomorphized animals, most of the humor is over the heads of smaller children. But I enjoyed it.

A few tidbits:

On global warming: “Stop blaming me and my gas for global warming. I can’t drive a car.”

On selfies: “Selfies they call ’em, and that makes sense ’cause even though they’re sending these pictures to others, it still smells like selfish to me. Is that why they call it an ‘I phone’?”

On TV: “I realized that the Box God is not just one god, but many gods in one box. … It seemed that everyone in the family wanted to worship different gods. The youngest girl wanted to worship the Nickelodeon God, the dad wanted to worship the ESPN God…while the mom was happy with this Discovery God. Mom won out. Everybody else…left the room grumbling, and I realized that all humans must have a Box God in their own rooms. … What a strange god that instead of bringing people together, divides them.”

On plane behavior: “None of the flight attendants gave us any trouble, ’cause everyone acts like an animal on a plane.”

It was light and entertaining and occasionally a little bit thoughtful.

Kirkus – “a charming fable about dignity and tolerance, complete with anthropomorphized animals and replete with puns, double-entendres, and sophisticated humor”

Denver Post – “a seriously entertaining fable that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

The Guardian – “although Elsie’s “memoir” feels slight, and reads too often like a funny first draft of something more substantial, it does what all good animal novels do – it makes us think about our relationship with the other species we share the planet with.”

HuffPost – “the book seems to have no real idea who its audience is or what it’s actually about…The sheer absurdity of this roller coaster of a book makes for some knee-slapping moments, however.”

“Holy Cow is one of the most half-baked, phoned-in books I’ve ever read, and it’s hard to look at it as anything but a vanity project.”

Spaghetti Surprise!

“Spaghetti Surprise was a simple equation for indigestion, invented by Mom: Noodles tossed like a blond wig over all your leftovers.  Noodles as a culinary disguise for gross, inedible root vegetables: surprise!  In a trash can this dish was raccoon kryptonite; even Grandpa couldn’t finish it.” (Karen Russell, Swamplandia!, p117-118)

book recommendation: Bossypants, by Tina Fey (unabridged audiobook read by the author)

uneven but overall amusing (at worst) and lots of fun (at best)

Tina Fey provides a comical memoir of growing up, going to school, getting involved in comedy through Second City (a comedy troupe in Chicago), her time on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, and then being a mom. I especially enjoyed her narrative of getting on SNL, battling sexism in comedy, and starting up 30 Rock. (I always enjoy these behind-the-scenes looks at programs I enjoy, and this is very good example.) Other parts, like her commentary on being a mom, was less exciting, although even there, the description of the breast milk militants was very funny.

As a narrator, she reads the book wonderfully. Note on content: There is strong language strewn throughout and some sexual humor, so it won’t be for everyone.

Seven out of ten!

super-sleuth skills for spotting a scientist

I really enjoyed this passage from the memoir of physicist Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman:

I don’t know why, but I’m always very careless when I go on a trip, about the address or telephone number or anything of the people who invited me. I figure I’ll be met, or somebody else will know where we’re going; it’ll get straightened out somehow.

One time, in 1957, I went to a gravity conference at the University of North Carolina. I was supposed to be an expert in a different field who looks at gravity.

I landed at the airport a day late for the conference (I couldn’t make it the first day), and I went out to where the taxis were. I said to the dispatcher, “I’d like to go to the University of North Carolina.”

“Which do you mean,” he said, “the State University of North Carolina at Raleigh, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?”

Needless to say, I hadn’t the slightest idea. “Where are they?” I asked, figuring that one must be near the other.

“One’s north of here, and the other is south of here, about the same distance.”

I had nothing with me that showed which one it was, and there was nobody else going to the conference a day late like I was.

That gave me an idea. “Listen,” I said to the dispatcher. “The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other, not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like ‘G-mu-nu. G-mu-nu.’”

His face lit up. “Ah, yes,” he said. “You mean Chapel Hill!” He called the next taxi waiting in line. “Take this man to the university at Chapel Hill.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I went to the conference.

amusing book (review): The Titan’s Curse, by Rick Riordan, narrated by Jesse Bernstein

monsters, Greek gods and demi-gods, adventure, mildly amusing fun

Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, goes on a quest to save his friend Annabeth.  New friends are made.  Monsters attack.  Lots of Greek characters wander in and out.  I listened to this audiobook during a recent business trip.  It was fun: not exceptional, but a good time.  I have enjoyed getting to know the Greek characters and have wanted to go back to my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths to read more.  I will definitely listen to the last two books in the series.

