Saturday, May 30, 2009
The Hardy Boys Mysteries, 1927-1979: A Cultural and Literary History
By Mark Connelly
McFarland & Co., Inc., $49.95 cloth
Ever since Sonia Sotomayor’s name surfaced as a U.S. Supreme Court candidate, another name has floated up as well: Nancy Drew. To millions of young readers in the twentieth century, Nancy Drew (for girls) and the Hardy Boys (for males) and their adventures were required reading. These three were teen sleuths who, in a most sanitized and innocuous fashion, tracked down criminals, smugglers, miscreants, and evil-doers in and around their sleepy hamlets. Evidently, Nancy Drew was a particular favorite heroine for Ms. Sotomayor.
Well, the Hardy Boys were favorites for me as well. Beginning in third grade, I read the books voraciously and religiously, copying down the entire list of titles in my binder, in chronological order, and then reading each one and checking it off the list. I can still visualize the old Grosset & Dunlap covers with titles like The Missing Chums, The House on the Cliff, and Footprints Under the Window.
I was probably the only reader who wondered who was Franklin W. Dixon, the author listed on each and every cover. What a brilliant writer he must be, I thought. But after reading the entire canon of mystery and suspense featuring Frank and Joe Hardy, I began to feel sorry for old Dixon. I wondered if the guy had written anything else, or was he hopelessly typecast as the Hardy Boys author? Much later in life, I read an article that revealed that Dixon was a pseudonym for a number of writers who pounded out these mysteries for a nominal fee and no claim to the copyright.
Mark Connelly presents an exhaustively researched back history of the development of the Hardy Boys series, as well as a number of others like Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Rover Boys, and Bomba the Jungle Boy. The books were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, who founded the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1905. A homegrown Jersey boy, Stratemeyer was a publishing genius almost from birth. He published stories for his friends beginning at fourteen, along with a newspaper, Our Friend, and later, a second version entitled The Young American. He went on to write many pulp novels for young people, utilizing a variety of pen names and interesting characters.
His real innovation was not in his writing, although he was prolific and dedicated to his pen. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was born with a new kind of book: “the fifty-center.” These were cheaply produced series novels that Stratemeyer thought would make a lot of money if he focused on volume, rather than traditional pricing. By cutting the cost of the books by as much as half, and selling them in huge numbers, even books that made only a few pennies each would add up to millions. And he was right.
Even though the writer Stratemeyer was prolific, he could not write books fast enough to keep a new one on the shelf every forty days. So he hired dozens of writers over the years to flesh out his creations for him. He would outline the story and the basic idea of the series; writers would churn out full albeit formulaic novels from his outlines for a flat fee. In this fashion, the man made millions. “By 1926,” Connelly writes, “the firm had thirty-one series in production…The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Rover Boys became household names around the world…”
The first Hardy Boys mystery debuted in 1927—The Tower Treasure. Eighty years later, the boys are still solving mysteries, and still in high school. That first volume continues to sell “more than 100,000 copies a year,” according to Connelly’s research. “The original fifty-eight volume series published by Grosset & Dunlap (1927-1979) remains in print and [has] sold more than 50 million copies...” Simon & Schuster took over the series in 1979, publishing 132 more novels, releasing a new title every few months.
Over time, the series has been rewritten, sharpened, refocused, and repackaged for each new generations of readers. Language, slang, styles, and mores have all changed, but the mysteries are simply re-edited to meet the shifting landscape of American society and the tastes of the young reader.
Connelly takes a “just the facts” approach to his subject, and his prose is often flat and statistics-heavy, reading more like a corporate annual report than a literary effort. His scope is ambitious—he includes a chronology of the series, a list and summary of each title, twenty opening lines, something called “Hardyisms,” a generous section of notes, and a bibliography.
What I did find a mystery was the price: almost fifty dollars for what appears to be an ordinary book. There is some grayscale cover art and illustrations from the series included, but nothing to justify such an expensive list price. Paper quality, packaging, even the information, is not equal to such expense. Is this a price gouge in the name of nostalgia? Maybe Frank and Joe Hardy should investigate the mystery of the costly-yet-ordinary book.
All in all, series books have long been the staple of childhood literature. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have influenced generations of readers, including at least one news-making judge who might be the first Hispanic woman ever named to the highest court of the land. It is another mystery why we had to wait so long to see this happen. I am certain there are many more young Sonia Sotomayors out there, reading Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, and maybe still the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, that we will be hearing about in the years to come. We can only hope.
Monday, May 18, 2009
The alarm buzzes, faint and far away in the clouds of sleep. Stone stirs at the foot of my bed, stretching across the floor like a cat, his nails catching in the carpet. I slam my hand on the top of the green, glowing clock and go back to sleep.
I hit the clock for the final time, silencing it permanently. I pad to the kitchen with Stone right behind me. I prepare his breakfast and take him to the backyard to eat. I can taste spring in the air; there is a light wind and the faint smell of smoke from a brush fire in Santa Barbara sixty miles north of Los Angeles. I begin going over my day in my mind: first period, poetry; second period, Skellig; third period, final review for the AP exam; fourth period, an essay; fifth period, back to the ninth graders and Skellig; sixth period, back to the eleventh graders with AP preparation; meeting after school with the English department.
Breakfast and medicines finished while standing at the kitchen sink. Now for the coffee, lots of coffee. I sit in the living room going over newspapers and magazines looking for something to use in my classes that day. I skim over the day’s readings for each class. Before I realize what I am doing, I doze off for a few minutes.
In the shower, comb the hair, brush the teeth, have to remember to remind seniors to review lit terms for the exam. I dress quickly, usher Stone out into the backyard, and I am out the door.
Today, it’s my wife’s turn to drive. We teach at the same school in the same department. She has college preparatory classes in English for grades nine through twelve; I have the honors and Advanced Placement courses for the same grades. Out of the twenty-two years we have been teachers, we have taught in the same school for seventeen years. It is a convenient arrangement, but it also leads us to talk too much about work at home. It is okay, though, because this is what we were both called to do. Neither one of us wants to be anywhere else.
We ride the elevator to the second floor and open our classrooms. I allow the students to enter while I walk across the hall to the faculty room to put my lunch in the refrigerator, check my mailbox, and greet other teachers. In truth, I do very little greeting; I am a notorious night owl, and mornings are a real effort. My objective is to get coffee and just listen. I need to save my energy for first period and my English honors course for sophomores.
In the faculty room, the teachers are talking animatedly about the upcoming teachers’ evaluations by students. It is the first time this has been done in the school, and everyone is a little nervous about what middle and high schoolers might say about their teachers. Grades came out last week, so students may be primed for revenge. I grab my coffee and head back to the classroom.
The sophomores settle down to business, I have taken roll, made the perfunctory announcements about the day ahead, and it is time for Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” We read the poem through and then begin a close analysis. The end of the day, a pastoral scene, and the speaker watches the sun go down from a grave stone in the cemetery. No more shall the dead return to life, to kiss their children, to gather around the hearth. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” I do not want my students to see this as just another poem about death, but how do I get fifteen year olds to appreciate loss and missing someone’s presence. “One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill.” At fifteen, we believe we will live forever. I read somewhere that poetry is written for the young, but by the time they come to understand, they are too old to change their lives. Several of my students do understand; they have buried close relatives. The others are blissfully in the dark; this is just another poem to read for class, another assignment to complete.
Sophomores leave and the freshmen file in. We are reading Skellig by David Almond. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night, / Take these broken wings and learn to fly. / All your life, / You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” Young Michael sees blackbirds everywhere. He and his new friend, Mina, must help the winged creature they have found in the dilapidated garage. Meanwhile, Michael’s newborn sister is dying of a heart ailment.