Jesse Bernstein’s accents in the audiobook drive me crazy, but I’ll survive.

my dubious popularity among African students

In March of 2008, I published a short review of the Senegalese classic novel, The Beggars’ Strike, by Aminata Sow Fall.  A number of the comments on that post have suggested that the book is assigned reading somewhere:

  • i am a student i realy realy enjoy the play (feb 2009)
  • Hi, please i need urgent help on my project topic IRONY OF FATE IN AMINATA SOWE FALL “BEGGAR’S STRIKE”. Will be very happy if anyone can help me with relevant materials to aid me in writing my final year project. Thanks alot!!!!!!!!. (may 2009)
  • please i urgently need help on writing on discussing the general setting of the beggar’s strike in relation to the writer’s handling of the theme. thanks (july 2009)
  • can i please know how dose the setting of the book relates to its theme? (july 2009)
  • hi, i need the summery of the novel the beggars strike please kindly send it to my mail box which is –. thanks in anticipation. (july 2009)
  • sir the book has really tells us africa background, however sir i want to know the theme of oppression in the novel (july 2009)
  • I love this novel but i need to know if it is totaly a satire (nov 2009)
  • pls can u summarize the entire book (dec 2009)

and much more!  I only wish I could be of more use.  Maybe I could post a couple of sample term papers based on the book?  Alas, mine is a paltry little review…

book review of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, by Todd Farley

a fun memoir but an imperfect critique

Over 15 years, Todd Farley worked throughout the standardized testing industry. He worked as a lowly scorer, a table leader (supervising the lowly scorers), a project manager, an item writer, some kind of administrator / analyst at a testing company headquarters, and a consultant. He worked for Educational Testing Service (ETS), Pearson, National Computer Systems, and others. He worked on the California High School Exit Exam, the SAT, the Nation’s Report Card (NAEP), and myriad others. From that wealth of experience, Farley draws hilarious and cringe-worthy anecdote after another, of scorers for reading tests that don’t speak English, of blatant meddling with reliability statistics, et cetera, et cetera.

I recommend the book: It was consistently entertaining, and some of the critiques are clearly important, such as the ease with which testing companies can doctor their statistics and the number of poorly qualified scorers who are grading your child’s SAT.

However, several of Farley’s critiques are inherent to any testing, including classroom testing. His first experience as a scorer describes the challenge of grading a question in which fourth graders had to read an article about bicycle safety and then draw a poster to highlight bicycle safety rules. Unsurprisingly, many of the posters were difficult to interpret. As any teacher will agree, this is a problem with any testing, not standardized testing.

At the end of the book, Farley recommends we trust the evaluations of classroom teachers (Mrs. White and Mr. Reyes are his examples) rather than the standardized evaluations. This, however, is of little use for a university admissions officer who must choose between a student from Mrs. White’s class and a student from Mr. Reyes’s class. In addition, Farley argues that teachers were horrible scorers, in part because they “make huge leaps when reading the student responses, convinced they knew what a student was saying even if that didn’t match the words on the page” (236).

Many of the critiques, that enumerators are very poorly qualified or that testing companies easily manipulate statistics to hide low-quality scoring, are issues of oversight. That implies that there may be no way America can get the testing it wants for the price it currently pays. Perhaps this means less testing, better done, and the development of monitoring systems which better guard against cheating. It probably means higher standards for scorers, which means higher wages for scorers. (Insufficient supply of scorers is a recurrent problem, leading Farley multiple times to be fired for failing to pass scoring tests and then re-hired within a day after a lowering of standards.) Or when a testing company refuses to produce new, better test items because their contract says they don’t have it: That signals the need for better contracts.

None of these suggest that standardized testing should be tossed out entirely. There will always be some useful information in student evaluations and some random noise (see note), whether those are classroom evaluations or “standardized” evaluations. The focus needs to be to increase the information and recognize (and take action) where the noise is so great that the evaluation will be worthless.

Overall, this is an important book that will hopefully be read by education policymakers. But I hope they will use it to improve the system, not to toss it out the window.

Note: As long as different items are scored by different scorers (which they are), the fact that some scorers are too harsh and some are too easy should wash out in comparisons across large samples. For example, harsh scorers would lower scores in both great schools and good schools, so the test results would still show that great schools are doing better than good schools. We may not have that confidence when comparing two individual students given the smaller sample size.

All that being said, let me add a couple of other less central critiques:

+ Several times Farley suggests that a fundamental issue is that for-profit companies are doing this work, rather than educators with children’s best interests at heart. And yet, the educators who appear in the story seem no more capable at evaluating than the for-profit companies.

+ I was disappointed at how Farley carries his own ignorance as a bit of a point of pride. For example, several times he refers to the psychometricians (statisticians – in this context – specializing in analyzing test statistics) as imposing counterproductive rules without ever taking the trouble to examine what psychometricians do or why it’s part of the process. Certainly statistics shouldn’t overrule good sense (and sometimes it unfortunately does), but it also can help reveal result-manipulating test evaluators (like Farley and his colleagues).

Objectionable content? The book has one mention of the title of a pornographic movie plus a light smattering of strong language.