Like the best of young adult literature, this book is so poetically written and filled with such wisdom and grace. Mina, home-schooled and obsessed with British poet William Blake, councils Michael to accept things are not what they appear to be, and sometimes, the answers are not clear. “We can’t know,” she says. “Sometimes we just have to accept there are things we can’t know. Why is your sister ill? Why did my father die…Sometimes we think we should be able to know everything. But we can’t. We have to allow ourselves to see what there is to see, and we have to imagine.”
My freshmen, on the cusp of the cynical teenage years, still have the essence of innocence about them, but adulthood is closing in fast.
Seniors are already gone. I try to reel them in, pull them back into school. They are thinking of summer, of next year, of moving away from home, of saying goodbye. They are incredibly scared. Exhilarated. Overcome with giddy excitement for the future. We are trying to review for the AP exam, but wind up talking about how life unfolds. A few of them are deeply bitter. They did not get into the schools of their choice. Some will go to community college, and they are embarrassed and disappointed. “Why did I put all this work in?” one wails. “I worked so hard, took honors and AP courses, and now I have to go to community college.”
I try to bolster their sagging emotions. We cannot know how things will turn out. They believe they are destined for a particular college, a specific job, to be doctors and lawyers. What we believe to be our destiny may not match where we end up. “It’s more important, more indicative of a strong character, how you recover from disappointment,” I tell them. “The hard work and struggles are worthless if you learn nothing from them.” I know from my own life experiences that I speak the truth, but to them, I fear my words ring hollow and empty. But their journeys have only just begun and there is so much life to live. The bell rings, interrupting my passionate speech. They file out to nutrition break.
Twenty minutes later, after a quick run to the faculty room, I finish up clearing my desk from the morning detritus and prepare to greet the next class: juniors in AP Language and Composition. They have been snarky lately, mainly because of the intense pressure they are under: SAT tests, AP tests, challenging academic courses in a detrimental year for their futures. They are scared and worried about college applications months before the process even begins. I feel for them.
We argue in class. They want to spend their time prepping for the test. I want to drive them through yet another essay. They want their last test back. I have not begun to grade it yet. Someone forgot his book. Another did not bring the book to school. This class loves to argue and debate, so I push them into the essay. Everyone has an opinion. Many of the essays we are reading in this unit have to do with education. We try to relate the critical views of the essayists to their situation at this school. This causes problems, because we veer away from the writer’s style and begin debating whether we should remodel the school library, or use the funds to give students who cannot pay the tuition a way to stay with a grant. I try to redirect us back on track. As usual, we run out of time before I can bring the discussion to a satisfactory close.
Freshmen come back for more work on the novel. During the class, a message arrives: faculty meeting at lunch in Room 109 regarding the upcoming student evaluations of teachers.
Without time for a break or lunch, we file into the lecture hall. The principal is waiting for us. He tells us that our students will be evaluating our performance in all of our classes next week. The point of this sinks in slowly. We sit in silence. I raise my hand. “What will these evaluations be used for?” I ask. “Teacher retention? Contract negotiations?”
“It’s just another piece of evidence in our on-going self-evaluation,” he says. “You will be evaluating me too; I am on the evaluation block as well.”
“It’s not the same,” I fire back. “You will be evaluated by adults. We are being evaluated by teenagers, some of whom just received deficient grades.”
He has no answer for me other than to “take it with a grain of salt.” Sure.
Back with the juniors working on their AP preparatory workbooks. They are overwhelmed. It takes us almost an entire period to read, parse apart, and come to a clear understanding of a test prompt. Forty-five minutes to do what they must do on the exam in less than five minutes. We are still discussing when the bell rings. We never get to the writing of our responses.
Finally, I can re-organize my desk and plan out my evening’s work during my preparation period. I make lists—department notes for after school, tasks to do at home that night, upcoming dates and deadlines. The final bell for the school day rings, I swig some water, and wait for my teachers to arrive for the meeting.
We discuss the upcoming evaluations I must write about each department member. We go over the book list for next year, eliminating several texts that were underused this year. With the economy the way it is I want to make parents buy books that we will completely use. Several teachers express concern over failing students in their classes. We try to help them, but they turn in blank tests and miss deadlines for papers. What can we do with students who literally do nothing? At least if there is effort, we can work with them. If they continue to be deficient, they will have to attend summer school to make up the class.
The meeting wraps. One of the teachers, my wife, and I stay and continue our discussion about students, the department, the way things are going. We are worried about enrollment due to the economy. There is so much work to still be accomplished before the year ends in six weeks.
I arrive home, change into sweats and take Stone for a walk. I have a headache. I feel like I have been running all day. Mentally, I review the tasks ahead of me tonight to prepare for tomorrow’s classes.
I plan where we will go next in each class. I review the readings for the next day, write a test, and grade three papers. The last is most disheartening. If I only read three papers a night, I will never finish the set. More are coming in next week. I do not know how I can keep up.
No matter what time I shut down the computer, shower and head for bed, it is always after midnight. I turn off the light, stare at the ceiling, and review what I need to do tomorrow. Consciousness fades away, and the night settles in. I reach over and set the alarm for 5:30 AM. Then I am gone, senseless and lost in sleep.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
By Joel L. Kraemer
Doubleday, $35.00 cloth
MaimonidesBy Sherwin B. Nuland
Schocken Books, $12.95 paper
If we are searching for common ground among Jews, Muslims, Christians, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, and religion, philosophy, and science, we should look no further than Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides. He is known as Moses ben Maimon, and in some circles by the acronym “the Rambam” (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon). He is the author of such essential texts in Judaism as the Mishneh Torah and The Guide of the Perplexed. He wrote philosophical treatises, works on medicine, and a thorough discussion of logic and law. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he influenced thinkers as diverse as Thomas Aquinas, Spinoza, Leibniz and Newton.
Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1135, Maimonides spent his early years moving from place to place to avoid persecution, either at the hands of Muslims or Christians. He eventually settled in Fez, Morocco in 1160. By that date, he was already writing several works for which he would become famous. When life in Morocco became too dangerous for Jews posing as converted Muslims, Maimonides moved again with his family to Jerusalem, and finally, to Cairo, Egypt. There, life took an even darker turn for the family. Maimonides’ brother, a jeweler by trade, died in a voyage at sea. Lost in the accident was the family’s fortune in precious stones. Maimonides sunk into a bout of deep depression and sickness. To bolster the family’s sagging fortunes, Maimonides turned to medicine, becoming a well-known and much sought-after physician to commoners as well as the royal court.
Maimonides continued to practice medicine and write essential works of philosophy and Jewish theology for the remainder of his life, often working from early morning to the middle of the night. In the evening, he met disciples and students while lying down, unable to summon the strength to sit up. He eventually worked himself into exhaustion, dying in Egypt in 1204.
In his new biography of Maimonides, Joel L. Kraemer presents a thorough and involving study of the life and times of this celebrated Jewish thinker. Kraemer is the John Henry Barrows Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago and the author of several works on humanism and philosophy.
Like other important cultural figures such as Shakespeare and Chaucer, we have gaping holes in our documentation regarding Maimonides. Still, Kraemer does an excellent job of filling in these gaps with the culture and history of the times. It is interesting to note that the documentation for the life of Maimonides runs the gamut from fragments of writing in his own hand to legendary stories passed from disciple to disciple. Kraemer sorts them all out and examines each with a scholar’s eye. He tells us that “The biography is based primarily upon documents from the Cairo Genizah, the great repository of manuscripts found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo and now in European, Russian, and American libraries.” These documents tell us the whole story of the region, but most are written in Arabic by Muslims. “This is because Jews wrote very few historical works,” Kraemer explains, “whereas Muslims wrote enough biographical and historical tomes to fill a good-sized library.”
Kraemer tells us that Maimonides arrived at a crucial point in history. This is where the religions, philosophies, and dogmas begin to overlap. Many Jews were forced into conversion; Maimonides wrote instructions to Jews how to appear to convert without actually doing so. Still, Jews found themselves under attack. Christians believed that Jews killed Christ, and therefore, their continued existence must be marked with pain and suffering to validate their role in New Testament theology. They were the crucial link to the past for Christians, sharing the Old Testament root.
Muslims thought that their military superiority proved that Allah favored them. They were the dominant religion and culture, and they demanded that Jews immediately convert to the true religion. A particularly difficult blow for Jews was the conversion of Samaw’al (Samuel) al-Maghribi, mathematician and physician. His father was a prominent writer and scholar. Samuel converted from Judaism to Islam and began to write a treatise with the ominous title of Silencing The Jews.
According to Kraemer, “Samuel believed that human reason is the ultimate criterion of the truth and that it requires us to examine ancestral traditions.” But this turns out to be a good thing. Samuel discovers that “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have equally valid claims,” says Kraemer.
Maimonides found himself in the middle of these discussions and arguments. He treads the thin line between angering Muslims and alienating Jews. He took the pragmatic approach to the Talmud, wanting to “revolutionize Judaism by transforming it into a religion of reason,” Kraemer writes. His “main concern was science and the study of nature, the foundation of a religion of reason and enlightenment.” In his most philosophical work, The Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides “urges human beings to become fully human by perfecting their reason and living in accordance with nature.” Kraemer presents the Rambam as a lover of order, restraint, and moderation. “If people live by reason and in harmony with nature,” he writes, “following ethical and religious precepts and adhering to a regimen of health, they can escape the ‘sea of chance’ as far as humanly possible.” Kraemer believes that is one major lesson of Maimonides: we must pursue good health in order to study and learn more about our faith and our world. That was his focus, and why he continued to place emphasis on medicine as well as theology and philosophy.
All in all, Kraemer’s methodology as a biographer is to leave no stone unturned. It is possible to hear the voice of the lecturer in the college classroom in his prose, however this is also the problem with the book: it is exhaustive and relentless in its scholarship, which leaves the casual reader a bit overwhelmed by the mountain of information. Every detail and nuance of Maimonides is teased out by Kraemer. He does a thorough job, but it is a scholarly biography best suited for other scholars.
Far more accessible is Sherwin B. Nuland’s take on Maimonides. Nuland is best known for his book length essay, How We Die. He is a doctor and writer, that unique breed of author who can explain intricate ideas and facts with a clarity and focus that others cannot muster. He admits in his Prologue that he is in over his head when discussing the life and times of Maimonides. He writes, “how does a Jewish doctor of the twenty-first century relate his sense of calling to the legendary Jewish doctor of the twelfth?” The answer is clear—Nuland does a decent job, producing a biography for a more general audience. His book is detailed without bogging down, and his language, although less scholarly than Kraemer’s, is easily understood and appreciated.
Nuland begins with the primary directive of Jewish law: preserving and maintaining life is the “obligation of every Jew.” Maimonides is no exception. He also quickly makes clear that, in Maimonides’ own words, humans have free will. “Our Torah agrees with Greek philosophy,” he quotes the Rambam, “which substantiates with convincing proofs that a man’s actions are in his own hands; no compulsion is exerted and he is constrained by nothing that is external to himself.”
Nuland’s book takes a more narrative approach palatable to the common reader over the scholar. However, he does not shirk from examining the history, philosophy, and teachings of Maimonides. He does it, however, in clear, concise language. He also hits on several points made in the Kraemer book. “The philosophical problem of the era in which [Maimonides] lived was to find a conciliation between faith and reason, engaging thinkers as disparate in background as Abelard in Paris and Averroes in Cordoba.”
He goes on to say that “What the Rambam did throughout all of his writings—long before he composed the Guide—was to attempt an incorporation of philosophy and science into religious thought, not only because he was convinced that it belonged but also because he was bringing a progressive worldview to his theology.”
I enjoyed the cultural history of Maimonides’ times in the Kraemer book, but for sheer accessibility, Nuland is clearer and more concise. In our day, the conflicts among these constituencies: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; and the problems present in the reconciliation of science, religion, and philosophy, all weigh heavily on civilizations in this world. Finding common ground, accepting one another in an age of strife and conflict, may be our only chance for survival. Maimonides was a man in search of such common ground. He worked until exhausted to heal the sick and council those who seek the truth. Who would have ever thought that we could use a thinker from the Middle Ages here in our own twenty-first century world?
Sunday, May 3, 2009
The Library At Night
By Alberto Manguel
Yale University Press, $17.00 paper
Alberto Manguel tells us in the opening pages of his book, The Library At Night that “the love of libraries, like most loves, must be learned.” In our digital world, I am afraid no one is learning this love, and worse, no one teaches it to those who do not know.
This book is a celebration, and it cuts to the heart of culture, of life, of the meaning of reading to the human animal. Manguel centers his writing on the building of his own library. “The library in which I have at long last collected my books began life as a barn sometime in the fifteenth century, perched on a small hill south of the Loire.” His rooms of books, originally part of a presbytery, become one man’s temple devoted to the printed page. When Manguel first sees this place, all that stands is a single stone wall separating his property from a “chicken run and the neighbour’s field.”
He goes on to tell us of how he designed his space—one large, long room lined with shelves for the main collection, a smaller room off of that for his writing desk and reference books. He talks of libraries that influenced his design, the way he organizes his volumes on the shelves, and finally, the atmosphere of the finished structure. “But at night the atmosphere changes,” he writes. “Sounds become muffled, thoughts grow louder…Time seems closer to that moment halfway between wakefulness and sleep in which the world can be comfortably reimagined. My movements feel unwittingly furtive, my activity secret. I turn into something of a ghost.”
From there he launches into a collection of interlinked essays exploring the facets of a library: the library as myth, the library as space, the library as power, and finally, the library as home. Along the way, he takes us through a dizzying array of libraries and literature, finding connections and parallels across several cultures.
He bemoans the state of our book culture today in the post-9-11 world. “In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. ‘Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated,’” he quotes from The Observer, London, 16 March, 2003. “Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles.”
The suggested shelving of this book falls under several categories: Library Studies, Books about Books, and History. It is the last that made the greatest impression on me. I love this book, and I found myself highlighting and nodding along with his thesis and examples, appreciating the nuances, the connections he makes. But I fear his love of books and libraries is moving into the shade of history. Today’s public libraries remove books to make room for computers. Budget cuts have left the buildings dark and shuttered when they most need to be open. If reading is done for recreation, would it not make sense to open the libraries here in Los Angeles on Sundays and a little later than eight o’clock most weekdays?
Further, in these troubled economic times, how many people have disposable income for books? How many people buy books with the idea of building a library? Many students purchase books required for their classes only to immediately sell them back at the close of the quarter or semester. I cannot blame them; with the expense of college, many have no choice. And the day when homeowners devoted an entire room in their houses to a library is probably a thing of the past.
Manguel’s library houses 30,000 books. I found myself salivating over the shelf space, the room of one’s own where he works. I have considerable shelf space in my home, but most of it is taken up with books I have yet to read. Most of my library is in boxes in the attic, waiting for the day when I have room and the financial resources to build a library.
Manguel loads his book with photographs, drawings, sketches and architectural plans of various libraries around the world, even some that are no longer in existence. He devotes considerable space to the ancient Library at Alexandria which supposedly burned in 47 B.C. Scholars and champions of the written word built a new Library at Alexandria in 2003, an impressive edifice as Manguel notes, that includes a virtual library set up by American artist, Rhonda Roland Shearer.
This is a beautiful, deeply felt, meditative work by Manguel. Book lovers, scholars, lovers of the endless cool shelves, the natural quiet, contemplative space of the library, should find this text and immerse themselves in it. Libraries, as those of us who love them fear, may be morphing, transitioning, becoming electronic, or disappearing altogether. If they were to disappear, our culture would be mortally wounded.
For me, I may live in many places during my life, but when I walk into a room of books, the quiet, the pools of light, the study carrels, the smell of binding and paper and ink, it is in that moment, when I step inside the repository of human thought, that I am home. In this way, I could not but love this book.